Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ursuline National Gallery Of Writing Is Still Open!

Apparently, last year's National Day on Writing event was so successful that the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) are holding it again. Unfortunately, this year's date (October 20th) falls over Ursuline's fall break, but we'll still be participating in it by keeping our Ursuline College Gallery of Writing open as part of NCTE's Gallery of Writing tie-in to the Day on Writing. The gallery was supposed to have been deleted over the summer, but apparently NCTE has decided to keep the galleries (all 2500 of them or so) open as part of this year's National Day on Writing. To celebrate, Ursuline colleague Joe LaGuardia has added a new contribution to the gallery. His contribution is a touching poem in honor of the memory of Ginny Marion, an Ursuline colleague who passed away recently. Joe's poem is our gallery's featured piece. If you are associated with Ursuline and would like to contribute a piece of your own writing to the gallery (it needn't be a poem; it could be any piece of writing associated with Ursuline, even a memo or course assignment), then please consider doing so. You can find the gallery at Please just send me an email at fwright AT when you do so as that will let me know as the curator to go and review your submission. Happy National Day on Writing!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Norton Pocket Book of Writing by Students edited by Melissa A. Goldthwaite

Goldthwaite, Melissa A., ed. The Norton Pocket Book of Writing by Students. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.

This anthology collects writing by college students, and demonstrates the truly amazing writing in a variety of genres that students are capable of doing. It even includes a poem by Barack Obama, written when he was a college student, and, whatever you think of his politics, most people would agree that he developed into a fine writer, building upon the foundation of his student writing. Even if none of the other student writers in the book eventually write bestsellers as Obama did, most instructors at Ursuline would be thrilled to read papers of this quality. In fact, the book is aimed at inspiring students to develop their writing, even including a submission sheet in the back of the book for those who would like to have their work considered for use by W.W. Norton as examples of fine student writing. Though instructors often bemoan the quality of student writing, Goldthwaite, who once visited to Ursuline to host a writing workshop, suggests that a better use of our time might be to focus on the excellent student writing we do find, writing, “For most students there is little opportunity to celebrate such work and little chance for other students and teachers to enjoy, appreciate, and learn from such writing” (xii). Is her statement true of Ursuline? We do have Inscape, our fine arts annual, after all, which publishes the work of many of our students, but it tends to focus more on creative writing rather than more traditional academic writing. Perhaps we should celebrate student writing more when we come across an exemplary piece by having a contest or showcase each year. Some might worry about the opportunity for plagiarism this might create, particularly for papers written in response to assignments that are used year after year, but displaying exemplary student writing on our Web site or elsewhere might also help students understand more clearly what we want in terms of student work by providing accessible models of it. What do you think? The book is not available through OhioLINK, but we hope to have a copy in the college library soon.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines by Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj

Gottschalk, Katherine, and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing: A Resource for Instructors in All Disciplines. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Written by two writing program administrators from Cornell University, The Elements of Teaching Writing makes a nice counterpart to The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. While the authors of the latter book focus more on the needs of instructors teaching a course centered around writing such as the traditional composition course, Gottschalk and Hjortshoj focus more on the needs of instructors teaching courses where writing is not the center, but ones in which instructors might find it useful to incorporate writing in order to reach the learning goals of the course, which, in their opinion, appears to be almost any course offered at the college level. The authors then address the classic question of how to incorporate writing assignments and instruction in a course without sacrificing the content of a course and turning it into a composition course. They begin by noting that grousing about the quality of student writing is a tradition of higher education, noting that half the students failed “the first writing assessments of entering students at Harvard in 1874” (3), and seek to explain why student writing has consistently disappointed instructors in the decades since then as well. Their explanation is that instructors often forget that students are typically newcomers to the disciplines they are studying and accordingly the written genres those disciplines favor. How would you like it if I asked you to write a grant request and then didn’t give you any examples of the genre? Or if I asked you to write a newspaper article on an Ursuline swim meet without giving you any guidance on how to do so, and just assumed that you understood the rules of competitive swimming? Unfortunately, such absurdities are often analogous to the types of writing situations students encounter in college. Thus, it’s no wonder that the writing students produce is often substandard in the judgment of instructors.

