Friday, December 14, 2012

Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing by Peter Elbow

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. New York: Oxford U P, 2012. Print.

A familiar name in Rhetoric and Composition since the 1970s, Peter Elbow appears to intend this lengthy book as his final work.  Even if he doesn’t intend it to be his magnum opus, Vernacular Eloquence certainly reads that way, as he seemingly has crammed in every bit of knowledge about writing he has into the book.  I doubt many of you will have the patience to get through this entire tome, but, in its many pages, Elbow has some good ideas here worth discussing, so I will point out the specific areas of the book that you might find most useful.  His major argument is that speech can be useful for writing in a number of ways, an idea that we certainly can use to help our students.  For example, if your students have trouble expressing themselves clearly, ask them to read their writing aloud.  Often, the ineffective portions will stand out and be easily corrected.  This won’t work in all cases (the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to writing as it applies to nearly everything else), but it will help some students improve their phrasing and syntax, as well as catch some obvious word usage misfires and other mistakes.  For that alone, it’s worth doing as part of the writing process.  In the book, Elbow explores at length the many benefits of speech for writing, which go far beyond smoothing out phrasing.

Other useful bits of the book include Elbow’s explanation of his own writing process, which might be useful for others to emulate (208); his discussion of the split between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation styles, which might explain why various instructors enforce very different approaches to punctuation and how students get confused as a result (259); his commentary on how the fear of being judged inhibits people’s writing abilities (325), his reference to how using Black English in a writing course can help African-American students succeed in college overall (333); his critique of how certain features of student writing such as insisting that essays “announce their thesis in the first paragraph” aren’t really representative of true academic writing (which is, after all, what we’re supposed to be teaching them—students already know how to write in general, even the ones we consider bad writers, or they couldn’t have made it this far to begin with) (346); his suggestion that policing “proper” grammar has much more to do with social class and gatekeeping than it does with communication and language (354); and his reflection on how freewriting has come to be accepted by the academy over the years (391).  Elbow’s book contains a wealth of wisdom, but reading it is a bit like panning for gold.  I hope I have pointed out where you are more likely to strike a mother lode.

The book is available in our library.

Friday, September 7, 2012

“An Emerging Model for Student Feedback: Electronic Distributed Evaluation” by Beth Brunk-Chavez and Annette Arrigucci

Brunk-Chavez, Beth, and Annette Arrigucci.  “An Emerging Model for Student Feedback:  Electronic Distributed Evaluation.”  Composition Studies 40.1 (2012):  60-77.  Print.

A conflict usually exists in the conventional role of instructor.  One aspect of teaching is being a coach and guiding a student along her or his studies.  Another aspect, however, is being an umpire and evaluating the student’s work impartially.  Since the natural tendency of an instructor is to desire for students to do well, coupled typically with a bias to be recognized as a good instructor, instructors may evaluate students’ work less objectively than they should.  To combat this tendency and give students’ accurate feedback, which is believed to be more beneficial for students in the long term than giving them false feedback which inflates the sense of their capabilities beyond their actual limits (leading ultimately to frustration and, at times, failure), some colleges have looked into various means of separating out the coach and umpire roles of instruction.  One such college is Texas Tech University (TTU), and in “An Emerging Model for Student Feedback:  Electronic Distributed Evaluation,” authors Beth Brunk-Chavez and Annette Arrigucci explain how TTU’s redesign of its composition program included a reworking of how student work is assessed in one of their composition courses.

Called “electronic distributed evaluation,” TTU’s composition assessment involves students uploading their writing online where it will be graded by a trained grader who is not their classroom instructor (65).  The instructors, following the same core standards as the graders, coach and prepare the students for the evaluation by proving feedback on drafts of their writing (65).  Brunk-Chavez and Arrigucci argue that the results have been mainly beneficial, with instruction and grading becoming more cohesive across the entire program.  It also appears to have deflated grade inflation with the most common grade in the course now being a B rather than an A.  One might think that students might be upset at these changes, but, according to a survey, most students found the new grading fair.
While we do not have the same needs as TTU, which is a large university, instructors at Ursuline could adopt, if possible and desired, a similar approach.

The article is available in the writing instruction resources mini-library in the Ursuline Studies Program office (Mullen 318).

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Goodbye, Chip" by Eileen Kohut

We interrupt our normal coverage on writing instruction for a bit with a post that reminds us how powerful writing can be and why we value it so much.

