too much or not enough?

An online composition course presents numerous challenges for both the instructor and students: not the least of these concerns the quantity and quality of work required.  The quantity depends in large part upon the intrinsic and extrinsic goals established by the institution and by an institution’s English department for those students that institution draws. For English composition courses and for other online courses that require written compositions as part of the drill, most all instructors and college students, even most junior and senior high school students, can recognize quality compositions.  If a group of high school or college students are asked first to read sample student essays, and then to define criteria for an A paper, a B, a C, a D, and a F, after some discussion and negotiating, they, even without instructor input, can usually agree upon grading classifications, name the criteria, describe the characteristics that define those criteria, and then classify those sample student papers according to those designated grades.  (Composition theorists do investigate the extent of influence that cultural expectations and languages or languages of origin have upon those students’ compositions: student attempts to conform to prescriptive cultural standards regarding the essay’s form and substance for particular classes.)  The problem in college composition courses concerns students’ identifying those lack of characteristics in their own works. Another issue concerns misconceptions: the misconception that all students do desire to improve their writing skills in order to secure  Bs or As when in fact only a few embrace the process while still desiring the grades, and most instructors’ misconception that students’ composition skills advance during a semester.

Often I have chastised myself for commenting too much on students’ final drafts, mainly because after the first few weeks when committee work increases and assignments for all courses stack upon desks or inboxes, the workload becomes overwhelming.  I also have been questioned by peers regarding my not accepting rewrites of major papers.  I do expect revisions, or what some call drafts, prior to students submitting their final drafts.  Initially I do extensively comment on at least one of those revisions of the first papers.  For the subsequent papers, I expect that students actively pursue correcting major errors in correctness and composition techniques that I have pointed out in previous papers.  If students require tutoring help, I repeatedly suggest such; however, quite a few students fear their being noticed in a writing lab. I suppose one might conclude that their embarrassment really is a plus, but I don’t think so.  An instructor needs to help students recognize that tutoring does not mean that they lack something that others can recognize. (I often tell students about my C in a college statistics course.)

Then again another component–individual student psychology–what makes each student tick.  How much information, how much constructive criticism, how much of the same constructive criticism, how to structure assignments in order to build on knowledge, when to be blunt, etc., can be proffered to maintain student curiosity and thus encourage them to proceed?


Dandelion Wine–Bitterness to Sweet Intoxication

Me retired?  Perhaps.  However, in order to provide some additional income, I need to teach a few classes a semester.  This semester–two.  One began yesterday; the other, March.

Composition 120 deals with moving students from personal writing to academic writing, one in which students should become adept at researching topics, discovering issues related to those topics, and determining solutions based on hard evidence and logical reasoning. Not only must a student read juried, peer-reviewed articles, he/she must also comprehend them, not just pick a quotation or two from each article to insert into an essay.  Moving a student from an opinion paper to a persuasive paper that uses hard evidence and logical reasoning can be like herding cats.

Then again, seldom does an instructor attempt to teach research writing without a textbook.  This semester the textbook I’ve chosen is Everything’s an Argument, which contains 21 chapters with fairly decent information that must be covered in 17 weeks. During that time, at least one research paper must result. I’m requiring two; however, the first supports the second, in that the first will deal with stasis and comprehension/evaluation of juried sources.

Moreover, like all previous Composition 120 courses, in addition to the above, there are the issues of MLA formatting, paraphrasing, summarizing, avoiding plagiarism, sentence clarity–all the rules of correctness. All this in an online course.

Inspired by Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”

The following written assignment I have used at least twice. One reason that I like the assignment is because the student begins to think about differences and about the complexity of cultures. Other reasons are that the assignment helps her or him improve their ability to observe, reflect, and analyze, and hopefully not to stereotype those who are different.

As far as in which mode the assignment fits, it’s basically division and classification; but it could be said to also include narration, description, and comparison/contrast.

I don’t remember what the final written essays revealed to me about student writing and thinking, a fact that makes me wish I had more time when I was teaching to write and reflect on my assignments and their results.

