Friday, July 9, 2010

On Not Assigning Homework in Undergraduate Writing Classes

Because of my financial situation, this past year I found myself teaching summer and winter session, something that most teachers look down upon. How can you compress everything that you would teach them in a fourteen week semester in such a short time?

For winter session I taught introduction to composition; it met four hours a day for two weeks. For summer session I taught introduction to creative writing, two hours a day for five weeks. Before the classes began, I wrote my students and told them that there would be no textbook and no homework. All writing would be done in class, even the rewrites. This was my promise, and I told them I do not break my promises.

This was the deal: for introduction to composition, I would give them 8 hours (2 days) to complete a full-length 8 page paper. In introduction to creative writing, I would give them 6 hours (3 days) to complete a full-length 8 page story. During this time, they could talk to their peers or me to help them with their assignment. There were about a dozen students in each class.

This made homework unnecessary.

How much can you expect any writer, especially one who's young, to do at any given time? I get tired after an hour.

When I told a colleague that all their writing would be done in class, the teacher replied: "You're really making it easy on yourself." I was offended even though I understood their suspicion. For me, the most difficult part of teaching is making the trip to campus and back. I love being in the classroom; it's thrilling being around people and feeling everybody's nervous energy.

I explained that actually I was afraid that I would be the one who would suffer. I got nervous I'd get bored. Boredom causes me to act weird. In Brockport, everyone who sees me thinks I'm mentally ill. I walk around talking to myself gesturing wildly. That's my form of entertainment. It was the same thing I did in Salt Lake.

I'm a teacher who does not believe in group work, peer critique. It always seems to be a way for a teacher to not have to do anything. You know the drill: stick them in groups. No matter how hard they're working, even if you provide them with the most stringent guidelines, group work almost always has problems. It's understandably difficult them to be tough on each other's writing; middle-class etiquette is something that takes time to eradicate.

Before they worked on their own papers, we did exercises which taught them what I was looking for: being able to identify abstract versus concrete, specific language; what's a support paragraph; what is a specific scene versus summary. Only after I could see that most of the class knew these skills did we go into the computer room. I told them to get used to the room; they were going to write their whole paper there.

This is what surprised me with this experiment: they were the best papers I've ever received.

I think the act of being watched made them more self-conscious. This heightened self-consciousness made them more aware of the process of writing. Not only were they conscious of me watching them, but they were watching their peers. What a wonderful thing to see one of their peers erase a whole paragraph! It meant they could take the time to do as well. Without having to wonder whether or not they were wasting their time or that was a sign of their lack of skill. The recklessness embedded in the process of writing was naturalized.

Writing teachers love to claim that writing is a process and that it is not about product. That may be true. In any other place than in the educational system. Even when teachers require their students turn in portfolios, it's a phony emphasis on process--the student is aware of crafting each step (first draft, outline, note cards for research, annotated bibliography, etc.) to show their involvement (or lack thereof). Your students are being graded on a bunch of little products rather than one big one.

The only way to teach process is to actually have them write in front of you. Perhaps taking them into a computer room (where they will use the entire class time to write their paper over a number of days) is the only way to teach the two most important components of the writing process: Time and Speed.

SUNY Brockport is an amazing place to work. My students are often first-generation college students. They are balancing work and family and friends and extracurriculars and babies. Most of them are not rich. Of course, inevitably, as it is for everybody to some degree, they want to know, even if it is never said, "How long should I spend on this paper? This question does not arrive out of laziness, or at least not always. But a genuine curiosity. How much should we edit? When are we going overboard? When are we doing something that could possibly harm the paper? When do we let it go and accept that we've done as much as we can?

I'm no different. When I was first starting out as a poet, I wanted to know how many pages comprised a book. When I began researching contests, I found that the standard minimum was 48 pages. I made a promise to myself: I would never enter a contest with a book larger than 48 pages. I'm mortal. The publisher would be mortal. There isn't anything more selfish than taking up someone's time. Selfishness isn't always bad, but you've got to watch yourself.

One of my favorite moments occurred was when a student printed out part of their paper, read it, said, "That's stupid," and then threw it out. Which caused another student to say, "Is that a smart thing for a writer to do? Start all over again?"

"Of course," I said, "It happens all the time." After that, a lot of papers ended up being thrown into the garbage can.

Those are the sort of issues that a writing portfolio never really raise. Also: when you're a student you can't talk about your relationship with Time and writing, because a lot of mediocre teachers will see it as some sort of admission of quality and punish a student. (Once I heard a literature teacher exclaim, "A few of my students admitted that they didn't spend much time on their papers. I was so angry. I told the class I was angry." I asked if the papers were any good, and the same literature teacher said yes, and then she said, "I didn't say that, of course. They might get the wrong idea.")

There's always a lot of talk about showing students that writing is a collaborative effort; students are put into groups and write one paper together. This always struck me as a dumb idea. I've made it a mission to think of other ways the usefulness of collaboration could be done within the classroom. That's when I realized that having people working on their papers in the same space is collaboration. Knowing that you can turn to someone and ask for help whenever you need it is collaboration. That's where you find process: in the actual doing.

My students were also instructed that they could come talk to me if they had any questions about their papers.

I found that my students were more likely to ask me nuanced questions. They were told that I would not read their entire paper for them. But I said that I would answer any questions they had about particular issues. And they did come up to me, surprising me with their desire to know what usually would feel petty to them, like issues of syntax and diction and other micro issues. When students start addressing those concerns, it means almost always that they're unknowingly creating their own style. Think about the typical scenario: when you assign a student a paper, they take it home and write it. You get the paper, you read it, and then you conference with the student for 15-20 minutes. Of course, you're only going to have time to talk about macro issues: thesis, organization, synthesis of claims and evidence.

Allowing them to have constant access to you as they write the paper opens up the dialogue for a more complex and thorough discussion.

One of my favorite activities is watching cooking shows like Top Chef. Which shouldn't be surprising. As far as I'm concerned, the most important invention in the 20th century is the George Foreman Grill. What surprises my about these timed reality show challenges is how almost all of the chefs take until the absolute last second to finish their dishes. Until the clock has run out, they're always fussing with them, obsessively looking, trying to see if there's any last change they can make. That's how students are when you give them a boundary of time and let them perform in front of you and their peers. They, too, wait to the last second. But the waiting is not a result of procrastination. The time is spent on perfecting. Only one student in each class finished early.

I would like to emphasize that I always assign homework during full-length semesters. Because of the complexities of time in winter and summer sessions, I have no choice but to make different pedagogical choices. Some of these decisions may (or may not) eventually, to some extent, be incorporated into full-semester classes.


  1. This is a great post. I will be honest -- I teach developmental writing at the community college, and I don't give a lot of homework in that class. I never do peer critique. I can't seem to make it work. The one semester I tried it, I had to undo a lot of damage!

  2. I adore this. Yes. Yes. and Yes.

  3. Love this and wish that we could have done that in the classes I took with you....less distractions, more solid time, more people to bounce ideas off of.