A glimpse into students’ views of research universities and writing courses

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

My title may not be indicative of the opinions of all students, but it is indicative of some interesting conversations I had with students this week during conferences. I tend to develop good rapport with my students. Even the students who tend not to be my strongest, best students, and sometimes leave with Cs or Ds, I still tend to get along with, or at least I don’t feel they hold anything against me. I also know I am probably more generous in my grading than others, though all the same I have no problem giving a fair amount of feedback to improve that paper or that draft, and perhaps this helps the positive rapport, too. I can remember very few uncomfortable conference conversations or conversations in my office with students. I also joke now and then in class, which helps students not only get to know me in some way, but makes them comfortable. I also suppose my small stature and the fact I am female help in this as well and perhaps more than I realize or wish to admit. Despite not being motherly at all, I find my students will open up to me at least a little bit.

So this week was conferences and because some people met with groups, for group projects, there were some moments that could be termed layover moments where we were waiting for others to arrive. During these times, the students in the room and I were just chatting. Some of our talk was about tacos, which was painful for me since I had been in conferences since 3:30 that afternoon and it was now a little after 6 when this conversation occurred.

But some of our conversations were also about the class. I like to check in and see how things are going. One conversation with a group delved off into how they felt the grants class was more helpful to them for their future careers than the writing in the humanities and social sciences class some of their friends were taking. As someone who teaches writing in the humanities and social sciences as well, I had heard this conversation before and was pretty prepared for what they were about to tell me.

“It just isn’t useful,” said one student, “how is a paper on literature going to help you?”

I said, yeah, it can be a tough sell, but analysis is an important skill to develop as is building arguments and literature papers do that. But students, I have learned, tend to want documents as real as possible. They don’t want abstractions. They want white papers, cover letters, memos, proposals, activity reports, and other forms of business and professional documents. They want to learn how not only to perform in these genres, but know how they can be used and manipulated. This is part of the reason why when I teach writing in the humanities and social sciences, I have learned to incorporate social media and business writing, which I explained to these students, and they nodded in agreement. I also added I didn’t like seeing students having to take two upper division writing classes if they didn’t have to as I know tuition is high and debt a student graduates with will be higher. Because I am a teacher, I also said I would do whatever I could to acknowledge their concerns. Perhaps, I added, a pedagogical brown bag for teachers of writing in the humanities and social sciences would be beneficial in confronting the concerns of students.

Some other instructors may disagree with some of my perspectives above, but using some business writing in my writing in the humanities and social sciences has worked for me pedagogically. And yes, I still teach those more “abstract” assignments that those students were upset about.

We also ended up talking about university culture, which is often dangerous. Luckily, these were brief comments, of which I had heard before, but it had been a while. I had a couple students comment on my teaching and say that if they had known my university was a research university, they would have not have come here. Those students told me they wished they had teachers who felt teaching came first, and not research. Every time I hear this, I am always a little surprised because I didn’t know anything like this as an undergraduate. I knew I went to a liberal arts college, but I didn’t quite understand the culture and context of the liberal arts university and the differences it had with a university like the one I now attend. All I ever reply to this is that I understand those concerns and primarily, I add, I am a teacher, but sometimes we have to engage in conversations we do not deem as priority in order to get by. I also added that engaging in these conversations is easier said than done sometimes. With one student I asked why he didn’t just leave. He said, I’m here now.

How true.

While conferences went well, I always find these conversations about the courses and university culture engaging from the perspectives of my students. I’m always a little impressed they know as much as they know about the university and the different courses we offer. Students are more aware of the climates and cultures that surround them more than we may sometimes think.

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4 comments on “A glimpse into students’ views of research universities and writing courses

  1. singlegirlhiking says:

    I am so grateful for the culture of my undergrad institution which i am sure was messed up behind-the-scenes, but at least my professors always cared more about their classes than their research. Or they did a great job pretending to.

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