Undergraduate Experiences with Writing at Evergreen
BY ISOBEL BANG
As a senior in college, and person passionate about writing, I decided I would do something different with my studies this year: an undergraduate research project. I worked with faculty member Emily Lardner to come up with a project that would be interesting and relevant to the campus community. Given that Evergreen does not have mandatory writing requirements, or any course requirements for that matter, along with Lardner’s prior interest in the topic, we decided to try to figure out how students at Evergreen are developing as writers. We interviewed a total of 27 students and received three responses to the survey posted on the Evergreen Commons.
During the interviews, students were asked generally about their experiences with writing at Evergreen, as well as some specific questions that were influenced by what I had read about on the topic and discussed with Lardner. I knew that there were five main topics I wanted to ask about, and we learned even more from the interviews. What follows is what I feel is most important from what was learned through the interview process with the students we spoke with.
Providing instruction and organization to the writing process is something that professors can do to help their students succeed. One example is to segment large papers into smaller pieces throughout the quarter. One student claimed this process “allowed me to focus on each section instead of ‘crap, I have 12 pages.’ With sections, I’m interested in this part, to see where it’s going.” It is also helpful for students to see examples of what the professor wants from them: “[Professor] gave us a final paper model to refer to. Since qualitative research is new, that was extremely helpful.” Structure and examples are strong ways for college professors to provide support during the writing process.
Most Evergreen students have opportunities to work with peers, whether in class or outside. I wanted to know whether or not students found this helpful, especially peer editing and revision. What I took away from this is that students find peer editing and revision to be helpful, and what makes it especially helpful is when the peer is taking the work just as seriously. Also, having structured peer work (for example, worksheets that require the students to be actively reading one another’s papers) were “life-saving” for one student who experienced highly structured peer revision in his core program.
I have often found peer editing to be a waste of time without that kind of structure. Without it, students scribble down grammar corrections and one or two polite compliments of the work. Unless directly instructed how to do peer editing, I personally have never had a great experience with it.
Another important aspect of writing development is that of expectations, both on the part of the professor and the student. It is important that writing assignments are clearly explained so that students know what they should be doing. One problem encountered at Evergreen: “The line between personal and academic or impersonal essays is vague. I am not sure if my personal experiences are relevant…open ended, undefined assignments have been a challenge.” Too many assignments are up to interpretation, leaving students feeling uneasy. Taking away this ambiguity will help students feel more prepared to meet the preferences of their faculty.
Students interviewed also reported having expectations for themselves. Many referred to themselves as perfectionists; this produced different results in different students, some always writing excellent pieces because they worked tirelessly and another who sometimes would not turn in his work at all if it was not up to his standards. On the other hand, a couple of students reported writing papers that were just “good enough” to be accepted. This is often due to “some professors not holding the line on quality boundaries,” as one student said. If professors maintain high expectations, Evergreen students will have to turn in high-quality work in order to earn credit, forcing them to actively try to develop their writing.
“More critical feedback would be helpful. I turn something in I’ve worked hard on and I get a check. I want more feedback than a check.” Anyone who has worked hard on a paper only to receive a few single words and check marks knows how much this can sting. This kind of response to student writing is not helpful. What is helpful? Professors asking deep questions, critically engaging with the work, and addressing what is positive about the writing. This kind of feedback is not only helpful for students to improve this draft and those that follow, but also validating for students. It is also helpful to receive consistent feedback throughout the quarter, versus on one long paper at the end, so that students can see what they need to improve on before it is too late.
These are the most important things I have learned from this project. While many students at Evergreen report having had great experiences with writing and the support they have received in their programs, there have also been times where they were not supported enough. In a small liberal arts college with no required writing coursework, it is important that faculty across the disciplines do what they can to support the development of student writing.