Sunday, February 26, 2006

Tortoises and Hares

Dean Dad's hilarious and dead-on sendup of a comparison and contrast essay has made a lot of his commenters talk about their own reactions to this kind of writing. What it made me think of was the way in which writing classes--and indeed undergrad classes generally--have to be structured so that we don't favor the hares over the tortoises and vice versa.

You know the hares--some of your really excellent writers who have their minds in Sartre instead of whatever "writing about writing" 3-page essay is the topic du jour. Sometimes they have attitude to burn. Sometimes they see multiple revision workshops as a needless exercise for their papers--and sometimes they're right.

You know the tortoises--earnest folks who write the kinds of essays Dean Dad has parodied. Revision can help these essays, but sometimes it can only help a C- essay become a B- essay. The ideas, style, and the rest just aren't there as they are in an excellent essay. "But I worked on this for hours!" you hear them say. Well, I could practice skating for hours, too, but that isn't going to send me to the Olympics. Just about everyone can improve with practice and revision, and most papers will be the better for it, but that doesn't mean that the end result will be excellent.

This isn't to say that all good writers are hares and weak ones are tortoises, but sometimes this is true.

What to do? You can't put an A on a solid but uninspired paper unless "solid but uninspired" is at the top of your list of criteria for excellent writing.

Most of us probably have a solution that includes both: some work that is purely a reward for effort and conscientious behavior, such as reading quizzes (yes, yes, I know that quizzes aren't "authentic assessment"), points for turning in revisions, or journals/weblogs, and some where the merit of the work has to speak for itself, as in the final draft of a paper.

You try to be fair, but the dual-credit process doesn't make listening to a tortoise's "but I worked for hours on this!" or "my roommate's an English major and she said it was great" any easier, nor does it make watching a head-in-the-clouds hare flame out (despite warnings) any more pleasant.

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