Why What We’re Teaching and What They’re Learning Matters in the Long-Term
Jan Stallard, Purdue University Global Composition Professor
When students ask “When will I ever use this again?” I always have an answer. When I began graduate school, my mentor had a cartoon pinned to her door. It showed a nervous man at a job interview who had just been tasked with writing an on the spot essay about Moby Dick. It made me a bit nervous myself because I knew I would need to read that monster of a book that term! As I moved from a first-year student to a full-time instructor, that cartoon became an indelible reminder about what all of us—students and instructors alike—should really be doing.
It’s true that no one has asked me, an English major after all, about Moby Dick in a job interview. I’m willing to bet few others have been asked to solve a geometry proof, recite the Constitution, or create a timeline of ancient Rome. However, I’ve certainly been asked to put on my critical thinking cap to tackle hypothetical problems and break down complex tasks into more manageable parts. And what do all of these skills have in common? They are rooted in critical thinking.
Students love to ask, “When will I ever use this again? I’m going to be a _________________.” I adore this question because I have my answer ready. Writing is a record of thinking, and I can guarantee the jobs students want require thinking. This is the value of making room for writing in every class. When it’s approached thoughtfully, it’s the realization of planning, critical thinking, and double-checking.
We might feel hesitant to have these conversations with students, but I’ve found them to be remarkably productive. It’s not a justification of my job or their coursework, but instead a reality check on what this is all about. Becoming a competent writer isn’t just a plus of education—it’s a necessity that doesn’t need to take a backseat to content knowledge and practical experience.
You’re likely to get these “When will I ever use this again?” questions. Be prepared and make connections that will go way beyond your classroom.
- If you know what I mean, why does it matter if I have errors? If autocorrect has taught us anything, it’s that typos can be a disaster. My students tend to have a better awareness of this, and I think it has a lot to do with autocorrect gone wrong. Transferring this over into their own work takes a nudge. This is a terrific time to make the parallel between an actual human eye proofreading versus a machine doing it. Students too content to let Word do their spell and grammar checking are setting themselves up for failure and embarrassment. Great ideas don’t look great when errors distract from them. Credibility and correctness go hand in hand.
- Why are we writing essays when I’m only going to write emails/reports in my job? A first answer is that they’re going to be writing throughout college. When I’m looking for a long-term answer, I always go back to the writing process. No matter what they write, clarity, organization, and thoroughness are essential. Essay writing encourages writers to think about details. It also teaches them to defend a point of view, which is a common skill in the workplace. The crossover between using evidence in an essay isn’t much different than using data and observations to justify a decision or make a recommendation whether that’s in a conversation or those aforementioned emails and reports.
- Why do we have to use APA/MLA? Students have a fair point if they’re not going to pursue additional education, but the formatting isn’t really the greater purpose of citation styles. Intellectual property should be treated carefully. In the age of the cloud, it seems like information is free for the taking, but this is 100% not the case. Giving credit to others, whether it’s research or ideas from colleagues, does matter. As far as the actual formatting goes, I remind students that many jobs have templates and specific formatting to follow. The goal isn’t to memorize any of this but to depend on it to make your work match someone else’s standard. Plus, details matter. Almost or close enough don’t tend to sit well with future teachers or employers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions, but it does represent the core questions I see again and again. Make note of questions you see repeatedly and prepare short-term and long-term answers for students. Adding these questions and answers to your repertoire will make you an instructor who better connects with students and their long-term goals.