Monday, December 5, 2011

"Assessing and Teaching What We Value: The Relationship between College-level Writing and Critical Thinking Abilities" by Condon and Kelly-Riley

Condon, William, and Diane Kelly-Riley. "Assessing and Teaching What We Value: The Relationship between College-level Writing and Critical Thinking Abilities." Assessing Writing 9 (2004): 65-75. OhioLINK Electronic Journal Center. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Many scholars seem to just assume that writing promotes critical thinking, akin to a faithlike belief in a higher, supernatural power, but don't provide compelling evidence and explanations of how that can be done. Fortunately, in a study conducted at Washington State University (WSU), Condon and Kelly-Riley actually investigated the link between critical thinking and writing. Unfortunately, they found bad news for the "If they write it, then they will critically think" crowd. They looked at student writing using a critical thinking rubric called "The WSU Guide to Rating Critical Thinking." Some classes had incorporated the guide into instruction, and, probably not surprisingly, those classes showed better critical thinking than classes which did not use the guide. What was surprising, however, was that the classes that showed better critical thinking also showed worse writing and vice versa. The authors note, "The inverse correlation, [sic] and then the lack of relationship between our writing assessment scores and critical thinking scores point to what anecdotal evidence has long supported. Oftentimes, raters in our Writing Assessment Program comment that the exams seem to show sound writing abilities, but really contain no critical thought, or are vacuous or superficial. Haswell's research (1991) indicates that when writers take risks with new ways of thinking, often their writing breaks down in structure as the student grapples with a new way of thinking" (65-66). The authors thus suggest that writing alone will not promote critical thinking. What will promote critical thinking includes explicitly laying out expectations for students including values and features of the individual discipline being taught (65).

Ultimately, the authors argue that "Writing acts as a vehicle for critical thinking, but writing is not itself critical thinking" (66). They provide helpful advice for how to promote critical thinking in the classroom, most of which involves explicitly clarifying expectations for critical thinking (66). The authors also go on to discuss issues with using timed writing situations to assess anything beyond superficial writing traits (67-68). Though writing clearly has a place in using courses to promote critical thinking, writing by itself isn't a substitute for the critical thinking, and instructors should be careful to assess the thinking and not just the writing.

The article is available in the OhioLINK Electronic Journal Center.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Overall Writing Instruction Guidelines

If one were looking for some quick and general guidance on teaching writing, then the National Council of Teachers of English's (NCTE) beliefs would be a good place to find it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

National Day on Writing

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has named October 20th as this year's National Day on Writing, a day that celebrates the importance of the written word. This will mark the third year that NCTE has had this event. Ursuline participated in the first National Day on Writing by having our own gallery as part of NCTE's National Gallery of Writing. The galleries were initially supposed to be closed down after a few months, but the entire event was such a success that they remained open. So if anyone has anything they would like to contribute to showcase the many types of writing done at Ursuline on a daily basis, please contact me via the information on the sidebar.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy by Anis S. Bawarshi and Mary Jo Reiff

Bawarshi, Anis S., and Mary Jo Reiff. Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2010. WAC Clearinghouse. Web. 29 Aug. 2011.

At Ursuline, we write in genres every day, whether academic essays, emails, lab reports, or lesson plans. How people use genres has been a fascinating question for scholars to explore. In this book, the authors provide an overview of genre theory from several perspectives including linguistics, literary studies, rhetoric, and sociology. Though seemingly abstract at the surface level, the topic of genres is important for pedagogy and our day to day activities in the classroom. Many times, it is precisely genre that students are having difficulty with when writing in a new and unfamiliar discipline, and the authors communicate the insights of several decades of research into genres.

