Written Communication Between First-Year Students and Professors
by Joanna Richards, Josh Willis and Rachel Lockman
Our Recommendations for Improving Professor-Student Communication
In talking to writing associates and professors, we encountered certain themes, questions, problems, and approaches to professor-student communication.
The only non-English professor in the group often times expressed her unfamiliarly with writing pedagogical techniques and styles. She often described how she works with students, and immediately looked for feedback from her fellow professors. This suggests that, perhaps, non-English professors need the most help in learning techniques, or perhaps, some reassurance that they’re not alone in grappling with the common issues of student writing and teaching students to write at Oberlin.
We suggest that students and professors discuss the use and expectations of comments and conferences at the beginning of a course, as well as the purpose of, and standards for, written work in the particular course.
We hereby commend the rare virtue of professors who recognize their chicken-scratch writing is illegible and take responsibility for it by typing up comments for their students about their papers. No matter how brilliant and helpful the comments, if unreadable, they are 100% useless, and at times, even damaging, when students are discouraged by professors’ unwillingness to meet them half-way in the struggle to communicate productively.
We strongly recommend that written communication be paired with oral communication – this strategy can help to minimize misunderstandings, and encourage dialogue that can enhance students’ development as writers. To encourage students to come to office hours, professors might schedule required meetings at the beginning of the semester, so if any problems arise, students feel comfortable approaching them for help. One professor said she makes these meetings required to get students “into the habit of talking to professors, early on.”
Personal feedback instead of generic comments is a good thing. Comments specifically relevant to the paper at hand not only help students identify and improve their writing in particular areas, but also show that the professor is attentive to, and interested in, what the student has to say.
We encourage professors to give explicit expectations that give a context for, and relate to, marginal and terminal written comments. Handouts at the beginning of semester and/or before assignments can be a good, reliable reference tool for students, if written thoughtfully, and can make professors less defensive about grading questions, since they’ve laid out their expectations clearly for all to enjoy.
Professors might require students to visit a writing associate at least once or twice during a semester, and make clear that writing associates are not only for remedial writers, but for anyone who is cross-eyed and delirious at 10:30 pm, the night before a paper is due.
Professors should keep in mind the potential fragility of first-year writers, and be sensitive – but not patronizing – in written comments especially, where students can be easily intimidated, confused and discouraged with no human face or explanation to go with them. Encouraging face-to-face appointments is especially important with first-years. Be positive when possible and appropriate, but don’t hesitate to deflate oversized egos with constructive criticism, either. Offer clear directions and expectations for improvement.
In dealing with “troubled students,” remember that part of the first-year seminar program’s mission is to assist students in making the transition from high school to college study habits and written work. We suspect that a concerted effort on the part of FYSP professors could improve retention rates and preserve the emotional stability and mental health of Oberlin’s sometimes wacky first-years. But professors should also keep in mind that the Dean should be notified if problems persist or become severe.