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.

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