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.