Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Final Post

I'm moving on to other duties at Ursuline, so my time as Campus Writing Liaison is coming to an end.  There will be no more posts on this blog, but I'll leave it up for a while.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What Is “College-Level” Writing?: Volume 2: Assignments, Readings, and Student Writing Samples edited by Patrick Sullivan, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau

Sullivan, Patrick, Howard Tinberg, and Sheridan Blau, eds. What Is “College-Level” Writing?: Volume 2: Assignments, Readings, and Student Writing Samples. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2010. Print.

One might think that devoting two volumes to such a simple question as “What is ‘college-level’ writing?” is overkill, but just as answering “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” is trickier than it first appears to be (if you don’t know, the answer is at the end), so is answering the college-level writing question. Many of the essays in this anthology are valiant attempts at answering the question, but four essays stood out to me in particular.

The first essay is “Academic Writing as Participation: Writing Your Way In” by Sheridan Blau. In this essay, Blau describes a workshop he puts on for instructors, which involves recreating the experience of entering a discourse community, modeled on what students experience when entering a college classroom. Blau believes the method he models, which forces students to identify genres by having them become participants in a discourse community wrestling with interpreting a poem is superior to the conventional way students get introduced to academic genres, which he describes in the following excerpt: "The model for academic papers for many professors . . . tends to be some version of the scholarly paper that professionals produce in the scholarly journals written for other specialists in the same field. That model can be a problem, however, for a number of reasons, the first of which is that students are required to write such papers before they have ever read one (and before they are sufficiently conversant with the issues in a field to read one), rendering their act of writing an artificial kind of composing, guided by formula and outlines and formal requirements designed to ensure that student papers will at least appear to observe the formal conventions of published work in a particular discourse community. A more serious problem created by the professional model is the fact that articles written in professional journals are by definition and cultural practice the discourse of experts who know a field intimately, can speak with authority about the background and history of the problem or question they are addressing, and usually know many of the readers who will be reading their work—know them personally from conferences, from hearing their presentations, or from reading their articles. In other words, academic authors are typically deeply embedded in an academic culture as participating members of an academic community, and their writing emerges from and reflects their status as members and contributors to the making of knowledge in their community" (29-30). Students, as Blau notes, are, of course, not really members of that community. Blau claims that the professional model, ironically, alienates students from becoming members of the academic community by inviting a pointless, almost parodic, form of academic discourse, which is particularly disheartening to minority and first-generation college students.

The second essay is “Assignments from Hell: The View from the Writing Center” by Muriel Harris. In this essay, Harris reviews common ways assignments fall apart and suggests means by which such pitfalls can be avoided, writing, “Clarity, brevity, and specificity are goals to keep in mind when composing that most difficult of writing tasks—writing a good assignment.” She provides some handy guidelines for writing good assignments in an appendix.

The third essay is “‘Botched Performances’: Rising to the Challenge of Teaching Our Underprepared Students” by Cheryl Hogue Smith. In this essay, Smith argues that basic or developmental writers are writing at the college-level, but higher education institutions often do not perceive correctly the abilities of such students because the institutions often focus on minor issues such as grammatical errors and allow those issues to overshadow larger issues such as genuine academic inquiry and critical thinking by students. She cites scholar Mike Rose to explain why students often make more minor errors when they are taking on new writing challenges and stretching their cognitive abilities and cites Mina Shaughnessy to note how colleges can better help students by grading more accurately, writing, “For example, nine incorrect uses of ‘there’ for ‘their’ wouldn’t actually count as nine errors but one—because the student is repeating the same error” (213). Valid arguments can be made for removing remedial classes from the college-level, but claiming that the students can’t think at the college-level isn’t one of them, as Smith demonstrates well here.

The fourth essay is “What Can We Learn about ‘College-Level’ Writing from Basic Writing Students? The Importance of Reading” by Patrick Sullivan. In this essay, Sullivan notes the importance of self-discipline for academic success and how crucial reading skills are for writing skills, writing, “I would argue that unpreparedness in terms of reading (and what this suggests about student ability to think carefully, critically, and maturely) is at the heart of most writing problems we encounter in our composition classrooms” (247). Personally, I can attest to what Sullivan describes. My weak writers tend to be weak readers, and my strong writers tend to be strong readers. Reading and writing can be viewed as two aspects of the same set of skills.

Many of the other essays are fine as well, making this volume a valuable read. It is available through OhioLINK. As for “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”, the correct answer is no one since Ulysses S. Grant and his wife are entombed and not buried in the ground. Most people will accept “Grant” as an answer though, just as most people will accept writing done in college as college-level writing.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments across the Disciplines by Mary Soliday

Soliday, Mary.  Everyday Genres:  Writing Assignments across the Disciplines.  Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois U P, 2011.  Print.  CCCC Studies in Writing Rhetoric.

