From "Low-Stakes" to the Real Deal: Student Writing, The Weekly Assignment, and Topics-Based Curricula
James E. Seitz
I’ll begin by way of prelude with what might be a heresy of sorts for a book devoted to discussing student writing: I don’t quote from any student writing in this essay. I understand the value of sharing excerpts from student texts, as I’ve done on many occasions in my own publications and conference papers over the years. But I’ve also long questioned what goes unseen when we quote student writing: all those other parts of the student’s paper, or other papers written by the same student, or other papers written by other students in response to the same assignment, that we omit from our discussion. When I share a passage, or even several passages, of student writing to support a theoretical or pedagogical argument, I can’t help but wonder how well that argument would hold up were my audience to have access to all the writing my class produced for that assignment or that semester. Or, to turn to a more famous example: Would Bartholomae’s conclusions in “Inventing the University” be as convincing were we to see all five hundred student essays he collected from that placement exam all those years ago and not just the handful he shares with us? Maybe they would, but in accepting his selections we’re overlooking a lot of evidence for alternative interpretations of how students negotiate an initial request to write for the university. Imagine the diversity of readings that might be offered by a dozen former CCCC chairs from the same collection of student papers that Bartholomae consulted. It’s hard to believe such a group wouldn’t choose different papers as samples and put forward different ideas for what those papers illustrate.
My point isn’t to disparage Bartholomae’s article, which is surely among the most important produced by our discipline, one that I include every time I teach a graduate seminar in pedagogy. Rather, I simply wish to keep in mind what we ignore when we share passages of student writing in our scholarship. As we’re all aware (but rarely discuss), quoting from student work is a very selective process, one that conveniently excludes much more than it includes. Part of this exclusion is practical: there’s only so much primary text you can quote in a twenty-page article or even a two-hundred-page book. But I’d say that the deeper motivation for our omissions is rhetorical: we choose the student texts that best suit our claims and keep the rest hidden away. And the power is all in our court, for unlike what we ignore when writing about published works—which make available for all to see anything our analysis has discounted—it’s not like anyone is going to read (or have access to) the stacks of student papers from the course or courses to which our publication refers. What we quote is all our readers have at hand; the rest is our secret.
Which doesn’t mean that, in selectively citing student writing, we’re engaging in something nefarious. After all, quoting from student writing is at times necessarily selective, just like any act of quotation that doesn’t reproduce the entire text. But I do think far more attention should be given to the problematic nature of this scholarly practice, which so often seeks to justify a theoretical contention or pedagogical practice through quite limited reference to student work. Is it persuasive to offer a few excerpts of a student’s text, even when these excerpts are meant to illustrate no more than certain patterns in the work of a single writer? (One still-refreshing feature of Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University”—and several of his other essays—is his use of complete student essays.) When offered student excerpts, I usually find myself questioning what I’m not getting to see—just as, when I offer such excerpts myself, I’m aware of the sleight of hand I’ve engaged in by disregarding other student texts (or pieces of the same text I’ve quoted) that wouldn’t make my point quite so well, or perhaps not at all. Similar to how composition scholars began asking long ago what scholarship in the field might look like if not burdened with a pedagogical imperative, I want to ask what scholarship on student writing might look like if not burdened by the imperative to quote from student texts.
Here’s another thing I won’t do in this essay: I won’t make an argument about the centrality of student writing in composition studies. Nor will I make an argument about the centrality of student writing in the composition classroom. Rather, I’m going to discuss what I’ve recently done with student writing in my first-year composition course not to persuade others to practice my pedagogy—it’s not mine alone to begin with; its “success” is both limited and hard to gauge; and I don’t believe pedagogies readily transfer from one institution, or from even one classroom, to another—but to offer a narrative of teaching that might inspire fellow teachers to reflect on various approaches to student writing. I relish the opportunity to talk about teaching and to visit other teachers’ classes, but I’ve come to believe that pedagogical advice is overrated. Better to turn my attention to my own struggles in the classroom, or, when I observe someone else’s struggles, to help them identify their pedagogical goals with greater clarity and understanding rather than push them toward my practices. That teaching remains hard no matter how extensive my experience makes me humble.
My story, then, goes like this.
For much of my career as a teacher, I took a topics-based approach to the teaching of first-year composition, as that has been the dominant curriculum at the three institutions where I’ve taught since I completed graduate school. Every time I taught the course, I created a semester-long sequence of reading and writing assignments—or adapted a sequence from a textbook like Ways of Reading—that explored a particular topic, such as “Identity and Difference,” “Words and Images,” “Teaching and Learning,” and so on. The assignments were meant to help students develop as readers and writers, and I told myself that since they had to write about something, it was best that the class participate in an extended inquiry into a complex subject that raised compelling questions. If the course went well, students found the readings on the topic interesting, participated insightfully in class discussion, and did their best (albeit at various levels of achievement) to write essays that went beyond the usual commonplaces about the topic.
