Student Papers Depress Me

It was a bit of a depressing day yesterday at least as far as my student and teaching life is concerned. I will say on a note that is off topic, I was and still sort of am still pumped about having a new and great speaker as president. Back to the semi-depressing day. It seems as if my students are not as enthusiastic about being in college. First semester freshman are bright eyed and have good attendance and care about what they hand in. Although I was warned by veteran TA’s that this would happen I have always been the type of person who thinks that things like this don’t happen to me. Well they do.

I collected the rough drafts of their first papers this week and holy crap. I know I’m teaching freshman but and this is a huge but, this isn’t their first college writing class. I’m teaching a 102 class where the 101 class was a pre-requisit. WTF! I had papers that were horribly formatted after I spent two weeks just on MLA formatting and of course that wasn’t the only issue, but the formatting issues alone put my heart in the blender.

At first  I was angry at the other TA’s. I kept thinking that they must have neglected to reinforce MLA formatting and having a thesis and using quotes from the text as support. It’s not the student’s fault. But the more I think about it I realize it can’t be. Although, as my professor pointed out to me yesterday evening, “You can’t guarantee what was taught” by the other instructors you can assume with confidence that it was probably talked about.

So why all the elementary mistakes?

I wonder if it has to do with the fact that it is labeled as a “rough draft.”  I think to many students that has the connotation of “it’s okay to be crappy because I can redeem myself later.” I see many students either not doing anything with the rough draft and handing in practically the same document for a final draft and then some students basically rewriting their rough drafts and turning in a whole new paper. I don’t understand why these (the latter)  students give themselves so much extra work. Instead of writing a decent rough draft they are essentially writing two papers.

I don’t think there is a solution to this. I’m sure that teachers of writing have been dealing with this issue since the writing classes have been around but it is depressing to see such basic errors. When I see MLA formatting errors in papers it makes me think that the student doesn’t care enough to fix their margins, put the heading in the correct place, double space, et cetera. I just wonder if, as a teacher, I’ll ever be able to teach the lesson that says, what you turn in is a representation of yourself.  I think what saddens me most is that I have explained this to my students and still the not caring continues. The lazy representations are still present.

I would say the most challenging lesson the teacher must learn is that no matter how hard you try you can’t make them care.

NOTE: Now that spring semester is in full swing I’m noticing writing blog posts has become more challenging but I’m going to try to post as often as possible.



  1. Ok I am one of those students who make my work harder for myself. I do think that if a student hears “rough draft” they are going to throw you a bunch of nothing. The problem is when it comes time for second or final draft they are lost.
    I had to get past all the little rules and write first, fix second. There also seems to be this second guessing thing I constantly do.
    Good luck with your students.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Good luck with your writing and give your teachers a break when they get frustrated that you are giving yourself more work. We only want what’s best for you.

  2. Saw your post and thought I’d partly commiserate, give my two cents of recommendation, and see if I can get your opinion. I teach children but I constantly fret over the fact that they won’t develop good writing skills. I snicker now at how we used to be surprised back in university when we got good grades on essays that we knew to be well organized, but said very little. Students, likely never having had the benefit of reading a non-professional’s writing, don’t understand how horribly wrong it can go. A student could be expounding a workable plan for world peace, but if cannot be understood, then it may as well never have been written. Strengthening writing skills in a students freshman year will likely go a long way to improving overall G.P.A.

    A suggestion on the glaring technical considerations: Scan it when they submit it, and if there are obvious mistakes, give it right back to them. Like you say they should already know this, and if you set a higher standard they will rise to it. I promise. College is taught in a very theoretical way, but in a first year writing class you are building skills. Heart surgeons don’t just attend lectures and there’s a good reason for that. As well, you are going to spend about as much time circling and writing comments on their papers as they would have consulting the style sheet. You spend the time, and they learn nothing. They spend the time, and they don’t make the mistake again. I’m being kind of presumptuous, but likely you’d rather spend your time on how they present their content, right?

    You also mentioned that you can’t make your students care, but, while I’ve far from mastered this, and it’s a goal that is always moving, I’ve come to learn that there is always a way. I think though, that truly great teachers only achieve this most of the time as it is. Knowing that there is a way, whether I find it or not, keeps teaching interesting for me.

