Undervaluing Student Writing in Composition Courses:
A Reading Problem
My initial opportunity to teach college composition and to consider the role of student writing within the classroom came just over two decades ago during my first semester as an MFA student in fiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). As a new teaching assistant, I was enrolled in a multi-day orientation as well as a one-semester pedagogy course and was given a common staff syllabus for new teaching assistants. Influenced by departmental faculty such as David Bartholomae and Mariolina Salvatori, each of whom has published scholarship promoting the benefits of assigning difficult, published texts in the writing classroom, that staff syllabus was filled with such reading assignments. During my time at Pitt I repeatedly looked to the sixth edition of Bartholomae’s and Anthony Petrosky’s influential anthology, Ways of Reading, to guide my understanding of what reading was and what it might become for my students. In their introduction, the authors mention several typical reading tasks—summary, identifying main ideas, locating information—and then offer an alternative version of what academic reading might entail:
There are ways of thinking through problems and working with written texts which are essential to academic life, but which are not represented by summary and paraphrase or by note-taking and essay exams.
Student readers, for example, can take responsibility for determining the meaning of the text. They can work as though they were doing something other than finding ideas already there on the page and they can be guided by their own impressions or questions as they read. (6)
The reading described in this passage is transactional in nature; it goes well beyond mere sentence decoding. Another major tenant of the Ways of Reading approach is that the writing process (at least as it is taught and practiced in the composition classroom) might usefully start with the study of published texts. The Ways of Reading anthology was filled with difficult texts by the likes of Walker Percy and Michel Foucault. Admittedly, there was much more to the Ways of Reading approach and to the pedagogical curriculum at Pitt than a narrow focus on assigning published texts; nevertheless, I latched on to this one aspect and relied on it almost exclusively in the courses I taught there. I didn’t set up peer reviews for students to read and comment on each other’s writing. I didn’t ask students to read (or reread) their own writing and then reflect on that work. We read and discussed published texts. That was about it, perhaps because it was the one thing I felt (at least somewhat) qualified to do as a new graduate instructor.
Like many novice composition instructors, I’d been an English major as an undergraduate. Discussing assigned texts in class was as familiar to me as my dorm room. At Pitt, my graduate pedagogy course focused primarily on discussing a range of published texts related to teaching, including composition anthologies much like this one. I was learning to teach writing primarily by reading about how to teach writing. It wasn’t much of an intellectual leap, then, to imagine that my students would learn to write in the same way: they would learn to write by reading compelling published writing.
Fast forward in time. I’ve now spent years assisting new graduate-student instructors and teaching graduate pedagogy courses, and it’s clear to me that most of these students feel most comfortable in the classroom when leading discussions of published texts. As it was for me, this type of classroom work is familiar to them and often mirrors what they are doing in their own graduate courses. It also requires far less preparation than designing a style lesson or generating an interesting activity aimed at teaching structure. For most of us, it takes time before the other components of teaching writing come to feel as natural as leading the discussion of an assigned text.
After completing my MFA at Pitt, I moved to Ann Arbor to accept a position teaching writing classes as a lecturer at the University of Michigan. In the August composition workshop required for all newly-hired instructors, the director of the writing program announced that we should spend no less than half our class time working directly with student writing. Her expectation for first-year writing instructors was unambiguous. I still remember exactly what she said, “That means if you’re teaching twice a week, one of those classes should be a workshop or working directly with student writing.”
Yet, despite this directive I continued to rely almost exclusively on teaching published essays. Why? The excuse I gave myself at the time was that things were going well. I’d earned favorable teaching evaluations at Pitt, received positive feedback directly from a number of students, and even won a teaching award. More importantly, I’d witnessed improvement as many students were noticeably more articulate in discussing writing by the end of the term. The writing they produced was better too. Weren’t these the hallmarks of a successful writing course?
