Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Writing Process of Basic Writers

Apparently when Sondra Perl wrote "The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers," the term "basic writer" hadn't yet caught on. Perl, in fact, doesn't seem to like the way Shaughnessy characterizes basic writers. She notes, "These unskilled college writers are not beginners in a tabula rasa sense, and teachers err in assuming they are" (38). Certainly Shaughnessy didn't mean that basic writers had no backgrounds, and Perl thinks that Shaughnessy is right to focus on the logic of basic writers mistakes--but Perl wants to focus on process more than product.

Perl shows that basic writers had just as much logic behind their writing process as Shaughnessy showed that they have behind the written product. They think about the topic, they write, they correct errors, and they do this all rather systematically. So basic writers aren't just going at writing willy-nilly. The question is, what are they doing wrong? Perl seems convinced that it is a preoccupation with error and the attention that it draws away from content that is the problem. This is at least partially confirmed when the process and product of the personal writings are compared to the objective writings--students wrote more fluidly for the personal writing, and although they were still less than perfect, they were better.

It seems that since Perl is particularly concerned with process, she would be in favor of a curriculum like that at my university, where most of the assignments in basic writing are of a personal nature. Although the students may not always have the opportunity to write personal essays, if writing personal essays helps them change their writing process for the better (so that they think more about content and less about errors), that improved process might eventually carry over into more academic writing.

Works Cited

Perl, Sondra. "The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers." 1979. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 17-42.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Switched to Google Reader

By the way, I've switched from Bloglines to Google Reader. As one would expect from Google, it's much prettier. You can view a list of posts with snippets instead of Bloglines' clunkier view posts so-many-days old, making it look basically like Gmail. And it does have folders in addition to Gmail style tags, so you can easily condense the list. It's also an easy switch, since you can simply click "export" from Bloglines and then "import" from Google Reader.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Content Matters

The first time I discovered plagiarism in a student paper, I was pretty shook up. This student was making a D in my class and had gotten an F on his latest paper. But it hurt me when a sentence sounded off and I had to check Google. Now that was my first semester teaching, so Sara Biggs Chaney might have been a bit more hardened against the experience, but in her case she had high hopes for the paper and the A student who had written it. Where my student may have been desperate or confused about using sources, Chaney's student was likely expressing a disrespect for academic writing and Chaney herself despite being quite capable of handling the assignment (31).

In composition, we tend to focus more on presentation than content. This makes sense, because writing isn't really a content course. We need to help students work with whatever content to produce good essays. But Chaney felt she'd made a mistake by ignoring the content of Amber's paper about the irrelevance of paper writing. She felt that Amber could become academic by going through the motions of academic writing (30), but Amber still believed paper writing was not important. And Chaney didn't really listen to her ideas. She was interested in the paper, but only formally. She wanted to see the moves of academic writing, but basically ignored the content.

I'm writing a paper in another class in which I connect this deemphasis of content in composition classes to the Foucault's author function, as explained by Gail Stygall. That is, while it makes sense in a composition class to emphasize the form of writing, to talk about the moves of academic writing, we really can't neglect the actual content if we want our students to be real writers. Real writers and readers care a lot about content. If we start ignoring the actual content of our students' papers, we're basically dooming them to perpetual student-hood. I can imagine where Amber's beliefs about the irrelevance of paper writing were only strengthened by the fact that her writing teacher thought she could write a great paper which condemned the entire process--writing, then, is just an act. It doesn't do anything, it doesn't say anything, and it certainly doesn't prove anything. In the real world, Chaney would likely have made her actual disagreement with Amber's content central to her evaluation of the paper. She might have conceded that the argument was well made, but she'd have given center stage to the fact that it just didn't hold up.

Now we can't grade our students' papers on how well they fit the beliefs we already have, but we can be a little more honest about our subjectivity and the role content plays in good writing.

Works Cited

Chaney, Sara Biggs. "Study of Teacher Error: Misreading Resistance in the Basic Writing Classroom." Journal of Basic Writing 23.1 (2004): 25-38.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Writing in a Computer Lab

In "Issues of Attitude and Access: A Case Study of Basic Writers in a Computer Classroom," Catherine Matthews Pavia
is worried that computer classrooms accentuate and perpetuate differences between students. She concludes, "Being enrolled in a writing class in a computer lab when they do not have much computer knowledge may lead students to doubt their abilities when what they really need is confidence" (17). On the other hand, Amie Wolf is less concerned, saying, "The technology helps us to reach our students in many cases." Wolf, instead of simply sticking with basic typing of essays, actually incorporates more technology into the classroom with a "digital media project." To Wolf, the technology is motivating--which doesn't seem to contradict Pavia's experience with students like Matt who came to class early just to use the computers (8).

