Low/High Stakes Writing

In the Elbow one quote jumped out at me, and seemed very relevant for my students’ overall attitude towards writing: ” Writing feels like an inherently high stakes activity–especially because most people learn and use writing primarily in school, where it is virtually always evaluated, usually with a grade.” This is how virtually all of my students feel towards wriitng–it is always a high stakes mission. This is why mostly all of them hate writing or don’t see themselves as writers, they’ve admitted this past week to me. I’ve tried to offset this feeling with lots of low stakes assignments but, being the clever intellectuals they are, know that my eyes are still evaluating and assessing them based off that. I cannot deny that.

How, then, do we make writing feel low stakes? This does not necessarily mean that students are not being evaluated for their writing because, as much as we like it (and my students were the ones who made me aware of this), we are always being evaluated no matter how low or high the stakes a professor makes the situation to be. And, to be very honest, I am already gauging and assessing their writing just based on low stakes writing. However,  if writing is always a high stakes activity, or imagined as such, you either are perfect or not, successful or not, then isn’t this a disservice to our students? Am I too much of a hippy-carefree-freedomwriters professor where I want all my students to untangle and decompress themselves at every juncture in order to find a passion in writing?

This past week my students and I had an enriching discussion around what makes a writer and who gets to be called a writer. They have stated that none of them ever once considered being a writer (or a humanities major that matter) because there was no system in place which made them 100 percent guaranteed to know if they are good or not, like in math or business. For them, writing is always an act of high stakes risk, always an uncontrollable space where you will be scrutinized and picked apart, which is why none of them ever once considered themselves writers. I don’t know if that’s the kind of classroom environment and attitude I want my students to have but I don’t know how to break this.

I also found the section on feedback and comments extremely generative. I didn’t frequently wonder (even though it has and continues to happen to me) how my words can be misinterpreted or not understood at all. Definitely considering this for the first assignment, ensuring that I make as clear and straightforward as possible my words since frequently they can be rather abstract or unclear. I also want to aim to be supportive and encouraging of their writing through my feedback. Hopefully this will help make it feel less like criticism and an attack, like Elbow makes it to be, and more of I’m trying to help you along this path of development. So many things to continue pondering…