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.