After the class has read and discussed Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” I end the discussion by having the students discuss the various languages they have heard in their own families.  Most all students will readily respond with English, but invariably there will be a few who will share that they have heard one or more of their relatives speak another language. In North Dakota families, often Russian, German, Ukrainian, or Norwegian can be heard. I don’t remember if someone ever indicated that a Native American language, such as Lakota, Assiniboine, or Crow,  was spoken in their family.

Often, I have to ask about grandparents and great-grandparents, relatives they might not have seen for a long time.

Then I ask about different languages spoken in their community.  If they lived in a rural area, they might struggle with finding differences.  I ask about different ways of speaking.  Usually I tell them about the German words that my mother dotted her speech with.  Any strange slang or colloquialism?

Usually I ask for words of a different language that students know and put those words on the board with a follow-up question as to where they learned the words and their meaning and if there’s a story associated with that event.  I tell them about the time I used a Spanish word incorrectly when I was teaching Lakota students speech.  They knew the meaning of the word I was using and I didn’t, and brave souls informed me of my error.

Usually more than one person has a relative who speaks sign language.  If they attend a Catholic church, Latin is often used during the service.  In some churches in the Midwest, German.

How about differences in languages between siblings–babies, eighth-graders, high schoolers, college students? I ask them if their language has changed since they have attended college?  Who is taking a foreign language course?  Is one of their friends? Is their written language different than their spoken language? Which do they find easier?



For this assignment, I want you to assume that your readers are your peers who do not know you and your family.  Compute a response to the following in at least 500 words.

Due Date: the next class period

Explain to your reader two or more different languages (variations of English and/or other languages) that were spoken in your home and/or community in which you lived.  Identify the circumstances in which these languages were used–party talk, home, baby talk, conversations with friends, grandparents, etc. In your analysis, consider such features as level of diction, slang, jargon, sentence length, and/or simplicity of expression.

In your introduction use a brief narrative that illustrates a different language and state the thesis clearly. Throughout your essay sprinkle the essays with examples of those different languages and be specific as to who used them in what circumstances.


Because this assignment appears to be short and sweet, the next class period I have students read their responses in small groups.  In a large-group discussion, I ask them which essays they felt were really good and why, followed by a question or two that asks them to identify characteristics of good writing.

Then I ask them to list at the bottom of their essay three things that they could do to improve their essays and why they think those things should be done.

After I read each essay, I add to the list, return their essays, and ask them to rewrite their essays, imagining that they are going to be published in the local newspaper, and this time to aim for at least a 1000 words.  I do not grade the first essays, but I do circle errors in correctness.

First Essay Assignment – Narration

First-year composition courses often address modes of discourse. Many educational sites, such as Owl  lists four: Narrative, Descriptive, Expository, and Argumentative.  Quite a few textbooks, however, subdivide them further: Process, Cause and Effect, Comparison and Contrast, Definition, Illustration, and Division and Classification.  Even though I prefer challenging students with provocative ideas and contemporary, controversial subjects early in their undergraduate education,  educating students on these modes helps them find the language of composition that is so essential to success.  Besides, most textbooks, such as Paul Eschholtz and Alfred Rosa’s Subject & Strategy, encourage students to combine strategies.

This assignment concerns narration.

In 750 to 1250 words, narrate an interesting and significant event (the event does not have to be long in duration) in which you learned something about one or both of your parents’ strengths, weaknesses, and/or limitations. You can substitute a person or person who raised you instead of your parent or parents; in other words, a grandparent or grandparents, adoptive mother and/or father, an aunt and/or uncle. You must narrate the event in such a way that the reader comes to understand what you have learned about your parent or parents.