I'm not sure if Pavia's research supports her conclusion that computers might be a problem for basic writing students, because it seemed that the students who weren't adept with computers were still quite motivated, despite Pavia's worries. It would make sense to be concerned at first, but her research does not seem to actually show negative affects. Matt and Maria wrote significantly less than some of their class members, but it is hard to know if this is attributable to computers. Additionally, if the effect is not permanent--if the students are not turned off from writing, the small amount of slowing down might not really be a problem. They might do better once their typing skills and familiarity with computers improve. And they will have to, because most college writing is going to have to be printed from the computer, if not actually drafted on the computer.

Now I'm not saying that basic writing courses should be taught in a computer lab. In fact, I'm a bit uncomfortable with that, as I prefer to draft A) alone and B) longhand. Although it's good to get students to see typing as part of drafting instead of only for typing up finished drafts, we also don't want to imply that drafting should be done exclusively on computers. There should be more to class than sitting around typing. I'd like to have a little more idea what Pavia actually does in class besides journalling, but I guess she is trying to avoid using computers exclusively by assigning "writing without the computers" (19), but again, I am not sure to what extent students should be deprived of the ability to choose the medium they'd like to compose in. We want to expose them to various methods, but that can be done without specifying that students hand in handwritten documents. I'm just really uncertain that the conclusions Pavia comes to actually follow from her research, but maybe someone can help me out.

Works Cited

Pavia, Catherine Matthews. "Issues of Attitude and Access: A Case Study of Basic Writers in a Computer Classroom." Journal of Basic Writing 23.2 (2004): 4-22.

Wolf, Amie. Online chat. 16 Apr. 2007.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Is It Just a Matter of Teaching Variety?

My response to TW seemed too long for a comment. To my last post (regarding the possibility that the 110 syllabus encourages "poetic writing"), TW comments:

While this might cause some confusion regarding expectations--that's a big part of learning to write. So in a way, by providing them assignments with very different purposes, audiences, and/or expectations you are preparing them for real-life academic writing experiences where one professor might assign--oh, I don't know--a blog writing assignment and then a book review. They need to understandt that what is acceptable in one context is not necessarily going to fly in another.

Certainly--the assignments in English 110 are apparently designed to prepare students to have to write completely different kinds of papers--textual analysis vs. position paper vs. research paper--making sure the students can see the different purposes of the assignments. Despite different purposes, those are all academic (transactional) writing--and although blogging is less formal (more expressive), it doesn't usually go towards the literary (poetic).

My assumption was that "poetic" writing is generally reserved for creative writing classes--not exactly what 110 is designed to prepare students for. So I want to teach my students different modes, but I wonder if those should be mostly of the transactional sort. I should admit, however, that I recall doing four creative writing projects in my college career, and I didn't take any creative writing classes (Feminist Theory, Global Futures, Prose Fiction, and Senior Seminar). We don't see much creative writing in the writing center, either, but I think that has partly to do with students being less comfortable getting help on "creative" assignments.

It seemed to me, at least when I wrote the last post, that the memoir is easy to teach in such a way that makes it a different kind of writing than anything else they'll have to do--variety is good and all, but I don't teach my students how to write sermons or screenplays because my job is to prepare them for "academic writing." I do think, however, that the memoir can be taught as a more "transactional" piece, but that it may take some effort to do so. I guess I'm still not sure how important that effort might be.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Are We Encouraging "Poetic Writing"?

Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk tackles the tough question of whether (and how) to incorporate personal writing in an academic writing course in "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate." As Dr. Cadle mentioned in class, Missouri State tends to incorporate some personal writing but not let it be the focus of the course. My class begins the semester with a memoir and incorporates reflections on the subjective research process in their I-search, although this semester I'm trying out letting them choose to write a formally objective research paper instead. Even the memoir isn't totally personal, though, because it is thesis-driven, about a life-changing event in the writer's life.

