If I surveyed composition or IRW instructors about the student questions we find most frustrating, I am sure there would be considerable overlap in our responses. I would love to say that I am so calm, so focused on student support and student learning, that I am never flustered by student questions, and I am never tempted to give a snarky reply. But of course, this is not the case. Certain questions trigger my irritation, and more than I’d like to admit it, some rather unhelpful responses.
I got one of those questions last week. My students are writing rhetorical analyses of arguments about writing (choosing chapters from Bad Ideas about Writing as the focus of analysis), certainly not the easiest of tasks for beginning writers. To prepare for the assignment, I lead students through activities sequenced to scaffold instruction: first we practice summary, then recognition of argument components, then identification of various stylistic devices related to tone, stance, and engagement. In each case, we move from a large group discussion to a group or paired practice, and then individual practice. The week before students begin working on their own drafts, they collaborate with others to practice parts of the assignment: summarizing the article, noting key elements of the argument, and crafting a thesis statement. We review these collaborative pieces as a whole class, discussing what works and what doesn’t.
After the weeks of preparation and three preparatory “check-points” (summarizing the article they had selected for analysis, making a bulleted list of key rhetorical strategies, and drafting a thesis), I set aside a class period for drafting. About ten minutes into that class session devoted to drafting, a student came to me and asked me that question: “So, what are we doing?” This student had been present for all the previous classes. This student had access to the handouts, the instructions, the samples, and the collaborative exercises—and the student had selected and summarized an article. But the student was completely lost when it came to drafting his analysis. “So what are we doing? Am I just supposed to write what I think about this topic?”
Snark filled my mind: what did the student think we were doing? Talk about a failure to transfer – how much nearer could writing situations be? And yet there was a failure to connect the previous three weeks, the collaborative practice and the checkpoints, to the current task. And in the moment, I am pretty sure I widened my eyes (but refrained from rolling them). The student must have noted my reaction.
I remembered my own teaching goal: build writing-talk so as to support metacognition, reflection, and transfer. I encouraged the student to get the assignment instructions, and we talked through what we had already done in preparation. The student nodded and went back to the computer. Still, it took some time before the draft began to take shape.
This week, the students in that class met with me in groups of four for review conferences. The questioning student came with a draft that did not address rhetorical analysis in any way, despite the review we went through on drafting day. During the conferences, we projected drafts one by one onto a screen for group discussion. And during this student-led discussion, the student had a breakthrough: “So that’s what we’re doing. I need to go back and re-think my thesis.” Other students made suggestions and gave encouragement, and the student left with a focus for revision.
“So what are we doing?” I need to remember the grammar embedded in this question. “So” is a discourse connector; the question doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Part of instruction in meta-talk is helping students make connections to our previous discourse, to see the cohesiveness of the instruction up to that point. And it’s “we” – not just “I.” I have told the students we are a community, and answers often arise in collaborative work, just as they did for this student in our group conference. Finally, the question is in present progressive: a work in process. The process includes what we have done (present perfect) and what we will do (future), and each part is tied together. From the present moment, especially from the student’s point of view, the process as a whole can be terribly difficult to see.
“So what are we doing, Dr. Moore?” This terribly annoying question can be a powerful teaching moment, if I will let it.
What questions annoy you in the writing classroom? How are you handling them?