Additional requirements:

  1. Part or the entire event must have happened in nature, and at least one other person other than you and the person or persons who raised you must be described in your essay.
  2. Your narration does not need to begin at the beginning: You can begin the narration anywhere; however, the narration has to be written in such a manner that readers can keep track of the sequence of what happened when and where.
  3. The paper must be formatted according to MLA.
  4. You must interview someone either face-to-face or e-mail. We will discuss the logistics and the formalities of interviewing, open-ended questions, and analysis of those questions.  All questions must be pre-approved by me.
  5. You must use the techniques of summary and scene as they are explained by our text and by my lecture.
  6. In your essay, you must describe in detail at least two things (persons or objects) using figurative language (metaphor, simile, etc.).
  7. You must submit your rough draft and two other copies of your draft by __________ so that you can actively participate in the peer-review process of your paper. I will not accept any paper that has not gone through that peer-review held in class.
  8. By ___________ you must submit your final draft online as well as submit in class  a folder that contains your final draft, peer review copies, revisions, and rough draft.

Sometimes I increase the minimum number of words as well as the maximum.  Often I have the peer-review process online in a forum. I do remember once that I had the students in the second half of the semester revise the essays they submitted for this assignment, using all the skills that they have learned up to that point; however, most students “revised” by changing a few words around and/or attempting to address the issues that I noted.


Revision Methods

Suggested Methods to Revise

(Effective Organization, Idea Development, and Elimination of Superfluous Material)

The following list of suggestions I distribute to students after a number of essays have already been assigned, composed, and evaluated. For the first two to three essays in a course, I always use peer-review sheets.  As their skills increase, the review sheets become more complicated. The second half of a semester I gradually move students away from peer-review to independent revising and editing.

  • For each paragraph other than the first (introduction) or the last (conclusion), write a sentence describing what the paragraph does, not what material the paragraph contains.   On a blank document, put each sentence on a separate line.  Then ask yourself, “Will the order be logical to a reader?”
  • For each paragraph other the first or the last, name the one word that describes the content of that paragraph.  Then put those words in order.  What can you deduce about the organization of your paper from that list?
  • For process, argumentative, comparison/contrast, problem/solution papers, outline your first or second revision. If the paper cannot be outlined, you know that your paper has organizational problems.
  • Retype the paper, which is an effective method used by many professional writers.  Do not pull up the original file, but print off a copy and retype the entire paper. As you retype, add or eliminate information.
  • Choose any paragraph other than the first or the last, and begin the essay with that paragraph, but retype the essay from that point.
  • Write to yourself about the organization of your own paper.  You might begin the discussion by describing your organization, and then asking, “What kind of issues does this organization create?”  You could begin by writing something like the following, “What information is missing? How can I obtain that information?  Is that information needed? Etc.” Then attempt to answer your own questions.
  • Have someone read your paper to you. While that person does, you take notes as to what you observe about the flaws in the content and organization.  Do not talk about the paper to your partner, for talking with another about your paper often stops the process of revising the written document.
  • Read the paper to another, but stop after every paragraph or so, and have the listener describe the paragraph and its content, and/or ask questions.   At that time, do not answer any questions that your partner has or engage in conversation about the paper; but do note the questions and the comments.  Later, before revising your paper, read over the questions and the comments to determine what answers to questions need to be included and what must be done to address any concerns that your partner raised.

Claim (or subclaim) plus evidence

linked together by logical reasoning equals proof.

  • For process, argumentative, comparison/contrast, problem/solution papers, double-check your reasoning by making sure that evidence and/or reasoning exists for each claim, and that each subclaim is connected logically.  Topic sentences are subclaims that prove the thesis.
  • For argumentative and problem/solution papers, pretend that you are your ideal resistant reader (one who disagrees with you), and then determine if that ideal resistant reader would be swayed by your argument.
  • For argumentative and problem/solution papers, pretend that you are your ideal resistant reader; and then list three or more logical objections to what you are advocating and provide evidence.  Then ask yourself, where in your paper did you address your opposition’s valid concerns.  How does your logical reasoning measure up to your opposition?  Remember argumentative and problem/solution papers are about compromise and about the best solution to problems.
  • For process papers that outline the process to build something or make something, watch as another person attempts to complete the steps that you’ve stated.  Where they are confused or perform a step incorrectly indicates problems with language and/or organization.
  • Create a flowchart that describes the organization of your paper.  If you can’t create one, even after seeking help from another member of your group, the paper probably has organization problems.
  • Draw a picture that represents the content of your paper.
  • Write a musical score that represents the content of your paper.
  • For a more advanced class, to address development and substance, after an initial revision addresses the paper’s organization by determining if paragraphs are in logical order, I have students pick one particularly problematic paragraph of some length.  Then I have each of them distribute a copy of that paragraph to their group, with the paragraph double-or triple-spaced.  For this particular exercise, groups of four or five are ideal.  Then I require that as each student reads each paragraph he or she writes down two questions for each sentence of the paragraph.  At the end each writer’s paragraph should have six to eight questions per sentence.


