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.