Writing Delayed, Reflection on High School Psychology

Today in our last class of Teaching College Writing, Brian held a workshop on teacher evaluation and responses to student writing.  While I was talking with Dave and Dale about our first round of exercises, I remembered how a poor evaluation of my own work in psychology during my senior year of high school.

In other classes, my teachers commented very positively about my writing, and my grades reflected my growing skill in written communication.  My Latin teacher, Magistra Metz, gave me kudos for a paper that I wrote on the Roman pecuniary system–not only on the substance, but on the way that I wrote it.  However, a particularly poor evaluation didn’t make me fully doubt my writing ability, but it did make me shut down in the classroom when I should have maintained my focus prior to going on to Georgia Tech.

In psychology class, the teacher (her name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t recall it right now–I can see her face and I remember where her room was on the side of the wing nearest the library) gave us a research paper assignment.  We had to research some aspect of psychology on our own and write at minimum a 5 page paper on that topic.  It’s important to remember that there was no Internet access when I was in high school–at best, you could search CD-ROM databases for information.  Though, I didn’t have any problem picking my topic.  Independently of class, I was reading Roger Penrose’s (he’s a well established and respected mathematician and theoretical physicist–more on wikipedia here) latest book, The Emperor’s New Mind (available on Google Books here).  His thoughts on the quantum hypothesis of human consciousness excited me.  It combined two fields that I still enjoy reading about–physics and neurophysiology.  I was so jazzed by the assignment’s possibilities that I began writing and citing with gusto.  Before I realized it, I had a 21 page paper on my hands–the longest essay that I had ever written.  I was beaming with pride when I gave it to my teacher for evaluation and grading.

A week or two passed, and she handed back our papers.  I got an A- for some spelling and grammatical errors.  At first, I was a little put off that she concentrated on grammar and spelling when the ideas were so much more significant and above the bar for a high school psychology class.  But what threw me for a loop was my seeing a cheerleader in the row next to me receiving a big “A+, Terrific Paper” on a four page pamphlet on sports psychology.  Even though I got a respectable grade, I believed that I deserved a higher grade for doing a greater amount of research, critical thinking, and writing than my peer.  I was so incensed that I didn’t talk to the teacher or participate in the class for the remainder of the semester.  This means that I didn’t take tests or hand in any more work.  I thought that if my teacher devalued my work in such a pedantic way, I didn’t have the energy or desire to give her the satisfaction of my attention and time.

This took place just prior to graduation.  I was warned by other faculty that I should do something to mitigate my eventual “F” in the course, because it would lower my class rank.  I told them I wasn’t that concerned about it–mathematically I knew I would be bumped down a slot and remain in the top five.

I don’t want this to happen in my classes.  I don’t want to shut down a student, because I focused on the wrong things in their papers.  Students are writers, and as writers, they have something to say, and it’s part of my job to listen to what that is.  By listening, I can help guide them to revising their work so that it’s even stronger, and in so doing, they become stronger writers.  The “tip of the iceberg” stuff (form) will follow the “under the surface stuff” (function).  Form follows function (Shuy will back me up on this).  And more importantly, I want students to own their work, be proud of it, and not stop writing.  Therefore, I have to do my best not to do something boneheaded that might shut them down or feel that they need to shutup.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.