Though not all scholars are in agreement, most who have researched genres suggest that the explicit teaching of genres to students will best assist them in utilizing genres. An interesting approach to teaching genre comes from the Australian-based systemic-functional school, which involves what is called the "teaching-learning cycle" (34). In this cycle, students are first exposed to various examples of a particular genre and invited to analyze them. Next, students and teachers work together to construct an example of the genre. After this collaboration, students create an example of the genre on their own. For example, if I were to teach students how to write a research essay, we would read several examples of research essays first, then we would work together to write a research essay, and, finally, the students would write research essays of their own. This method, though not without its critics, has been implemented successfully at all grade levels including higher education.

Teaching genres seem to be particularly successful if the instructor can communicate to students that genres are not mere formulas but instead "dynamic, situated actions" (17) that "help organize and generate social practices and realities" (20). The authors are critical of the hackneyed teaching of universal modes of writing such as description and narration, feeling that form is typically overemphasized whereas a true understanding of genre always involves content and context as well. To replace such traditional but untheoretically-sound pedagogical approaches, after discussing the theory and research into genres earlier, the authors discuss some interesting pedagogical approaches to teaching writing in Part 3 of the book, which concludes with a handy glossary and annotated bibliography (a genre, incidentally that has been difficult for students at Ursuline).

In conclusion, the book is a valuable primer on genre theory and well worth reading. Even more valuable though is to stop and consider what genres you utilize in your courses and how you expect students to master them. Are you depending too much on tacit knowledge that you hold but the students do not? Or are you explicitly guiding the students through what is for them new rhetorical territory? Getting students to think about genre explicitly can help them to transfer their skills and enable them to recognize and negotiate new genres and situations in the future (190). As the authors vividly demonstrate, genre is worth thinking about for instructors and students alike.

The book is available for free online at

Monday, June 6, 2011

Summer Break

Another academic year has ended so the blog will be taking a summer break. Please look for new posts in Fall 2011.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education by James E. Cote and Anton L. Allahar

Cote, James E., and Anton L. Allahar. Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education. Buffalo, NY: U of Toronto P, 2011. Print.

This book is the sequel to Ivory Tower Blues, which I have also written about on the blog, and the authors continue to explore the themes and concerns of the earlier book. In fact, you could probably read either book and get the gist of the other. However, since this book is more recent, I’d suggest reading it instead of the previous book. In both books, the authors are concerned that higher education has lost its way, abandoning the traditions of the liberal arts for the economic appeal of “pseudo-vocational training,” an approach that threatens to capsize the whole university enterprise: "These programs have been rebranded to promise that they will give students an edge in the competition for jobs. As this has happened, the pedagogical value of the liberal education in stimulating critical thinking abilities, and honing the skills associated with effectively communicating those abilities in writing and speech, is diminishing; thus, as universities adopt teaching practices associated with training people to remember formulae, systems of facts, and procedures, rather than educating them to develop a critical awareness of the world at large that they can defend epistemologically, we witness a fundamental alteration in the structure and function of the traditional university and its curriculum" (4). For writing instruction, this approach manifests itself in a lack of significant writing assignments, and, consequently, a lack of transformative opportunities for intellectual growth (86-87). The authors make a number of recommendations (177-78) to remedy matters, but only a societywide initiative is likely to succeed, for, as the authors note, the crisis in higher education stems from misguided government policies that promote higher education as the one-size-fits-all answer to questions of economic development (91). Furthermore, the authors suggest that student disengagement doesn’t stem from universities not embracing multiple ways of learning (127) or utilizing new technology (the entirety of chapter 6), nor from students working more hours to pay for college (139), but from a basic academic permissiveness in which the majority of students achieve above-average grades for what logically and statistically must include some below-average work (69). They ask, “why would someone try harder in their courses when high grades are so easily obtained, especially someone who prefers socializing or making some money on the side?” (144). But, without an effort on the part of the individual student, he or she will not achieve the benefit of a college education, an assertion of the authors that will likely find support in any reader of this blog (65). Therefore, in order to guarantee that students must exert themselves in their studies, colleges and universities should fight grade inflation and the accompanying relaxation of academic standards.

