Pedagogy of revision

No one’s students are sadder than mine right now.

Around the middle of the semester, everyone is getting back grades for their first really major assignments, and no one’s particularly joyful about them. College is hard! And we should be challenging them to raise the stakes; that’s our job. I take that task seriously, in that I don’t think my job is to pat talented students on the head and tell the rest they’ll never make it. I want everyone to develop their writing and thinking.

The problem is that, when we develop our thinking, making really big strides in our ideas, our writing is now insufficient. High-school thinking is not particularly hard, so good students get by with essays easily composed around a thesis like “Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is about a young man who develops socially, physically, and emotionally,” and then there is a paragraph about social development, one about physical development, and one about emotional development. I’d rather eat a dirty shoe than read it, but if everything is spelled correctly, it won’t get a terrible grade. In college, we’re asking disciplinary questions in English, like why do writers describe the things they choose to describe, and in what terms, and what are the stakes of making those decisions in the composition of prose narrative? What are the political or ethical stakes of these decisions, and how does the text, as a work of prose, function, if it does, and to what extent is it coherent or not, and, if not, why not? Once we’re thinking in these disciplinary ways, the thinking gets much harder, but it’s possible. The writing, on the other hand, is going to take more work.

Whenever we make huge leaps in thinking, our writing sucks. I tell my students about the five years I spent writing my dissertation, because I had to invent a way of writing that was a clear way to express the idea I had. I wrote a lot of crap before it got better. Or I give the example of major philosophers, who, after conceiving of world-changing ideas, produced first books that are practically unreadable—dense, vague, jargony, neologistic messes—before they found a way to write what they wanted to say in a way that can be read and understood by others.

I tell them this because I know that when their papers seem a little crazy (sentences trailing off into, literally, “blah blah blah,” or repetition in sentence after sentence of some insane generalization about what “we, as humans, throughout time” have felt), it’s usually because they’re trying to think about something new in a new way and their writing hasn’t caught up with their ideas. My students aren’t lazy or dumb. I honestly would not say that about any student I’ve ever had. They’re just wrestling with concepts they haven’t had sufficient time to think through, discuss, analyze, evaluate, and articulate. So they panic and their writing drifts into outer space.

Some of them know this, and they say so when they turn in their papers. “I know this really isn’t there yet, but I really want to make an argument for something that is a kind of new idea for me.” Great. Others hold the paper at arm’s length as they hand it in, never having so much as glanced at it after typing the words in it, hoping for a miraculous A. Either way, a revision is probably in the cards.

I don’t assign a ton of writing, in part because I want them to have the time and space to think through their arguments if they want to. I’m not going to force them to do great work, but I will reward it if they’re willing to do it. The problem is that revision means seeing their work again, when some of them didn’t want to look at it in the first place. When they look at their work, and read it, and ask themselves what the point they were trying to make was, they can’t even figure out what they meant by it in the first place.

Maybe it would be more kind to assign a paper a week, and give them better grades as the semester goes on and they learn how to do what they want to do. But all I’m asking is for them to read their own work if and only if they’re dissatisfied with the results, and to do something they can be proud of, that they’re willing to defend. And doing that makes them sad.

Oh, they’re so sad. They asked, before handing their papers in, “So you mean we can just revise our papers if we don’t like the grade?” Yes. “And we can get a few points for extra credit if we revise?” No, I regrade it, completely. “Wow, that’s awesome.” It’s hard for me to communicate how painful revision is.

Revision is brutal. I hate it. It’s humiliating, and not just because someone else has told you your work doesn’t make sense. It’s humiliating because you are forced to confront your own limitations, and see yourself as the world might see you. When you revise your work, you don’t get to give yourself a pass, or play the role of your own infinitely loving parents, or make excuses because you were really tired when you wrote it. You realize that you don’t sound as smart as you think you are. You realize that sometimes you don’t make sense.

