Understanding the “It” in Academic Writing
Kyle Harley, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor
When I first began thinking about the concept of “It,” as one with a twisted imagination might, I pictured a creepy circus clown by the name of Pennywise that caused millions of children over the years to establish a phobia for anyone with face paint on and a pair of goofy shoes. The “It,” in this particular context, takes the form of a clown that causes a certain amount of dread in the lives of those that let it—all puns aside. Fashioned after the fantastic horror novel penned by Stephen King, the film It pushes the boundaries on establishing and overcoming fears, so I tried to imagine what a more realistic representation of this proverbial “It” would entail. Oddly enough, due to my profession, “It” hit me like a ton of bricks as the work was sprawled before my eyes: Sometimes we, as educators, write incredibly difficult—and often convoluted—instructions for our students to comprehend. But is that such a bad thing? Let me answer my own question—absolutely not, and here’s why.
Students, particularly in an online context, face the challenge of interpreting assignments based on their own reading. For some, this will come quite simply; for others, however, much like the creepy clown above, this could be the “It” that causes a great amount of stress in their lives. What is a student’s “It,” you might ask? “It” includes—but is not limited to—papers, essays, discussion board posts, journals, responses, reflections, memos, and just about any other assignment we, as educators, create for our students that causes them great amounts of anxiety. We create these assignments with sets of instructions, and sometimes, like it or not, our instructions require even further instruction, which, to students, could be the point of no return. Instead of harping at the educators and their overly-complicated instructions, I applaud you, on the contrary, and wanted to write this entire entry to support your efforts and ask you to continue doing so for as long as humanly possible.
On a much more serious note, I believe that raising the bar for your students should always be a top priority for any instructor. As students come into a collegiate setting, we expect a great deal out of them, and rightfully so—this is a place of higher learning, after all. But what if a student finds that they are unable to understand the instructions that detail how to accomplish the assignment in the first place? Instead of scoffing at the notion, why not send them to the Writing Center or Tutoring Lab at your University? Tutors often assist students with not only understanding their assignments in further detail, but we also help them develop reading strategies to ‘dissect’ some of the more dense directions.
Sometimes the sessions—oftentimes the “It” in this scenario—can seem like a rather invasive surgery practice to get to the bottom of the instructions, but what comes from this simple activity includes far more than an exercise on simplifying instructions. Instead, the student engages in deconstructing the assignment’s outline, looking at composite “parts” required, such as the requirement of a developed thesis, the integration of quality sources, and any other selection from the never-ending list we keep adding to as the years go on.
Even more important still is what occurs after we establish just what this mythical “It” turns out to be—or not to be, for that matter. When the student observes instructions in a paragraph or list format, they may shut down for a variety of reasons. Instead of tossing the issue aside, sometimes we must adjust the language to adhere to what the student can understand more effectively. In more extreme examples, we may even have to establish an outline that explores each requirement of the assignment in a fashion that speaks to the student. Whomever the student may be and whatever the activity might entail, just like clockwork, when they take a moment to read the instructions after they work with a tutor to ‘decompress the madness,’ their revelation is always the same: “Oh, is that all I have to do?”
“It” is. All you have to do, as either a struggling student or instructor looking to better your students, simply includes conquering “It.” If you find that a student struggles to get started on an assignment, “It” could very well be that s/he may be stuck at the starting line just waiting to take off. Tutors love helping students understand their assignments, and furthermore, we love to see how creatively faculty are engaging students. “It” may sound a bit strange to send your students to us for that reason, but we would rather see a student successfully wrestle with these more complex instructions with a tutor instead of being beaten before “It” even begins.