I now recognize that my resistance to using student writing was largely the result of an impoverished conception of students and their work. I had yet to heed the advice of former Conference on College Composition and Communication chair Wendy Bishop, who warns that:
We should remember, also, that when conducting a writing class, we are convening a discussion among writers who happen to be students … When we see the individuals on our rosters as writers-more-than students, we distance ourselves from the demeaning, disempowering concept of “student writer” with its inevitable implications of eternal deficiency. (193)
While I tried to view the students enrolled in my courses as “writers”—a perspective that Bartholomae and Petrosky certainly promote in Ways of Reading—I definitely didn’t think of them in the same vein as the published authors I was assigning. This bias led me to automatically classify the work they produced into some generic category of “student essay” or “student writing” regardless of its quality. That work was never a focal point of our classes as I continued to elevate the writing of published authors instead.
To some readers, my hesitance to incorporate student writing might seem ridiculous. Perhaps it’s what you’ve been doing all along, for years now. I can even imagine what you might have said to the me back then:
Reader: Don’t you want students to have an opportunity to share their writing with an actual audience? The chance to read the work of their peers?
Younger me, probably wearing a plaid button down from the GAP: Yeah, those are valuable. I get that.
Reader: Well then? Student writing is what our courses are all about.
Me: (Sigh.) Yeah, the truth is . . . I’m, a . . . I’m comfortable. Things are working well, and I don’t want to mess with that.
Reader: What about Bruce Horner? What about the limited circulation of undergraduate student writing within the academy and the way it devalues students’ labor? What about the tendency of students to produce writing solely with the instructor in mind, to receive a grade and then never think about that work again? Wouldn’t sharing writing with their peers help to alleviate that?
For a long time the discussion of reading within the field of composition studies (to the extent that reading was discussed within the field of composition studies) remained largely a conversation about what texts instructors should assign, and that was primarily limited to a debate about whether literature belonged in the writing classroom. This debate over literature spawned further debates over the proper subject of composition, an issue that engulfed the profession during the 1990s as “multicultural” texts were being introduced into a variety of English classrooms. Further controversy regarding what texts students should read surfaced in response to writing courses that assigned reading on social and political issues, most notably at the University of Texas.
However, during our current decade, composition studies has undergone what Mariolina Salvatori and Patricia Donahue have labeled as a “revival” of interest in reading (“Stories”). Several scholars have focused their attention on how students read rather than what they read. David Joliffe and Allison Harl collected and presented extensive data about the reading practices of undergraduate students at the University of Arkansas. Daniel Keller used case-study research of student reading practices to examine reading-writing connections within new media contexts. Carolyne King has examined the reading-writing processes of students using a mix of interviews, analysis of textual artifacts, and video-recordings enabled by screen-cast software. Other scholars have focused on writing instructors, including my work with first-year writing instructors at the University of Michigan and Ellen Carillo’s national survey of instructors using the Writing Program Administrator’s listserv (WPA-L).
While it would be impossible to address all the different findings from this collection of research here, at least one idea has emerged again and again: why and how students read matters far more than what they read.
This same argument was made decades ago by some of the few composition scholars attending to reading. In 1997, Nancy Morrow stated that “commentators have frequently asked the wrong starting questions. What if instead of asking, ‘what should we read in composition classes?’ we asked ‘why do we read in composition classes?’” (452). A year before that, Mariolina Salvatori suggested that the real question about reading as it operates in the writing classroom “is what kind of reading gets to be theorized and practiced” (“Conversations” 443).
To repeat: a clear takeaway, both then and now, is that the why and how of reading matters far more than the what of reading. I agree with this position and have asserted it in previous scholarship. But it would be a mistake for compositionists to conclude that it doesn’t matter what students read; something can be less important and still be important.
