Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student

Nathan, Rebekah. My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Written under a penname, My Freshman Year details the results of anthropologist Cathy Small going undercover and enrolling as a student at her university in 2002-2003. The impetus of the study came from her discovery that “After more than fifteen years of university teaching, I found that students had become increasingly confusing to me” (2). What she found isn’t particularly surprising: Students studied about an average of two hours per day (that includes reading, writing, researching—i.e., everything) (33), students worked jobs more often than in the past in order to pay for school and for other items (33), students rarely read for class unless the reading assignment had a direct bearing on their grades (43; 137-38), and most students rarely took advantage of co-curricular activities (much of which is a waste given the university resources that go into it) (47). Some of her discoveries were less predictable though. She learned that suite-style dorms are preferred by students for privacy reasons because, unlike previous generations, today’s students rarely shared rooms with siblings while growing up (52). Communal spaces in dorms and elsewhere on campus were underutilized because students preferred their own individual spaces, a trend bolstered by most of them having considerable material resources even in their dormrooms (53-54). In fact, Small found that in contrast to the rhetoric coming from her university about the importance of community and diversity, students tended to self-segregate themselves into individual networks of friends, most quite homogenous (57). As a result, international students were often baffled by the self-absorption and ignorance of American students (89). Alas, college didn’t seem to change such matters for the majority of students, as most class discussion was superficial (95), and academic matters were not the central focus of college life (100). Surprisingly, given these findings, Small suggests in the book that the best way a faculty member can deal with today’s students is compassion (135). Reflecting on how higher education took this path, with a special focus on the drop of taxpayer support for higher education and the consequent rise of tuition and other more corporate revenue streams, she writes: “It is easy to see how some aspects of contemporary student culture were formed. To reduce running debt even higher, most students must now work and go to school at the same time, which has the added corollary of compressing their academic activities into ever smaller time slots. To repay their debts, students are anticipating the need for immediate and lucrative employment after college, so they choose both ‘practical’ and ‘well-paying’ fields of study, resulting in the decline of majors such as philosophy, history, and English literature. The majors for which there have been the largest proportional increases in degrees conferred since 1980 include business, computer science, parks and recreation, protective services, and the health professions. These degree choices, in turn, funnel new budgetary allocations to these same departments and programs, one of many feedback processes that closes the loop between the paths of students and the direction of universities” (151). In short, an institution once devoted to the life of the mind now resembles a vocational high school. Overall, Small’s analysis of college student culture is thought-provoking, and seems to apply to students beyond large public universities. I can see much of the student behavior she describes at Ursuline. The question is what do we do about it? It’s clear that students are not getting as much out of college as they could, but much of that result is shaped by cultural and economic forces beyond the students. Do we dumb down the curriculum even further? Do we resist the forces that encourage students not to prepare for classes? Or do we attempt to hold the line of academic rigor? I suspect we’ll do all three a bit here and there and muddle through as best we can. As Small’s fellow students know, sometimes one can’t avoid a hard course. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

APA Update Update

The latest news is that the American Psychological Association will replace any sixth editions of the style manual, if they are one of the error-filled ones from the first printing. Please click here for details. Act soon though as it is a limited offer, which expires shortly!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Eisner, Caroline, and Martha Vicinus, eds. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age

Eisner, Caroline, and Martha Vicinus, eds. Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.

This anthology of essays addresses the growing concern about plagiarism in our computer-networked age. I have read it, as with the other books on plagiarism that I have read lately, in hopes of gleaning some practical advice on how to prevent and eliminate plagiarism in college courses, and the text does offer some useful advice, which I will discuss later. However, the authors often go beyond the walls of the classroom to consider issues of originality in academic publishing, courts of law, and, even, public sculpture, among other topics, all of which are very interesting, but not tremendously useful given my purpose in reading the text. Nevertheless, the editors suggest in the introduction that all these factors are connected, as they write, “It is no accident that public debates about plagiarism have coincided with efforts to limit access to copyrighted material” (1). In other words, the ease at which material can be duplicated today via computers has exposed holes in our previous conceptions of the ownership of ideas and their expressions, and we are attempting to deal with such issues. For college instructors specifically, these issues often boil down to the question of, as the editors ask, “How do we conserve and inculcate a tradition of ethical research and writing standards, while acknowledging and taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by new technologies?” Indeed. Alas, the volume is very good at raising such good questions, but not terribly good at answering them, perhaps because the issues are quite complex, as the authors of the essays often point out. Despite all that, the book holds a tremendous amount of value for the college instructor. Anna Berggren’s essay, “Do Thesis Statements Short-Circuit Originality in Students’ Writing?” is extremely thought-provoking. She traces the history of the thesis statement in writing instruction, and argues that it only became prominent after World War II when college enrollment increased and neophyte writing instructors hired to handle the influx of students needed an easier and faster way to evaluate writing (58-59). She suggests that rather than organizing thinking, the thesis statement may limit the creativity and originality of students. I don’t know that I agree, but the essay will certainly make one reflect over the pedagogical value of demanding thesis statements in student writing. Perhaps some students do turn to plagiarism because they don’t value the writing assignment or the purported learning that it is supposed to generate if everything has to be distilled down to a sentence or two; a more fluid structure might incur more enthusiasm in students. Another interesting idea is supplied by Kim Walden and Alan Peacock in “Economies of Plagiarism: The i-Map and Issues of Ownership in Information Gathering.” They suggest that students document the stages of their thinking in a research project, and share the document with the instructor along the research journey. This method would certainly cut down on the cases of plagiarism where a student, due to procrastination usually, turns to an online essay site or whatnot the night before an assignment is due. Though Walden and Peacock have a specific type of document in mind with their i-Map, the same result could likely be achieved with a journal, blog, or other means. Similarly, in “Plagiarism, a Turnitin Trial, and an Experience of Cultural Disorientation,” Lisa Emerson notes that holding individual conferences with students lowered instances of plagiarism (186-87). Stefan Sanders even explains in his essay “Academic Plagiarism and the Limits of Theft” how he was able to develop a student’s writing after she was caught plagiarizing. When the student was under threat of expulsion, she suddenly took writing seriously. The description of the experience makes for an interesting case study. Finally, Lynn Z. Bloom suggests that if teachers were more original with their assignments, then students would be more original as well. In “Insider Writing: Plagiarism-Proof Assignments,” she states, “In the final analysis, avoiding plagiarism is fundamentally a secondary concern for teachers, whose efforts are better spent inventing writing assignments that are original, intellectually demanding, participatory—the essence of insider writing” (216). She defines insider writing as writing where students are invested as “engaged participants rather than as alien outsiders whose understanding comes through what others—sometimes centuries of others—have had to say on the subject” (210). While you probably won’t be able to copy the specific assignments she describes since they likely won’t fit your courses--and anyway that would be plagiarism if you didn’t credit her, right?—she asks us to emulate the spirit of her approach and come up with creative assignments of our own. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blum, Susan D. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture

Blum, Susan D. My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009. Print.