The good news is that at Ursuline we already employ many of the approaches that the authors recommend, such as a focus on developing the critical thinking skills of students (the epistemic positions discussed on 95-97 resemble those from Women’s Ways of Knowing), which is ironic since much of our curriculum might be viewed by the authors as pseudo-vocational. Apparently the core curriculum’s base in liberal education may be moderating the effects of the issues negatively affecting higher education. In any case, I hope that we don’t offer a “BA-lite” here, a trend that the authors see growing, with the more rigorous, traditional liberal arts education being discarded (6). But, like other institutions, we may do well to remember and resist the current fashionable metaphor of the college as corporation: students aren’t customers; instead, they are better understood as raw commodities “to be transformed in some way by the experience, not a consumer of knowledge or a credential” (78). The authors conclude that if things do not change, most colleges and universities “will pretend to teach students at a level of higher education, and students will pretend to learn at that level, but the truth will be that universities are simply providing empty degrees that are little more than expensive ‘fishing licenses’ for lower-level white-collar jobs” (191), resulting in a terrifying situation for both higher education and the rest of society.

The book is available through OhioLINK.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Teaching Writing Online: How and Why by Scott Warnock

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2009. Print.

Instructors preparing to teach a hybrid or online course for the first time will likely find Warnock’s book useful as a roadmap for this new teaching environment. Though he concentrates on teaching composition, Warnock provides valuable guidance for any instructor utilizing writing in her or his course. He explains well how traditional classroom features can be adapted to online courses and the transformations that might result. For example, instructors may find themselves replacing some of the formal writing assignments in their courses with more informal writing assignments since class “discussion” in an online course may be entirely composed of writing (134-35). He also prepares instructors for potential pitfalls such as changes in student expectations. For example, instructors who do not clarify contact hours may find students who expect the instructor to always be available even in the middle of the night (40-41). Overall, the book can serve as a life preserver for those lost in the electronic sea of pedagogy.

The book is available through OhioLINK, but we hope to add a copy to the writing instruction mini-library in Mullen 318 soon.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis by James E. Cote and Anton L. Allahar

Cote, James E., and Anton L. Allahar. Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. Buffalo, NY: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.

This book could come across as a rant about the loss of the good old days in higher education by two old and grumpy professors, except the authors present copious evidence that colleges and universities have lost their way a bit in the past few decades and the current problems besieging higher education (the recent arguments that students don’t learn anything, the complaints about the costs of tuition rising faster than inflation, the lawsuits from graduates having trouble finding jobs, and so forth) will only persist and worsen as the trends lamented by the authors continue. Overall, the authors argue that North American society has emphasized the importance of a college degree so much that an “arms race” in amassing degrees has taken place with unintended consequences of student disengagement, grade inflation, and the watering down of the value of a degree. The authors diagnose these problems and others, and present some potential solutions, but since this blog focuses on writing instruction, I will confine my review to how these issues affect student writing.

The problems the authors note explain much of the problems instructors see with student writing. Many times, I have witnessed a student get a paper returned, look at the grade, ignore the comments, and toss the paper in the trash can (or at best the recycling bin) when leaving class (I am sure I am not alone in witnessing this scenario as well; if you think this doesn’t happen in your classes, look in the trash after you return papers next time). The student who tosses a paper in the trash clearly not only doesn’t value her or his own writing, but also doesn’t value anything the instructor has to say about it. With such an approach, this student will never improve her or his writing much. Such a student is a model of what Cote and Allahar call “The Disengaged Student” (16). This student has been trained by the pre-college educational system to expect high grades for low work. To such a student, the work itself has little to no value on its own; it is just the latest in a series of hoops that he or she has resigned herself or himself to jump through in order to get credentialed so that he or she can get a higher-paying job after graduation. To such a student, a professor is just a gatekeeper to a middle-class lifestyle, merely an obstacle to be overcome, like the guard of a treasure vault to be disposed of by the hero in an action movie. Little wonder then that such a student doesn’t view college as transformational, or value learning for its own sake, or even see it as a means to develop skills that might be valuable down the road (and it takes very little forethought and enlightened self-interest to take the third approach). In the past, the authors claim, such students would have been drummed out of college quickly or would not even have entered it in the first place.