After one year as a lecturer at the University of Michigan I was admitted to their English & Education program. One of the first books I read upon returning to graduate school was Lisa Ede’s Situating Composition, published in 2004, in which she discusses her own changing perspective on reading within the writing classroom. Ede’s trajectory was the opposite of my own. She explains that after several years of working almost exclusively with student writing, she began to include more published texts. She writes that “[t]he decision to include published readings in my composition courses reflects my questioning of at least one of the features of much process-based teaching: a focus on student writing rather than on professional writing” (91-92).
Yet, just a few pages later Ede concedes that “[i]n spite of my literary training, as a writing teacher I have—despite my admiration of such curricular projects as Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading—tended to deemphasize reading in comparison to writing and to prefer working with student rather than with professional literary texts” (100). Ede’s apparent uncertainty struck me as significant. If such an established scholar—one whose work I’d come to admire—was struggling with the same reading-related questions that I was, perhaps there was something larger at stake here than my personal pedagogical choices. Uncertainty about how best to teach reading within the writing classroom was a source of confusion and consternation for many instructors. As Linda Adler-Kassner and Heidi Estrem note, “at the same time as instructors ask for more explicit guidance with reading pedagogy, that pedagogy is rarely included in composition research, graduate composition courses, or first-year writing programs’ developmental materials” (36). Perhaps it was time for scholars in the field to pay more attention to reading, which I set out to do in my dissertation research.
In terms of my teaching, Ede’s willingness to change course inspired me to finally assign student texts in my classes.
Assigning students to read the work of their peers has a number of well-established benefits. It can alter their notions of audience, broadening who they imagine they are writing for. It helps establish that their writing is worthy of scholarly attention, worthy of the time it takes for them and others to read and discuss it. The list goes on and on, as several of the pieces in this anthology make clear.
However, if it’s true that why and how students read is more important than what they read, then assigning student writing is only one valuable step. The next step is actually teaching students how to read that student writing. I want to make the case that students are best served when they are taught to read both published and student-produced texts in the same ways.
This is difficult considering that many instructors continue to view published writing and student writing as fundamentally different. This was a sentiment expressed by numerous instructors I surveyed and/or interviewed at the University of Michigan, and a stance summed up nicely by one of the instructors that Ellen Carillo interviewed for Securing a Place for Reading in Composition: “when [textbooks] have these professional essays that are supposed to serve as models, it’s just too different, I think, from the type of writing that students are doing” (41).
This perceived difference may, at least partially, have disciplinary origins. The division between literary studies and composition studies is a relatively recent phenomenon, caused in part by increased specialization among professors within the discipline of English. Nancy Nelson and Robert Calfee explain that:
As scholarship became more specialized, criticism was being attached to literature, and literary criticism was being established as a separate component of English. Even though some critical study was still included in composition courses, textual criticism was developing apart from any connection to students’ own writing. Literature scholars were becoming responsible for the reading of texts, and those in composition were becoming responsible for the writing of texts. (8)
It’s worth noting that the process of textual criticism as it is practiced in most English departments developed almost entirely removed from any careful study of student writing. Published writing, not student work, was the subject of analysis. Considering this exclusion, it’s hardly surprising that many instructors today view published texts and student-produced texts as entirely different things, and that within the academy published texts are usually valorized over student writing. Most composition instructors have come through English departments that present published texts as the rarified material of literary studies, and student texts as the product (or byproduct) of composition courses dedicated to writing.
