Student Lexicon: every essay’s a ‘too hard’ essay

The foreign language department of Paragraph City is writing a new version of Rosetta Stone which will translate the language of our students for faculty. I was chatting with one of the translators today, who told me she was working on the student phrase, “too hard” (as in “this assignment is too hard” not “these chairs are too hard” or “I like to hoard cottage cheese containers”).

In this context, I told her about a survey I’d taken in my composition course. I had just handed back the last essay of the semester, the only timed, in-class essay I’d given. Remarkably, it was the best essay of the semester for 10 of the 15 people left in class. Other essay assignments were made weeks before they were due, they had a broad range of topics, we read sample essays of a similar nature, we workshopped drafts in class, students had free use of the campus tutorial center, and I answered any questions about the assignment in class or by email.

Yet this hand written, in-class assignment with a 150 minute time limit on an assigned topic based upon journal articles they read the week before produced markedly better writing from nearly everyone. That didn’t make sense to me, so I passed out slips of paper and asked for a two or three sentence explanation, unsigned.

One person said that since it was the end of the semester, they could use everything they had learned on this last essay. I liked the sound of that, but I didn’t believe it. (The previous essay had come in just one week earlier, and they were not so good.)  The most common answer – easily 2/3 of the class – was that they wrote better because there were no distractions in the classroom. Many of those people also said that they spent more time writing the in-class essay than they did the other essays.

In other words, though students had easy control over these two crucial factors (how long to write & with how many distractions), they did better when they gave up that control and let someone else decide where and when they would write. For at least some of these people, they weren’t weak writers because they couldn’t write well; their weakness came from having too many screens open, dickering with their phones, and working a the last minute.

“So, you see what this means,” I told the class. “The next time you write an essay, all you have to do is get alone in a room, turn off the computer (or at least all the other windows), turn off the phone, and give the essay a good two hours.” They were nodding heads politely, so I was encouraged. “You don’t need to study harder, learn anything new, go get help of any sort; just write like it was 1960 for two hours and you’re good.”

The nodding continued, but a voice from the back of the room said, “Yeaaaaaah, that’s not going to happen.”

“What isn’t?”

“I can’t see turning off my phone. I might miss a message.”

“Yeah, and I’m not going to write it without my computer, and if my computer’s on then chat’s open.”

“And two hours is an awful lot of time, you know.”

My translator friend looks a little piqued. “So you’re telling me,” she said, ” that we can’t define ‘too hard’ as ‘the point at which students determine that the effort they put into an activity is valued less than the rewards they see themselves receiving from that activity’?”

I said that I didn’t think it was that complicated a process. “What I think they were telling me is that any school work is too hard – or maybe too repugnant is more accurate — if it means turning off a phone and concentrating for an afternoon.”

She said something about an anecdotal irrelevancy and went off somewhere to speak French. At the time I thought she was speaking of my survey and that class, but maybe it was me she meant.

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