Blum, an anthropologist, bases her examination of plagiarism on today’s campuses upon interviews with and observations of students. As with most examiners of plagiarism, she argues that the issue is more complex than commonly understood, and spends a portion of the book exploring the history of citation practices, intellectual property, and plagiarism. Through this review, she suggests that, despite the current hysteria over plagiarism, it may not be a larger problem today than it has always been. However, given increasing collaboration in education (think of the many group projects students do at Ursuline) and the ready availability of texts of all sorts through the Internet, students’ attitudes towards citation and individual ownership of ideas may have undergone a profound shift from that of the previous generations who make up the faculty. In fact, Blum finds that “Today’s college students have been groomed to be successful, clever, and above all calculating: ‘Will this look good on my resume?’” (102). In short, they may have mastered the art of rhetoric so well in their ability to provide audiences with what they desire that what Blum terms “the performance self” has erased any authentic notion of self underneath it. Blum argues that as a result such students may not view writing as “the expression of a singular personal essence” (89), and so plagiarism would just be viewed as a means to an end. As long as it brings results about, then any moral component is irrelevant. As such, Blum suggests that honor codes as a means of preventing plagiarism will be unlikely to be effective. However she doesn’t suggest that a generation of sociopaths has been created; instead, she examines other factors of today’s culture that may also encourage plagiarism. One factor she finds is that the academic component of college is not central to students, who instead focus their college experience on co-curricular activities, internships/work, and partying. She writes, “For students who don’t care about the content of courses, or who only go through the motions of learning, plagiarism and cheating are strategies like any others, aimed at producing the best outcome (high grades) without impinging on what they really want to do with their time—socializing and relaxing” (124). Faculty who read the book will likely be shocked at how little students study, and even more shocked at how little this lack of studying seems to affect their grade point averages. Blum suggests that while we may want to blame plagiarism on the faults of individual students, the culture in which they were raised is also at fault, whether it be the higher cost of college (which Blum traces to the growth of administration) leading to greater pressure to succeed at any cost, the practice of student evaluation affecting faculty grading (i.e., faculty succeed by pleasing students, and not necessarily educating them), or parents loading students up with habits of taking on too many extracurricular activities in order to impress others and not because students are actually interested in them. And, though Blum, on pages 177-78, provides a variety of recommendations to lessen acts of plagiarism by students, she really can only suggest that the individual instructor teach “the genre requirements of academic writing” so students understand the importance of citation in academic culture (169), and that the larger culture needs to “lower the water table and return the youth of our society to drier, calmer ground, where they can hop, skip, and jump rather than cut, paste, and graduate” (180). Ultimately, Blum seems to trace the plagiarism plague not to a lack of education on the part of the students, but to the fact that they have learned all too well a larger lesson from a society that in the past decade has praised with money and other “honors” those who faked evidence to start a war, stole votes to win an election, made up accounting figures to pump up a company’s stock price, and cheated to win a Super Bowl: Any means is acceptable as long as you succeed. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Anson, Chris M. “We Never Wanted to Be Cops: Plagiarism, Institutional Paranoia, and Shared Responsibility”

Anson, Chris M. “We Never Wanted to Be Cops: Plagiarism, Institutional Paranoia, and Shared Responsibility.” Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies. Ed. Rebecca Moore Howard and Amy E. Robillard. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook/Heinemann, 2008. 140-57. Print.

Recently, I read two collections of essays on plagiarism, Who Owns This Text?: Plagiarism, Authorship and Disciplinary Cultures and Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies, in hopes of finding ways to minimize or even eliminate plagiarism on campus. Unfortunately, both books seem more intent on problematizing plagiarism than on offering practical solutions for how to negate or deal with it. Frankly, plagiarism is enough of a problem already, as students short circuit their own learning by representing the work of others as their own, so some of the scholarship offered in the books may come across as puzzling to the instructor frustrated by another case of plagiarism in a course, and looking for a solution to the problem. Though some of the essays in the volumes raised interesting points as to why students plagiarized, how definitions of plagiarism vary from discipline to discipline, and other matters, the only essay I can recommend entirely to instructors looking for suggestions on how to eliminate, or, at least, minimize plagiarism is “We Never Wanted to Be Cops: Plagiarism, Institutional Paranoia, and Shared Responsibility,” by Chris M. Anson. In the essay, Anson presents practical advice for how instructors can prevent plagiarism in their classes. He notes that if instructors keep the focus on educational goals and student learning, then plagiarism will decline in their classrooms. Critiquing traditional methods of instruction and plagiarism management, Anson argues for a more student-centered pedagogy. He writes, “A ‘solution’ to plagiarism that focuses primarily on policy, detection, and punishment does nothing to advance our presumed mission, which is education” (140). Anson realizes that such approaches look backwards, by which point plagiarism either will or will not be a problem, but do nothing to prevent its development beyond attempting to scare students into not trying it lest they be caught, even if many of them don’t understand what it is exactly that they would be guilty of doing. In fact, approaches such as assigning a piece of writing, providing no support to students writing it (instead of, for example, encouraging them to utilize the writing process or breaking down the writing into aspects and then dealing with them in class), and then collecting the writing at the end of the semester will often inadvertently teach students that the product is all that matters, and, thanks to the Internet, a vast amount of readymade products is available for the student to utilize. As Anson points out, “In the pursuit of learning, students have lightning-fast access to vast storehouses of information, increasingly rich and interconnected. Yet this information also comes to the computer virtually unscreened and unevaluated, making the Internet like a huge flea market where good finds are hidden among large quantities of junk” (141). Not only do students need assistance in determining the value of the information available for research purposes, but they also need assistance in developing their own voices among the electronic babble. To offer such assistance, at least as far as integrating sources into student writing, Anson, drawing on the pedagogical theories of John Biggs, suggests that instructors “might set up activities in the classroom in which students wrestle with challenging passages and learn how to incorporate them into their own texts or paraphrase them so as not to quote them directly, but still cite their source” (145). Furthermore, Anson advises that using more informal writing assignments might also help students learn as well as minimize plagiarism. He states, “. . . writing assignments can be relatively informal, focusing mostly on the concepts, ideas, readings, data, or other information in a course instead of the formal characteristics of the writing; or they can be longer, more formal, and more extended, with higher stakes for the nature and quality of the text. The longer and more formal the assignment, and the higher its stakes, the greater the teacher’s responsibility to support its development through, for example, the practice of certain intellectual and analytical skills and processes and through work on multiple drafts” (147). Helpfully, Anson lists some examples of both low stakes and high stakes assignments (150-52). Dealing with plagiarism can be frustrating for all involved, so if we, as instructors, can do anything beforehand while designing assignments to get students to understand the educational meaning behind them so that students will be less likely to plagiarize while completing them, then such efforts will likely be well-rewarded with fewer plagiarism investigations afterwards and students who have learned rather than have merely pretended to learn. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Ursuline Gallery Of Writing Is Open!