Mlynarczyk's use of James Britton is helpful here to distinguish between different kinds of writing. Britton divides writing into poetic, expressive, and transactional (Mlynarczyk 6). Expressive writing is the most natural, self-centered writing, and because it is so natural, we try to tap into these abilities before asking students to totally take on academic discourse. Transactional is communicative and includes academic writing--this is what we're training students to write for the rest of college. But we still value the poetic, or literary, writing. Unless our students are writing majors, they won't be doing a lot of poetic writing, but we like to read it. It is very tempting to grade the memoir as a piece of literary writing, to see it primarily as a story, or a work intended more for entertainment than information or persuasion. This probably isn't totally wrong, but might we be leading our students down one path, only to expect them to go in a different direction for the rest of the semester? Mlynarczyk notes that Peter Elbow says that choosing between personal and academic writing makes him "feel as though [he is] trying to walk toward two different mountains" (qtd. in Mlynarczyk 11). By assigning the memoir first, which utilizes expressive writing but often veers toward poetic, are we pointing our students toward a mountain that we won't let them approach? Perhaps Mlynarczyk's approach of assiging journal entries (you know, like these blog things we're doing) is a better approach, because it utilizes expressive writing to transactional ends without the temptation of poetic writing.

Works Cited

Mlynarczyk, Rebecca Williams. "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate." Journal of Basic Writing 25.1 (2006): 4-25. Communication & Mass Media Complete. 27 Feb. 2007. <>.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Learning by Discovery

I think involving students in research is a great way to help them take ownership of their learning. Instead of simply being granted information from a teacher, the students are actually finding things out (and not through a particularly contrived method where a teacher asks leading questions until the student says what the teacher wants to hear). In such a class, knowledge doesn't belong to an elite group of intellectuals--the teacher is still an authority, but she's not the only (or even the best) path to knowledge.

My favorite exercise in Discovery of Competence is Shawn's "The Tether Ball Tragedy." In order to study the difference between spoken and written language, Shawn was assigned to tell his story orally to the class, which was transcribed by another student. Then Shawn read the transcript and produced a written version of the story. The students analyzed why the two were different (Kutz, Groden, and Zamel 102). The analysis is important, because although Shawn would probably learn something from telling the story in two different media, writing an analysis forces the student to explain why writing requires greater precision and explanation than speech. Moreover, by having to write a reflection on the experience, Shawn put in words what he learned, solidifying what could otherwise have remained hazy ideas about the differences in speech and writing. Rather than relying on the teacher to write on his paper "Elaborate," Shawn figured out for himself. He learned through real experience, so the understanding is deeper and more likely to stay with him than if he'd interpreted conventions in written language as simply rules imposed by teachers.

Works Cited

Kutz, Eleanor, Suzy Q Groden, and Vivian Zamel. The Discovery of Competence: Teaching and Learning with Diverse Student Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook, 1993.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Even Summaries Need a Point

My group in this class is writing the "writing about reading" wikibook chapter. We've split this into summary and critique, and there's been discussion that even high school students don't do much summary--what basic writers really need to work on is critique. Now I have helped people with honest-to-goodness summary assignments in the writing center, but I also wasn't quite sure that students needed advice on writing a summary. Mina Shaughnessy anticipated our hesitance to teach summary, saying that "most composition texts--and teachers--give little attention to summarizing except to warn students that they ought not to confuse a 'mere' summary with a critical or analytical statment. Yet we find little evidence that students are able to summarize effectively" (268). Shaughnessy would be happy to know that I actually talked to my students about summary this week, covering a chapter on summary from "They Say / I Say" (Graff and Birkenstein). I was already grading the students' annotated bibliographies when we got to this chapter, and I realized I should have taught it sooner.

Summaries are not as easy as they look, and they're more important than they're given credit for. A good analysis has to start with a good, if brief, summary. And many students struggle to write a good summary. Shaughnessy points out that students may have experience summarizing narrative works, which usually telling the main events in the order they were written. However, asking a student to summarize a news article or a scholarly essay should not result in a chronological list. Hypothetical example:

This article talks about _______. It also says _______. Also, __________. Then it goes on about ________.

