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.

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