Student Writing

Bruce Horner

“Student,” when used as a modifier—as in student work, student writing, student housing, student government, student life—typically serves to demean what it modifies by signaling its character as somehow lesser in quality than what is modified: less authentic, valuable, lasting, real, valid, substantive. The logic appears to be that students qua students are themselves unfinished, undeveloped beings, at least in terms of their education, hence that with which they are associated is deemed to be likewise unfinished and, hence, not to be taken as legitimate or lasting or of value. 

On the one hand, this attribution of being lesser, unfinished, justifies greater patience with and tolerance for students and what they do—those deemed unfinished cannot be held to the same standards as, say, real workers, writers, governments, housing, life (think “play” as both pretend and preparatory practice). On the other hand, that same attribution condescends: to be viewed as a student means what one does is assumed from the get go to be in need of improvement and (again) is not to be taken seriously (think of the withholding from either serious punishment or serious attention achieved by “student” in the phrase “student hijinks”). 

In the field of composition, this use of student as diminutive appears most notoriously in application to the treatment of writing, and work (often used as synonym for writing). Student writing qua student writing is by definition, in this treatment, unfinished, inauthentic, less valuable, lacking in substance (Horner, “Re-valuing”). At best, it is treated as preparatory to work that, in contrast, is deemed to be real, finished, valid, lasting, hence to be taken seriously: “practice” for the real work that will (hopefully) come later. While it’s acknowledged, in this treatment, that the writing in question might potentially lead to or prepare the way for real writing (substantive, finished, and to be taken seriously), in its current state it is assumed to be not real. 

There is, of course, a flipside to this treatment of student writing. In this ostensible alternative, student denotes writing that is not so much to be engaged with as to be admired, not questioned but contemplated. Reversing the diminution of the work represented, the writing in this treatment nonetheless remains outside the norm of ordinary writing. For example, in the early heady days of exploring “multimodality,” student compositions marked as deploying recognizably different media were heralded as thereby special, presented (in conference presentations, for example) as specimens of an exotic species of composition for delectation, e.g., students’ video compositions. These were heralded primarily for simply being video compositions, with all questions about, say, how the videos were used and to what purpose, let alone how they might be revised, silenced as blasphemy. 

As should be clear, this flipside, despite its apparent opposition to the treatment of student writing it flips, retains its condescension, marked by its lack of serious engagement with the compositions ostensibly being honored. For in both cases, the work of composition is elided. In the latter, the work is elided in favor of treating the composition as text-object (whatever the media deployed) operating on its own. In the former, more prevalent treatment, the composition is denigrated for requiring work to achieve legitimate status as text-object—for being unfinished.

As I’ve already suggested, such denigrating treatment arises in part from a debased view of students as somehow less—less finished, less developed, less real—than others. But here I’ll add that it also arises from an ideology of language and of knowledge (and of the relation of these to one another): the language ideology of monolingualism, on the one hand, and a commodified notion of knowledge, on the other. The chief feature of the language ideology of monolingualism operant here is its view of languages as discrete, internally uniform, and stable entities located outside material social history: fixed tools to be used, correctly or not, well or not, to communicate pre-existing meaning/knowledge. From the perspective of monolingualism, students are flawed or apprentice users of the language (here in the U.S., assumed to be English only) who need practice and training in its proper use, about which their teachers are posed as experts. That language ideology works in concert with a commodified notion of knowledge, whereby knowledge, like language, is imagined to be inert, hence to be acquired, fully or not, accurately or not, by students, to whom teachers attempt to transmit it. 

Both the language ideology of monolingualism and the treatment of knowledge as commodity obscure the labor that students, like others, perform in sustaining, renewing, and revising both language and knowledge. Alternatively, from the perspective of the language ideology of translingualism—at least as my colleagues and I have posited it elsewhere (see Horner et al., Horner and Alvarez), language is the always emergent outcome of the labor of human utterance, hence languages are in constant interaction and fluctuation as the ongoing accomplishments of those whom monolingualist ideology consigns to being no more than their “users.” This translingual view of language is aligned with the notion that knowledge, likewise, is the ongoing, emergent outcome of the labor of knowing—labor that, at least in the academy, often takes form in acts of writing. Thus, the alternative to conceptions of knowledge as inert and effectively “autonomous,” like the ideology of literacy as autonomous that Brian Street famously critiqued, is a performative or “social practice” view of knowledge: knowledge, like literacy, as social practice (Literacy). Wanda Orlikowski has described this alternative, practice view of knowledge as one in which

knowledge is not an external, enduring, or essential substance – but a dynamic and ongoing social accomplishment. . . . [This practice view] leads us to focus on knowledge not as static or given, but as a capability produced and reproduced in recurrent social practices. A practice view of knowledge . . . leads us to understand knowing as emergent (arising from everyday activities and thus always ‘in the making’), embodied (as evident in such notions as tacit knowing and experiential learning), and embedded (grounded in the situated socio-historic contexts of our lives and work). And . . . knowing is also always material. (460)

