Few teachers probably think of ourselves as punishing our students, let alone using writing to do so. But we do.
I stumbled onto this through something my high school-aged daughter told me. Her choir director announced to her class that they would have to write a ten-page research paper if they missed the Winter Concert. The teacher was implying that he was going to punish missing students by making them write and research. I asked if there was anything in particular they the offending students would need to research or write about. “No,” my daughter told me, “we would just need to write a paper.”
As an English professor who teaches writing, I was offended. How dare he use writing in this way! Writing, as I tell my students, is a way to explore the world, ask questions, seek out answers, and communicate with others. This assignment did not really achieve any of these goals. The fear of writing and research were used to compel attendance at an after school event.
My conversation with my daughter took me back to my high school days. I had gotten a staph infection on my knee, playing indoor soccer, and could not participate in gym. My gym teacher made me write a lengthy paper on gymnastics in order to discourage others from getting excused from the gymnastics unit. Thinking back upon this, I doubted that writing about gymnastics helped me gain strength and flexibility, the probable goals of the gymnastics unit.
I shared these stories with one of my classes, full of righteous outrage at high school teachers who dared to profane the good names of writing and research.
After the class, a student told me how one of her college professors told students who were going to miss class for a lengthy field trip that they would need to write a thirty page research paper. I was stunned. This is happening in college too! How dare one of my colleagues use writing and research as punishment!
Soon, I started to think about my own syllabi and courses. I realized that perhaps I too used writing in what could be perceived as a form of punishment.
A few years ago, I decided to make each class session worth a few points. Students could earn points by participating in class discussion and being prepared for class. If a student is absent, he or she can earn the missed points by writing a short summary of the day’s reading to demonstrate their preparation for the class. This proved to encourage students to read before class and keep up if they had to miss.
But is there a part of this that uses writing as a form of punishment or deterrent for excessive absences? At some level, I have to admit that it does because I rarely evaluate how a student writes, only a cursory review of content.
It gets worse though. I have always been a sucker for extra credit assignments. I tell my students that I want them to take their course material outside the classroom and into the world. I encourage them to find films, plays, and speakers connected to course themes. If I can see the connection between the event and our class, I encourage students the opportunity to write a summary and reflection about the event and they can earn extra credit. Once again the writing tends to be superficial, and my grading standards are lower than they would be for a more formal assignment.
It is easy to fall into the trap of assigning papers without connecting them to course goals. Using writing and research assignments to “motivate” or “police” students sends the wrong message to students and undermines our efforts to help students become better writers and thinkers. If teachers don’t value the power of writing and research to ask questions, critically analyze, and develop new ideas, who will?
Please join me in making the New Year’s resolution to use writing as an end in itself, not as a form of punishment.
Rich Schur is Professor of English at Drury University and Director of Drury’s Honors Program