Today, they graduate.

What has happened to higher education?

Cote and Allahar are careful not to blame such a student entirely, as to a certain extent he or she is responding rationally to the environment he or she lives in. They do note that such students are short-sighted, but they place most of the blame on the conditions that allow such students to . . . well, “flourish” isn’t the right word, perhaps “subsist” fits better. They note a variety of causes including the emphasis on self-esteem as opposed to self-efficacy (70), “credentialism” (25), the high cost of college leading to students working which takes away from time available for studying (108), systems of faculty promotion that consider student evaluations (35), the use of “pre-digested” textbooks instead of primary materials (136-37), viewing a college education in economic terms rather than educational terms (127), and the overreliance on adjunct instructors (91), all of which converge to make writing an essay in college, for most students, “a detached experience with little meaning and transformative potential beyond meeting another deadline” (136).

About the only good news that the book offers is that at Ursuline we already do incorporate many of the solutions the authors recommend such as emphasizing analytical essays, having students do verbal presentations, offering career counseling, focusing on identity formation, and providing a mission and educational philosophy, among others (93-101). However, we still have many of the problems the authors describe, for the reason they state, “the causes ultimately lie with the wider society.” They encourage those of us in higher education to raise awareness of these issues in the public sphere and encourage society not to view a university education as the path for all. They write: "In short, university teaching of the liberal arts is about the dissemination of knowledge and the preparation of well-rounded citizens, and we are concerned that this is in jeopardy as more and more students have been told to use the liberal arts degree as a status symbol to gain access to white collar occupations. While some of these students clearly benefit and go on to combine their liberal education with some sort of vocational or professional training, as we have argued, it appears that the liberal education side of this equation has increasingly been given short shrift. The fault lies with policies and practices that 'sell' the undergraduate degree as something amorphously 'good' for labour-force [sic] entry or as a qualification for professional schools, and is manifested in the growing numbers of disengaged and partially engaged students enrolling in courses that should be demanding a fuller commitment to deep learning. These policies and practices simply encourage large numbers of students to look at some obscure future horizon without appreciating the opportunities at hand in the present to transform and enrich themselves. Giving them 'soft' (inflated) grades in return for their tuition money simply bypasses the philosophy of the liberal education and undermines the fiduciary duty that the university system has had to both preserve and advance civilization" (185). The authors suggest that without taking steps to reverse these trends more than a student essay might end up in the trash.

The book is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty—and the Price We All Pay edited by Michael Dubson

Dubson, Michael, ed. Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty—and the Price We All Pay. Boston: Camel’s Back Books, 2001. Print.

Based on their transcripts, transfer students arriving at Ursuline should be familiar with MLA format, the academic essay genre, and how to spell “they are,” among other niceties of writing. At the first class, the student may even tell you that he or she has written a research paper before and has all the knowledge and skills needed that your course is supposed to provide (usually in the midst of a complaint about having to take your class in the first place, particularly if it’s outside of her or his major, implying, if not explicitly stating, that he or she considers your class a waste of her or his time).

Then when this "superstar" student turns in her or his first piece of writing for your course, it’s horrible.

What’s going on here?

Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays written by adjunct instructors, helps to explain why transfer students often arrive at Ursuline without the writing skills they should. The book also vividly details larger problems in American higher education such as exploitation, greed, and incompetence, but since this blog’s focus is on writing instruction, that will be my focus in this post.