The Ursuline Gallery of Writing is now open! Since today is the National Day on Writing, the National Council of Teachers of English have opened the associated writing galleries nationwide. The Ursuline gallery is located at http://galleryofwriting.org/galleries/156018. Please check out the work of the contributors: Amanda Flower, Susan Fox, Joe LaGuardia, Olivia Wilhelm, and Polly Wilkenfeld. All the galleries will be open until next summer. Happy National Day on Writing everyone!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

APA Update Uproar

Those of you who use APA format likely already know that it, like MLA, has been recently updated. Unfortunately, the update for APA has already needed to be updated itself. This article from InsideHigherEd.Com explains the controversy well. Until things settle down, you might want to stick with the previous version of APA. It appears that's the approach the publisher of The St. Martin's Handbook (6th ed), which we currently use at Ursuline as our writing handbook, has chosen since there has been no announcement of updating it to include the revised APA, which is something that was done for MLA.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

McDonald, James C. The Allyn & Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers.

McDonald, James C. The Allyn & Bacon Sourcebook for College Writing Teachers. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. Print.

Regard this collection of essays as a “greatest hits” of composition studies. Though essentially aimed at an instructor of the traditional college composition course, the book can prove useful to anyone using writing in the classroom. You will find the book easy to dip into since it is helpfully arranged into the sections of general theories and perspectives; audience and peer groups; composing and revising; critical thinking and reading in writing; computers; argumentation; form and style; grammar; and designing, responding to, and evaluating writing assignments. Below, I will note some highlights that we might find particularly useful at Ursuline. First of all, you will recognize a familiar name as our Vice President of Academic Affairs, JoAnne Podis, along with Leonard Podis, wrote “Improving Our Responses to Student Writing: A Process-Oriented Approach,” which offers advice on how to best respond to student writing. Another useful selection is “Helping Students Use Textual Sources Persuasively.” In it, Margaret Kantz explains how an unclear description of an assignment caused students to use a familiar genre of writing (narration) even though it didn’t fit the assignment. This reminds us to make our expectations as explicit as possible so as to avoid some common frustrations for both us and students (190-91). Essays by Betty Bamberg and Richard Lanham both offer some advice on how to teach students to revise more effectively. Unfortunately, if they revise at all, most students will revise only superficial surface errors such as a misspelling unless taught otherwise. As a result of such bad student habits as turning in first drafts as final drafts, occasionally instructors will complain about student writing, and often the complaint will include the claim that students need to be taught grammar more formally (usually by someone other than the one complaining, of course). Alas, as Patrick Hartwell points out in “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” research into the matter has determined that teaching grammar formally and having students do grammatical exercises has limited if any value for improving their writing. Instead, Hartwell recommends that writers read their writing aloud and note where their speaking corrects their writing and that instructors simply point out any remaining errors with minimal marking (334). The remainder of formal errors will only be avoided as the writer develops more expertise in that type of writing, and develops metalinguistic and rhetorical awareness (334-36). In fact, Peter Elbow, in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment,” claims that a more effective way of improving student writing than punishing them for formal errors is to point out instead what the writer has done well and encourage her or him to do more of it (408). He writes that “reward produces learning more effectively than punishment” (408). Though not all the selections will be applicable to those of us teaching at Ursuline, the book contains enough useful advice that it is a good resource to consult for improving student writing. It is available through OhioLINK.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Wardle, Elizabeth. “‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?”

Wardle, Elizabeth. “‘Mutt Genres’ and the Goal of FYC: Can We Help Students Write the Genres of the University?” College Composition and Communication 60.4 (2009): 765-89. Print.

In this article, Wardle proposes that the goal of first year composition classes be adjusted from learning to write to learning about writing. Her reasoning is that the traditional goal of freshman composition-- to teach students how to write in college--is essentially impossible to meet since disciplines vary so widely in their expectations for writing that no single general writing course could prepare students adequately for writing in their majors, so a revision of the course is needed. She notes that currently in composition courses students write “mutt genres,” which are “genres that do not respond to rhetorical situations requiring communication in order to accomplish a purpose that is meaningful to the author” (777). In short, students learn writing genres that are only useful in freshman composition, a course they will never take again. To rectify this, Wardle proposes that students study academic genres instead, and that instructors use pedagogical methods that have been shown to encourage the transfer of skills from one setting to another: abstraction, self-reflection, and mindfulness. She writes, “Why is this goal more achievable than the current one of teaching students to write? Because it teaches students a clear content—what we know about how writing and language work—and focuses on that content as the object of attention. Not only that, but the nature of that content nearly requires students to reflect on their own writing practices and the writing practices in courses across the academy” (784-85). While, we don’t have composition per se at Ursuline and do try to cultivate such transference skills in our Ursuline Studies courses, Wardle’s article is a good reminder that writing is a skill (or set of skills) that must be developed across the university “rather than relying on the false hope and promise of general skills writing courses” (785). We can also assist students in transferring skills across courses by teaching “general and flexible principles about writing” and explicitly discussing “similarities between new and previous writing assignments” (770). The journal issue including this article will shortly be available in our mini-library of writing instruction materials in the USP office.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

National Day on Writing

The blog is back from summer vacation, and with some exciting news. Ursuline College will be participating in the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) National Day on Writing event on October 20th. The event will celebrate writing in hopes of raising awareness of just how much writing we do every day, and what writing does for us. As their Web page describes, the day will "celebrate the foundational place of writing in Americans' personal, professional, and civic lives; point to the importance of writing instruction and practice at every grade level, for every student and in every subject area from preschool through university (See The Genteel Unteaching of America’s Poor); emphasize the lifelong process of learning to write and composing for different audiences, purposes, and occasions; recognize the scope and range of writing done by the American people and others; honor the use of the full range of media for composing; and encourage Americans to write and enjoy and learn from the writing of others."

To showcase the writing we do at Ursuline, we have a local gallery set up in NCTE's National Gallery of Writing. If you are a member of the Ursuline College community, please consider adding a piece of writing to the gallery. It can be anything you write at Ursuline from a list, an essay, a text message, a poem, a sign, a press release, or even a tweet! Please just be comfortable with others reading it. Click on the image below to send us your writing.

Visit the National Gallery of Writing

Friday, June 12, 2009

Have A Good Summer!

The blog is going on hiatus for the summer. I'll see you in the fall, but I promise not to ask you to write a theme on what you did on your summer vacation!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Brown, David West. In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-switching, and Academic Writing

Brown, David West. In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-switching, and Academic Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009.