Chip Hochstetler claimed with a  name like “Charles Hochstetler” he should be called just “Chip.”  He had graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a BS in chemistry and worked several years at Lubrizol.  He must have realized he needed more people in his life, and after tutoring at Lake Erie and Lakeland, he came to Ursuline College under Director Cindy Russell and tutored chemistry and math.  During that time he sat in on a statistics class and began tutoring stats to students, too. Even though stats wasn’t his field, he was always concerned with the students’ needs. His tutoring style was fashioned in individual or group sessions. Many times he ran two reviews the night before a chemistry exam. He came in at night and on weekends; he would meet students during summer school or breaks. Frequently he stayed later if the student required more time. He made up his own appointment sheet and called students himself to schedule them. In later years, he tutored nursing math, and the faculty gave him quizzes to use so that he could design his sessions to meet their individual needs. From 2001-2006, Chip met an average of 750 sessions of math or science each year. Many students wrote him personal notes about his patient help, his clear explanations and his support, especially in chemistry. Often student nurses claimed they wouldn’t have passed without his help. Chip was respected by the faculty in math, chemistry and nursing. He was a guest lecturer each year for the Women in Science and Math Day and performed a lab about the chemistry of soap. He served on the math search committee which hired Michelle Wiggins at Ursuline College.

Outside of academics, Chip worked in security and maintenance and was full time for several years combining tutoring and with other responsibilities. He loved the campus and put bird feeders outside his windows and took home baby turtles. He knew where the fawns were each spring.  Always concerned with the grounds, he once was reprimanded because he took a truck with a snow plow (which he could work) and cleaned off the roadway for people coming to a winter basketball game.   The basketball team gave him a personalized sweatshirt that he proudly wore when he kept score at basketball games, but basketball wasn’t his favorite sport; volleyball was. While he was at Ursuline College, he helped coach the volleyball team, he built and maintained the sand volleyball court, and played with  the varsity team and faculty members. During the season, he participated as a line judge and score keeper. He welcomed the visiting refs and took personal care of them. When a particularly good volleyball player came to Ursuline, he personally funded a scholarship for her for four years totally $6,000.  When Chip wasn’t able to tutor last year, he came to several games and supported the teams and hall of fame inductees.  During his time at Ursuline, several students invited him to be their “ Faculty” guest at specific games, and Chip was always proud to accompany a student who singled him out as a mentor or teacher. He once told his supervisor that he remembered the teachers who had made a difference for him, too.

While Chip's parents were alive, Chip was devoted to them; his dad died nine years ago and his mom lingered in poor health for several years afterwards. Chip brought in aides and support to keep Mrs. Hochstetler at home. He scheduled a variety of activities during the winter to keep her stimulated and planted flowers everywhere on the homesite. In the past few years, he lost his brother Larry and his mother, and in 2010 took a leave to settle the family estate and prepare the family home in Lyndhurst for sale. He always hoped he could return to Ursuline, and his belongings at the college include a signed volleyball from a winning game, pictures of several basketball teams and posters of Chip at games and team schedules. Tucked inside his papers and chemistry quizzes are notes and thank you cards from many students who were articulate in their gratitude  to him for the help he gave. One note in particular said, “it seems I am always thanking you for something.” Chip spent his life and talent taking care of others.

Eileen D. Kohut is the Director of Ursuline Resources for Success in Academics (URSA) at Ursuline College.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

“Transferability and Genres” by Amy Devitt

Devitt, Amy.  “Transferability and Genres.”  Locations of Composition.  Ed. Christopher J. Keller and Christian R. Weisser.  Albany:  State U of New York P, 2007.  215-27.  Print.

A tradition of grumbling and lamenting exists in America where education and writing are concerned.  It goes a little something like this.  Employers complain that college graduates can’t write because their professors stunk.  College professors complain their students can’t write because the students' high school teachers stunk.  And so on and so forth until presumably even the kindergarten teacher moans about the quality of a child’s parenting. 

What’s going on here?

Composition scholar Amy Devitt provides a possible answer in her essay.  She argues that general writing skills don’t exist (cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, whose work I’ve written about recently, would disagree at least slightly), and that writing “is a highly situated act” embedded in specific genres, which are patterns of text developed in response to recurrent social situations (215-16).  When student writers fail, it’s often because they are misapplying a previously-learned genre to a new situation.  She uses the example of new associates in a law firm who write analytic memos by relying too heavily on their law school genres, with predictably substandard results.  However, those associates who wrote the worst memos typically wrote the worst in law school as well, and Devitt attributes their greater failure to not learning the previous genres as well as they should have.  She writes, “The genres that writers know constitute their genre repertoires, and writers draw from their repertoires to write in a new situation” (223).