This social practice view of knowledge, in combination with a view of language as itself the emergent outcome of such practice (as a “local practice,” as Pennycook puts it), implicitly positions student work differently, and thereby offers the possibility of ascribing a different valuation to that work (and to those workers). First, it acknowledges student work as work—here, work with and on language and knowledge—rather than as at best preparation for subsequent engagement in such work (the derogatory notion of “practice”). Second, it positions such work as socially necessary: language and knowledge are sustained through that work. As Claire Kramsch asserts regarding learners of a “foreign” language, even these students play a significant role “as non-native speakers/actors in the life or death of a language, its development, its usage, its semiotic potential” (“Contrepont” 322).[1] Students, rather than being positioned as the recipients of the work of others (teachers), couched as improving student skills in language and knowledge, are here positioned as producers and developers of language (and knowledge).[2] 

I am aware that this view of students and their work might itself seem like another iteration of the sentimental commonplace that teachers learn so much from their students. Without dismissing such learning, I am suggesting something different. The notion of teachers learning from their students retains a view of the knowledge learned as something inert. To say “I learn from my students” simply reverses the ordinary direction of the transmission of such inert knowledge between students and teacher. Alternatively, we can say not so much that teachers learn from their students, or the reverse, but rather that both teaching and learning involve the re-production, renewal, and revision of knowledge. Indeed, to borrow another page from translingual theory, even exact reiterations of a particular formulation of knowledge change that knowledge, and its formulation, through the process of reiteration by relocating that formulation in space and time. Thus, we can tweak Shaughnessy’s caution that basic writers might well find “fresh” and insightful a formulation that their teachers find to be at best “well worn” (Errors 197) by noting that those students are, in fact, re-freshing those formulations by giving new voice to them. 

This refreshment of language and knowledge accomplished in reiteration is an overlooked feature of translingual ideology. Instead, translingual theory is commonly taken to refer only to novel uses of recognizably different languages—a.k.a. “code-meshing”—or to novel formulations within a given named language, most notoriously one student’s deployment of the phrase “can able to” to signal both capability and permission (Lu, “Professing”).[3] But while such student work merits the attention it has received, that attention itself can often slide into mere linguistic tourism of the kind Paul Kei Matsuda has critiqued (“Lure”). Like those early exhibitions of students’ “multimodal” compositions, the student’s work is admired not for what it says but for its form alone, irrespective of the purpose to which the form is being put. 

Three points contradicting such attention are worth emphasizing here: first, student work should not be conflated with the notations constituting their compositions, verbal and/or otherwise. It is itself emergent and contingent rather than residing in what used to be hailed as “the work itself.”[4] Second, the value of that work, or at least its use value, is realized only in use, and therefore is itself inevitably in flux. For, third, that work is also always collaborative rather than individual (even when seemingly the product of “individual” effort). In light of these three points, we can engage with the compositions of our students not in terms of admiration (or condemnation, or condescension) but, rather, as fellow reworkers of language and knowledge, with formulations (verbal and otherwise), whether seemingly novel or commonplace, constituting no more and no less than instances of such reworking, i.e., the reproduction and revision of language and knowledge through iteration.

I can well imagine that at least some readers might see attempts to undertake such an approach, whether by individual teachers or by WPAs, running smack against programmatic or institutional dictates for writing instruction to improve students’ writing, i.e., to transmit skills in writing, or at least academic writing (and sometimes reading) that students are thought to have at best partial or imperfect possession of. Using writing courses as occasions for the reproduction and revision of language and knowledge, by contrast, is not at all what those sponsoring writing courses intend. And of course, such dictates cannot be ignored. That said, it’s worth emphasizing that the work of reproducing and revising language and knowledge is work that students and their teachers are, in collaboration, always already doing, whether that work is recognized or not, by them and/or others. The difference, then, is not one that would require jettisoning many currently common practices, such as having students write responses to what they’ve read and then revise these in light of reflections and input from their peers and instructor. Instead, the difference resides in the valuations driving that work—the kinds of value identified with and pursued by means of students’ articulations of language and knowledge through their writing and their revisions of those articulations, and hence perforce revisions of language and knowledge these articulations (and re-articulations) effect, by individual students and, more broadly, in collaborations with class peers and others as part of and contributing to collective human efforts.