But here’s what kept bothering me, especially in the classes I visited taught by graduate student teaching assistants who followed the same topics-based curriculum: the topic, not the students’ writing, almost always became the main focus of the course. Even when TAs assigned writing every week of the term and regularly reserved days for writing workshops in which students shared and responded to drafts, their class discussions habitually gravitated toward the reading list, where published writers offered nuanced ideas or made provocative claims that generated lots of conversation about the topic but not so much (if any) about students and their writing. Some TAs encouraged students to investigate the rhetorical choices made by the writers of these texts and suggested that students give them a try, but such advice usually seemed more an afterthought—“And don’t forget that you, too, can do what this writer does!”—than the main focus of the course, which was the particular topic, be it literary, cultural, political, or historical, selected by the teacher. It didn’t matter that I constantly reminded TAs that students were required to take a course in writing, not in the TA’s chosen topic, or that I hosted pedagogical workshops aimed at confronting this issue and tried to model alternatives. There was something structural, I came to believe, in the topics-based curriculum that made the marginalization of student writing inevitable, at least among inexperienced teachers, perhaps in large part because, lacking know-how in writing instruction, they garnered classroom authority from knowledge of their topic. And then they’d find that their students, lacking a vocabulary for discussions of writing, tended to exhibit far more intellectual acuity and enthusiasm when conversing about the course topic, thereby reinforcing the TAs’ inclination to move in that direction.
More accurately, some students (those who registered for the course because of its topic) seemed excited by the subject matter, while others (those who registered for the course because of the day or time it met) were often dismayed. As anyone who’s taught in a topics-based curriculum knows, whether a student ends up in a first-year composition class on “Fantasy and Fairytales” or in a class on “The Culture of Islam” is largely arbitrary, and that’s because topics aren’t offered through a supply-and-demand system—nor am I saying they should be. But given the size of first-year cohorts, the limited number of seats for each class, and the demands of a 15-credit schedule, no more than half of the students in any given class at a sizeable university are likely to have chosen it for the topic. (One university where I taught tried to avoid the problem by refusing to publish composition course topics during registration, but this approach did little to keep instructors from focusing on topics after they were announced on the first day of class.)
To put the problem another way: topics-based courses as I experienced them weren’t so much writing courses as “writing-about” courses, wherein students wrote about the topic at hand and thereby came to see that topic as the heart of the course. Yes, they were required to write every week rather than just at the end of the term, and they received more commentary on their writing than in other courses, but most students appeared to approach their first-year composition course the same way they’d approach any other course that asked them to write frequently about its subject matter. They produced weekly responses that recorded the first thoughts that came to mind about what they’d read, and they took time (though often not until the night before the due date) to complete an essay that met what they took to be their teacher’s expectations. It’s not that students didn’t learn much in the process, but to my mind they weren’t learning much about writing. Or, to be more precise, they were learning to produce forms of writing that would see them through the university—offering an interpretation of what they read, taking a position in an academic conversation, citing those whose positions they respected or rejected—but they weren’t learning to embrace writing as what Anne Berthoff, drawing on I. A. Richards, calls a “speculative instrument”: a means not only for thinking but also for thinking about our thinking. For Berthoff, the key question for students to learn to ask in a composition course is “How does it change the meaning if I put it this way?”—a question that “teaches them to see relationships and to discover that that is what they do with their minds” (296). In other words, a composition course ideally focuses on meta-awareness of how we compose the world we encounter. That’s what a topics-based curriculum ignores, or at least puts into competition with a topic that could be any topic under the sun.
Why, then, did I stick for so long with topics-based courses in my own teaching? Well, partly because, as a writing program administrator, I inherited programs where topics-based curricula had long been part of the pedagogical tradition, and I wanted to learn all I could about that tradition rather than dismiss it out of hand. But I also taught topics-based writing because I disliked the prominent alternatives even more. I don’t doubt that teachers and students have much to gain from other curricula, and it would take more space than I have here to explain why I find them lacking, so I’ll simply say that they aren’t for me. What is for me is something I’ve struggled to identify for a long time, and I continue to struggle. But the approach I hit upon two years ago is one I hope to develop in semesters to come.
It started as a willful attempt to design a writing course without a topic—a course that I hoped might serve as a model for TAs in the writing program I directed. I wasn’t going to require them to teach such a course, but I wanted TAs to see that it was possible to create a course that actually did focus on writing, not on a topic that students would merely write “about.”