A summary, I pointed out to my students, is not a list. Shaughnessy advises: "they should try to state in one sentence what the main point of the work is" (269). Graff and Birkenstein tell students to make the main points support an "overall claim" about the work (33). A summary is not as easy as it looks--like any piece of writing, it has to have a point.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. "They Say / I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: Norton, 2006.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Reading is Better than Drills

Of all the errors that Shaughessy covers in Errors and Expectations, spelling and vocabulary are two that are most clearly connected to reading. Spelling isn't completely random in English, but there are too many rules to simply memorize, even with the drills that Shaughnessy provides (178, 180). Exposing students to one rule that would significantly improve their writing sounds like a good idea. That way they don't feel like there's simply no way to learn to spell. But on the other hand, bombarding them with lists of rules had got to be more intimidating that handing them a dictionary and teaching them to use it. It's good to help students realize that there's a method to much of English spelling's madness. But let's not fool ourselves--spelling is mostly memorized and the rules that Shaughnessy shares are probably best learned simply by internalizing the patterns through reading, not through drills.

I think Shaughnessy's approach to vocabulary is more workable. She admits that real gains in vocabulary are subject-based and take time--exposure to the vocabulary of the field (224). It doesn't hurt to learn word parts--unlike spelling, which is usually memorized or guessed at, word meaning really can be deciphered by taking a word apart and looking at the meanings of its parts. Again I'd be careful not to overload students with charts or drills, but studying a few basic roots and prefixes and exercises in explaining the shades of meaning among synonyms really shoud help students have an easier time with words.

Works Cited

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Authorship and Teacher Comments

Gail Stygall argues that Foucault's concept of the author is important to how we treat basic writers. Basic writers (and for that matter, writing students in general) aren't afforded the same charitable interpretation that we give to "authors." Authorship (authority) is part of literature, but not student writing or anything else not viewed as literature. According to Stygall, "If an author writes a passage that is unclear or that is not obviously related to what came before it, then readers assume there is a reason for it, embedded in the author's intent or milieu" (189). A writing teacher, however, tells the writer that the paragraph is off-topic and moves on. That's not entirely fair, of course. The more time that I work with students in the writing center, the more I realize that even the weakest writers do everything for a reason. (Occasionally practical reasons like being unsure of the grammar of particular expression.) But those reasons are hard to figure out without a face to face meeting. Otherwise, what more can we do than point out that the paragraph seems off topic and should be removed or have its importance clarified?

Along with this, Stygall points to research that indicates that "teacher commentary often appropriates and redirects the student's texts" (189). It's too easy for the teacher to assume that they understand what the student means and then express it in the teacher's terms. (This also implies a meaning that transcends expression, not an uncontroversial concept.) Mina Shaughnessy does this!! A student wrote, "However, I don't believe that a student whould determine whether or not he will to attend college chiefly on the basis of financial, but that of the importance of obtaining a qualified educational background, and the services he could be to his fellow men" (45). Without additional commentary, she translates it as "A student shouldn't go to college in order to earn more money but to learn more and help others" (45). Now these have approximately the same meaning, but certainly there are shades of meaning that are different--Shaughnessy doesn't mention the importance of "educational background" itself. Further, if an experienced writer had composed such a sentence, the form would have figured into the meaning. We'd've assumed the wandering quality was intentional, perhaps to reflect a life journey. Who knows what justification we can come up with if we already believe the writing is good?

Works Cited

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Stygall, Gail. "Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucault's Author Function." 1994. Landmark Essays in Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2001. 185-203.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Grammar and Style Instruction

In "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone," Min-Zhan Lu is actually quite clear about how grammar should be covered in writing classes. She insists on the importance of taking the time to look at every apparent error as a stylistic choice and to let the students figure out what choice might be better. She created handouts over a student using "can able to" so that entire classes could work out what was meant and a better way to say it. Part of her reasoning is that there's something wrong with interpreting student work in a different way than professional work. Lu doesn't believe that you have to earn the right to play with language--she doesn't give published authors special privileges. In response to Theodore Dreiser's willingness to have native English speakers edit the German sound out of his prose, Lu asks, "why do we assume--as Dreiser did--that until one can prove one's ability to produce 'error-free' prose, one has not earned the right to innovative 'style'? (170). And in fact, my high school teachers argued exactly that--you are not allowed to break the grammar rules that you see broken by established authors until you know them well enough.

