College Writing & Professor Expectations


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For many new college students, the thought of taking a writing course is greeted with the same kind of enthusiasm you would have for visiting the dentist for a root canal: something that needs to be done but will be unpleasant, perhaps painful. This reaction may be due to a high school English class taught by a fussy, grammar-is-everything teacher whose mind thought in points, not ideas. While this may be unfortunate, I suppose it’s a rite of passage. 

The real challenge lies in the transition from school or work writing to college writing as the expectations–at least some of them–change. In college, professors expect that students, while not experts, have a grasp of grammar, usage, and mechanics, and that they can produce writing and short essays without egregious errors that make the writing unreadable. Work may be needed in these areas because skills and proficiency are as varied as students’ past writing experiences, but professors assume that students arrive in college with a baseline set of competencies.  

Professors expect that students know that many types of papers are thesis-driven and thus such a paper should have an introduction that sets the context and establishes the paper’s focus. College writers are expected to know what a thesis is as well as how body paragraphs are organized to support and develop the thesis. If a paper begins with “It was a dark and stormy night,” the writer may need to work on writing a good beginning or on recognizing cliches, but at least the language suggests an effort to orient readers. 

Professors expect that college writers use credible evidence to support ideas. Credible evidence is content that comes from trustworthy sources, which likely excludes personal blogs, an interview with a cousin, and encyclopedias of all stripes. The writing may be stylistically beautiful and grammatically sound, but if the evidence used is questionable (according to my aunt’s next-door neighbor . . . ), so, too, are the ideas. 

So, here’s a quick recap: Professors expect college-level writing to be free of too many major sentence-level errors that interfere with meaning. Professors also expect that the college-level writing shows an awareness of focus and structure, and uses good evidence to support points. What you may have noticed is that these college writing “expectations” are the same expectations of writing you have likely encountered prior to arriving in college. So how does college-level writing differ from the kind of writing you’ve produced in the past?

Without a doubt, the biggest expectation professors have of student writing in college is that it demonstrates analytical thinking of the kind that may be deeper than what has been expected in the past. In fact, one of the complaints professors often have of student writing, especially of newer students, is the level of thinking in a paper. Professors complain that too often the ideas presented on a given topic are predictable and tend to repeat what others have already said or written. Papers read more like reporting than authoring. 

College writing invites you to join in an ongoing academic conversation about real issues and real topics. Whether you are recounting your personal educational journey, researching the relationship of isolation and depression in teens, or voicing an opinion on what “democracy” means, the idea of joining an academic conversation is to contribute something new, offer a fresh insight or perspective, and this is not easy, right? 

To contribute something new requires a good deal of thinking, but it also requires an awareness of what others have written about the topic, and thus more thinking is required because content needs to be read and understood and synthesized, and then meshed with your own ideas. College writers need to realize that their ideas don’t exist in a vacuum; they are part of a larger conversation.

I will leave you with this quote from Joyce Johnson, a difficult professor I had in graduate school, who once told me, “Clear writing on the page suggests clear thinking in the mind. Cloudy writing on the page suggests cloudy thinking in the mind.” Johnson is getting at the idea that writing is undeniably related to thinking. If the thoughts are clear in the mind, then they are more apt to be clear on the page. At the time, I did not welcome her remark, but it challenged me, made me think more deeply about what I was trying to accomplish on the page, and now after many years, I have come to appreciate its wisdom.

Until next week– 

Kurtis Clements

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