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.