    If you can comment, there is one more thing I’d like your opinion on. The writing process was almost killed for me in high school. I felt that it was presented in a such a rigid way, so I decided that I wasn’t going to follow the process that was taught to me year upon year. Completely abandoning any form of planning, of course hurt me when I reached university. But I still blame my own teachers for not teaching me that planning my writing was foremost and that how I did it was secondary. As well, I think, as you mention rough drafts, some of the planning steps aren’t very up-to-date. Word processors have, in my opinion, obliterated the rough draft (In my own writing I focus more on creating a flow of ideas in my outline). And this is my question, do you personally use the steps that you teach? (And here’s another). Do you think that possibly the the process is so cumbersome that it takes focus away from what is most important? (Actually, I’ll roll this together). If you had carte-blanche would you teach writing the way you are being asked to? I’m genuinely curious about this. I wonder if I am leading my students astray by allowing them to deviate from the steps of planning in favour of their own method formed with my guidance.



    1. Vincent, thank you so much for the great comment. I will say that I am a pretty strict. I do just as you recommended. I have high standards and you’re absolutely right, students do meet standards so we (teachers in general) should stop lowering them. I also do hand papers back if with out commenting because frankly MLA formatting is a basic skill that should have been taught in both high school and the class they needed to pass to be in mine.

      You mentioned planning and outlining. I also do lessons on “how to outline.” I think computers has changed how we write (both as students and writers whether professional or not) and teach writing. It seems as if students don’t really think of writing as an ongoing process and look at both the final and rough drafts as two seperate activities when they actually go together. I don’t usually grade outlines but since the group of students that I have seem to be having difficulty with the basics I may start requiring and grading them.

      You aslo mentioned how trying to get them to care is what makes teaching fun. Absolutely. I love trying new ways to motivate and get students to meet my high standards. I taught, I guess they were the less acadamic students of the high school last year. I think I earned more about teaching from them than I did teaching the very advanced students. Since I was a recent college grad teaching seniors about to enter college I held them to very high standards. When they told me that writing two pages in a composition book was too much, or reading at home before coming into class was ridiculous I shrugged it off and said they either did it or they didn’t get the grade. My tests were not multiple choice but open ended essay questions and I did not show them movies often. Showing movies can be effective but for many students it seemed like a replacement to reading. Well those non-academic kids worked hard to achieve in my class and together we met goals that many of my collegues deemed impossible. Sometimes though when the do show that they don’t care it can wear a person thin.

      You asked me if I would teach writing differntly if I wasn’t being asked to teach writing a certain way. Well, I am rule breaker so even now I find myself doing activites (like free writing) that isn’t exactly approved by the English department at the university that I teach at. A year ago I was teaching high schoolers to write using the state’s standarized test standards as the foundation. Since I thought as you mentioned, it was too rigid I found my creative self allowing the students to write and think a bit more freely.

      Although I am a stickler in some ways when it comes to something like writing I find sometimes the unconventional works better. It works especially well with students who don’t think in a square way. I guess I am no Thomas Gradgrind. There are some writing techniques like formatting that I think need to be taught in a straighforward manner. But things like thesis, when to use text support and other non grammar related writing elements can be taught differently. I also finds teaching in different ways whether straight forward or not helps all the different learners in the room.

      Went on a bit of a rant there. Hope this answered your question. Thanks for stopping by, come again!

  3. yeah, i had this moment all last year when i taught freshman, minus the bright eyed part (i taught an 830 class the entire year). it was a battle to even get them to come to class (i failed 5 of them over the course of two semesters simply because they had too many absences), and of course i felt on some level that it was my personal failing. but in the end, the great part about college is that it’s on them now to actually get their education – no more coddling like in high school.

    oh, and when i was an undergrad i totally did the whole “write two papers thing”. so it effects even the motivated good writers among us. 🙂

    great blog!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think teachers need to remind ourselves that it’s not always our fault when kids screw up and I think you understand that. Doesn’t it make teaching a bit easier to know that it’s not always your fault.

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