Brown’s book is a collection of lesson plans about nonstandard and standard language patterns, including discussions of “like,” “ain’t,” zero copula, and habitual "be." Though many English teachers might accuse Brown of teaching “bad English,” his stated goal is “to help students develop greater facility with Standard English and to help them improve their academic writing” (xi). As Brown explains, “In trying to achieve that goal, the materials in this book approach students’ existing competence with and knowledge of language as a resource to be drawn upon rather than an obstacle to be overcome. If students can become more aware of the linguistic choices they already make, if their inchoate knowledge of English grammar can become more conscious and intentional, their emerging awareness can be applied to the kinds of choices and tasks called for in academic writing” (xi). Students who are speakers of nonstandard varieties of English may find the exercises in Brown’s book useful for adjusting to standard English. Though the book is likely directed at students before they arrive at college, college instructors may find the book a valuable resource for helping students having trouble with writing at the college level, which often isn’t because they use “bad grammar,” but because they have learned the grammar of a different system of English and are having trouble adjusting to the new rules of another system. For, as Brown notes, “Grammar is far more than a well-defined, ageless set of prescriptive rules. It is a complex intersection of linguistic systems and social expectations that is sometimes ambiguous and always changing” (xviii). Furthermore, in addition to discussing the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar (xvi), the odd and often arbitrary historical background of some grammatical rules (xvii), and language variation (xviii), Brown also provides a handy introduction to ideas of functional grammar, similar to those of M.A.K. Halliday. For example, Brown discusses extensively such syntactic arrangements as topic/comment (72), theme/rheme (72), and known/new (85). These ideas for analyzing and understanding sentence and paragraph organization and meaning making will be useful to students who already have a firm grasp on standard English, and instructors may find the entire book eye-opening in its approach to language instruction. We hope soon to have a copy of the book available in our writing instruction library in the Ursuline Studies office, but in the meantime it can be ordered through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cummings, Robert E. Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia

Cummings, Robert E. Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009.

While many instructors still deplore the use of Wikipedia by students (because such use often leads to overreliance on it as a source which in turn often leads to plagiarism and sloppy research in student writing), Robert E. Cummings has found a way to use “the free encyclopedia” to improve student writing. In his book Lazy Virtues, Cummings argues that using Wikipedia, and wikis (electronic documents open to modification by various users) in general, can provide students with a sharp sense of audience in the rhetorical sense, which can inspire greater care in their writing overall. As he points out, “Once writers care about making the audience understand something important, they are invested in spelling, punctuation, and style. Writing on wikis provided my students with that audience trigger” (9). Much of the book concerns various historical and theoretical discussions of computer programming, economics, and literacy, which are interesting, but the most essential portions of the book for our purposes are the more prosaic sections in which Cummings discusses how he utilized wikis in his writing assignments. The sample assignment described in the second chapter concerned students creating and editing Wikipedia entries on various films, but it could easily be adapted to other subjects. Though most of the book concerns how to use what Cummings calls a “Commons-Based Peer Production” (CBPP) approach to writing in the classroom, he also offers other useful advice for writing instruction such as his discussion of portfolios, which he claims “have the advantage of encouraging student reflection about the value of what they have learned in the class and how the course has impacted their development. This encourages quicker transference: students who leave a portfolio class are more aware of the skills they have acquired and are more likely to use them sooner” (98). Ultimately, Cummings found using the CBPP approach to writing assignments useful since students received almost instant feedback from other users who would not hesitate to delete or modify contributions to the entries that they found not relevant. He writes, “The CBPP composition experience thrusts upon writers the full weight of making meaning for a discourse community and ultimately calls upon them to employ sound techniques of persuasion to defend their contributions” (141). Students also seemed to respond positively to the CBPP assignments as well, though Cummings cautions that a gradual approach to using them is best since some students may be resistant to such an assignment (122). At the very least though, such an assignment will likely encourage students to think twice before they instinctively turn to Wikipedia for information! The book is available through OhioLINK.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gardner, Traci. Designing Writing Assignments

Gardner, Traci. Designing Writing Assignments. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2008.

This slim volume offers numerous examples of effective writing assignments, but is probably most useful for the overview of how to design writing assignments in the beginning and the underlying teaching philosophy listed in the appendix at the end (“[National Council of Teachers of English] Beliefs about the Teaching of Writing”). Though appropriate for pre-college instructors as well, for college instructors, the book offers useful advice such as: Provide more information about writing assignments to students (as that generally results in better student writing) (1-2), put the assignment in writing so students have something to refer back to beyond their class notes of your discussion of the assignment in class (3), and don’t raise issues of grammar too early as that can short circuit student writing “by shifting attention away from exploring and focusing on the message” (21). The book is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2007.

Beaufort describes an undergraduate’s experiences with writing by tracing his progress from freshman English to courses in his majors of engineering and history, and, finally, to his experiences in an engineering workplace after graduation. She notes the difficulty the undergraduate often had in transferring the skills he had learned in his writing courses to his writing in his majors and in the workplace, and, based upon that evidence, argues that university writing instruction could be improved by calling greater attention to the roles discourse communities and genres play in defining expectations for writing. She identifies five knowledge domains in writing experience--discourse community knowledge, subject matter knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and writing process knowledge--and suggests that if greater attention were paid to their inner-workings then students would be able more easily to transfer skills from one course to another and from school to work and life situations. She writes, “I would argue that we are looking to teach not similarities in the ways writing is done in different contexts, but rather, to teach those broad concepts (discourse community, genre, rhetorical tools, etc.) which will give writers the tools to analyze similarities and differences among writing situations they encounter” (149). Since we don’t teach composition per se at Ursuline and much of the writing in Ursuline Studies is already sequenced as she recommends (related but increasingly more complex writing tasks across the undergraduate years), most useful for us is Beaufort's point that instructors can better prepare students for future writing by calling attention to the contexts in which the writing takes place. What she notes of genre holds true of the other knowledge domains she identifies, “We cannot possibly teach all genres students might need to know in the future, but we can teach the concept of genre and ask students to apply the concept to analysis of several text types” (152). This emphasis on how texts get produced in various contexts and for various purposes may indeed help students to more easily navigate new areas and the texts they will be expected to produce therein. Along those lines, asking students to focus on their own composing practices and experiences in a form of meta-cognition (182) may also help them to transfer and build on previous skills. Beaufort also provides a snappy answer to the oft-asked “Why can’t graduates of freshman writing produce acceptable written documents?”: “In part, because each context requires specialized ‘local’ know-how. And in part, because we have not yet become experts at teaching for transfer” (158). We can’t expect to become experts at “teaching for transfer” overnight, but if we can call students’ attention to how what they’ve learned might relate to future experiences--in the major, in their other courses, and in life off-campus--then that would be a nice start. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Segall and Smart Revisited

Segall, Mary T., and Robert A. Smart, eds. Direct from the Disciplines: Writing across the Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005.