As a way of both illustrating and exploring what such collaborative work might look like, I now turn to a composition by a student whom I’ll call Ms. A. The student was writing late in the semester of a first-year college writing course I taught a few years ago at the University of Louisville called “English 101: Introduction to College Writing,” a course required of almost all of that institution’s incoming undergraduate students and which did not have the reproduction and revision of language and knowledge as one of its official aims or “outcomes,” despite the inevitability of the accomplishment of that work through course practices. During the semester, in the section I taught, we’d looked at Thomas Kuhn’s “The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery” and compared the structure of discovery he identifies with the structure of the processes by which readers make sense of texts (including Kuhn’s essay), and we’d compared his ideas about the relationship between language and knowledge with ideas about that relationship introduced by Haunani-Kay Trask in her essay “From a Native Daughter.” 

In the writing from which the excerpt below is taken, Ms. A. was writing about Western historians of Hawaii and the importance of language, issues raised in the assignment to which her essay was responding in light of what Trask has to say about these matters. The excerpt is from a section of Ms. A’s essay titled “Thinking to Know”[5]: 

By ignoring these important details contained in Hawaiian language [that distinguish property ownership through the –a suffix from a relation inherent to people by means of the –o suffix], Historians did not make difference between knowing and thinking to know. Indeed, from my perception, Historians had false information based on lack of familiarity with the appropriate language. They thought they knew the indigenous’ language so they did not take the time to investigate more in depth the meaning of its popular expressions such as the term o. In comparison, if I believe that I know what molecules are, I will not take the time to find the meaning of the word even if I have the wrong conception. In consequence, I will make a mistake. In contrast, if I know that molecules are not my specialty, I will take the time to find and understand this concept. By consequence, this extra work enables me to avoid committing a mistake. This is exactly one thing that Historians did not consider. They thought they had the knowledge and did not take further steps to correct their misconceptions. In other words, they were blind of their ignorance by thinking to know which is worse than knowing to not know.

Some features of this student’s writing suggest that Ms. A is unfamiliar with at least some forms of contemporary conventional English. For example, she uses prepositions in ways I myself would not expect, as in the phrase “blind of their ignorance,” and the phrases “by consequence” or “in consequence” in place of what I take to be the more idiomatic “as a consequence” or “consequently”; and she uses verb phrases like “make difference between” where I would expect “distinguish between” or “differentiate between”; and the phrase “committing a mistake” instead of “making a mistake.” There’s also some evidence that Ms. A is unfamiliar with some conventions of Edited American English notation, as in her consistent capitalization of the word “Historians,” something she may have picked up from other students’ writing. 

I also see Ms. A manipulating language to advance a subtle conceptual distinction. I refer here to the phrases she introduces of “thinking to know,” which she distinguishes from “knowing to not know.” Admittedly, these phrases—“thinking to know” and “knowing to not know”—might seem awkward, especially in comparison to more conventional terms like “ignorance,” “blind arrogance,” or “humility.” And it’s worth acknowledging the possibility that such phrases may well have been produced through a kind of translation from the French “penser savoir” and “savoir pas savoir,” though here I’m simply speculating, based on Ms. A’s acknowledged fluency with French and the fact that the French word savoir translates as both a verb—to know—and a noun—knowledge.

That said, through her introduction of these phrases, we can see Ms. A. contributing to language as well as to knowledge about, in this case, knowledge: the phrase “thinking to know,” after all, would seem to mean something somewhat different than the term ignorance or “blind arrogance” insofar as it highlights the disjunction between a person’s actual lack of knowledge and their claims to the authority of knowing, and the barrier that this claimed authority poses to actual knowledge. Knowledge, in this case, or, rather, thinking one has knowledge, serves as a barrier to actual knowing, vs. (as Ms. A. puts it) knowing to not know. 

