Are you considering returning to school, but nervous about writing academic papers? Are you a relatively new teacher, but unsure the best way to guide students in writing? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth talks to author and professor Dr. Robert Gordon about helping students overcome their fear of writing and the best ways for teachers to offer encouragement and feedback.
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Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Welcome to this podcast. I’m your host, Oliver Hedgepeth. Today, we’re going to be chatting about how to write a college paper for that first-time college student. Today, my guest is Dr. Robert Gordon, who is an author and professor at American Public University. He has really a lot of years’ experience in writing and lecturing and talking about improvements in education and how to write that paper. He’s an academic expert in supply chain management, logistics, reverse logistics, government contracting, and military management. Robert, welcome to our discussion today and thanks for joining me.
Dr. Robert Gordon: Hello, and thank you. I appreciate this opportunity. I’ve been an educator for a lot of years now, taught at a number of different universities in the United States, as well as in Europe. I had the fortunate ability to travel for work in supply chain, so I’ve seen a lot of different places. I think that this whole concept of returning to school and this fear of writing papers is pretty much something universal. So I feel that this is a great topic and it’s something that we really can go through and discuss and help a lot of people with.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Okay, well I’ve got a couple of questions I’m going to ask you. The first question is kind of a general one, but it’s very important. How do you start out with the student who shows a real fear of writing a college paper? They’re really afraid and it may be their first-ever college paper.
Dr. Robert Gordon: Again, I’ve taught on ground and online, so I’ll talk about both situations, because I feel that both are applicable. Many times, a student will approach you during a break or before or after class and express a concern and anxiety over writing this paper. I always tell them it’s not going to be perfect the first time, to encourage them to make the attempt. The biggest thing is to start and to do it. Because once they have something, I can critique it and help them along. But if there’s nothing, it’s very hard to get going.
I know at American Public University there’s a lot of resources available online to help teach people how to write, but it’s really that self-motivation and internal thing that they have to kind of do. Online, I’ll often get an email that tells me about different situations and problems in their life and they’ll mention this is the first time. So a lot of times, there’s a lot of encouraging words that you have to pass along and understand their circumstance and offer them tools.
I find that offering them videos online about writing often is also a good way, because I know that a lot of times going into a library either online or on-ground can be a little intimidating, but watching a little clip or some kind of video helping people is really a useful tool to get them started.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: You mentioned that you’ve taught people how to write who are online students, as well as those who are face-to-face. As you mention it, is there a difference in how you approach somebody who’s coming in your college office or in a classroom there, physical, versus the online? What is the big difference here between the two as you try to advise them? What’s that big difference?
Dr. Robert Gordon: That big difference is on-ground and when you’re face-to-face, you could read the body language of the person and get a feel for what’s really bothering them. Because you could then start asking some questions and ask them, “Is it this, you’re afraid of writing? Is it the fear of not getting it right? Is it the fear of not being good enough?” In that way, you kind of can hone into what they need the support in. Some students just need a little bit of encouragement. Some students need, hey, we need you to kind of take a look at this and watch this video or read this article or take a look at a sample paper.
Online, it’s a little harder, because now you’re going to have to kind of discern from the email and sometimes read between the lines and then get them the resources they need. You kind of have to take your best guess. But in those cases online, I have a healthier dose of encouragement, because in the end, they’ve got to do it. When you’re face-to-face, you can kind of get the feeling if they’re going to do it or not by the end of the discussion. You can offer help.
Another thing is I try to give people like a no-risk situation where it’s like, “Okay, do your best, turn it in. We’ll give you the rewrite. Two rewrites, three rewrites, whatever it takes to get you through.” But then once you get to that point where, okay, this is a college level paper, then I’ll grade it. I want the student to be successful. So, in doing that, you kind of have to take some of the risk out, because they feel, “Oh my God, I’m going to fail the first three papers and there’s only four in the class. So how am I ever going to make it?” No, on the first one, we’ll go through it and be an iterative process to kind of go through it a few times and then you’ll get to a point where you are acceptable and then go on from there.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: You bring back some interesting history in my system. I remember my first year in college, my first English class and I wrote my paper and turned it in and I was like, “Wow, this is cool. I know how to write.” I just got out of high school. Teacher came back and gives me that paper with a big F on it. I was scared to death. I figured, I’m too stupid to be in college and I was about ready to drop out. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was too scared to ask the teacher what do I do. How do you convince them to stay around? How do you just convince them stay around online?