Today, I wrote a letter of affirmation.  Before today, I had never even heard of a letter of affirmation.  I did some basic research on the genre of the letter of affirmation and gave it my best attempt, but I still don’t know enough about the genre to tell if I wrote a good letter or not.  Though it’s been some time since I had the experience of learning a new textual genre, it is a common experience for our students.  As they go from course to course, they are often encountering new genres.  In this book, Mary Soliday discusses her experience at the City University of New York (CUNY) directing a writing across the curriculum (WAC) program, where she found that helping students understand a genre helped them succeed in writing it, an approach which seems like common sense but is too rarely done in the academy.  As a result of her experience, she has developed some insights as to why students often are unable to transfer writing skills out of a general education writing course into courses in their majors.

To help students understand a genre, Soliday argues that instructors should help students understand the social context the genre emerges from, writing, “If the goal is to help students to acquire written forms, then it follows that teachers need to build effective social contexts through which a novice writer becomes familiar with the typical motives that create the conventions usually associated with genres” (xi).  The lack of context, Soliday suggests, is a principal reason why students do not write well.

Soliday also suggests that instructors should have common approaches to the teaching of writing, which would help students transfer general principles of rhetoric across different disciplines (xiii).  She proposes that a focus on genre as a concept could help to accomplish this goal, provided students are immersed in the types of social situations in which genres operate and aren’t left to figure things out for themselves in an apprenticeship type model (14-15).

Overall, the WAC program at CUNY appears to have been a success with students generally declaring themselves more engaged and that they learned more of the content of the courses through a writing intensive approach (31).  Soliday writes, “If teachers can articulate the purpose given to a genre by the social group that awards it meaning in the first place, inexperienced writers will more fully grasp the conventions of the genre because they understand their readers’ expectations” (34).  So, one way we could improve student writing at Ursuline perhaps is by focusing on genre and context in a similar manner as CUNY did.  Soliday also finds that sequencing assignments, breaking them down into parts, and focusing on idea generation (brainstorming or what rhetoricians would call invention) also played useful roles in improving student learning and writing (77), ideas we could also emulate in just about any course.  Soliday’s book is a powerful reminder that the responsibility for improving student writing stretches across the curriculum to every course and every instructor.

The book is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Evolution of College English: Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns by Thomas P. Miller

Miller, Thomas P.  The Evolution of College English:  Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns.  Pittsburgh:  U of Pittsburgh P, 2011.  Print.

In his book When Can You Trust The Experts?:  How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham notes that “Historians have pointed out that there is a pattern of education theories being tried, found wanting, and then reappearing under a different name a decade or two later” (95).  Therefore, some value exists in knowing history, which brings me to The Evolution of College English.  Though the book serves as much as an argument for the future of English as a discipline as it does a history of the discipline’s past, it is the past that is most useful for our purposes, from interesting tidbits such as that early creative writing courses were “especially common in women’s colleges” (142) to more germane material such as how writing and writing courses came to be a staple of American higher education (125).

Along those lines (whether handwritten, typed, or word-processed as writing technology progressed), you probably complain about the quality of your students’ writing.  You aren’t alone.  Just as Miller points out that “professionalism is the unifying ideology of the middle class” (173), complaining about student writing is the unifying lament of educators, who have been doing just that since at least the 19th Century.  In fact, it was precisely that complaint that led to the first required composition course in colleges and universities.  We don’t have required composition at Ursuline, but our Ursuline Studies courses often have a composition aspect to them.  Then, as now, a course focusing on general writing skills can be helpful, but it won’t prepare students for writing in your specific discipline because too many of the written conventions and expectations will be different and specific to your discipline.  This misunderstood aspect of writing can make undergraduate education what composition scholar Richard Haswell calls, in his article “Teaching of Writing in Higher Education,” an “instructional minefield” for students (340).  As a result, you will still complain about student writing until you realize that it’s your job to teach writing in your discipline.  As Miller’s book demonstrates, despite efforts even by English departments themselves to farm out the teaching of writing to others, the literacy expected of college students continues to be a collegewide concern and should be a collegewide endeavor.  Complaining about the quality of high schools or freshman college courses will never solve anything because even if those experiences prepared students perfectly for your course, students would still be lacking the literate practices that only you can teach them. 

The book is available through OhioLINK.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind by Gerald Graff

Graff, Gerald.  Clueless in Academe:  How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.  New Haven:  Yale U P, 2003.  Print.

Despite Graff’s best efforts, Clueless in Academe still reads like what essentially it is, a collection of his essays from the previous decade, rather than a unified text and coherent book-length argument about how educational institutions, especially colleges and universities, could better develop student potential for argumentation and intellectual inquiry.  Nevertheless, the book and its diversity of material provide many useful ideas.

One of Graff’s most important ideas is that students need to see models of the intellectual discourse that they are supposed to produce.  He cites the experience of a college English instructor who found that students wrote better essays when they read not only literature but also criticism about that literature (163).  Though Graff is careful to note that students cannot just be given any criticism as some will be just too far-removed from their understanding (174), he makes a strong case for providing better models for student writing.  It is surprising that this pedagogical approach is so rare.  Would a baseball coach make her or his players watch tennis matches and then expect they would be able to be better baseball players as a result?  Hey, both sports involve balls and hitting them with modified sticks, right?  Yet, such mismatches happen a lot in education.  Many instructors have students read stories but want them to write essays, a different type of writing.  If, as instructors, we want students to produce a certain genre or type of writing, then we would be wise to show them some models of it first.  Otherwise, students are left essentially on their own to create a genre, and, in most cases, they don’t succeed.

