Rearranging the Stack

It's generally a good idea to put one or two of the brighter students' papers at the bottom of your stack when grading, but that's not always your first instinct.  Sometimes you pick up a paper, read the opening sentence  and begin groaning with despair.  There--right in the first sentence--is a howler of a mistake.  You quickly glance down the page and see many more awaiting you.  It's  just too much and you're strongly tempted to make the paper go away, to put it at the bottom of your stack and pretend you didn't see it. 

Here's what I mean: I just picked up an assignment in which the writer refers to Saint Augustine as "St. Alexander" throughout the paper, cites neither primary or secondary sources (something I've harped on for 13 weeks) and it's riddled with sentence fragments.  Aaargh.  So I reach for the next one, but it's no better: tortured grammar,  mangled ideas and sloppy spellcheck errors (defiantly for definitely, from for form).  I would like to put it back in the stack as well, but this particular section has a paucity of good writers.  Indeed, only three of the 20 students in the class are capable of writing at anything approaching a college-level standard  (and I already put them at the bottom before I started reading).

Admittedly this is an especially weak group of writers and it's always dangerous to generalize, but the problem does seem like it's getting worse.  I do what I can with tips, encouragement and a generous revision policy, but I feel increasingly overwhelmed by the lack of basic academic skills in a disturbing number of my students.  Far too many can't distinguish between independent and dependent clauses, and they are utterly baffled by any mention of things like pronouns, conjunctions, tenses or in some cases proper nouns.   It isn't just the writing.  Many can't state the main idea of a paragraph they just read (let alone draw an inference from it).

The problem is worse in first-year students than seniors, but there have been a few times this semester when I've had to tell senior students that the quality of their work was unacceptable for a 400-level course.  I can't begin to imagine what they are thinking to hand in work like this.  They look at me, however, as if I were the problem.  I mean what's going on?   Is it too much to ask that a college student can write a clear English sentence by the time he or she leaves college?  Am I being unreasonable?

Okay, rant over.  Back to the stack...


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