It’s true that published texts are usually written and revised over a series of months if not years, and often undergo a rigorous review process. Student writing is too often produced in a single evening. These differences matter, and it’s reasonable (and likely accurate) to assume that published texts are generally of a higher quality than student writing. My concern is the misguided view that published and student writing are fundamentally different things—as opposed to texts at different stages in the writing and professionalization process. I’ve touched on this idea previously, noting that:
Student writers often struggle with sentence-level issues and make grammatical mistakes rarely found in published writing. Published texts often display structural techniques instructors could hardly imagine their most skilled students using. Student-produced texts come as bunches of stapled papers or as email attachments, whereas published writing arrives in books, glossy magazines, or on professionally designed websites. Yet, while there are undoubtedly writing characteristics (and yes, patterns of error) more commonly found in student-produced writing, there are always examples—the incredibly insightful student essay or the impenetrably dense published article—that help us to recognize that published and student-produced texts are not actually different “species.” Perhaps published and student-produced texts appear to be different in part because instructors already perceive them to be different. (67)
In truth, the two types of writing may not be as different as many compositionists tend to believe. In his 1981 article “The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph M. Williams makes a compelling case that readers will find error when they are expecting and searching for it and fail to notice similar mistakes when they aren’t. He asserts that “if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kinds of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find” (159). To support this assertion, he admits in the final paragraph of his article that there are “about 100 errors” in the piece (165). These hundred errors did not prevent publication in a prestigious journal, and in no way interfere with Williams’ ideas. My point, again, is that published and student writing may seem more different than they really are because we already believe them to be entirely different.
This sense of published and student writing as entirely different “species” can have very real, and potentially detrimental, consequences in the classroom. Instructors are more likely to use these texts in entirely differently ways by asking students to read their own work and that of their peers in terms of mistakes while promoting published work as the sole examples of successful writing. In doing so, they encourage students, too, to view published and student writing as fundamentally different things—a perspective that inevitably makes it harder for students to see themselves as “writers” who might someday reach the lofty standards of published writing. The distance between their own error-filled prose (since that is what we most often ask them to read for) and the exemplars assigned and then praised by the instructor must seem insurmountable to all but the most confident students. When we teach published and student writing in such profoundly different ways, we potentially undermine the chief enterprise of all writing courses—to help students improve as writers—by damaging their confidence and dimming the belief that they are already, in fact, writers.
Perhaps recognizing this potential for harm, the “CCCC Position Statement on the Role of Reading in College Writing Classrooms,” published in March 2021, has a section devoted to Strategies for training instructors to teach reading that includes the following suggestion: “Encourage instructors to use published texts and student writing in similar ways and to avoid assigning only published texts as examples of good writing while urging students to search for errors only in student-produced texts.”
Fortunately, this is already happening in certain composition classrooms. In contrast to what I found at the University of Michigan, where most of the instructor participants viewed and treated published and student writing very differently, Ellen Carillo discovered instructors participating in her study who use student writing as model texts, “treating them the same way they do published texts” (41). Many of those same instructors “use both student texts and published texts to model academic discourse, methodologies, rhetorical techniques, and various other components of essays” (41-42). These findings are encouraging since using published and student writing in the same ways sends a message that they both deserve the same level of attention and are of similar value, and it avoids undermining student confidence in the specific manner I’ve described. It isn’t difficult to teach texts this way. At first it may take a little extra planning and some getting used to, but the primary requirement is simply the determination to do so.
In my own courses I now make it a priority to assign both published and student writing, and to teach them in the same way(s). Like the instructors in Carillo’s study, I assign both published articles and student writing as model texts for our upcoming assignments. Sometimes I ask students to Read Like a Writer by mining the text for specific craft techniques they can replicate (or avoid) in their own writing. I might urge them to read “critically” in an effort to situate the specific text within a larger cultural conversation or as the result of a specific societal moment or tension. Other times I’ll prompt students to really focus on their emotional responses to the text we’ve read, and to consider what factors might have contributed to those feelings. And yes, sometimes I encourage students to read for how the text might be improved through revision, though I’m insistent that this means much more than a simplistic focus on surface-level errors. We routinely hold class-wide workshops of student writing to support these efforts, but we also “workshop” published texts using an identical structure, imagining the author there in the room with us contemplating our suggestions for revision. (This has an added benefit of helping students to see all texts as unfinished and potentially ripe for revision.)
We use both published and student writing extensively in the composition classroom, and we approach them in the same ways. Doing so sends important messages to students about the value of their writing, but it can also help instructors to resist seeing students as anything other than writers. In truth, we do our students a great service when we acknowledge that they are writers first and foremost, and then teach in ways that reinforce this belief.
