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.