Education

Making Space for Students to Take Pride in Their Writing

Writing is a skill, but it isn’t only a skill. 

Unfortunately, for a good portion of my early teaching career, I treated learning to write like a largely contextless activity, a skill that could be isolated. If students could learn certain processes, certain moves, then they would become proficient writers, ready to meet whatever challenges came.

Taking a clear-eyed look at the evidence of student learning, I could see that while things were going okay, they could be better. I was particularly concerned at how little seemed to transfer from assignment to assignment.[1]

I also recognized that proficiency itself was a slippery concept. Even as I felt I achieved proficiency for myself in one form, tackling something unfamiliar would suddenly expose that I needed more than the skill of writing passable sentences to produce satisfactory work.

Something was missing. 

Actually, somethings were missing. Those things were dimensions of the writer’s practice that go beyond skills, what I think of as the attitudes and habits of mind that writers must embody.

One of those attitudes that also crosses into a habit of mind is pride. 

Pride is big.

How often is pride a motivator for your own work? What is it like to do your work when pride is part of the equation. What about when it isn’t?

How often is pride part of student work?

I can count the number of times I felt proud of what I’d written in school on one hand. While I was always proficient as a writer, it was rare that I actually invested any sustained effort in a writing assignment beyond what was required for completion and credit.

I recall a short story in 8th grade that prompted Mrs. Thompson to say she’d never read anything like it before. (This was, I think, a compliment.) 

Junior year of high school to spice up my standard literature term paper on a single author I decided to write my paper in the style of the author I’d chosen, Tom Wolfe. I took great pains to ape his voice in a way that I thought also conveyed my message about the significance of his work. This took some doing, believe you me.

I got a C on the paper for a failure to follow directions, but I didn’t really care. I remained really proud of it. In fact, that the teacher didn’t get it made me even more proud.

In college, in an upper-division course on post-modern literature, I abandoned the prompt to argue that the analysis of post-modern literature according to traditional tools of analysis was a fundamental disservice to post-modern literature. I’m sure I was full of it, and I’d find the effort embarrassing today, but at the time, I thought I’d discovered something genuinely fresh, rather than merely regurgitating the things my professor had said in class that I knew would get me a B or better.

I think the professor was at least bemused by the attempt, if not impressed. B+ as I recall.

Starting in graduate school, and then extending beyond, feeling a sense of pride attach to what I was writing became more the norm, rather than the exception. I think this is because I finally felt like I was playing in the realm of ideas for real, and it was interesting to both work my way through complicated questions for myself, and to see what other people engaged by the same questions thought of my ideas.

Grades were an afterthought in grad school, but I recall the marginal comments from John Wood, the director of my program, a simple “Yes!!!!” to a piece of analysis or conclusion, and how much pride I’d feel in inducing that response. Even though I was writing things that would be read by only one other person, the work still felt like it mattered.

As someone who now writes multiple times a week for a public audience, taking pride in my work has become a vital part of my own writing habits of mind. I want my ideas to have impact and influence others. If I don’t take sufficient care with them, I will not achieve my goal. 

Now, this doesn’t always mean I clear my own standard. Sometimes life gets in the way, while deadlines must still be met, but even when I fall short of my own standard, the work tends to be at least “good enough.”[2]

In fact, one of the things I hope students will learn in my writing courses is the difference between “good enough” and “can’t make it better.” It’s even more fun when they take something that reached “can’t make it better” and look at it some months or years down the line and realize that, guess what? There’s still room for improvement.

When I began to really question my own teaching practices I quickly realized that it was extremely rare for students to take pride in their writing. Some could be motivated by grades, but this was not pride in their writing and wouldn’t be worth much when that incentive was gone post college.

I also learned you can’t really demand that students take pride in their writing. If you want someone to take pride in their work you have to create the conditions and atmosphere that foster the growth of that attitude and incentivize that habit of mind.

So what are those conditions?

One is to allow students to write from a place of their own expertise. In a first-year writing course my early experiences always include a review, which demands that students become expert on their subject for the sake of their credibility and benefit of their audience. Having experienced the benefit of writing from a place of expertise, students are then motivated to accrue knowledge about the less familiar subjects they may be exploring.