My question:

  • What revision techniques do you suggest to your students?




Thesis statements

No matter the number of times I post personal and public comments in an online humanities class for students to create thesis statements and not to use statements of methodology, invariably most continue to use statements of methodology.  Frankly, I don’t understand where this habit began and in what disciplines, other than in papers of scientific inquiry, it is encouraged.

As a result, I’ve come to the following conclusions, all of them thoroughly frustrating:

  • Obviously, students do not read my comments on previous papers.
  • Verified by activity logs, they do not refer to information I’ve posted online regarding thesis statements.
  • Based on the fact that we are all creatures of habit, they habitually resort to what they think has worked before.
  • Last but not least, they lack skills of transference.
  • But really, most don’t think writing a paper is important, much less writing a paper on a subject in the humanities.  Apparently even the testing agency SAT is making essay writing optional.

Using Track Changes in a student’s paper, I often highlight the statement of methodology and replace it with a thesis statement, that is if I can determine what is the student’s thesis statement.  In addition, I send them personal notes in the assignment comment section.  But continue with statements of methodology most do.

I’ve thought about bribing them, but I would be broke.  In a face-to-face (F2F) technical writing course while we are going through the process of writing a feasibility study, I asked the teams that if I paid them $10,000 for an error-free document, could they eliminate all errors in correctness (grammar, mechanics, etc.) as well as eliminate factual errors.  Most said they would try.  My facial emphasis plus accompanying gestures punched home the point, well most of the time.  But in feasibility studies, we need statements of methodology.

I have found a couple of sites that help students create thesis statements.  The downsides are that students do need to read the information, proceed through the steps, and recognize garbage, as in garbage in, garbage out.

I went through the process on a different site, using the death penalty as a subject, and created the following nonsense:

Even though a murderer never gets to kill again, that it is barbaric because it’s often puts to death innocent people and it doesn’t deter.

At least the result from Ashford was more complex–four different thesis statements, each with accompanying explanations:

Thesis Statement Guide Results

Thesis Statement Model #1: Sample Thesis Statement

The death penalty is a barbaric form of punishment

Thesis Statement Model #2: Thesis with Concession

Notice that this model makes a concession by addressing an argument from the opposing viewpoint first, and then uses the phrase “even though” and states the writer’s opinion/main idea as a rebuttal.

Even though A murderer can never kill again, The death penalty is a barbaric form of punishment

Thesis Statement Model #3: Thesis with Reasons

Here, the use of “because” reveals the reasons behind the writer’s opinion/main idea.

The death penalty is a barbaric form of punishment because It does not deter, It is racially biased, and Innocent people die.

Thesis Statement Model #4: Thesis with Concession and Reasons

This model both makes a concession to opposing viewpoint and states the reasons/arguments for the writer’s main idea.

While A murderer can never kill again, The death penalty is a barbaric form of punishment because It does not deter, It is racially biased, and Innocent people die.

Remember: These thesis statements are generated based on the answers provided on the form. Use the Thesis Statement Guide as many times as you like. Your ideas and the results are anonymous and confidential. When you build a thesis statement that works for you, ensure that it addresses the assignment. Finally, you may have to rewrite the thesis statement so that the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are correct.