To help students along in learning academic genres, Graff proposes another important idea, that of the template, an idea that he developed further with books such as They Say/I Say:  The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing.  Basically, to help students make academic arguments, Graff suggests having the students fill out templates such as “Whereas X argues that . . . , I contend that . . .” (169).  Otherwise, he notes, “These moves seem disarmingly simple, but they are often hellishly perplexing for inexperienced writers” (168-69).  The templates make the necessary moves utterly transparent.  Much of academic writing is formulaic; Graff suggests we embrace that aspect, so students can concentrate on content and enter the academic conversation.

And entering a conversation is ultimately what Graff and most instructors want students to be able to do.  In fact, Graff’s endorsement of using topics that students are interested in to teach students the conventions and methods of academic inquiry (226) supports the Stage I Ursuline Studies anchors approach to research, in which students pick a personal topic to research.  In those courses, the goal is to teach college-level research; the topic doesn't matter so why not let it be something that would engage a student?  Then, once students have the skills, those same skills can be employed throughout the curriculum, whether the student has an initial interest in the topic or not. 

Other useful bits of the book include a handy explanation to students about how and why to use quotations in academic writing (241-42) and an epilogue that instructs students and teachers in how to write an argument (275-77).  Given how Graff bounces around ideawise in the book, he might want to follow some of his own advice.  For that reason, I wouldn't suggest reading the book straight through; instead, bounce around yourself, according to your interest.  Graff has many good ideas in these essays.   

The book is available through OhioLINK.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Shadow Scholar: How I Made A Living Helping College Kids Cheat by Dave Tomar

Tomar, Dave.  The Shadow Scholar:  How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2012.  Print.

Dave Tomar, a former writer for an academic paper mill, has crafted an entertaining, albeit also horrifying, memoir of his days (and nights) cranking out essays for college students.  Though Tomar’s story is interesting, the implications of his experience are more noteworthy.  According to Tomar, people can make a living helping students cheat through college, which is an indictment of the current state of higher education. 

Unlike conventional plagiarism where a student swipes some text from the Internet or whatnot and presents it as her or his own, paid for plagiarism is much more difficult to detect.  Indeed, aside from using in-class writing assignments to prevent it entirely, paid for plagiarism may be nearly impossible to detect.  But, beyond the question of detection, why are so many students so desperate to pass a college course that they will cheat?

According to Tomar, “For many people of the Millennial generation, there is a rational pragmatism to cheating that did not exist for previous generations” (19).  In other words, in a world where the value of an education has essentially been degraded to a certification which provides financial benefit (for example, qualifying for a job), cheating makes a certain sense in a cost-benefit analysis.  The likelihood of getting caught is low, and the rewards can be substantial.  Since college is viewed anyway as an expensive scam by some students, those students see no ethical problems in spending a bit more to employ someone such as Tomar to ease their passages through college.  In their eyes, if one needs to get a clogged sink fixed, one hires a plumber; similarly, if one needs to get an A on a paper, then one hires a professional writer.

In addition to telling his personal story, Tomar comments extensively on the issues within higher education that have led to the flourishing of his former profession.  These include the increasingly impersonalization and bureaucracy of many large educational institutions (25), the increasingly higher cost of college (56), Internet entrepreneurs willing to provide a commercial service regardless of the nature of the service (75), the accessibility of knowledge on the Internet (81), the growth of the entitlement mentality among students and their parents (106), the growth in for-profit institutions (123), and so on.  We could probably add a few of our own as well that Tomar doesn’t note, but, regardless, his essential point stands:  Something’s wrong with the higher education system when this can happen.  To illustrate this fact most vividly, Tomar describes writing a doctoral dissertation in five days (177).

Of course, it wasn’t his own.

So what can be done to guard against students cheating in such a manner?  Well, first of all, those of us in higher education need to work on the conditions that have allowed this cheating to flourish.  In the meantime though, at the level of the individual instructor, it might be wise to develop assignments and assessments which can’t be gamed by bringing in a ringer such as Tomar.  For example, in-class writing assignments effectively force students to develop their own intellectual capabilities.  Beyond guarding against people such as Tomar, we can also lower the demand for such services in the first place.  For instance, breaking large writing assignments down into steps may help students be more confident in their own abilities and less likely to hire a “shadow scholar.”  Thankfully, most students probably do do their own work (if only because college is expensive enough as is), but it’s probably good to know that this situation does exist.  Tomar is supposedly retired now, but it’s likely another talented writer has taken his place in the paper mill industry.  Perhaps you have read her or his work already . . .

The book is available through OhioLINK.