Another condition is to attach genuine stakes – beyond a grade – to the writing experience. I make sure there is always a genuine audience that students are writing to and for. Even if this audience is hypothetical, considering that audience as they write may stoke that sense of pride, and may even induce them to look beyond the classroom to share a piece of writing.

Getting students to believe that their ideas actually matter is another way to stoke the flames of pride. This doesn’t mean students must come up with a novel or original idea. Rather, it’s a matter of students recognizing that their ideas can exist as part of a larger conversation. 

I have an assignment where students must take a side on whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich. It is designed to get students thinking about different approaches to argument and persuasion, and we start with an in-class discussion where students come down on their side of the argument and hash it out. After the in-class discussion, I ask students to go home and write whatever they want in an effort to bolster their position. There are no requirements for the number of sources or length or approach. 

Some students write a paragraph, citing a single online encyclopedia. Clearly they have not been engage, but others will write many pages, citing various sources, more research than I would demand or expect. Those students convinced themselves that being correct on this question was important enough to do a deep dive. Once they’ve had that kind of experience, we have a nascent habit of mind (obsession) rooted in pride that can be drawn upon for future work, particularly if students report that doing this work was, dare I say it, fun.

Lastly, one of the ways to induce student pride in their writing is to give them some latitude to write in their authentic voice. This was recently illustrated in an interview of Tressie McMillan Cottom by Rachel Toor at the Chronicle.

Prof. Toor asked Prof. Cottom a provocative question: “I’m wondering about your thoughts on those who argue that language purity and insistence on proper English, grammar, spelling, and syntax in writing is a tool of white supremacy.”

I want to quote Prof. Cottom’s response at length because I think it interrogates the tensions that many of us face both as writers in academia and teachers of writing: 

Oh yeah. Ontological categories are all about domination, so that’s the whole point. I think at its highest level of abstraction, it’s impossible to divorce the rules of language, or the language math as I call it, from the normative structure of white supremacy as a domination regime. Absolutely. And then having said that, I do accept that if I’m writing into a tradition, I have to learn enough of the rules to consider myself part of that discursive community.

But norms actually flatten the nuance and the timbre of writing voice. Voice is the deviation from norms. And I am very committed to my intellectual ideas’ sounding as much like my natural voice as possible because part of my personal political project is naturalizing the sound of expert information in a Black American woman’s voice. And I want you to be able to hear that through my syntax as a way of naturalizing that syntax.

Notice how Prof. Cottom does not dismiss the demands of the academic community. She literally “accepts” them, but at the same time, she insists on making space for what is most interesting and authentic about herself. The results speak for themselves[3]. The pride Tressie McMillan Cottom has in her work is apparent to any reader. Even so, she reports how it is an ongoing struggle to get her voice on the page as she very specifically and purposefully wants it.

My feeling is that students should not have to work has hard as Prof. Cottom to have space for their voices. Consider how many voices are being silenced because we have not made space for them to be properly heard. 

Academia should be growing more and more capacious as we encounter and empower fresh examples of excellence. Making room for pride goes a decent way to achieving that goal.


[1] I had an epiphany when talking to a student who said she was struggling with an assignment in another class where she was asked to evaluate and discuss the significance of a particular piece of red carpet fashion worn by a celebrity at an awards show. Just the week before she had completed and scored well on an assignment for me in which she had to do a rhetorical analysis of the messaging and significance of a television commercial. The fashion essay was asking her to do the exact same thing, but she could not see it because I’d siloed the instruction around doing well on a particular assignment for me, rather than a broader application to her writing practice.

[2] Regular readers will notice a certain lack of polish to these blog posts as compared to some of my other work. This is because I put as much attention and time available as I have into honing the ideas, leaving less to fine tooth comb each post. Thankfully, the genre of a blog is designed to be forgiven for its infelicities. By their very nature a blog post is provisional.

[3] National Book Award finalist, New York Times contributor, MacArthur Foundation grant recipient, etc…etc…

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