In the class discussion of this excerpt (kept anonymous), students wrestled with these notions. Significantly for the purposes of this chapter’s discussion, none identified the phrases, or indeed anything in Ms. A’s text, as evidence of the writer’s unfamiliarity with English. To them, the phrasings seemed neither wrong nor idiomatic but, instead, simply interesting, particularly insofar as the phrasings seemed to prompt reflection on the role one’s assumed knowledge might have on one’s ability to know more, or differently: how thinking to know might get in the way of knowing, and knowing to not know might, paradoxically, enable knowing. Or, as Ms. A. put it in her example, “if I know that molecules are not my specialty, I will take the time to find and understand this concept. By consequence, this extra work enables me to avoid committing a mistake.” Ms. A’s phrasing appeared to have had a similar effect, prompting her colleagues to do “extra work” to explore this dynamic: in short, they found ways to make use of her formulation in their own thinking about knowledge.

As much as I admire the work represented by Ms. A’s writing, I want to resist the temptation to simply offer it up for readers to join me in contemplating. Instead, I want to engage directly with what the excerpt argues by extending it. Specifically, I would suggest that the same dynamic regarding knowing and thinking to know that Ms. A’s writing postulates can and should be taken up in our, and our students’, engagements with student writing, in two senses: Ms. A’s point about the dangers of thinking to know vs. knowing to not know applies to the ways in which teachers make sense of student writing and encourage students to make sense of that writing, in terms of both language and knowledge. 

Regarding language, it seems clear that we are better off knowing to not know what usages are right or wrong, proper or improper, idiomatic or not. For example, I cannot, and should not, pretend to know the status of Ms. A’s phrasings—including those I’ve marked here as seeming to be nonidiomatic to me (e.g., “committing a mistake”). As Samuel Johnson cautioned us long ago of diction, “It must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water” (Preface). What counts as English, or proper or good English, is always changing, diverse, contested, and contingent.[6] Had I dismissed Ms. A’s phrasings as wrong, I would have missed the opportunity, and eliminated the opportunity for my students, to learn from Ms. A’s writing. Better to know to not know than to think I already know what are and are not legitimate forms of language. 

Regarding knowledge, I have myself of course offered a particular reading of Ms. A’s writing, a reading that produces a particular kind of knowledge (here, about knowledge). But it’s certainly possible that Ms. A would reject my reading in favor of some other construction of its meaning—e.g., she might say that she was translating from French and didn’t mean anything special by the phrases at all. This would not render my reading immaterial, just different, the result of work I myself performed in taking up what Ms. A had produced. But it’s also the case that, for example, my presentation of both possibilities here may prompt alternative understandings by others reading the excerpt. Knowledge exists not outside time and space but, as Orlikowski insists, in the actions of knowing. Knowledge is thus inevitably, necessarily variable, even when its formulation appears—and it’s only an appearance—to be the same, as the reiteration of the formulation (for example, “thinking to know,” “knowing to not know”) refreshes, and thereby renders different, the knowledge uttered previously via that formulation.

I began this chapter with a protest against the derogation of student writing (and students) as unfinished, incomplete, and therefore not to be taken seriously. But here I’ll end by suggesting that the solution is not to behave as if students are, in fact, finished and complete but, rather, that all of us, and all writing, remain in that same, incomplete condition. The problem, then, resides not the unfinished character of some people and writing but with the presumption that there is any alternative. All writing, and knowledge, is practice—not in the sense of prelude but in the sense of refreshing, revising, and thereby renewing what is practiced (think of musical performances of “the same” piece). Student writing can, and should, remind us of that fact. And our work with student writing should remind us of the need to engage with it as such, not as a feature distinguishing it from other writing but, instead, as a feature of all writing that the word “student” can stand in the way of us recognizing. 

Education, rather than being the site for the transmission of what we think we already know, and that our students don’t, can instead be the occasion for all of us to contribute to the important work of sustaining and revising language and knowledge. That is work to which all of us can, and do, contribute, whether that work is recognized officially or not, and work that all of us should have a right to participate in openly insofar as we all have a stake in the outcome. By putting us all in the position of knowing to not know, writing can occasion that work. Courses in writing provide the occasion for that work to continue. 



[1] “en tant que locateurs/acteurs non-natifs sur la vie ou la mort d’une langue, son développement, son usage, son potentiel sémiotique” (my translation). 


[2] Thus, in place of arguments for continuing education to update worker skills, we can argue for continuing education as a means by which to draw on student contributions to replenish the current linguistic and noetic economy (Horner, “Writing”).   

[3] The “can able to” phrase is widely cited (see Jordan, Redesigning 66; Jordan, “Material” 365).  For other examples, see Canagarajah’s discussion of “Buthainah” (“Multilingual”), and the burgeoning literature on translanguaging (e.g., Canagarajah, “Translanguaging”; García and Leiva; Li Wei; Otheguy et al.).