Like most adjuncts, the writers of the essays in the book appear to be dedicated and talented instructors, but they work under impossible conditions. Because pay for adjuncts is so low, many adjuncts string together multiple classes at various colleges and universities in order to put together a living wage. This situation is far removed from the adjunct ideal of the working professional who is noble enough to teach the occasional course in her or his field of expertise in order to give back to the community or discipline. Exacerbated by a variety of factors, most principally by the oversupply of college instructors in relation to demand that makes for cheap and contingent labor, higher education has come to rely on adjuncts to teach many, many courses, leaving them and the rest of us exasperated. Michael Dubson, the editor of Ghosts, claims that 50% of all college faculty members are adjuncts (vii), a percentage that likely has only grown in the ten years since the book’s publication. Furthermore, as we all know, adjuncts teach many introductory courses since full-time faculty often prefer, or are the only ones qualified to teach, upperlevel courses, so many of our transfer students arrive having essentially been taught by adjunct faculty. The stories in the book vividly explain what our transfer students likely experience before they arrive at Ursuline. For example, an English instructor, Kate Gale (which may not be her real name since many of the adjuncts, for obvious reasons, use pseudonyms), describes teaching at least ten classes each semester at six different colleges and universities. How is that even possible? One can say that she doesn’t have to do research or service activities so she can just concentrate on her teaching, but any time savings from those duties is surely eaten up just driving from campus to campus. And Gale teaches writing, making her courses even more labor intensive than many others. With at least ten classes to juggle, she surely has trouble providing the bare minimum of instruction for her students, and that's assuming a superhuman effort on her part.

Without much guidance, how then do the students pass such a course? Are they superhuman as well?

No, likely they pass because it is in the system’s interest to have them pass. Students who fail a course often drop out entirely. Instructors, particularly adjunct instructors whose jobs are tenuous and often dependent on receiving good student evaluations, have a motivation to pass even the worst students, as Andrew Guy illustrates by recounting the story of how he gave an A to a plagiarizing student named Shirley: “She didn’t give a damn about the class, and she also knew--as I had not realized until that very moment—that I didn’t give a damn either, not even about so much as trying to teach her the basics of right and wrong” (125-26). Guy would like to fail the plagiarizing student, but he realized that pursuing proof of her infraction would only lead him to the unemployment line, so he, like seemingly everyone else in higher ed these days, pursued the path of least resistance. Can we blame him?

Probably not. Guy is just doing what he needs to in order to survive in his environment. The problem lies in the environment itself. Whatever the cause, the result is that Shirley ends up in our classes when she transfers to Ursuline and often gets shocked when she finds out that her writing is deficient. We aren’t perfect, nor are all other institutions to blame when students show up here underprepared. We have to work with our students wherever they are skillwise. But, Ghosts in the Classroom explains why so many students show up unprepared to write at the level we would expect. This is one of those problems similar to those I discussed last year on the blog which explained why the studying time of students had decreased over the decades with predictable results. The issue is at a level above the individual instructor’s control. The only things we can do is try to improve the environment whenever we have such an opportunity so our adjunct colleagues don’t have to face such an impossible situation and our students get the full value of what they’re paying for.

The book is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Podcasting and Performativity: Multimodal Invention in an Advanced Writing Class” by Leigh A. Jones

Jones, Leigh A. “Podcasting and Performativity: Multimodal Invention in an Advanced Writing Class.” Composition Studies 38.2 (2010): 75-91. Print.

This essay offers a look at an innovative strategy one instructor used in a writing course, but one that could easily be adapted to most courses. Jones had her students create a podcast as part of the writing process for a research paper. She argues that the technique can “help alleviate the counter-productive anxiety that many students feel” at the start of a major writing assignment (78). Basically, she asked her students to pair up to write and record “a short, five minute mp3 file that would educate the class about a current controversial news issue they planned to write about over the course of the semester” (83). These podcasts were then played in class and discussed. She hoped that students would be able to use the podcasts as a means of narrowing their research topics and she was pleased with the results. Her findings dovetail nicely with some recent research in composition studies that suggests that having students talk about their writing helps them produce better documents (some research has even suggested that students discussing their writing with one another informally actually has the greatest effect), though she thinks that having the students polish the talking in the form of a podcast helped the students develop a sense of authority in addition to further honing their composition skills. Her technique could easily be adapted to many courses here and, of course, podcasting can itself be a form of writing if scripts are involved, and might be a useful alternative in and of itself to a conventional writing assignment.