Dr. Robert Gordon: Okay, online, you encourage them and you give them the opportunity to rewrite. I find if they misunderstood the prompt, then it’s like, “Okay, let’s get them refocused and explain to them, okay, you’re supposed to write about this, not that. You misinterpreted what was said or what was in the assignment” and then give them a chance. I often can then also give them feedback on the paper and say, “Oh, this is poor grammar. You need to be a little bit more formal. You need to do your citations. Here’s a sample paper.”
And give them some footnotes and help on that, because then when they go to rewrite it, they’re going to already have some feedback, even if it’s on the wrong topic and say, “Look, just write it again.” I find, for example, as you’ve mentioned, I teach in government contracting and supply chain, I often get this, there’s a class that talks about government contracting and acquisition. Regardless of how many times they tell the students, I will get a paper on mergers and acquisitions in the business world. I try to tell them that’s not quite what I was looking for, but and then ask them to rewrite it and all that. But sometimes they lock in on something and misunderstand and then run with it.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Do you talk to them by email or telephone or visual? How do you communicate with them? Especially the ones that like, “Oh, I’m having so much trouble. Why don’t you just explain it?” What methods do you use to get that message across to them?
Dr. Robert Gordon: I always meet them in the medium they approach me in because I find that that’s going to be the one they’re comfortable with, be it email, text. Sometimes they’ll email and ask for a face to face or call and then that’s how I meet with them.
Now, if I start finding that I’m not reaching them or they’re having more trouble, then I might say, “Okay, let’s do something online where I can share some documents and resources with you.” They don’t have to have their camera on or anything, but I at least want to be able to walk them through it.
Because sometimes, particularly when it comes to writing, it doesn’t help to tell someone to write better. That really isn’t the right message. You got to give them some encouragement and examples. Sometimes, it’s hard to give a lot of examples in an email. Sometimes having that verbal connection is also helpful for the student. They go, “Oh, there is a real person who’s teaching this class.”
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yeah. It seems like there’s a lot of fears there. What do you think is the most common fear?
Dr. Robert Gordon: It’s the fear of that F and you’re no different than anyone else when you got that first F in the beginning. You were so afraid and you wanted to quit and that’s exactly what people have. They haven’t even turned in the paper and they’re already telling me, “I’m going to fail because I can’t do this.” I’m like, “You posted in the classroom, you seem to know the topic. So how is it possible that you’re going to go and do something and fail?”
So it’s that fear of the F, the fear of failure, because here’s the psychology that I’ve learned about it over time. “If you don’t try, you don’t fail.” So, people become conditioned not to try, because if you try and fail, that’s a horrible feeling, but if you don’t try and don’t fail, you don’t feel so bad. Now, you’ll regret things because now you won’t have that college degree, you won’t have that experience, you won’t have that confidence, but sometimes people are willing to live with that regret.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Interesting. Okay. That experience, that goes all the way back to my college days. You’re right. There was a fear of failure there. I was a young man. I was about 21 or 22 years old. What is the average age range of these students you’re dealing with?
Dr. Robert Gordon: If I recall, it’s in the late twenties to early thirties in the undergraduate and late thirties to early forties for the graduate. As we were talking about it, this fear of writing a college paper comes back even after they have a bachelor’s because I’ve had master’s students come in and say, “Oh, I haven’t written something academically in 10, 20 years.” They’re just as afraid as that person fresh out of high school, because they somehow think that this skill disappeared in their life or they never had it.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Okay. What about their background? What kind of background for your students that you’ve dealt with, military, civilian? What is the majority of the background of the students you’re talking about?
