Who Are Your Students Writing For? (And Why It Matters)

24 Feb

I took a graduate class this last summer with a professor who annoyed the heck out of


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me. He was a nice enough guy, and he was extremely knowledgeable, but he had a habit of assigning what struck me as exceedingly dull, restrictive essay topics—short, bland “compare-and-contrast” assignments, mostly.

I voiced my desire to write longer, more complex papers on broader topics, on the grounds that no one in their right mind would actually want to read a five-page paper detailing the different uses of the word “furious” in two Faulkner short stories, but he shot me down. He made it clear that it didn’t matter if my essays appealed to a wider audience; he was the only person who was going to read them anyway.

This didn’t exactly inspire me.

I started to wonder: why is it that we expect our students to be excited about slaving over an essay for an audience of exactly one curmudgeonly old teacher?

The fact is, who your students are writing for is just as important as what they are writing about. The Journal of Writing Research recently published an article about peer editing that showed that students who knew they would share their work with a peer editor wrote higher quality first drafts and also revised more thoroughly than students who were writing for a TA or a professor. If you’re having a hard time getting your students to write for you, then why not try getting them to write for each other? Or—better yet—publish their work for the whole school? Reading aloud or publishing an anthology of student writing can work wonders for motivation.


6 Responses to “Who Are Your Students Writing For? (And Why It Matters)”

  1. broadsideblog February 24, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    Love this, and your passion and skill for this work.

    I’ve been writing for a living since college and knowing I have millions (literally) of readers, many of whom have reached out to me personally through email, even phone calls, has been a huge motivator. No one wants to write into a (hypercritical) vacuum.

    I was appalled (tho’ unsurprised) at U of Toronto, my alma mater, when I asked the dept. chair to offer me class credit for being nationally published as an undergrad. He sniffed in disdain: “We are not a technical college.” Puh-leeze!

    • thatwritinglady February 27, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      Thank you so much for reading! Publication is one of the best learning experiences anyone can have, in my opinion :).

  2. vpallo February 28, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    I agree 100%! I always build peer review into my assignments for just this reason, and try to design a few essays where the audience is extended even further. For instance, writing an op-ed piece where they have the option of actually trying to get it published in a real publication. Their chances of actually getting an acceptance letter are undoubtedly slim, but the audience becomes so much more important. Well said!

    • thatwritinglady February 29, 2012 at 9:14 am #

      Thanks for reading! The op-ed assignment sounds fantastic–I might have to get my own students to do it :).


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