The essay can be found in our writing instruction library in the Ursuline Studies Program office (Mullen 318).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Quill Is Up!

Ursuline's new online showcase of student academic writing, The Quill, has its first feature, an essay by Lauren Krozser about aborigines in Australia. If you come across any outstanding student writing, please nominate it for inclusion in The Quill, as I hope that Lauren's essay will be the first of many to be featured on the site.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Elephant in the Classroom: Race and Writing edited by Jane Bowman Smith

Smith, Jane Bowman, ed. The Elephant in the Classroom: Race and Writing. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2010. Print.

This collection of essays focuses on the experiences of speakers of African American English (AAE) in the college composition classroom. Many times speakers of AAE and other dialects of English considered nonstandard have difficulty in college writing classes, where Standard American English (SAE) defines the norms of linguistic expression. Often, the speakers of other dialects of English are treated as deficient and enrolled in developmental classes. I once taught a developmental English class composed of students who as far as I could tell had only been placed in it because of their dialect. Many people might not consider this absurd, but I did and felt bad for the students who had to spend money and time taking an extra college class they probably didn’t really need to take (aside from dialectal differences, they wrote as well as any other first year college student and probably could have just taken a regular composition course--I didn't challenge their placement because it was my first time teaching the course and at the institution so I wasn't certain about the situation until much later in the course). Basically, it was the equivalent of having to take a developmental math class because one was used to using the traditional English system of measurement rather than the metric system.

Instead of taking an approach that views such students as deficient, the writers of the essays examine why the academy typically views the students in such a way. While reading the essays, I was reminded of the old linguistic saw, popularized by Max Weinreich, that the only difference between a language and a dialect is that a language has an army and a navy. Because SAE has social prestige and power behind it, it is often viewed as more than just one dialect of English among many. And, despite the efforts of many linguists over the years to dispel the myth of one correct English, most people, including college instructors, still believe in it with the results disastrous for speakers of nonstandard dialects when they enter college. As Arthur L. Palacas reminds us in “African American Voice and Standard English,” “Often, the treatment of this language conflict in class ends up demoralizing the student, with all the attendant harmful consequences.” Consequently, the language issue may have an effect on retention, and may help to explain, in addition to other factors, why minority students and first generation college students return less frequently for a second year of college compared to their counterparts, which occurs here at Ursuline as well as nationwide (thanks to Sr. Virginia DeVinne of URSA for the Ursuline data).

However, despite the linguistic reality that all dialects are equally grammatically complex and valid, the social reality is quite different, so in good conscience we have to find a way as instructors to give our students access to what Jennifer Liethen Kunka, one of the book’s contributors, calls “linguistic capital in the professional marketplace" (76). As Kunka notes, using the example of business process provider Office Tiger in India, other speakers/writers of English are quite willing to adopt SAE if such an adoption proves profitable, with the results that speakers/writers of English without access to SAE will be left behind economically (77). This situation provides a linguistic Gordian knot with no Alexander in sight to untie it in one bold stroke.

