Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Identifying features of procrastination

So I stopped by my university's library this afternoon after walking my husband to class. I didn't bring anything with me to work on...not even a spiral notebook. Just a pen that was riding around in my purse. But I thought I should take a look at recent journal publications. You know, the kind that are actually printed on paper.

Anyway, in CCC, Sean Zwagerman writes about plagiarism and takes a quick swipe at procrastination. He says, "About ten years ago, I was marking an essay whose night-before prose suddently transitioned into sophisticated literary analysis" (676).

"Night-before prose"? What is that exactly? He's clearly referring to a writing which can be easily identified as having been written recently before being turned in. But what are the identifying features? He doesn't say. I don't suppose I can expect an in-depth analysis of procrastination when the issue at hand is actually plagiarism. But, in scholarly articles, how do we get away with such problematic assumptions as teachers who can identify the age of a piece of writing by instructor's intuition?

And seriously, what are the identifying features of procrastinated writing? It's not surface error. It's not length. It might be the use of evidence, but how does that translate into "night-before prose"? How are we analyzing student prose? Sentence structure? Diction? Beats me.

I think about a basic writing student I had last year, "Patrick." Patrick had the strongest prose in my class, yet was one of the biggest procrastinators. The paper he wrote in an hour before class was more interesting than the one he worked with a tutor revising. This is not to say that the paper he wrote quickly was well-organized or well-supported. But I'm pretty skeptical that weak prose is a sign of procrastination.

You know what weak prose is a sign of? A student that needs to work on their prose. It's not just time pressure, it's gaps in learning that are the issue. Problems in student writing are not a moral issue with the students, something that would be solved if they'd merely shape up and follow the rules. Problems in writing exist because students haven't mastered the skill of writing--which is kind of why they're writing students in the first place.

Zwagerman, Sean. "The Scarlet P: Plagiarism, Panopticism, and the Rhetoric of Academic Integrity." College Composition and Communication 59.4 (2008): 676-710.