Academic Discourse Essay, Research Paper
In Peter Elbow’s, Writing for Teachers, he states, “Teachers are one of the trickiest audiences of all, yet they also illustrate the paradox that audiences sometimes help you and sometimes get in your way.” A teacher’s experience can give a student author valuable insight to the development of his writing, while at the same time offer criticism that may prove beneficial. Unfortunately, the relationship between a student and his teacher is a very difficult one that often poses more problems than can be resolved.
In order to become a more proficient writer, a student must be able to write in numerous voices, or at least develop one to use as a platform. In order to find and utilize his voice, an author must be able to specifically identify his audience and then determine the type of discourse that would prove most effective. This can become an impossible task when a student views a teacher as his audience, while the teacher is determined not to be the audience.
A teacher’s decision to be nothing more than a proofreader is based on sound reasoning. With a teacher as the intended audience, a student will attempt to change his style in order to receive a higher grade. Not only is it uncomfortable for the author to write in a voice not his own, but when a teacher returns his essay, he is certain to be disappointed by his mark. A teacher would find his paper awkward as a result of his unsure voice. This is only more frustrating for the student, who believed that his paper was what the teacher wanted. Furthermore, the student is questioning his own ability to produce an essay that expresses his own beliefs rather than those of his teacher.
The opposite type of student can pose an equally destructive problem. A student who has already developed a strong voice and style of his own may feel forced to impress his teacher. This type of student will often receive a high grade, but when he is required to write a paper for a “real” audience, he will discover his method no longer works. As Elbow puts it, “Teachers are not the real audience. You don’t write to teachers, you write for them.”
To avoid being named as the audience, a teacher often reads papers as an omniscient character. He may provide his own input at times, but prefers to observe and thus determine the reaction a “general reader” would have when reading the essay. This “general reader” is best described as, “… a creature blessed by intelligence, a certain amount of education (“general”), and an open mind.” (Elbow) Because the “general reader” and the teacher are so closely connected, there is always confusion (even on the teacher’s behalf) concerning the opinions of such an ill-defined and vague personality. Elbow considers this problem and writes, “It’s hard to argue well or learn about argument when you are unsure who your audience is and what its position on the topic is likely to be.”
Also in Writing for Teachers, Elbow states, “Students discover they get knocked down more when they try their hardest. All but the born fighters learn to hold back—to do less than their best—when they spar with teachers.” This behavior produces many disadvantages. Not only does it eliminate any sense of motivation the student may previously have entertained, but it teaches each author that it is okay, and even acceptable, to turn in work that is less than their best.
This learned behavior is also responsible for the production of “bull” as described by William G. Perry, Jr. in Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts, “To bull- To present evidence of an understanding of form in the hope that the reader may be deceived into supposing a familiarity with content.” When a student uses such a technique in his writing, it is hard to believe that he put much effort into his piece and yet, he will most likely be rewarded with a decent grade. Perry reasons, “Perhaps this value accounts for the final anomaly: as instructors, we are inclined to reward bull highly, where we do not detect its intent, to the consternation of the bullster’s acquaintances.”
Perhaps a teacher’s willingness to accept mediocre work is based on the fact that he thinks the author may not be able to take his criticism. This is nothing short of a friendly consideration on the teacher’s part, but it is an unnecessary one. Students receive so much criticism from others on a daily basis that a few comments on an essay do nothing to rival. Harsh as they may seem, these comments are actually helping the student to become a better writer. When the author is asked to write a paper for a “real” rather than “general” audience, he will be much more capable because his teacher has given him honest feedback as to how a person would actually react to his essay. Unfortunately, those students whose instructors refuse to provide criticism will never know what parts of their papers to improve upon. Elbow effectively makes his point by stating, “… the student never gets the experience of learning what actually happens to a real reader reading his words.”
How can students get around all of these obstacles and write a paper that appeals to both the teacher and the “general reader?” Perhaps this is the intended purpose of writing classes: to teach students to become better versed in writing for many people all at once. For those who may find it difficult to cope with the conflict caused where academic discourse is concerned, Elbow offers some free advice that may prove very helpful.