We finish our multiple-post discussion of Segall and Smart with a potpourri of the writing instruction wisdom that abounds in the book. Susan R. Dailey notes that “uninspired writing prompts produced uninspired writing” so she revised her assignments until students produced the kind of quality writing she desired (68). Similarly, Pattie Belle Hastings and Valerie Smith experimented with having students write blogs, and found the results worthwhile (76). Sean P. Duffy found that short linked writing assignments and other pedagogical retoolings enabled him to summon “better writing out of [his] students” (122). Teachers weren’t the only ones pleased with the results of these techniques. According to Suzanne S. Hudd, students as well seemed to find writing multiple drafts of a paper valuable for improving their writing (135). Cornelius Nelan notes that instructors should grade writing differently, depending on the goals of the assignment (148). If the goal is for the student to learn or apply a concept, then concentrate on how well the student has accomplished that, and not on other features such as adhering to the conventions of standard academic English. On the other hand, if an assignment is what educational theorist James Britton calls “transactional” (158), meaning the focus is on communication between writer and reader, then more attention should be paid to this goal and accordingly to deficiencies in surface correction that might mar this process. Describing writing tutoring at Quinnipiac, Andrew Delohery points out a useful concept by asking instructors to distinguish between “HOTs” and “LOTs”: “HOTs--higher-order-things--correspond to the elements one might recognize as deep revision. Here, tutors attempt to focus their clients on issues of idea development, coherence, cohesion, organization--many of the tasks require more metacognition, which is definitely not the expectation of clients who use tutoring ‘to have their papers proofread.’ Initially, the clients, and often, their faculty, default to our tutors to provide the LOTs--lower-order-things--such as punctuation, grammar, and the like before their ideas have come to fruition or have been adequately developed” (162). As Delohery points out, there isn’t much sense in proofing a paper that needs more development in its ideas; it would be like painting a car that lacks an engine, even if it looks pretty, the car (or the paper) isn’t going anywhere. Delohery further suggests that instructors must make “sure not to overload papers with comments about surface-level errors and, thus, [create] the impression that more serious concerns are no more serious than a dropped comma or a misplaced modifier” (166). So, if a student doesn’t offer any support for her or his argument, focus on that aspect of the paper first and then deal with the comma splices later. Finally, as Smart and Segall, the editors, note, drawing on the research of Richard Light, writing is worth the trouble because more than any other factor, the amount of writing in a course matches the level of engagement by the students. And, student engagement usually equals learning, which is why we're here in the first place.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Walbaum, Shar. "A Cognitive Psychologist’s Rationale for Experimenting with WAC”

Walbaum, Shar. "A Cognitive Psychologist’s Rationale for Experimenting with WAC.” Writing across the Curriculum. Ed. Mary T. Segall, and Robert A. Smart. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. 137-44.

In “A Cognitive Psychologist’s Rationale for Experimenting with WAC,” Shar Walbaum explains how commenting less on a student paper may actually be more beneficial than filling up a page of student writing with red ink (or ink of any color): “I learned that less is more: my old editing habits were very likely overloading students with too many details. As a consequence, my feedback was probably being ignored. this is just what Jean Piaget, the eminent theorist of cognitive development, would have predicted (Piaget 1972). If we have no way of making sense of new stimuli, we resolve the resulting cognitive disequilibrium by just filtering them out. For example, if I overheard a conversation between a Peruvian couple, I would be in a similar position. Although I know a little Spanish, when it is spoken colloquially, I experience information overload and simply stop listening. This is an adaptive response. If someone wants me to understand something that is being said in Spanish, he or she must speak clearly and simply (presenting me with a moderate amount of cognitive challenge). Similarly, if I want a student to understand what I am saying about his or her writing, I must express it clearly and simply. In other words, cognitive development is possible only when new information is moderately disequilibrating. (Of course, as a cognitivist, I was kicking myself for not figuring out this rule sooner.) During my three years at Mount Holyoke, I learned to ‘zoom out’ as I was reading student work and to look for patterns, whether in terms of micro or macro structure or content” (138). Walbaum also found that writing could be useful even in subjects not typically identified with it such as math (139). Walbaum argues that this is because “When we integrate writing into college courses, we provide scaffolding for young adults’ intellectual development” (143), enabling them to reach their potential by providing appropriate challenges that can spur further development.

Monday, April 27, 2009

McGeary, Signian. "The 'Just Right' Challenge"

McGeary, Signian. "The 'Just Right' Challenge." Writing across the Curriculum. Ed. Mary T. Segall, and Robert A. Smart. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. 57-62.

Richardson (see previous post) was trying to guide his students in what we might call a “learning to write” assignment, wherein students develop the writing practices valued by their specific discipline. But writing can also be used as an instructional technique which can primarily focus in aiding students to learn the content of the course. In “The ‘Just Right’ Challenge,” Signian McGeary describes how she used “low-stakes writing to foster mastery of classroom material” (58). She utilized various writing exercises such as an in-class assignment that asked students to explain an anatomical process to help students learn concepts in occupational therapy and found that “The students appear to have much better overall understanding of the basic foundation that allows for ease of transition to a higher application demand” (59). This may be because the writing exercises forced the students to do more than rote memorization of the material. In the assignments, they had to think about the concepts on their own in order to successfully explain them to someone else.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Richardson, Dennis J. "Protracted Peer-Reviewed Writing Assignments in Biology"

Richardson, Dennis J. "Protracted Peer-Reviewed Writing Assignments in Biology: Confessions of an Apostate Cynic of Writing across the Curriculum." Writing across the Curriculum. Ed. Mary T. Segall, and Robert A. Smart. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. 44-56.

Dennis J. Richardson, in the beginning of his chapter, provides a humorous look at the unfortunately all-too-typical approach to writing: “For years I relished lamentations shared with fellow biology teachers over the abysmal state of student writing. It’s the same old story. We assign a term paper: due at the end of the semester, typed, ten pages in length, doublespaced, a minimum of five references. The students wearily trudge through the assignment and ultimately turn in a seriously deficient document, to put it graciously. Then, the excruciating process of evaluation begins. After the third glass of scotch, one encounters the challenge of reading yet another paper that appears impenetrable to constructive criticism. Finally, there are the students’ moans as the papers are returned. they walk away tossing their papers at the wastebasket, contemplating yet another affirmation of their writing deficiencies, and I head off to the lounge to share my grief over the deteriorating state of western civilization due to student apathy and lack of basic English skills” (44). Fortunately, as Richardson knows, there are better ways to deal with such issues. As he points out, “I learned to my surprise that many of the perceived problems with student writing were in reality a result of pedagogical shortcomings of an assignments” (44). By using a process approach to writing instruction such as requiring students to turn in a rough draft and setting up a peer review process, Richardson found that he “was amazed at the increase in quality of student manuscripts” (49).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Clark, Deborah J. “The Use of Peer Evaluations to Foster Critical Analysis of Writing in Biology”

Clark, Deborah J. “The Use of Peer Evaluations to Foster Critical Analysis of Writing in Biology.” Writing across the Curriculum. Ed. Mary T. Segall, and Robert A. Smart. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. 28-43.

