Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Writing: reward or punishment?

Yesterday I was reading an article on Inside Higher Ed (here!) about a student who was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to write a 500-word essay, and this morning I read another called "The Economy of Cheating" (here) that rationalized cheating in a case in which a prof "has inflicted an assignment of a 1,500-word paper on her students." I'll let others argue about the complexities of college sexual assault cases and academic dishonesty; I got hung up on that word inflicted and I wondered: who thinks it's a great idea to teach college students that writing is punishment?

Taken together, these articles demonstrate how colleges simultaneously value and devalue the writing process. On the one hand, the writing process is so powerful that it can somehow compensate for sexual assault; on the other, the writing process is so worthless that students would be better off outsourcing their term papers. Put the two together and we'll have rapists outsourcing their punishments. 

To me, being "sentenced" to write would be like having a doctor prescribe daily doses of ice cream, but I realize that others find writing more daunting. Imagine the outcry, though, if colleges everywhere started "sentencing" students to do math as punishment! Why not force the rapist to do a statistical analysis on, say, the impact of binge-drinking on college sexual assault? Or, to push the question to more ridiculous lengths, why not force the miscreant to compose a song or conduct a chemistry experiment or translate 500 lines of Latin?

Because learning should not be treated as punishment is the obvious answer, but then why do so many people find nothing odd about assigning writing as punishment--or, excuse me, inflicting writing on students?

In "The Economy of Cheating," Carol Poster hints at the misunderstanding that got us into this pickle:
Realistically, it makes perfect sense for a student to outsource production of papers or exam answers to experts, just as a shoe company might outsource production of shoes. If the point is to produce a thing -- whether a shoe or term paper -- as well and efficiently as possible, the principle of specialization of labor applies.
But that's a big "If." What if the point is not to produce a thing but to engage students in a process? What if the process itself can be transformative? A student who submits a stellar paper in which he played no part but to pay the outsourcing fee has learned nothing, while the one who struggles to find sources, to assemble them into a coherent argument, and to revise her writing in response to feedback may not produce a perfect paper, but she's learned something that can't be quantified or outsourced. She's learned, at least a little bit, to function like a writer.

And that's not a punishment--it's a reward, even if the student doesn't recognize its value immediately. And if writing is a reward, then it's exactly the wrong thing to be offering to rapists.       

1 comment:

Bardiac said...

Amen to the point being the process. You can't learn by outsourcing.

For better or worse, most of my students aren't wealthy enough to pay people for custom papers. At least, not that I can see. They may find ways to cheat, but that doesn't seem to be the one they do.