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.

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