Deborah J. Clark writes, “Learning to write in a discipline-specific style, such as that used in the sciences, must be approached using scaffolded writing exercises, beginning with lab reports and other writing exercises in the first year and continuing throughout all four years of the undergraduate experience. The process of peer evaluating, followed by rewriting, and perhaps a second revision after instructor evaluation, is important. It is during this process that students derive many chances for reconstructing their knowledge of how to write—that is, losing high school habits and replacing them with appropriate skills for a college science major” (41). Clark also notes that students at different levels may need slightly different approaches. For example, peer editing didn’t work as well with first year students since the students were still learning the basics of scientific writing, so they couldn’t help their classmates as much while critiquing their writing (40-42).

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

O’Brien, Liam. “Building a Scaffolding for Student Writing across the Disciplines in Communication Studies"

O’Brien, Liam. “Building a Scaffolding for Student Writing across the Disciplines in Communication Studies." Writing across the Curriculum. Ed. Mary T. Segall, and Robert A. Smart. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. 18-27.

Similar to William Keep (see previous post), Liam O'Brien notes that having students write a journal can be a good way to improve their writing without instructors having to grade every word (20-21). In general, students found writing useful for their education, even in courses not often associated with writing such as biology (see page 39 in Segall and Smart) and math (see page 148 in Segall and Smart). But merely including a paper in a course is not enough to achieve this success.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Keep, William. “Rewriting Business as Usual”

Keep, William. "Rewriting Business as Usual." Direct from the Disciplines: Writing across the Curriculum. Ed. Mary T. Segall, and Robert A. Smart. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005. 9-17.

In “Rewriting Business as Usual,” William Keep notes that although we often find writing in various disciplines to be quite different from one another. He states, “I listened with amazement as a political science professor described passive voice as a valued writing style. I began fighting against passive voice with my very first student, yet here was a respected colleague valuing a style I sought to dramatically reduce” (11). Keep also points out that writing in the same discipline can also vary significantly (10-11). These facts no doubt can perplex students until they have an understanding of the important role context plays in writing. Keep found that allowing and encouraging revision improved student writing. He states, “By providing such opportunities, we encourage students to view the improvement of their writing to be an ongoing and important goal” (16).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Segall, Mary T., and Robert A. Smart, eds. Direct from the Disciplines: Writing across the Curriculum

Segall, Mary T., and Robert A. Smart, eds. Direct from the Disciplines: Writing across the Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005.

Direct from the Disciplines collects a number of essays reflecting on the implementation of a writing across the curriculum (WAC) approach to college education at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Although a couple selections are devoted to more theoretical discussions or overviews of the program, most of the selections offer an interesting look at how WAC has been integrated in the courses of a specific discipline. Disciplines represented include biology, communication, computer science, design, English, law, mathematics, occupational therapy, political science, and sociology. The beginning of the book also provides a handy guide to selections that discuss specific WAC techniques used in the classroom such as brief in-class writing activities, drafting/revision, journals, and peer critique. The authors of the selections make some interesting observations in the course of discussing WAC at Quinnipiac. Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting discussions of various chapters. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Speaking of Writing: A Digital Resource for Writing in the Disciplines DVD

Speaking of Writing: A Digital Resource for Writing in the Disciplines. Dir. Stacey Cochran. DVD. North Carolina State University, 2009.

This DVD features two short videos of professors at North Carolina State University discussing writing in their disciplines. The first video, “Speaking of Writing,” discusses academic writing in different disciplines, organized by such questions as “Where did you learn the writing conventions of your discipline?” The second video, which replicates some of the material from the first, goes discipline by discipline and devotes more time to each of the six interviews that form the core of the videos. The DVD appears to be intended for new instructors of composition, alerting them that writing conventions vary from discipline to discipline. The videos do demonstrate that fact well and indeed illustrate that some of those variations will even be in direct contradiction to one another such as when the food science professor says that he’s not looking for creativity such as one might use in a novel, but for students to write a story using the facts of a lab experiment, which is closely followed by the historian who detests passive voice constructions because they mask the causality and human responsibility underlying many historical events. So basically in one class students are likely being advised to write in passive voice whereas in the next they’re being advised to do the opposite and write in active voice. No wonder students can get confused about writing, if they aren’t aware it can vary from discipline to discipline! Watching the DVD will provide a viewer with a succinct understanding that, despite some shared characteristics such as a desire for clarity, what is considered good writing is essentially relative in the academy. Thus, an instructor will need to make explicit expectations for writing and the conventions of the discipline if he or she expects students to produce good writing. As the historian notes, students can’t be expected to produce good writing in a discipline if they’ve never been exposed to the type of writing they’re expected to produce before. As instructors in a discipline, it’s our job to teach those conventions and expectations to students. The DVD will shortly be available in the mini-library of writing instruction materials in the USP office. It is courtesy of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and North Carolina State University.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Friedrich, Patricia, ed. Teaching Academic Writing

Friedrich, Patricia, ed. Teaching Academic Writing. New York, NY: Continuum, 2008.