I don’t want to cause sadness. Bad feelings are not something I enjoy creating in other people. I don’t even think they’re necessary for learning, and they aren’t if you know what you’re capable of and what your limitations are. But college is where you start figuring out what kind of a figure you really might cut in the world if you were turned loose right now. And I see their sadness and say, but I do think you’re special and smart and that you deserve happiness. I just want you to be able to show that to someone else.

6 responses to “Pedagogy of revision”

  1. Dave says:

    Revision is brutal. I hate it. It’s humiliating, and not just because someone else has told you your work doesn’t make sense. It’s humiliating because you are forced to confront your own limitations, and see yourself as the world might see you.

    Yes, definitely. I hate revising my writing, although when I really get into it I kind of love it, and I definitely love the product of thorough revision.

    The better thinking => (temporarily) worse writing is definitely a thing. I’m an okay writer in many contexts, but a year into law school I still struggle with many forms of legal writing. Like, my first drafts are completely unreadable. It doesn’t help that legal writing usually demands extremely stylized and annoying structures.

  2. i get it says:

    THANK YOU for giving me this post at exactly the time when I need it. I handed back 28 revisions this week (out of 58 who could have chosen to revise) and had to explain that many, many, many of them did not raise their grades because all they did was type in the punctuation marks I added to their original draft, and then restate one sentence they had already written without developing their analysis. I had modeled revision in class for them and explained that this would happen if that’s all they changed, but handing these papers back–which I am now reading for a second time after writing a detailed comment on them the first time through–caused me to get slammed by a student for being “too hard.” And now I want to say what you said: writing is hard! Revision is hard! College is hard! I’M not what’s hard!

    When I see them today, I want to use your generous explanation, which had not fully gelled for me before, that the problem is that they are struggling with new concepts and need to find new ways to express them, so the old ways won’t suffice–neither the old work habits (the Dickens example), nor even the old language. (Kind of like when I try to explain Modernism.) The thing they’re hatin’ on me for is poetry explication, not Dickens, and a lot of the lexicon is new to them as well as the requirement to construct a critical link between form and content. Many are making game leaps towards those connections, even when they don’t quite stick the landing, and I can’t help but reward that willingness to connect ideas in ways they never thought of; many, though, are still standing on the edge afraid to jump and writing a summary instead. Their rough drafts are due today. I will be quoting your essay.

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Revision is brutal because your wrogness is exposed, but also because learning is painful. Once you’ve figured out how revision will go, it’s great fun, but before that, you are reconfiguring yourself, and it’s achey*. I sometimes think I am alone among the kind of people I enthusiastically choose to associate with in that I don’t think learning is generally fun. Gratifying in some ways, but yeah, in other ways like being beaten up.

    *please commence singing “Achey Breaky Brain.”

  4. PB says:

    This essay comes at the perfect time for me and it has nothing to do with college. I am in a new job that is just that much beyond my skill set and I am getting revised constantly. I have doubted my writing abilities and yet have been surprised at what seems an increase of intellectual understanding. Why the disconnect I have wondered? Why am I kinda smart in one context and falling apart in another. You have articulated it perfectly and in a way much kinder to my learning curve. I feel less sad because of you.

  5. Chris says:

    What a wonderful way of looking at it. I wish I had said something like this to my students when I was teaching.

  6. e'clair says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with teaching learning as a “longer” process. I always tell my students there is no shortcut to learning. What I do try to do is instill a curiosity and love of learning. I tell them we try to emulate the tone/respect the concerns of the context we wish to join, and that it takes time to gain this context – through practice and emulation (sorry for postmodernists, but the ancient model, observed through the 17thh century and even to modern day through writers like Kenneth Koch, was to imitate great writers, over and over again, until one has gained one’s own voice). I think it’s a problem if we expect immediate results because this is not organic, and therefore I believe such expectations, while expected by certain societal trends, can never be truly fulfilling. Etc, etc. (I could go on – but kudos to you!).