As part of my Honors Seminar on natural resources and public policy, I decided that the students would write nothing but the types of documents a Senate staffer would write. When I mentioned to a colleague who teaches writing that these assignments would generally be restricted to a single page, he announced that I was diabolical. We both agreed that although writing a single page appears to be an easy task, it is actually a significant challenge.
One of the joys of grading a single page of writing is that I can take 10-15 minutes on just that page and provide extremely detailed feedback on style, grammar, spelling, proof-reading, and content. On longer documents, I still provide extensive feedback, but it is distributed throughout the document, and I do not necessarily pick up every detail worthy of comment. The one page briefing memos allowed me to focus on many different aspects of writing all in a single document. I also hoped that the length would encourage the students to do multiple drafts, but I wasn’t so idealistic that I assumed it would happen. I did have a number of meetings with students to discuss their first drafts, which were then revised in time for class, so I did meet with some success on getting the students to submit edited documents rather than first drafts.
It took just one assignment for the students to learn that writing a single page is not as easy as it seems. In contrast with their normal assignments of 5-10 pages, in which the students pontificate and wax poetic, a single page summary requires that only the most essential information be included. The skills required to filter and prioritize information are not usually the focus of college classes, so the students struggled a little before they acquired the knack.
I’ve found that in the process of teaching writing, I also learn a great deal about what characterizes good writing. My first discovery was that the prevalence of PowerPoint has rewarded students for presenting a list of bullet points without any surrounding text to provide context. That was the first habit that had to go, since a one page summary needs to be easily digestible and should lead the reader smoothly through a topic. A smooth flow requires complete sentences. Following swiftly on the heels of banning the bullet point format, I also found it necessary to restrict lists. Oh did the students love to make lists! “My Senator is interested in the environment, education, technology, armed forces, children, little green apples, and stuffed animals.” I always lost focus long before I reached the little green apples, so I restricted the lists or series to a maximum of three items. I was impressed at how readable the resulting documents became.
Once the lists and bullets had been abolished, I found that I developed other pet peeves, which became the focus of periodic grammar mini-lectures of 5-10 minutes at the start of class. We discussed parallel structure in series in which all the starting words are in the same form, such as, “I enjoy running in the rain, swimming in the ocean, and sleeping in the grass.” I also enforced that cause and effect links must indeed be cause and effect, rather than what I refer to as “reasoning by proximity,” in which two facts are placed adjacent to each other, implying a connection that is not correct. For example, “Many women get breast cancer. All of these women wear deodorant.” Both facts may be true, but one does not necessarily cause the other.
I was pleased that the students reported that they enjoyed the short grammar lessons, and certainly the quality of their writing improved dramatically over the semester. My goal for teaching writing is to take each student at his or her current writing level and raise the level up a notch or two. It was a pleasure to watch the students rise to each new challenge; that is one of my favorite parts of teaching.
After I left the Senate, I expected that my biggest challenge of returning to reading student papers was going to be that I couldn’t tolerate people who could not make deadlines. I was wrong. It turned out that I had difficulty reading responses that were not concise. Thus it was much to my amusement that my Honors students rapidly developed the same bias. By partway through the semester, they were complaining about readings in our class or others that took far too many words to get the point across. I always smiled benignly upon their complaints, agreed with their annoyance, and knew that I was teaching a valuable lesson.