Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The struggle to “sound like” a college student

This is one of a series of postings reporting on the findings from my interviews and work with SNL students about their development as writers. These interviews started last fall. I continue to meet with some of the study students each quarter to follow their progress. All student names have been changed.


Like many of the students I spoke with, Tiffany and Melina’s writing is weakened because of their anxiety about and attempts to sound like college writers. This posting shows how Tiffany and Melina struggle with how to communicate as college students and presents some ways you can help students like them.


Like many adult students, Tiffany and Melina have ample confidence in some spheres of their lives while being intimidated in others. Tiffany home schooled her sons and is a landlord who acts as a de facto social worker for her tenants. When talking with her one-on-one, it is hard to get a word in edgewise. In class, she never speaks. She says, “I’m like I know this stuff but why in class I freeze up? “ She reports doing better in a "more casual setting." Similarly, Melina wonders why she is a leader in her social circle, but at work and at school she is not. Friends and acquaintances come to her for advice and help, while at work and school she is afraid to speak up:
I’m the leader. I take charge of everything. I’m always in control of everything. Everybody comes to me for advice, for help, for anything. But then, when it comes to work or when it comes to school, I shut down. I’ll have things in my head when the teacher is asking questions like, “What did you guys think of the chapter I asked you guys to read?” I’ll have things that I want to say but I won’t say ‘em. I don’t know why that happens to me . . . And they’ll tell me, everybody’s like you know you’re so smart, you know what you’re talking about and you… speak well and blah, blah, blah but and I know that I do and… I always tell myself well why, why can’t I just come out and be that person in school? Or at work… It doesn’t happen, I don’t know.
While confident speakers in certain parts of their lives, Tiffany and Melina freeze up at school because they are afraid to say the wrong thing and to say it in the wrong way.


They both struggle with college writing assignments because they are unsure how to write like a college student. Although Tiffany journals for two to three hours a day as part of her spiritual practice, she feels “intimidated” and “inadequate” as a writer. She says “my stuff is like kindergarten . . . like children’s stuff.” To write more “scholarly,” she attempts to imitate the style and language of what she reads for class and she uses the thesaurus on her computer to make her writing sound “better.”


Like Tiffany’s journaling, Melina enjoys writing long letters to friends and family. However, at work, Melina labors over her e-mails to make sure they sound “businessy like.” For more important work writing tasks, she asks a friend with communications degree “how does this sound?” Like a number or students in this study, Melina fears that her writing will give away her lack of a college degree.


When writing for school, Melina has plenty to say. Her concern is that her readers will not “understand what I’m trying to say” because of “the way I’m writing it.” She also worries that her writing is not what she is “trying to put out you know?” The issue for Melina is not just with being able to communicate her ideas to an academic audience, but also with how she communicates and thus what messages she sends about herself.


Tiffany and Melina are in a bind. They want to communicate to their professors and peers as college students, but they have had very little experience as college students. Both first-generation college students, Tiffany relies upon her children and a college graduate friend while Melina turns to her co-workers with degrees for guidance.


The desire of students like Tiffany and Melina to sound like college writers can result in a multitude of problems including procrastination, writing that borrows too much from the structure and language of a source, and writing that is so wordy and convoluted as to be almost unreadable. For example, Melina strives to be more formal by using phrases like “structuralize the context.” When asked about this wording, she said she was trying to “sound like school.”


These problems are not unique to returning adult students. Scholars have shown that, in becoming college writers, students of all ages struggle to learn the conventions of academic writing and so sound like college students (for example, Carroll, Herrington and Curtis). Rebecca Moore Howard argues that this learning may involve imitation and copying that borders on or is plagiarism (for more on why students plagiarize and what you can do to prevent it, see http://snlwriting.pbworks.com/Plagiarism). Theresa Lillis shows how the taking on of an academic voice can be particularly fraught for working-class students like Tiffany and Melina who may find their home languages and cultures devalued by the academy.


For adult students, the stakes are arguably higher than for younger students. Melina knows that her ability to sound professional directly impacts her ability to be successful at work. Tiffany had to send her home-schooled child to a community college to learn English because she could not teach him. While she suffered the embarrassment of learning to swim with her children, she could not bring herself to take English classes with them.


You can help students like Tiffany and Melina by demystifying college writing and making clear what your expectations are. Giving students examples of excellent work from previous students is a good way to give them a more realistic idea of what they are being asked to do. You can choose these examples to highlight the variety of ways students can approach the assignment.


Even more helpful, is to give students feedback on their writing early in the quarter. This feedback helps students calibrate their sense of audience. Tiffany explained that before receiving feedback from her teacher, she was anxious because, “I don’t know what he’s looking for.” After receiving feedback, she better understood her teacher’s expectations and so, “I felt more confident to start just being more open . . . and not feeling so intimidated cause . . . he was able to understand my writing.” Once liberated, Tiffany stops worrying about sounding like a college student and starts writing like one.


Works Cited


Carroll, Lee Ann. Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers. Studies in Writing & Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.


Herrington, Anne J., and Marcia Curtis. Persons in Process: Four Stories of Writing and Personal Development in College. Reconfiguring English Studies. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000.


Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Plagiarisms, authorships, and the academic death penalty.” College English. 57 (1995): 788-807. ProQuest Education Journals. ProQuest. DePaul University Libraries, Chicago, IL. 18 December 2005 http://proquest.umi.com.


Lillis, Theresa M. Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire. London: Routledge, 2001.

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