I was also motivated by a dissatisfaction in my courses that stood apart from the issue of topics. Year after year, I’d watched in dismay as students turned brief weekly writing assignments into perfunctory displays of “doing just enough” to receive credit, be that a check mark or a satisfactory number in my grade book. While I’d hoped the frequent, “low-stakes” nature of these assignments might stimulate more risk-taking by way of form or content, students appeared to determine quite quickly that most of their energy as writers would go to the three end-of-unit essays, which counted more toward their final grade. The result was a generally lackluster response to the supposedly “minor” writing assignments, however much I encouraged them to do otherwise. Though there were always a few students who rose to the occasion, most seemed trapped in a familiar pattern, wherein short assignments were seen as “homework” to be completed as rapidly as possible rather than opportunities for exploratory thinking or creative rhetoric. And who could blame them? Students had full schedules, and my syllabus made clear that the essays counted more than weekly writing assignments.
Planning for my new topic-free writing course, I wondered what would happen if the low-stakes versus high-stakes distinction were abandoned. What would such a course look like? For me, the result was a course that brought what had formerly been marginal—weekly writing assignments—to the center, where I gave them not only first priority in class discussion but also the entire share of students’ final grades. Each week students wrote, depending on the assignment, one to three pages (though sometimes just a paragraph), and they were given the option to produce a draft by Sunday night (for which they’d receive comments by Wednesday) and then a final draft by Friday night, which was required of all students in the class. Fifteen weeks, fifteen assignments, all of equal value in terms of their grade—though I graded only three times, at the end of each five-week unit. The units were designed around three forms of writing—depiction, exploration, and contention—each of which required students to write weekly rhetorical exercises and to read published examples of, and a meta-textual commentary on, that form of writing. (For the unit on depiction, for example, students read numerous descriptive passages excerpted from a wide range of genres, plus The Art of Description by the poet Mark Doty.) Each unit concluded with an assignment that asked students to write a reflective essay, which counted no more than a weekly exercise, on what they’d learned about depiction, exploration, or contention through their several attempts to write in the form.
As I said earlier, I don’t intend to illustrate the success of this approach to a first-year composition course, both because I find the usual method for doing so (excerpting student texts) suspect and because I know well enough that my approach didn’t magically transform the first-year course for either teacher or student. What it did do was change the course in ways I’d like to pursue in future iterations. From what I could tell, students quickly came to see that their weekly writing assignments were central, not marginal, to the work of the course, for we immediately dove into the challenges posed by my rhetorical exercises rather than waiting for an essay that would finally test their mettle down the road. By launching every class meeting with extensive discussion of student drafts, while published examples were relegated to the supporting cast, I hoped to further emphasize that this was a course about the students’ writing, not some other topic, and that we could find plenty to celebrate, question, and deliberate in the prose they produced each week.
Another change came from the kinds of weekly assignments I designed, which were no longer of the “What did you think of the reading?” variety. Since readings were selected not for their subject matter but as examples of depiction, exploration, or contention, students could use the readings for inspiration to whatever degree they wanted, from taking certain texts as models to rejecting them as undistinguished. Either way, the point was for students to try their own hand at the forms of writing under study—and to try them multiple times. If students submitted a draft and a revision every week such an exercise was assigned, they’d write twenty-four “papers,” plus their three reflective essays, in the course of the semester. (Though drafts were optional, most students chose to submit one almost every week of the term.) And while I’ve spent most of my career crafting elaborate writing assignments, these were very straightforward. “Depict a person you know as vividly as you can in a single paragraph.” “Explore a public issue about which you feel ambivalent.” “Write a panegyric or a rant about a piece of music.” And so on. With several published examples before them each week, there was no mystery about any particular assignment—just a rhetorical challenge for students to greet with whatever creativity and verve they could bring to it.
As for responses to the reading, I was happy to move these from perfunctory discussion board posts to condensed discussion in class. Absent a separate “topic,” we focused on the merits, problems, and complexities of each writer’s methods and what they had to teach us, perhaps unwittingly, about the pleasures and hazards of composition. Students engaged in this discussion both through conversation and through writing—that is, there was daily in-class writing that involved nothing more than thinking-on-the-page in response to the examples offered by student texts or by our reading list. Given that I was already responding, albeit briefly, to weekly papers composed at home, I treated in-class writing the same way we treat in-class conversation: as a way to participate in class. There was no need for taking these home to read or evaluate, since their purpose was simply to enrich our exchange of ideas in class.
Yet I can’t emphasize enough that it was the students’ writing, not that of those on the reading list, that received the most attention in our class discussions. What I most valued about the course was the way it asked students to attend closely to their language right from the beginning, noting how their diction, phrasing, tone, rhythm, assumptions, omissions, oppositions, hierarchies—the whole of their rhetorical performance on the page—composed both their ethos as a writer and their text’s potential effects on their readers. “How does it change the meaning if I put it this way?” Berthoff asks—though in my course it wasn’t just the meaning but also the impact that we examined, with particular emphasis on how impact differs from reader to reader. I wanted students to see, contrary to reductive textbook discourse about audience, that their readers are in fact a constantly evolving, conflicted, unstable assortment of people who make only one thing clear: writing is social, and that means a writer’s every decision is fraught with gains and losses. There is no promised land on the page.