This collection of essays from an international group of scholars offers valuable advice on teaching writing, but as with many essay collections, some essays are better than others. Most useful for our purposes are the essays by A. Abby Knoblauch and Paul Kei Matsuda, Sian Etherington, Dana R. Ferris, Shawn T. Casey and Cynthia L. Selfe, and Diane Pecorari. In “First-Year Composition in Twentieth-Century US Higher Education: A Historical Overview,” Knoblauch and Matsuda provide background on the development of the traditional college composition course, but also trace the rise and fall of various approaches of teaching writing, from the traditional approach of the early 20th-Century that often focused on surface grammar and correctness, to the process movement that arose at mid-century that suggested instructors “Teach writing as a process, not a product” (11), to the post-process schools of thought characterized as rhetorical pedagogy (emphasizing “audience, purpose, and form” 16) and critical pedagogy and cultural studies (emphasizing cultural and societal issues and the relevance of writing as a manifestation of political power). Etherington, in her essay “Academic Writing and the Disciplines,” argues for basing writing instruction in the majors and minors rather than the core, and doesn’t completely persuade me to agree, but she does make some excellent points such as that first generation college students need more support in writing instruction than we might typically assume college students need. She notes, “These students may not possess good, extensive, reading habits which can help them to pick up the conventions of their subject area or analytical skills which help them to focus on ‘what [their instructors] want’” (34). In “Feedback: Issues and Options,” Ferris discusses how to best respond to student writing. As with Etherington’s essay, I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with her recommendations, but her essay will make any instructor consider how he or she responds to her or his students’ writing, and that alone makes it a valuable read. Next, Shawn T. Casey and Cynthia L. Selfe in “Emergent Technologies and Academic Writing: Paying Attention to Rhetoric and Design” question whether using writing, particularly the essay, as the default genre/mode of learning demonstration remains valuable. As they point out, “When written essays are routinely assigned as the form for all assignments, for example, students may forget that the genre of the essay was developed by historical actors such as Montaigne in response to a historically situated, culturally specific set of circumstances in the eighteenth century and that these writers were making decisions about their communicative activities based on their own richly contextualized understanding of rhetorical purpose and audience, which they situated within a larger political, social, and ideological ecology” (149-150). Although personally I’d be thrilled if my students knew who Montaigne was in the first place enough to forget his role in the development of the essay, Casey and Selfe’s larger point holds true. Writing an essay can be tremendously useful if it fits the goals of your course, but there are many other ways students can learn and demonstrate their learning. Some of these include other forms of writing, and some can even involve newer technologies such as creating an Internet video, audio essay, or multimedia Web page. By calling attention to a wider range of possibilities for composing, we as instructors help to make the conventions of all communication, including writing, more visible, which may help students in their critical thinking and understanding of human interaction and society, as well as fostering critical composing habits that focus on the end goals of a communication rather than merely on the means to that goal. Finally, Pecorari, in “Plagiarism, Patchwriting and Source Use: Best Practice in the Composition Classroom” reminds the reader that students may have difficulty balancing their own individual voices with the voices of their sources, and that every instance of misusing source material isn’t always deliberate plagiarism; sometimes it is just sloppy citation. A good way to distinguish between deliberate plagiarism and what Pecorari calls patchwriting is to see if the student has cited the source he or she drew writing from at all. If the student has, then the student usually is just guilty of sloppy integration of source material and you can work with the student to improve on this facet of writing. However, if the source material is unacknowledged or falsely acknowledged to another source, then it likely is a case of deliberate plagiarism, and the student should be admonished for passing off the words of another writer as her or his own instead of developing her or his own voice (ultimately with deliberate plagiarism, the students don’t realize that they are cheating themselves more than the institution—if that can be made clear to them, then there’s a chance they can improve as scholars and develop their own voices). Pecorari seems as if she might disagree with punishing students for plagiarism at all, but then maybe she’s never had one of her students try to pass off an essay from Greatessay.Com as his own. Once she does, she'll change her mind, I bet. Teaching Academic Writing is available via OhioLINK.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Glenn, Cheryl, and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing

Glenn, Cheryl, and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.

Though this book is essentially aimed at a reader who will be teaching a traditional composition course, it is also quite useful for anyone who uses writing in the classroom, which is just about all of us. The first part of the book focuses on day to day issues of teaching writing, and offers numerous examples of sound advice from the very beginning such as these words of wisdom from the preface: “First, writing is teachable; it is an art that can be learned, rather than a mysterious ability that one either has or does not have. Second, students learn to write from continual trial-and-error writing and almost never profit from lectures, from teacher-centered classes, or from studying and memorizing isolated rules. Third, the theories and methods included here should represent strategies that work in the classroom” (v). Particularly useful for our current concerns about student writing are the sections that deal with how to create a good writing assignment (100-102), how to utilize revision for better writing (104-107), and how to best evaluate and grade writing (114-147). The second part of the book focuses on rhetorical practices, and serves as a good theoretical introduction to rhetoric that may be tremendously useful in enabling you and your students to view writing in your courses from a different perspective that may prevent writing assignments from merely being seen as rote exercises. Sections of note include advice on using more informal writing assignments as tools of learning, particularly when developing paper topics (151-173); introducing students to rhetorical forms that can aid in the organization of their writing (174-198); distinguishing among sources in research (239); and noting the difference between formative and normative responses to writing, with formative responses aiding students in developing their writing and normative responses serving as the more traditional, final evaluation for a grade (267). The third and final part of the book is an anthology of classic essays from the discipline of composition that provides a rough overview of how theories about writing and approaches to teaching it have evolved in the past four decades. The essays explore various topics such as the unique learning opportunities of writing, errors in student writing, approaches to teaching grammar, peer writing groups, responding to student writing, diversity and different language varieties in the classroom, changing notions of literacy, utilizing service learning, new media texts, and more. We have a copy of this book in our writing instruction mini-library in the USP office.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Johnstone, Ashbaugh, and Warfield. “Effects of Repeated Practice and Contextual-Writing Experiences on College Students’ Writing Skills"

Johnstone, Karla M., Hollis Ashbaugh, and Terry D. Warfield. “Effects of Repeated Practice and Contextual-Writing Experiences on College Students’ Writing Skills.” Journal of Educational Psychology 94.2 (2002): 305-315.

The authors report on a study they conducted at University of Wisconsin--Madison, in which in response to graduates’ employers’ complaints about writing skills, they implemented a writing initiative in the Accounting department. Using previous research on writing, they designed the initiative so that it would “test whether repeated writing practice in a specific task domain improves students’ writing skills” (306). Based on their rather extensive study, they found that “general, repeated-writing experience (e.g., writing in college English classes) was still important as late as the sophomore year of college. In addition, we found that after controlling for repeated writing experience, writing within a specific task domain incrementally improved students’ writing skills” (312). To sum up what we can learn from this study is that the more students write in general, the better they write overall, but by writing in a specific discipline and developing expertise in certain genres and at certain writing tasks, the writing ability improves even more, at least specifically in those areas. This article is available in our library.

Kelly-Riley, Diane. “Washington State University Critical Thinking Project: Improving Student Learning Outcomes through Faculty Practice”

Kelly-Riley, Diane. “Washington State University Critical Thinking Project: Improving Student Learning Outcomes through Faculty Practice.” Assessment Update 15.4 (2003): 5+.

