At one time or another, most students will find themselves frustrated by a professor’s recalcitrant refusal to simply “Tell us what you want!” It’s a natural feeling and, at times, a legitimate one. While all professors want to set you up to succeed, they may find their expectations hard to articulate, in part because they struggle to remember what it’s like to be a beginner in the field. Often, however, the bigger and better reason that professors won’t just tell you what to do is that there simply isn’t a particular “answer” they want you to give in the paper. They want to see your own ambitious and careful analysis. Some students assume that they should be able to envision a paper and its thesis within minutes of receiving the assignment; if not, they complain that the assignment is unclear. Other students assume that every professor has a completely different set of expectations and, consequently, conclude that writing papers is just an unavoidable guessing game about entirely subjective and idiosyncratic standards. Neither of those assumptions are true. Good, well constructed writing assignments are supposed to be challenging to write, and professors are, above all, looking for your own self-motivated intellectual work.
Despite some variations by discipline, college instructors are bringing similar standards to evaluating student work. Recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has brought together faculty members from across the country to deliberate on the core knowledge and skills that define liberal arts education. They have also worked out benchmarks of success, as summarized in a rubric for written communication. Check it out! While few instructors are sitting down with the AAC&U rubric to determine grades on papers, you can be confident that these are the kinds of things almost all professors are looking for. The language of the “capstone” column illustrates especially well the scholarly mindset and independent work habits they expect students to bring to their work:
“thorough understanding of context, audience, and purpose,”
“mastery of the subject,”
“detailed attention” to writing conventions,
“skillful use of high-quality, credible, relevant sources,” and
Professors want to see that you’ve thought through a problem and taken the time and effort to explain your thinking in precise language.
The following chapters in this book seek to concretize these ideas. They begin with the most fundamental issues (the purpose of the assignment and the thesis), move through organizational strategies, and end with sentence-level expression. The expectations laid out here may seem daunting—and perhaps unreasonable, given that very few of you are going to follow your professors into academic life. But communication isn’t just about expressing yourself; it’s about connecting with others. And it’s other people—in families, couples, communities, and workplaces—that shape the most important experiences of your life.
Don’t get discouraged! On my first college paper I got a very low grade. It felt like a slap in the face because I was a straight-A student in high school. It’s just a fact of life. Talk to your professor about what you could have done differently. This will help you be better prepared for future papers.