Gottschalk and Hjortshoj suggest that explaining discipline and genre expectations for writing in advance will increase the odds that students will produce better writing (6). They also argue that writing instruction will take time away from content in a course, but the sacrifice will be worth it since the writing will strengthen the learning of students, whereas the content sacrificed would have likely gone in one ear of a student, rattled around in the auditory cortex, and then slipped back out the other ear. The authors argue that, by contrast, using writing as a means of learning will ensure that the content takes root and doesn’t slip away. They write: "One of the best reasons for integrating writing with learning, therefore, is to give students time, reasons, and opportunities for understanding complex subjects: making connections among ideas and readings, grasping concepts they can use for further understanding and thinking critically about the course material. Most teachers hope for these types of learning, but they will not occur if students are passively listening, reading, and taking notes primarily to absorb large amounts of information and to keep up with the rapid pace of your course" (19). After offering their rationale for why to incorporate writing in courses across the curriculum, the authors devote the remainder of the book to offering many helpful suggestions for how to do so, including sample writing assignments from a range of disciplines. Though the book isn’t perfect (for example, the authors seem to have an irrational aversion to grading based on points, as seen on page 57), it likely is the single best resource for an instructor trying to figure out how to incorporate writing assignments into a course, and I highly recommend it. The book is currently available through OhioLINK, but we hope to have a copy in the writing instruction mini-library in the USP office (Mullen 318) soon.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Have A Good Summer!

This blog rides into the sunset for another year. See you in the fall!

The Norton Book of Composition Studies edited by Susan Miller

Miller, Susan, ed. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.

This mammoth tome purports to collect seminal work in the field of composition, but the editor should have either been more selective or provided more commentary about why these works are seminal. The resulting book does not serve as an effective introduction to the field, which is presumably its prime reason for being. Nevertheless, enough good material is collected herein to serve as a resource for instructors looking to improve the writing of their students. For example, Frank D’Angelo in “Nineteenth-Century Forms/Modes of Discourse: A Critical Inquiry” explains how the confusion between the aims and modes of discourse arose, a confusion that still plagues much of the teaching of writing. Teaching someone how to write a comparison/contrast essay isn’t very useful unless the student understands why one would employ such an approach in the first place. A comparison/contrast approach would be very useful in an argument for voting for one political candidate over another, but students are too often taught the how but not the why when taught these forms/approaches, resulting in a confusion between means and ends (this is another classic case where what is obvious to an instructor—when someone would use a comparison/contrast approach—is not obvious to the student). In another useful look at the past, Richard Young details the classical rhetoric that underlies much of contemporary composition theory in “Paradigms and Problems: Needed Research in Rhetorical Invention.” Another problem from the past that continues to devil writing instruction is the idea that all student writers need is some back to basics instruction in formal grammar and mechanics. Such an approach is usually disastrous as both Joseph M. Williams (in “The Phenomenology of Errors”) and George Hillocks, Jr. (“What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies”) explain. Indeed, Hillocks points out that focusing too much on grammar and mechanics can actually lessen the quality of student writing (537). For alternative approaches, please see the selections by John R. Hayes (“Peeking Out from under the Blinders: Some Factors We Shouldn’t Forget in Studying Writing”), Richard Haswell (“The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing, or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess”), and, especially, Russel K. Durst (“Writing at the Postsecondary Level”), who provides a useful overview of the last couple of decades of composition theory in relation to college writing. The text is available in the writing instruction mini-library in the Ursuline Studies Program office.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Podis, Leonard A., and JoAnne Podis, eds. Working with Student Writers: Essays on Tutoring and Teaching. 2nd ed.

Podis, Leonard A., and JoAnne Podis, eds. Working with Student Writers: Essays on Tutoring and Teaching. 2nd ed. New York: Peter Lang, 2010. Print.

Most of the essays in this revised collection (the first edition was released in 1999), co-edited by Ursuline’s own JoAnne Podis, are written by student writers who worked as writing tutors at Oberlin College. This aspect of the collection makes it quite unusual in Composition Studies, and provides an interesting viewpoint into how college students view writing. Though some of the essays are most useful for tutors working in a writing center, college instructors will also find the collection useful. A variety of topics are covered, including working with students who speak nonstandard varieties of English, the difficulties for students in learning how to write scientific writing, the struggles students face when trying to bridge the personal and the academic in their writing, and the challenges and opportunities posed by electronic communication. Naomi Strand’s essay is particularly interesting. In “The Comments They Made: An Exploration of Helpful and Unhelpful Commentary,” Strand explains how instructor feedback on writing can be made more useful for the student. This essay alone makes the book valuable for our purposes and many of the other essays also offer good advice for instructors wishing to help their students become better writers. The first edition is available in the Ursuline library, and soon the second edition should be (in the meantime, it is available via OhioLINK).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lunsford, Andrea A. From Theory to Practice: A Selection of Essays

Lunsford, Andrea A. From Theory to Practice: A Selection of Essays. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2009. Print.