Dr. Robert Gordon: A lot of military and a lot of times the military students were the ones that get a little more scared because they somehow forgotten that they were a civilian before they were in the military and they had to live a civilian life because now they’re in the military. So anything that’s civilian, meaning academically writing a paper, is now harder than it was. So that’s what I see.
Sometimes, civilians can be just as fearful, just given time. For example, I know I had concerns because I finished my bachelor’s and then it was 10 years before I went back to get my master’s. So there was quite a gap there, but I was determined to get that degree. So, I did what I had to do. So that background makes a difference in how you approach teaching on writing?
Sometimes, because in the military, it’s easier to tell the military student, “Oh no, no. You have to do this, there’s no option.” Because they’re used to following orders of the superior officer. So, sometimes I tell them, “Well, it’s not an option. You have to do this. I expect it. You have to do it. If it’s not great, we’ll fix it and we’ll work on it.”
Sometimes with civilians, they get a little more nervous and they’re not used to that. So that requires a little bit more support and encouragement to say, “Look, we’ll get through this together and it’s something that we can accomplish. So don’t panic too much about it.”
Again, like I said, giving people the opportunity where they won’t fail that first paper. For example, if you know someone’s like that, that when you give them feedback, just give them feedback and tell them to rewrite the paper. Don’t give them a grade because I don’t want to turn people off. Now, sometimes they’ll ask you, “Okay, professor, if this was my paper, what would you have given it?” and I’ll tell them.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yeah, on this discussion, you obviously are an expert at helping the students and you’ve given some good advice on what you do. But, I’m thinking about the people who are listening to us today. I think the majority of people listening are teachers, and we’ve got teachers who’ve been teaching 10, 20 years, and we’ve got teachers who are coming in for the first time and they’re kind of afraid.
If you were to train the teacher, you’re standing there in front of the classroom of teachers, all of us, what would you tell those new teachers about what’s going to happen to them? They’re going to have papers that are due and we’re going to wind up with students that we just discussed. How would you advise them to go about doing their job as a teacher?
Dr. Robert Gordon: I would tell them as a teacher to help with these new writers, give them encouragement, give them support, give them tools. All these things are important. Support’s probably the number one. Strangely enough, the tools are actually probably at the bottom of the list.
The other thing that I feel is important to explain to them is that many times, writing is a series of edits and updates. So, a new teacher has to understand that, okay, they get a paper and if the student isn’t experienced enough to know, they should go back and edit it and rewrite it and then kind of massage it over.
Many students make the mistake is, “Oh my God, I’ve got to write this paper. I’m going to write this paper.” They write this paper all the way through. They put that last period at the end and they turn it in. They push the button, turn it in, hand it into the teacher as fast as they can because they’re like, “Oh my God, I’m so glad I got it done.” But if you don’t back and edit it, that’s really missing a huge opportunity as an instructor, but also as to when you instruct students.
Because I, myself, when I was actually looking at writing and expanding my writing skills, back in the day, I know you remember, Oliver, back in these days, people would actually hand write and edit things. So what I did was I went on a quest to find a lot of the original manuscripts of a lot of the great American writers.
So, what I would do is I’d travel, I went to places to see the actual documents that the writers would do because I wanted to see how well they wrote to start. Hemingway is a great writer, but did he just do this on a weekend on the back of a napkin and he just turned it in?
Because that’s what people think the great writers are. So, I went back and I looked at some of his stuff and I saw all these edits and changes, and other people, for example, Grant wrote his autobiography and that was a series of huge edits. I remember reading about that whole process for him and how he drove his publisher crazy because he kept changing things. But the publisher did say, “Yeah, he changed it, but it got better.”
So, that’s one of those lessons that I think that instructors need to have, that remember to impart upon students, not only the encouragement, the skills, but the fact that you have to edit and revisit it and work on it multiple times.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Yeah. The students do need to do that. That’s good advice also to give those teachers who are listening about having to prepare and maybe tell different stories. Is that what you do? You advise them, instead of say, advise our teachers to say, “Instead of just reading the AP manual,” an inch thick document, how would you advise these teachers to teach them how to do citations and references, for example?