What does this mean for us as college instructors?

Devitt recommends that we focus on teaching a few genres well in our classes, with an eye on how they can be used in the future (that’s the transferability part of the essay), as well as teach students about genres as a concept, so they’ll be better prepared to analyze and utilize a new one when they need to do so.  Students will still struggle to learn a new genre, but it’ll likely be more akin to huffing up a San Francisco hill than trying to climb Mt. Everest.

We'll probably never stop employers complaining about us though.  Or stop complaining about high school teachers.  Nevertheless, now we can do more than throw up our hands in frustration.

The essay collection is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham

Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass-Wiley, 2009. Print.

Although aimed at K-12 instructors, Willingham’s book can also be useful for college instructors. In the book, he discusses in detail nine principles supported by years of research, and examines how they might be utilized in the classroom. The principles are: “People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking” (3), “Factual knowledge must precede skill” (19), “Memory is the residue of thought” (41), “We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete” (67), “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice” (81), “Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition later in training” (97), “Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn” (113), “Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work” (131), and “Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved” (147). A chapter is then devoted to each principle.

Willingham is an engaging writer, and the book offers good advice on how to improve student learning. Some advice will strike instructors as just plain common sense, but much of the book challenges current pedagogical thinking. For example, Willingham suggests that modifying teaching styles to match the learning styles of students (or “multiple intelligences” as they are sometimes called) has little effect and is probably a waste of energy (120).

The book is available in the Ursuline library.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"The Duke Reader Project: Engaging the University Community in Undergraduate Writing Instruction" by Cary Moskovitz

Moskovitz, Cary. "The Duke Reader Project: Engaging the University Community in Undergraduate Writing Instruction." Liberal Education 97.3/4 (2011): 48-53. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 May 2012.

Many instructors at Ursuline have experienced the following phenomenon: Students turn in their final essays at the end of the semester, but seldom ever return the following semester to pick up the essays and read instructor comments, from which, of course, they could learn and thus write better in the future. Perhaps students just forget and get too caught up in the following semester's classload and activities, but it's likely that many students honestly don't care for feedback other than the grade, which they've already received. Those students are not engaged in their writing. They see it as a hoop to jump through rather than a means for learning that can still be learned from even after the grade has been turned in.

If this has happened to you, don't feel bad and don't take it personally. It's a phenomenon that happens nationwide. To counteract this disengagement and make students more invested in their writing and more likely to grow from it, Duke University has developed a program called the Duke Reader Project. Because Duke, like most higher education institutions, considers writing to be of paramount importance for learning, the University wants students to view writing less as a schoolbound activity that one directs to an instructor and performs for a grade, and more as a "contextual act" that has real world consequences and varies from situation to situation, as well as from discipline to discipline, often driven by the needs of different audiences (48).

To teach students the importance of writing and how it functions outside of an individual course, Duke makes students write for an audience beyond the instructor by pairing a student up with a volunteer professional in the student's field. Often, these volunteers are graduates of Duke and eager to interact with students. After being paired up, the student corresponds with the volunteer and then shares drafts of an assignment for feedback. Thus far, the project appears to be very successful with both students and volunteers pleased with the results. Cary Moskovitz, Director of Writing in the Disciplines in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke, reports that "For our students, the project offers the opportunity to get detailed feedback on multiple drafts of their papers from engaged readers who are familiar with the kinds of writing they are attempting. For our alumni and our many non-instructor employees, it offers a valued and interesting way to be directly involved in our educational mission. For our institution, it builds meaningful connections between segments of our community that rarely intersect" (52). Duke's innovative program is one that other institutions such as Ursuline could emulate. In fact, Tiffany Mushrush Mentzer, Director of Alumnae Relations, has indicated that many Ursuline alums would be open to participation in a similar project here, so if you are an instructor wishing to have your students be more engaged in their writing and learn how to write for different audiences, please contact her. She can put you in touch with interested alums, and you can give a similar program a try here. If so, then you might find that students start stopping by to pick up those final papers and see what you think about their work beyond the grade as well.

The article is available through our library's databases.