This brief collection of essays by Lunsford (most coauthored with others) spans thirty years of her work in composition and rhetoric. Although all of the essays are engaging, they were originally targeted at very specific audiences, which may make them somewhat less accessible to readers not familiar with the composition field. However, the two essays that lead off the collection, both summations of major research studies into errors in student writing, are fairly accessible to all academic readers, and most useful for our purposes. In the essays, Lunsford and her coauthors examined thousands of student papers, first in the mid-1980s and 20 years later in the 2000s (a study that Ursuline participated in). Both studies led to useful lists of common errors in student writing. With the lists, instructors could more easily guide students past these pitfalls. Lunsford also advises instructors to focus on errors as opportunities for learning, writing, “Doing so means presenting the conventions of writing as deeply rhetorical choices a writer makes, rather than a series of static rules writers must learn and be regulated by” (5). Such an approach is quite different from the standard notion that students are writing worse than ever, which Lunsford notes is a recurrent refrain across the generations: “During the last decade, I’ve repeatedly read articles in which researchers bemoan the illiteracy of today’s students, who apparently don’t read anymore and cannot write without fractured grammar or the use of smiley faces and text-message abbreviations. Such uproars over student illiteracy have a long history in the United States and, in fact, seem to have erupted about every thirty years since the mid-1880s, so this latest round of angst left me wondering just how much had really changed” (21). Though Lunsford found that the hysteria over student writing remains constant, the student writing and errors have changed. For example, today’s students write papers twice as long as their predecessors in the 1980s (an average of 1082 words vs. an average of 422 words), and they typically write in response to more challenging assignments (i.e., writing argumentative essays rather than personal narratives) (31-32). Also, the types of errors have changed (24; 33-34), though the number of errors in a paper has remained fairly constant (38). In short, Lunsford suggests that students are writing more than ever before, and arguably they may even be writing better than ever before. What then might be causing the continuance of the concern over student writing? Could it be that our standards have risen? We often lament that college today has been dumbed down, but perhaps that belief is not supported by the evidence. I have a copy of the book, and one can also be found in the Ursuline Studies Program office.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2006. Print.

This collection of essays examines the different ways composition is taught, from the traditional face to face classroom to online education. Most of the book focuses on teaching the traditional freshman composition class, which we don’t have at Ursuline. However, the book does offer a few tidbits that would be useful for any class at Ursuline that utilizes student writing as a pedagogical approach, which is to say nearly all of our classes. In “Distributed Teaching, Distributed Learning: Integrating Technology and Criteria-Driven Assessment into the Delivery of First-Year Composition,” Rebecca Rickly includes a handy, distilled list of writing instruction principles:
• Students should have frequent and varied opportunities to write
• Students should engage in frequent peer and self-critique
• Students should receive timely feedback
• Students should receive helpful feedback
• Students should engage in a drafting sequence for assignments
• Assessment should be public, understood, and defensible; students should know and understand what criteria are being used to evaluate their work
• Students should be taught to integrate technology into their researching, writing, editing, and revising processes
• Students should have access to models of good writing (190)
Though most of the material in the book isn’t directly applicable to Ursuline, Rickly’s list is good to keep in mind when designing a writing assignment. The book is available through OhioLINK.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haswell, Richard H., and Min-Zhan Lu, eds. Comp Tales: An Introduction to College Composition through Its Stories

Haswell, Richard H., and Min-Zhan Lu, eds. Comp Tales: An Introduction to College Composition through Its Stories. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2008. Print.

Like many anthologies, Comp Tales, a collection of stories about teaching college writing accompanied by some theorizing in relation to the stories, makes for an uneven read. For our purposes, most valuable are the stories themselves, and any instructor who has utilized writing in a course will likely be able to relate to many of the experiences in the stories. Indeed, this collection of composition lore can provide valuable pedagogical advice. For example, consider the experience of Leon Coburn, who marked every cliché on a student’s paper with the word “cliché”, only to be rewarded with even more cliches on subsequent papers. Finally, he confronted the student to ask her to use less cliches in her writing, and she replied, “I thought you kept marking them because you liked them” (40). Clearly, even comments the meaning of which instructors would assume to be self-evident can be completely misunderstood by students, a lesson we should all remember when communicating with students. Not every selection in the book provides such a fable complete with an educational moral, but the “Classrooms,” “The Writing,” and “The Student” chapters offer many. As Lu notes, “The premise of this book project is that who we are, how we act, and what we think inform and are informed by the stories we tell” (195). What can we learn from the stories we tell about our teaching experiences at Ursuline? This book is available through OhioLINK.