Instead, we will have to muddle through somehow. To that end, the book’s contributors offer some useful advice. Palacas recommends that writing instructors: "1. Give explicit teaching about differences between standard English and [African American English] (or other varieties of English). 2. Use linguistically and culturally affirming readings. 3. Allow the student to use comfortable language in the composing stages of writing and in discussion periods when the flow of ideas and thoughts is paramount." Given that Ursuline doesn’t have a composition class per se, Palacas’s recommendations might be difficult to implement. However, if you encounter a student who appears to be speaking and writing in a nonstandard way, consider the possibility that he or she is using a dialect of English that is different from your own and is not merely a bad speaker or writer. Focus on the student’s ideas. Most dialects of English are mutually understandable. Though it may not be comfortable, it’s a good bet that you can understand the student. If you only care that the student understands the content of the course in the content and form balance of speaking/writing, that may be all you need to do. If the form part is important though (say the student is writing a research paper that might be presented at a conference), then you will have to help the student bridge her or his home language into SAE. This must be done delicately and in such a way that adds to the student’s linguistic competence.

One good approach is as Peter Elbow advises in his essay, “Why Deny a Choice to Speakers of African American Language that Most of Us Offer Other Students.” Allow the student to compose the paper initially in her or his own dialect and then once the ideas and structure are worked out, then help the student to translate the nearly-completed document into SAE. To that end, many resources are available to you. The book In Other Words is available in the Writing Instruction Mini-Library in the Ursuline Studies Program office (Mullen 318). I am available for consultation. And this book is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Is “College-Level” Writing? edited by Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg

Sullivan, Patrick, and Howard Tinberg, eds. What Is “College-Level” Writing? Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. Print.

This anthology presents a variety of answers to the titular question, which turns out to be more difficult a query than it may appear to be on first consideration. Writing varies across the college curriculum. Writing is not a monolithic one size fits all skill, but a complex network of activities, which can vary from discipline to discipline based on specific needs and socially constructed knowledge. However, even if what “college-level” writing exactly is can never be definitively answered by the contributors, they still offer useful advice for college instructors who assign writing.

For example, Patrick Sullivan notes that instructors with high standards seem to spur better writing from students and that students who perceive low expectations from an instructor will produce worse work (12). Lynn Z. Bloom argues that students write better as “insiders” than they do as “outsiders” (84). She uses as an example her experiments in a course on autobiography which had students read autobiographies and then write in a similar mode, the results of which she found “varied, imaginative, on target, and—a bonus for me—virtually unplagiarizable” (86).

Contrast Bloom’s approach with an approach typical in higher education. An instructor assigns writing of one genre for students to read and then asks the students to write a document in another genre. Often this results in the instructor wondering why the students wrote so badly, but without models to go by, students basically have to create a genre on their own, and not surprisingly they don’t do very well. For illustration, if I gave you a bunch of recipes to read and then asked you to write a lab report, how well do you think you’d write? Bloom’s approach makes much more sense. If I want students to write in a particular genre well, then, as an instructor, I should have them read examples of that genre first to get an understanding of the form.

Another useful bit of pedagogical advice comes from Michael Dubson, who suggests that writing instructors should present good writing as the result of hard work rather than of innate talent (98). Otherwise, some students will assume they just aren’t good writers and will give up trying to improve. His essay, “Whose Paper Is This Anyway?: Why Most Students Don’t Embrace the Writing They Do for Their Writing Classes,” makes for an interesting read, as does “What Does the Instructor Want?: The View from the Writing Center,” by Muriel Harris. Harris focuses on the importance of audience awareness for good writing, using Linda Flower’s notions of “writer-based and reader-based prose” (125). Often, a student writer produces writer-based prose, which does a fine job of expressing the writer’s ideas from the writer’s perspective, but can be quite incomprehensible to readers. Teaching students to write with an audience in mind and to transform writer-based prose, often a necessary stage of composition, into reader-based prose can be of tremendous benefit to novice writers.

Finally, for those of us who like to complain about student writing, Sheridan Blau asks, “If students could [write well] at the time they entered your class, why would we need you to teach them?” And, in our moments of despair when responding to student writing, that’s a good point to keep in mind, one of many good points to be found in this collection of essays (even including an “anti-essay”). The book is available through OhioLINK.