 A famous exchange on the role of literature in the composition classroom can be found in the March 1993 issue of College English. Gary Tate and Erika Lindemann each revised their presentations from the 1992 Conference on College Composition and Communication for publication in this issue. In addition to these two articles, a number of other scholars weighed in on the issue of literature in the composition classroom by providing written responses to Tate and Lindemann’s pieces.
 This controversy exploded into national headlines in 1991 when the UT English department approved a new syllabus for its required first-year writing course, English 306. Titled “Writing About Difference,” the syllabus was put together by a committee of faculty members headed by Linda Brodkey and overwhelmingly approved by a vote of the English department. Yet, the syllabus met firm resistance from some English department faculty and a number of professors in other departments. Critics worried that this emphasis on difference was really a thinly-veiled attempt to indoctrinate students in a particular kind of liberal thinking and concluded that such attempts had no place in first-year writing. Soon articles about the proposed syllabus were appearing first in local papers such as The Daily Texan and Austin American-Statesman, and then nationally in the New York Times. Political pundits joined compositionists in articulating the proper subjects and goals for first-year writing and what had once been left to Writing Program Administrators and individual instructors now appeared to belong to the larger public domain.
 This is an idea first discussed in my dissertation, “Reconceptualizing the Role of Reading in Composition Studies,” while this quote comes directly from my 2015 Pedagogy article entitled “Reimaging Workshop.” In that article, I discuss using writing workshops as a way to teach reading, and I also detail my process of workshopping published texts with students.
Adler-Kassner, Linda and Heidi Estrem. “Reading Practices in the Writing Classroom.” WPA, vol 31, no. 2, fall/winter 2007, pp. 35-47.
Bartholomae, David, and Anthony Petrosky, eds. Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. 6th edition, Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2002.
Bishop, Wendy. “Crossing the Lines: On Creative Composition and Composing Creative Writing.” Colors of a Different Horse, edited by Wendy Bishop and Hans Ostrom, NCTE, 1994, pp. 181-197.
Bunn, Michael. “Re-imagining Workshop: Recognizing and Expanding the Role of Reading.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 53-71.
Carillo, Ellen C. Securing a Place for Reading in Composition: The Importance of Teaching for Transfer. Utah State UP, 2015.
“CCCC Position Statement on the Role of Reading in College Writing Classrooms.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, 21 Mar. 2021, cccc.ncte.org/cccc/the-role-of-reading.
Ede, Lisa. Situating Composition. Southern Illinois U P, 2004.
Jolliffe, David A, and Allison Harl. “Studying the ‘Reading Transition’ from High School to College: What Are Our Students Reading and Why?” College English, vol. 70, no. 6, July 2008, pp. 599-617.
Keller, Daniel. Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration. UP of Colorado, 2014.
King, Carolyne M. Further Reading: Literacy Practices and Perspectives from the First Year Writing Classroom. U of Delaware, 2019.
Horner, Bruce. Terms of Work in Composition. SUNY P, 2000.
Morrow, Nancy. “The Role of Reading in the Composition Classroom.” JAC, vol. 17, no. 3, 1997, pp. 453-72.
Nelson, Nancy and Robert Calfee. “The Reading Writing Connection Viewed Historically.” The Reading-Writing Connection, edited by Nelson and Calfee. U of Chicago P, 1998, pp. 1-52.
Salavtori, Mariolina Rizzi. “Conversations with Texts: Reading in the Teaching of Composition.” College English, vol. 58, no. 4, Apr. 1996, pp. 440-54.
Salvatori, Mariolina Rizzi and Patricia Donahue. “Stories about Reading: Appearance, Disappearance, Morphing, and Revival.” College English, vol. 75, no. 2, Oct. 2012, pp. 199-217.
Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomenology of Error.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 22, no. 2, May 1981, pp. 152-68.