It’s easy to just say, “Okay, student, go read this book.” I know, and you probably know, that those students aren’t going to read a 50-page or 100-page book on how to do writing. How would you advise these teachers to encourage them to do citations and references, which is one of the biggest problem I’ve seen.
Dr. Robert Gordon: With citations and references, that kind of falls on the classification of what I consider skills. I find that there are examples and tools are the best way to do it. Basically show the student exactly how it should be done, show them the reference, the detail.
The other element that you were kind of referring to with instructors was how else do they engage with the student? It’s easy to point to the tools and the references and give them examples, but I find if you really want to get to them and you alluded it to there with the storytelling.
I remember I did some research, when you’re doing a presentation, be it an instructor or in front of a classroom or in front of an auditorium of any topic, if you aren’t injecting a story every five to eight minutes, you’re losing your audience. Even though they may be interested in the material, they want to hear the story.
So, often I will default to my own personal experience as a writer and my journey as a writer, because I can speak to it, I can be passionate about it and give very specific details about it. So, that’s helpful and I would encourage instructors to do the same. Find personal examples or examples of what they have done so they can speak passionately and convincingly of it.
Because at the end, if you can speak passionately and convincing about it, you’re really going to capture the student’s attention. You’re going to hold their attention and they’ll remember the story. Again, if the story leads up to better referencing and citations, they’re more likely to remember that.
I’ve had people come to me years after I did a presentation and they’ll mention something I put in there about an example about my children or about what I did on my travels and people remember that story and the topic. So, it can have a very long-lasting effect when you combine them.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Wow. Robert, these are really great ideas and concepts to think about. I really want to thank you for joining me today with this exciting topic. We could talk about it for days, but we really just need to talk about the key things and that’s what I want our professors to hear, and those students who I hope are hearing this as well, about how to write. Do you have any last words you’d like to leave for our listeners as students and listeners as professors?
Dr. Robert Gordon: As students, I’d like to encourage all of you to just write, just start. Starting is the hardest part, because in the end, as I’ve learned about other authors, it’s that journey that you need to take when you write something. You write a piece and you can make it better and you can always make it better.
This was a word of advice from my doctoral dissertation chair. He told me, “Robert, your dissertation is not going to be your best work. Your best work is going to come after.” I thought that was kind of strange and I thought, “Wow, I’m working so hard to get this dissertation done.”
But then I realized he was right, because I look back on my dissertation, I don’t know, a few years back and just to see and I was like, “Oh my God, I could have written it so much better.” I was kind of embarrassed. At the time, I was so proud of this thing, thinking, “Oh, this is the best thing since sliced bread.” Now, I look at it and I go, “Oh my God, I should have did this. I should have did that.” Totally understand where he was coming from. He’s like, “Once you become that academic and a writer, you’re going to write and it’s just going to get better and you’re going to do better work.”
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: One final piece of advice for that teacher who’s teaching my first course or my first year here online. Ooh, what’s that final piece of advice you give that first teacher?
Dr. Robert Gordon: Never let on that this is your first class or your first teaching. If people ask you if you’ve taught before, just say, “A while.” They don’t need to know five minutes has been your while. Because, if they show confidence, it’s easier for a student to become confident, because now they’re going, “Oh, this person who’s knowledgeable and confident believes in me.” Then they go, “Ah, I can do it then because this person believes in me and they know I can do it.”
The big thing there in academia, I really feel is more encouragement than anything else, because it is so difficult in say larger classes how are you going to motivate everyone and trying to teach everyone at their level is very hard. So, you can encourage top students and you can encourage students that are struggling, and it’ll help them both and it’ll get them to the finish line.
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth: Wow. That’s really good talking about the encouragement. I’d like to thank you, Robert, and I thank our listen, students and professors who are listening and joining us. Please stay tuned and stay well. Again, thank you for listening.