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.

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 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?