Asking a teacher to provide a more clearly explained set of directions could be very favorable. Besides the obvious advantages that an increased amount of clarity would furnish, the teacher may also choose to sponsor a class discussion on the exact audience of their papers. Every time an essay is assigned, it would be to both the teacher’s and the student’s benefit to consider the topic of the paper and then deduce what disposition a “general reader” would take on such an issue or event. By clearly defining the audience, the author is not only learning to address his readers, but he is also beginning to realize the relationship between the style of a piece of literature and the audience it attempts to reach.
Probably one of the most effective pieces of advice offered by Elbow is, “…your teacher is a friend doing you a favor—not an employee doing a duty.” Much of the reason there is a problem between students and teachers to begin with is the fact that instructors feel insulted when authors turn in their final papers complete with abundant mistakes. A teacher could not be more offended. These educators are willing to give the student their expertise for free, and yet some students treat them as if they are responsible for cleaning up foolish errors that could very easily have been fixed. Elbow, a teacher himself, lists several pieces of common sense that he expects from his students. First, he expects that each paper be neat and as mistake-free as possible. Next, he asks that each paper be turned in on time. He goes on to mention how important it is to stick to the assignment and not rattle on about topics totally unrelated to that which you are supposed to be discussing. Although no student can be forced to follow each of these requests, if they are disregarded the teacher will undoubtedly become less motivated to try to understand an unclear passage or explain an error in the future.
Much of Elbow’s advice is sensible and will help the student a great deal if applied correctly. However, several of his suggestions seem impractical. For example, Elbow recommends arranging an alternate assignment with the teacher. Teachers assign different projects because there is a certain skill they want to teach. Although an alternate assignment may indeed be able to offer the same type of learning, there is also the issue of fairness. Other students in the classroom may assume that the teacher is showing favoritism to another student. Instead of the student being the one to take the initiative to come up with an alternate assignment, the teacher should suggest two or three essay topics that students may choose from. In this way, the teacher is providing a range of questions that ask the student to use the technique the teacher is reinforcing. Then, both teacher and student are satisfied and none of the students suspect that any other is being given special privileges.
Elbow also suggests bringing in outside readers as a new audience for the students. Every once in a while, this would be a very beneficial event, however, it would take a large amount of planning to execute. All of the work that would be put into the organization of such an event seems needless when there is a perfect audience already assembled- classmates. Not only will peers help correct grammatical and structural errors, but by reading other’s papers, students are learning about other styles of writing and adding these different voices to their own repertoire.
There are many problems in the relationship between students and teachers that can be solved simply by introducing classmates as the audience. Obviously, the conflict teachers have within themselves while deciding whether their true reactions are too harsh to relay to their students. Elbow suggests submitting an evaluation-type form along with the essay, so that both the teacher and the student understand what is expected as far as comments and feedback go. However, even if only half of a teacher’s students submitted such a form, the workload created would be enormous. The simple and more effective solution is to provide each student with a general evaluation sheet and have each student trade with another classmate so that everyone receives feedback from a real person- not just a “general reader.”
Receiving feedback such as this aids a student in improving much more than the style in which he presents his material. Elbow states in his article, “But if your teacher only tells you what you did wrong you may not be able to fix it no matter how clearly he explains the problem: he’s asking for behavior you’ve never produced before.” When students exchange papers, each author is given the chance to explore the different ways of communicating a thought and presenting an idea. Every student has his strong points and every student has his weak points. So, if there is a particular passage a student needs help with, there is bound to be another student who is strong in that area and could only benefit from helping him. It is one thing to learn something, but quite another to actually explain it to someone else in terms that they are capable of understanding. By doing this both students are learning: one is coming to an even greater understanding of the principle which he is trying to explain, and the other is learning a technique he has never encountered before.
The relationship between teachers and students is one that can not be solved easily. Each teacher is different and has his own methods of conveying information to students. The only practical way to become better at writing for teachers is to get to know the instructor then adjust your own work habits so that both of you can make the most of your time. Overall, this will produce a less stressful working environment and both the teacher and the student will be more willing to accommodate each other. Ultimately, this will resolve the dilemma between the instructor and the author while providing an increased understanding of literary techniques to the student.