The Limits of Teaching Writing


Photo: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

One of my projects this summer is to revise the English Composition course I currently teach, making it easier to transfer online (another of my projects for this summer) and guaranteeing that it has objectives and rigor similar to those of writing courses at our sister colleges.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve collected syllabi from other colleges (Spring Arbor University, the Baptist College of Florida, Kansas State University), and this morning I made a list of the things that other college writing courses have in common.

Of everything I noticed, one thing stood out to me: Most other college writing courses have strict formatting and page length requirements, and they penalize students for not meeting them. 

I haven’t done this for years. Partly this is because, all rumors to the contrary, I’m kind of a softie; if a student has a good paper, or if they tried really hard, I feel badly penalizing them because they have one fewer source than needed. After all, maybe I was confusing when I gave the directions, and it wouldn’t be fair to penalize my students.

Partly this is because I’m a big-picture kind of gal, more interested in the quality of my student’s thought than whether they can meet a (somewhat) arbitrary standard or whether they use Times New Roman or Arial font (though I’ll be honest, Calibri drives me nuts. It is hands-down the ugliest font. Future students, if you’re reading this, I never want to receive your papers submitted in Calibri. Wingdings is preferable.)

And partly this is because I want to be encouraging to my students. Writing is scary enough for some of them without worrying about meeting what they perceive to be an arbitrary length, or finding what seems to be a humongous number of sources.

Focusing on quality of thought more than meeting page length and formatting requirements was how I learned to teach, and it’s been how I’ve taught since then.

Yet removing limits does not seem to make my students better writers, or encourage them the way I think it would. In fact, seeing that other colleges do in fact penalize students who don’t turn papers in using the correct font or including the correct number of sources has made me think about the importance of having limits. 

Wendell Berry has pointed out the destructive impact of our refusal to live within ecological limits, always wanting more food or wanting food out of its season or region; he notes that we are less able to cope with grief and difficulty and loneliness in life due to our inability to life within the limits of community. It was Berry who first drew my attention to the importance of limits, and now as I am planning next year’s Composition course, I find it interesting that having limits may help students become better writers.  

Having limits to work within actually made me a better writer. I tend to be a very wordy writer; having professors who held me to a strict maximum word count forced me to use fewer, more powerful verbs and to eliminate filler words. Perhaps the same thing will be true for my students, only in reverse; maybe if they’re working to meet a page length requirement they’ll find new ways to describe their point, new questions about it to answer, new research to include. Maybe they’ll be less likely to let themselves get away with mediocre work.

We can be lazy when there’s no limits. When I’m not running a race, trying to make a good time, I run slower. When my mother does arm exercises, she uses an exercise band to give her resistance; the band is surprisingly stiff, but it’s that stiffness that tones and strengthens her arms. When we have a limit, when we push ourselves to meet expectations, we grow. I think I’m encouraging my students, making things easier for them by removing limits, but perhaps the opposite is true. 

We Americans, I have realized over the last year or so, hate the idea of having limits. Idina Menzel sings about how there are “no rules for me” and yearns to “defy gravity” – and we take these two songs as cultural anthems, things that we aspire to (Okay, I’ll be fair; I love both these songs.) But the truth is, while we hate the idea of having our choice curtailed, or living up to external expectations, having expectations to live up to can make us stronger.

Not all expectations are good, of course. A friend of mine grew up in a strict fundamentalist household and finds “Defying Gravity” freeing. And of course, in my writing class, if I were to require limits that are beyond my students’ ability to accomplish, that too would backfire.

But sensible, manageable, healthy limits do not hinder us. They hone our skills, train us, and make us stronger. My hope is that having limits will push my students and strengthen their skills more than having no limits would. 

There’s a second benefit to having limits, that limits guarantee clear (or at least clearer) expectations. When I don’t have limits for students, that doesn’t mean that I have no expectations for them either. I do: I expect them to explain their point in several different ways, to quote regularly from their sources, to show deep critical thinking and nuanced thought. Some of these expectations are spelled out on the rubric, but some are simply assumed. Who knows what “nuanced thought” means?

My students don’t, but they do know what a four-page paper looks like. And trying to meet that four page paper may encourage them to develop more nuanced thought along the way. After all, they have to fill up the extra pages somehow.

So students: I’m putting you on alert. Expect page length and source requirements next year, with penalties if you do not meet these requirements. Expect a few more reading quizzes.

And to the rest of us: Remember that being encouraging and supportive does not necessarily mean removing limits. Being supportive may actually require limits. After all, what else is a scaffold besides an artificial limit?

If we are to live within our limits, we must teach within them too. 




One thought on “The Limits of Teaching Writing

  1. Teaching high school has been a major eye-opener for me in creating and setting reasonable limits. I have started to actually give the paper criteria to my seniors, then ask, “About how long would a well-developed paper with these criteria be?” and then, they set an approximate page length for themselves. It’s become a wonderful discussion with them, and they understand how it works now. It’s a fantastic process to watch, but I agree that excellent professors have helped me with their own setting of limits. Thanks for the read, and update us on how that online transfer works. I’m curious.

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