There does seem to be a bit of logic behind the idea of only breaking the rules you understand. Grammar rules are conventions--breaking those conventions is going to have a particular effect on the reader. You ought to be making an informed choice when you mess with readers' minds. Lu would appear to agree with that point--however, instead of simply naming problems or correcting them, she believes in walking the writer throughout the process, actually helping them to become informed.

Some "grammar errors" are innocuous. Comma splices and run-on sentences are sometimes more effective than their grammatically correct alternatives. When I'm grading papers, I ignore them. When I'm working in the writing center, I frequently point them out and ask the writer to consider whether strict punctuation is more important than the rhythm of the sentence. Most people assume that the correct punctuation is better, even when it reads worse, so they "fix" it. I don't blame them--some professors write assignment sheets that call contractions errors.

Lu insists that we ought to spend this time with students, rather than accepting the fact that we can't. But how useful would it really be to spend twenty minutes on every error in a three-page paper? For one thing, even if you approach it from the standpoint of style, grammar isn't everything. I'd really like to be able to work with my students on supporting arguments part of the time, instead of spending every moment on style. For another, a lot of mistakes aren't as profound as "can able to." Some are editing errors, some are spelling errors, and some even the writer can't explain. While it's good to be able to approach grammar from a stylistic perspective and give writers choices, it seems like rather than actually spending all our time doing this, we can do it occasionally and help students to internalize the idea.

Works Cited

Lu, Min-Zhan. "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone." Representing the "Other": Basic Writing and the Teaching of Basic Writing. Eds. Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu. Urbana:NCTE, 1999. 166-190.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

How do you know where to start?

When Adrienne Rich got into teaching basic writing, she was motivated in large part by "white liberal guilt" (3). She recounts a common "secret fantasy" of English teachers--a diamond in the rough, a student whose brilliance would shine through their working-class language and poor handwriting. I think she'd've loved what Bartholomae calls the "Fuck You" essay (173). Bartholomae, however, had not sought out a position working with underprivileged youth. He taught in large part because his fellowship ran out (172). He was looking for something entirely different than Rich was, and because he didn't prepare himself for working with basic writers, he commited himself to spending "14 weeks slowly and inevitably demonstrating their failures" (172). He perceived his job was to prompt them and judge them--not so much to teach them.

I can get on my high horse to look down at young Bartholomae, but it's not so simple. Part of the problem with teaching is knowing where to start. If you assume your students already have the background, you simply prompt them and judge them. Rich, on the other hand, thought she knew what she was getting into and was more prepared to coax her students. But she still had to make certain assumptions about where they were starting from. Her assumptions were undoubtedly simplistic, and possibly condescending.

There's really no way to know exactly what you're getting into--to know when students only need reminded that they're mixing "it's" and "its" and when they don't know the difference (or have internalized an incorrect system).

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. "The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum." 1993. Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2001. 171-184.

Rich, Adrienne. "Teaching Language in Open Admissions." 1973. Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2001. 1-13.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

They Choose to Be Here

In the writing center, I work with such a variety of students. From those who honestly only need help with grammar and usage (ESL graduate students) to those who have difficulty understanding how to analyze instead of summarize. I distinctly remember working with a student whose professor had handed his response back ungraded and told him to go to the writing center. I don't know what it would have felt like to have been the student who was (in essence) told that what he had to say didn't count unless he could say it in academic English.

But he was there. Despite his obvious difficulty with academic English, this student not only had the courage to come to college, he had the courage to come to the writing center to get help instead of throwing the paper away and giving up.

When I worked with special ed high school students, I was sometimes rather frustrated and concluded they shouldn't be there. After all, if you can't read by the time you're in high school and you don't care to put in at least a little effort, then what is the point? But being only fourteen, they didn't have a choice. That's not the kind of situation that Adrienne Rich and Mina Shaughnessy write about. Shaughnessy was probably right that the basic writers were "strangers in academia, unacquainted with the rules and rituals of college life, unprepared for the sorts of tasks their teachers were about to assign them" (3). But they wanted to be there. Maybe they didn't want to be in a writing class specifically, but they chose to enter college, and Rich points out, "Many dropped out (a lower percentage than the national college dropput rate, however); many stuck it out through several semesters of remedial English, math, reading, to enter the mainstream of the college" (4).

I want to continue to remind myself that basic writers are here by choice and that motivation is key to their success.

Works Cited

Rich, Adrienne. "Teaching Language in Open Admissions." 1973. Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2001. 1-13.

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007