“More Analysis, Less Commentary”

This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.


At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.” Instead of explaining the pedagogy behind these assignments or probing the benefits of getting students to express themselves, Coleman issued a flat, real-world judgment of the whole thing:

The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh– about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” That is rare. It is equally rare in college by the way.

….This is the kind of statement one cannot make to 15-year-olds before starting a unit on writing an argumentative essay, or any time, for that matter, they say. Critics say it reveals Common Core as a top-down endeavor out of touch with the precious things it affects most, the kids. Why discourage them at such a fragile time, and why deprive them the chance to explore their own thoughts and feelings?

Here’s the problem with those complaints: Coleman was right.

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