In “Inventing the University,” Bartholomae refers to writing assignments that attempt to lift students out of their academic context and ask them to write as if they weren’t students or weren’t writing for a teacher:
“Write about ‘To His Coy Mistress’ not for your teacher but for the students in your class”; “Describe Pittsburgh to someone who has never been there”; “Explain to a high school senior how best to prepare for college”; “Describe baseball to an Eskimo.” (65)
For Bartholomae, the problem with these assignments is that they don’t confront students with what he calls “the central problem of academic writing, where a student must assume the right of speaking to someone who knows more about baseball or ‘To His Coy Mistress’ than the student does” (65). The implication here is that while we might be inclined to help students escape an academic context in which they lack authority, they in fact learn to gain authority as writers precisely by placing them in a position in which they must pretend to already have it. Students discover their authority, that is, by “writing their way into a position of privilege” (79)—the position of their professors, who, as academics, position themselves against those with a “naïve” understanding of their field of research.
Much as I agree with Bartholomae’s unsentimental conception of academic writing, my question is whether the best use of a first-year writing course is to begin bringing students into the academic fold. In part because I’ve encountered so many students who have no desire to become academics, and in part because of my own fraught relationship with being one, I resist conceiving the first-year course as preparation for academia, even as I see the value of this approach. For me, first-year composition is about helping students discover how to be precise with language and attend to their every word and phrase (hence my opening unit on depiction); how to use writing to examine their ambivalence and confusion (hence my unit on exploration); and how to argue adroitly in concise form (hence my unit on contention, with no assignment longer than an op-ed). I think of my course as an introduction to the literary arts in the broadest sense, by which I mean, quite simply, language we admire—with each of these terms put into question. What kinds of “language”?—put to what uses?—do we admire? Who is this “we,” and how do we account for its internal differences and conflicts? Why do we “admire” one kind or use of language over another, and what can we learn from examining our preferences?
Addressing such questions may or may not lead students toward greater academic authority on the page, but what I’m seeking is to multiply opportunities for them to engage in, study, and reflect on forms of writing they can value in the here and now, as members of a culture not restricted to the academy. While first-year writing instruction is usually approached as preparation for something still to come—future college courses or employment—I want students to find instruction and delight in the language they write and read this very semester, regardless of their disparate and mutable choices down the road. Like any curriculum, mine relies heavily on the students who encounter it: no version of first-year composition escapes the social dimensions of teaching and learning. But thanks to what I’ve experienced thus far, my recent approach reflects a pedagogy I'm eager to explore.
 Of the prominent alternatives to topics-based curricula, I’ve been tempted by three: 1) a curriculum devoted to teaching students to write arguments; 2) the curriculum espoused by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs in their textbook, Writing about Writing; and 3) the curriculum promoted by Stanley Fish in “What Should Colleges Teach?” and expounded in greater detail in How to Write a Sentence. Ultimately, though, I find a curriculum focused exclusively on argumentative writing too narrow; I’m reluctant to immerse first-year students in a whole semester of composition research intended for fellow scholars; and I want students to engage in writing that encompasses more than a single sentence.
 Two of the three terms I use for these forms of writing are intentionally unusual. While “exploration” or “exploratory writing” is common enough, I call my opening unit “Depiction” both because the customary term, “description,” connotes a lesser mode of discourse that students may deem tedious and because the etymology of depiction—from the Latin depingere, to paint completely—offers a succinct metaphor for its aims. I call my final unit “Contention” because, again, students tend to hold rather narrow conceptions of what an “argument” is, and I find that the etymology of contention—from the Latin contendere, to stretch or strive—gives them a different way to think about this form of writing, which calls for us not to constrict our vision and speak to the converted but rather to expand our perspective and converse with other points of view.
 I’d be remiss not to mention how much my approach to in-class writing has been influenced by the Writing across the Curriculum movement, whose scholars have long advocated for regularly asking students to think on the page, which not only serves to advance a conversation that has run aground or lost its way but also gives the teacher a more informed understanding of how students are making sense of, and what questions they still have about, the issues at hand. For a recent text that’s especially helpful for faculty in and beyond English studies, see Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean.
Bartholomae, David. Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.
Berthoff, Ann E. “Learning the Uses of Chaos.” Teaching Composition: Background Readings, 3rd ed. Edited by T. R. Johnson, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008, pp. 292 – 304.
Fish, Stanley. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Harper, 2011.
---. “What Should Colleges Teach?” The New York Times, August 24, 2009, opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach/
Wardle, Elizabeth and Doug Downs. Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.