Students are Overtrained (and need an intellectual break)

I enjoy training and competing as a long-distance runner. This year already I have run two 50K trail races, and I am getting ready for a 50-miler later this Spring. 

When I get excited about an event, I sometimes train a bit too hard. Instead of running seven or eight hours a week, which my body can handle, I wind up running nine or ten. The problem with this enthusiasm is that I don’t give my body the time it needs to recover. I just get more and more tired. Within a few months, I am no longer interested in running or racing. I find it all stupid. The obsession of an idiot. And I quit.


If, however, I'm paying attention, then my mood tells me that I have overtrained. It tells me that I need to reduce the pressure I have placed on myself, and that I need to cut back my mileage and get more rest. After a week or so, I am back to my enthusiastic self.


I find that the same seems to be occurring with respect to students—their writing in particular. I believe that writing demands in college ramp up so quickly that students can hardly adapt. They are left exhausted. Overtrained. Their curiosity and interest and patience in writing are gone.


Now that I am saying it out loud, I wonder why I am only now beginning to recognize it. Nearly all of my colleagues—professors, chairs, deans, VPs—have confided in me that they struggle to find time to write. Or they explain that they have a handful of manuscripts that have been waiting around to get written, but the colleague just can’t bring themselves to do it. I believe they are all overtrained, so to speak.


During this semester, students in a research class decided that they wanted to spend a good five to six weeks working on their writing skills. But when we started talking about which skills to develop, everybody became sullen and quiet. The next five weeks were very difficult—attendance suffered, few students followed through on writing activities, and I don’t feel like much of anything was accomplished.


So I asked my students what seemed to be going on. I addressed the animosity that seemed to have formed. I said, “it seems like there is an anger or frustration or something—what’s up?”


After 10-15 seconds of silence, one student admitted that she wished that I had given them some sort of ultimatum in order to get them writing. It was as though I needed to manipulate or coerce them into writing more. That that was the only way they could do so.


[Of course, I thought of my colleagues who always promised me that they would get that next manuscript out soon enough, etc.]


I did some writing prompts with my students—responses to questions like, “Should weed be legal?” and, “How should Spring Break be scheduled?” As I was writing, I realized that I was trying to write for an audience of boring people (that is, people obsessed more with grammar than with style or voice). So I invited students to write their response in a way that might make everybody in the classroom laugh. 


Immediately students started asking questions (they hadn’t asked any for the previous writing prompts). They wanted to know what kind of humor. They wondered if it had to be in paragraph form. Could they reinterpret the question? And so on. They were being creative. A switch had been flicked.


I asked a few students to read both responses—the serious one and the fun one. The tone, voice, and connection with the audience were noticeably different. Students laughed. They groaned. They emoted. They listened to and empathized with one another. 


It was looking back on these five difficult weeks that I realized students’ writing creativity and curiosity had been ground to nubs. They are just like my colleagues in this regard. They are just like me, too, on most days. 


I don’t think that writing with a team of alleged writing experts (i.e., college faculty) is very helpful for developing writing. It’s like learning how to dance on stage with 1,000 people watching, and with a team of judges interrogating you and correcting you and explaining how what you just did won’t work out in the long run. And so on. It is a terribly unhelpful setting for learning a creative skill.