In an online course, how many times should a student be warned before a paper fails?  Should I give up and hope that their next instructor finally succeeds?  Does their inability to even desire to create thesis statements suggest a lack of engagement with evidence?  In other words, do they think that readers must draw the conclusions?  In other words, do they want to avoid argument?

Observation: Thoreau in Repose

Another observation exercise concerns describing the interior of a room. I usually begin this exercise by discussing what a person sees when one enters a room:

  • Does a human’s gaze move from left to right when he/she enters?
  • Right to left?
  • Does one first notice what is straight across from the entrance?
  • If not, then where?
  • Does one notice people first?
  • Colors?
  • Sounds?

Sometimes I might begin the exercise by showing the opening scene of a recent popular movie and have the students describe what they saw first, second, third, etc., in as specific detail as possible.

Then we talk about logical approaches to descriptions, such as presenting descriptions according to what the eye first sees.  We discuss illogical descriptions, such as not describing the hair, then the feet, and then the upper body of a person; but proceeding from one spot to another that is adjacent, from top down, from bottom up, but always beginning wherever the eye first rests and ending logically in a place that provides transition to the next topic under discussion.  We might discuss what an illogical description reveals about the narrator/writer.  We also discuss specific details that present clues as to a person’s personality.  I usually bring up examples from one or two of the essays written by professional writers that we have read and ask for details that suggest personality traits or behavior quirks of the person or persons being described–short precise descriptions that create an immediate image.

Sometimes I ask them to describe what I’m wearing. Does one detail say more than all of the others? Which details suggest my personality?  I might walk back and forth and ask them to describe my walk.  If I put those descriptions on the board as the students state them, then we can talk about organizing them into a paragraph.  I challenge them to state precisely the colors I’m wearing.


Even though the following assignment can be handled during class time, because I want unique expressions, details, that require close observations, and because usually I have a follow-up exercise after we discuss all students’ descriptions, I send it home with them.

The following picture is one I took on a trip to Massachusetts–the interior of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden’s Pond. Since most every student has heard of Thoreau from a course or two in high school, At times I have a guessing game as to what famous person lived in that room, which can be quite entertaining, at least to me.


Use the space below to describe objectively the following picture. Remember the difference between objective and subjective. Use verbs that describe precisely the action and concrete nouns.  Avoid generalizations. Be as specific as possible. Make sure that your description has a logical order. Decide where you are going to begin—what part or what aspect of the picture—and where you will finish.  Create ten specific/detailed/concrete descriptions, numbered 1-10, each in a complete sentence that gives a full measure of meaning.  This exercise is worth up to 50 points.  Points earned depends upon precise detail and complete sentences.



I would emphasize using verbs that describe the action and complete sentences, not because students cannot create a description in fragments and not because linking verbs cannot be used, but that all writing students should know the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment and they should practice using action verbs.

The next class period before collecting the assignment, ask for some of the descriptions.  Comparing the individual statements to the items in the picture can be illuminating to those students who overlooked them.

Note: Most all students would not know what an army blanket looks like.

Some follow-up questions might be:

  • Which of the descriptions included colors?
  • Even though we have a picture that only suggests colors and shapes, if we were in that room, what possible sounds would we hear?
  • What smells?
  • Logically, what could possibly be in the trunk?

You might want to end with this question: What might these details say about Henry David Thoreau?

Observation Exercise

Early in a semester, in a beginning composition class I focus on developing students observation skills and their ability to describe using concrete words, usually in a series of exercises.  Since early essays in composition classes often are personal essays and deal in part with memories (narrative and description), one of the research methods I encourage students to use is a trigger object, such as a ring, a memento from a dance, a picture, perhaps a letter.  In western North Dakota, a bridle or a saddle was not out of the question. Before beginning the exercises, we read essays written by notable writers and discuss those writers’ descriptions of scenes, of objects, of people, their choices of words, the use of concrete, objective words, figurative language, etc.