Kelly-Riley reports on a program at her university that aims to improve the critical thinking of their students. The program centers around the development of a critical thinking rubric that can be adapted into individual classes. She notes that spelling out expectations has seemed to improve student performances, writing, “Many faculty indicate that they feel as if they are cheating if they give students an articulated set of course expectations. For students from diverse cultures, from outside mainstream academic culture, and especially for at-risk students, this indirectness presents a significant obstacle. Having a clear set of expectations provides these students with a map to navigate the course and a common language for dialogue with the instructor” (7). Rubrics and otherwise making explicit expectations for assignments often improve student writing. As instructors, we are so immersed in academic culture that we can forget it is a culture like any other, and newcomers such as students must have assistance in learning our customs. You can’t assume they’ve been prepared by high school or previous college classes, and know every skill needed for an assignment. Giving students a guide to what constitutes a successful performance on a paper or other assignment may help them complete it in a manner that you find satisfactory. If you’d like to read the article, it is available through the library’s “Journal Finder” tool.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ochsner, Robert, and Judy Fowler. “Playing Devil’s Advocate: Evaluating the Literature of the WAC/WID Movement"

Ochsner, Robert, and Judy Fowler. “Playing Devil’s Advocate: Evaluating the Literature of the WAC/WID Movement.” Review of Educational Research 74.2 (2004): 117-140.

Ochsner and Fowler offer a history and critique of the Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) movements in higher education. They suggest that the research does not support the claimed effects for these writing programs to have improved student learning. However, they do suggest that various types of writing, when used well, can be tools to improve student learning, but writing alone in and of itself is not a magic educational solution for anything except maybe writing itself. They state that “written literacy is just one intellectual tool among many others” (123), and various students may learn best by a variety of methods including by “ideas in films, group discussions, audio recordings, [and] hypermedia” (125). Writing can be useful, but it must be accompanied by instruction and reading, as some studies have reported, which the authors note. For our purposes, Ochsner and Fowler’s points are good to keep in mind. Base writing assignments around your learning outcomes. If an outcome can be reached better another way, then don’t feel pressured to use writing. However, if you want students to write better, then they will have to write. But don’t expect writing to learn exercises (where students use writing as a means of engaging material, but aren’t expected to produce polished prose) to always translate to better student writing overall as students will need explicit instruction to handle new writing genres and tasks (or, learning to write, as such writing goals are referred to in WAC/WID). Expecting students to just figure things out on their own will probably just leave them and you frustrated. You may not be a writing instructor per se, but you likely know how writing works in your field of expertise, so try to be explicit about how writing in your field works when you expect students to produce those kinds of texts, and you and your students will likely be more pleased with the results. Although the authors claim that “no assessment offers incontrovertible evidence and that measuring student learning can be a vexing challenge” (131), I think we can also agree that we usually recognize a good piece of writing when we read one. Of course, as the authors remind us, we need to define our terms carefully, for what constitutes a good piece of writing may vary from situation to situation, and discipline to discipline. And, as the authors note, “Any faculty member in any discipline may acquire expertise in teaching [writing], but no one becomes a capable writing teacher without considerable investment of time, and no one teaches writing effectively without being willing to spend considerable time working with students” (134). So, don’t expect a miracle when you work with students on writing; just aim for slightly better writing. If you’d like to read the article, it is available through the library’s “Journal Finder” tool.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Hilgers, Thomas L., Edna Lardizabal Hussey, and Monica Stitt-Bergh. “'As You’re Writing, You Have These Epiphanies’"

Hilgers, Thomas L., Edna Lardizabal Hussey, and Monica Stitt-Bergh. “'As You’re Writing, You Have These Epiphanies’: What College Students Say about Writing and Learning in Their Majors.” Written Communication 16.3 (1999): 317-353.

The authors, all based at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, report on the results of interviews with juniors and seniors about writing in their majors. The results are quite detailed, but the most interesting findings for our purposes are that students often had problems with writing as a result of majors not explicitly teaching methodology, a majority of students believed that writing in their major prepared them for writing in the workplace, a vast majority (91%) thought that writing helped them learn, and 47% believed that “writing is the best way for them to learn” (342). Overall, the authors observe that writing intensive “courses, particularly those in the major, are providing students with rich opportunities to do what professionals do—to observe, gather data, make analyses, and write reports” (345). The authors suggest that their university’s investment in writing across the curriculum and writing in the disciplines has paid dividends for students, but suggest that if the methodology of a discipline were taught more explicitly, then students might be better able to utilize skills honed in past writing in future writing. Generally, this article is most useful in supporting the claim that improving student writing will improve student learning, and may console instructors kneedeep in papers that the extra effort sometimes involved in using writing in a class will be ultimately worthwhile. If you’d like to read the article, it is available through the library’s “Journal Finder” tool.

Gute, Deanne, and Gary Gute. “Flow Writing in the Liberal Arts Core and Across the Disciplines"

Gute, Deanne, and Gary Gute. “Flow Writing in the Liberal Arts Core and Across the Disciplines: A Vehicle for Confronting and Transforming Academic Disengagement.” JGE 57.4 (2008): 190-222.

The Gutes take the notion of flow theory from psychology and apply it to student writing in hopes that it might prove a useful tool for engaging students. Flow theory concerns how some activities can engage one's consciousness while others will not. Researchers into flow have suggested that activities which challenge a person too little cause boredom while those that challenge a person too much cause anxiety. The Gutes hoped to “better understand students’ subjective experience of academic disengagement and explore ways to confront and transform it” (192). To that end, they had students in two college writing classes write about classes they considered challenging, and studied whether having students directly confront educational difficulties through writing would be useful in improving their academic performances. Their findings included “the pervasiveness of anxiety and feelings of inadequate preparation among the students”; that students will be more engaged by practicing “disciplinary thought processes and concepts” and more opportunities “to get and give feedback”; and that using writing to learn strategies (where the emphasis is on using writing as a tool to spur student learning and not on instructing students in the formal writing practices of the discipline—in other words, more informal writing assignments such as journals or blogs) can provide students with a valuable way to get that practice and feedback (216). This article is most useful in suggesting how informal writing can be a valuable tool in building competency in a discipline, and how getting students to explicitly think and comment about their own approaches to learning may help them learn overall. Just plunk “JGE” in the library’s “Journal Finder” and you can read the article yourself.

Gold, David. “Will the Circle Be Broken: The Rhetoric of Complaint against Student Writing"

Gold, David. “Will the Circle Be Broken: The Rhetoric of Complaint against Student Writing.” Profession (2008): 83-93.

Gold traces the tradition of faculty complaints about student writing from the 19th century to the present day, and suggests that instructors instead of complaining, which he often finds counterproductive, might more wisely “simply admit that eighteen-year-olds frequently write poorly, and consider it our job to take it from there” (86). He notes that “empirical research has shown that students today do not make significantly more errors than students did in the past” (87), which is striking considering that today’s students are often asked to do more complex writing tasks than yesterday’s students. He uses examples from student writing to illustrate his claims, and points out that often students having difficulty with writing can be assisted by their instructors quite easily by an adjustment of pedagogy. Ultimately, he argues that scholars of literacy need to promote the findings of their research to a wider audience so as to counteract prevailing myths about writing in the general culture. This essay is useful in putting today’s “literacy crisis” in perspective, and may help instructors realize better ways to approach student writing. Please contact me if you'd like to read it, as I have a copy of this issue in my office.