[4] Recall Raymond Williams’ caution that “we have to break from the common procedure of isolating the object and then discovering its components.  On the contrary we have to discover the nature of a practice and then its conditions” (Problems 47).

[5] I use this student’s essay with her written consent, conditioned on maintaining author anonymity.  With the exception of passages in square brackets, I have attempted to reproduce here the wording and punctuation of the student’s writing as it appears in the version she submitted.

[6] This is, of course, the burden of a vast body of scholarship in composition studies (see Canagarajah, “Miultilingual”; Horner et al.; Lees; Lu; Tricomi) and beyond.   

Works Cited

Canagarajah, A. Suresh. “Multilingual Strategies of Negotiating English: From Conversation to Writing.” JAC, vol. 29, nos. 1-2, 2009, pp. 17-48.

---. “Translanguaging in the Classroom: Emerging Issues for Research and Pedagogy.” Applied Linguistics Review, vol. 2, 2011, pp. 1-28. 

García, Ofelia, and Camila Leiva. “Theorizing and Enacting Translanguaging for Social Justice.” Heteroglossia as Practice and Pedagogy, edited by Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese, Springer, 2014, pp. 199-216. 

Horner, Bruce. “Re-Valuing Student Writing.” Teaching with Student Texts: Essays Toward an Informed Practice, edited by Joseph Harris, John Miles, and Charles Paine, Utah State UP, 2010, pp. 9-23. 

---. “Writing Language: Composition, the Academy, and Work.” Humanities, vol. 6, no. 2, p. 11, 2017. doi:10.3390/h6020011. 

Horner, Bruce, and Sara P. Alvarez. “Defining Translinguality.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1-30. 

Horner, Bruce, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur. “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” College English, vol. 73, no. 3, Jan. 2011, pp. 303-21. 

Johnson, Samuel. Preface. Dictionary of the English Language, vol. 1, Strahan, 1755. 

Jordan, Jay. “Material Translingual Ecologies.” College English, vol. 77, no. 4, Mar. 2015, pp. 364-82. 

---. Redesigning Composition for Multilingual RealitiesNCTE, 2012. 

Kramsch, Claire. “Contrepont.” Précis du plurilinguisme et du pluriculturalisme. Dir. Geneviève Zarate, Danielle Lévy, & Claire Kramsch. Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2008, pp. 319-23. 

Kuhn, Thomas. “The Historical Structure of Scientific Discovery.” Science, vol. 136, no. 3518, June 1962, pp. 760-64. 

Lees, Elaine O. "Proofreading as Reading, Errors as Embarrassments." A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers, edited by Theresa Enos, Random, 1987, pp. 216-30. 

---. “‘The Exceptable Way of the Society: Stanley Fish's Theory of Reading and the Task of the Teacher of Editing.” Reclaiming Pedagogy: The Rhetoric of the Classroom, edited by Patricia Donahue and Ellen Quandahl, Southern Illinois UP, 1989, pp. 144-63. 

Li Wei. “Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language.” Applied Linguistics, vol. 39, no. 1, Feb. 2018, pp. 9-30. 

Lu, Min-Zhan. “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 45, no. 4, Dec. 1994, pp. 442-58. 

Matsuda, Paul Kei. “The Lure of Translingual Writing.” PMLA, vol. 129, no. 3, May 2014, pp. 478–83.

Orlikowski, Wanda J. “Material Knowing: The Scaffolding of Human Knowledgeability.” European Journal of Information Systems, vol. 15, no. 5, Oct. 2006, pp. 460–66. 

Otheguy, Ricardo, Ofelia García, and Wallis Reid. “Clarifying Translanguaging and Deconstructing Named Languages: A Perspective from Linguistics.” Applied Linguistics Review, vol. 6, no. 3, 2015, pp. 281-307. 

Pennycook, Alastair. Language as a Local Practice. Routledge, 2010.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. Oxford UP, 1977. 

Street, Brian. Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge UP, 1984. 

Trask, Haunani-Kay. “From a Native Daughter.” The American Indian and the Problem of History, edited by Calvin Martin, Oxford UP, 1987, pp. 171-78. 

Tricomi, Elizabeth Taylor. “Krashen's Second-Language Acquisition Theory and the Teaching of Edited American English.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 5, no. 2, fall 1986, pp. 59-69.

Williams, Raymond. Problems in Materialism and Culture. Verso, 1980.