First, I ask students to bring an object, a letter, or a picture to class.  Then I have them explain to the class why that item is significant to them, what memories it evokes, its origin, etc. Each student’s description and the object itself often spur questions. We discuss the importance of concrete descriptions, that concrete words and phrases help readers visualize the object more than subjective, emotional descriptions. After I break the students into groups of two and have each tell the other person a story about that item.  The other person is encouraged to ask questions to help his or her partner flush out memories. If there is time, and I usually plan for at least 5 to 10 minutes at the end of class, either we freewrite or I give them a prompt, such as “If I were to give this object to my child, what would I like them to know about it?” or “Which family member might have as many memories about this object as you and why?”

Finally I give them the assignment. Even if the class is on a Friday, they will have three days to complete the assignment before class meets again Monday.


For this assignment, I want you on each day for three days to write about that item: Observe it, think about it, ponder its significance to others (NOT to you); determine what it does, its origin, its looks, etc., everything BUT NOT your emotional feelings about that item. These journal entries (three in all) will be evaluated as to its substantiveness.  Each journal entry should be at least 300 words.  These journal entries will be worth up to 30 points—10 points each. [You can decide to make this exercise worth as many points or none at all, if you wish.] If you have to, rewrite the journals or compute them so that I can read them. These journal entries will be evaluated as to length, quality of observations and comments, depth of analysis, etc.; and it should be evident in these journals that you have utilized some of the close observations, techniques, and analysis of at least two of the assigned authors that we studied.


Here’s a quotation from a friend of mine that you might find interesting–we were talking about finding objectivity in the classroom:

“It appears that the subjectivity of a single individual plus the subjectivities of any predetermined number of other individuals, when combined, ultimately determine objectivity. We have, however, abundant examples of scientific and judicial objective conclusions that have been ultimately refuted by subsequent introduction of new objective facts that had not previously been evaluated. Does S+S+S+S+S…=O? Does S=O? Is it really possible for a single individual to ever really be objective? These are all rhetorical questions, of course. We must establish the criteria for objectivity even if defined by subjective creatures. Of course, an instructor can and should be objective in the facilitation of courses. Academic objectivity implies fundamental fairness in the classroom and this is necessary for successful facilitation.”

Contemplating one’s navel

Usually in a first-year college composition class, by the time the first essay is assigned, in addition to preliminary writing exercises, quite a few principles of composition have been discussed, such as moving from writer-based writing to reader-based writing, the importance of knowing your reader, various prewriting techniques, the significance of time indicators in narration, the differences between revising and editing, etc.

The first writing assignment that proceeds through a series of drafts is often a narrative essay or a narrative/descriptive essay; however, the following exercise could be used after most any writing assignment.

After the students submit their essays, which I require being in a folder, along with rough draft and revisions, I ask them to respond to questions regarding their essay. If they complete the questions, I award some points that I average with those earned in daily work.  Normally I choose only two of the following questions, just long enough for students to begin the process of evaluating their own writing but short enough not to consume the entire class.  I like to reserve at least half a class period to introduce the next lessen that establishes the foundation for the next writing project.

Some questions that might be asked are the following:

  1. In one or more well-developed paragraphs, name at least three principles of writing narrative essays that we discussed in class that you consciously applied in the writing of your essay. Explain thoroughly your understanding of those three principles and your application of them in your writing.  Be sure to include examples from your own essay.
  2. Respond to the following in one or more well-developed paragraphs:  Did the writing of your own essay leave you with some questions about the event that you narrated? If so, what were those questions and why do you think those questions need to be answered.  If there were no unanswered questions, explain why you think all the questions that could have been asked you answered.
  3. Respond to the following in one or more well-developed paragraphs: Other than me, whom did you imagine to be your reader of your essay and why? Explain your reasoning.
  4. Respond to the following in one or more well-developed paragraphs:  Describe the way that you began the essay.  Why did you begin the essay that way?  What other way could you have begun the essay?
  5. In one or more well-developed paragraphs, explain what you would have done differently to complete this first writing assignment and why.

What questions might you use?