Saturday, November 22, 2003

Audience and "Errors": Part One

Andrew Strycharski

Kathy's recent post about ways Mina Shaughnessy's insights can be applied to "more global 'error'" has got me thinking.

Many of us have noticed that one common "error" students make is introducing their sources in inappropriate ways. If they attribute an idea to a source at all, they may do so without providing enough context for the attribution, as if readers would of course know who so-and-so is. It's a situation that obviously calls for revision, perhaps revision of my teaching based on an attempt to understand the source of the problem.

It wouldn't be hard for experienced writing teachers to develop an explanation of these issues; students may find it difficult enough just to articulate this new idea in some form, let alone worry about some imaginary audience "beyond the classroom" that would need more information. Place this developmental model within the actual institutional framework of writing, where in fact the teacher is their primary audience and fellow students a secondary audience, and where in fact no one but these people will likely be reading their paper, and you have a working model for the causes of the audience issue. This analysis is supported, in part, by the fact that when students pull in ideas from readings outside the class, the "symptoms" I listed above are usually less severe. They seem to know that not everyone who reads this paper will know who, say, Carl Jung is, or what he wrote, and so take a little more time explaining him. (Not always in a way that more experienced writers would, but it seems, with more context).

The question, then, is what can I do to overcome the audience issue? Are there ways to change the writing situation in the first year writing class to overcome this particular problem? More to come . . .

Jung's "Revision Hope"


Julie Jung (University of Arizona at the time; now at Illinois State University) gave a presentation on the topic of revision in writing classes. She began by drawing an X-Y axis on the board -- the first time I'd even seen an English teacher do that -- and drew data points signifying where a teacher might like to see strengths in a student's paper (on topic; appropriate tone; good analysis). Then she drew points far off the axis -- extraneous data points -- where teachers tend to call attention to problems, especially cliches.

Julie pointed out that when students use cliches, they might disrupt our reading, but they are trying to say something important. The writer might not know how to get at it, or they might not be sure yet what it is they're reaching for. Rather than mark "cliche" in the margins, then, Julie suggested that we encourage exploration into the cliche, the "disruption": don't edit it out, but lean on it, inquire into it.

This was one of my first lessons in how academic writing in composition can challenge us in unanticipated, but meaningful and relevant ways.

Julie writes about this in more detail in her "Revision Hope: Writing Disruption in Composition Studies." JAC 17.3 (1997).

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Logistics and Learning

Kathryn Evans

Talk about serendipity… This semester, a minor logistical change I made to solve a small problem ended up being a big solution to a big problem. I’d been feeling a little guilty that I let students’ second revisions pile up before responding to them, so I told students that, unlike previous semesters, they could only revise a second time if they made an appointment with me to discuss their revisions. As before, the people who took advantage of the second revision option were the students with the lowest grades and the perfectionist over-achievers. With the lower-achieving group, I saw a serendipitous benefit: over the course of the semester, the additional “revision conferences” have enabled those who need more help to get it—and my lowest-achieving students have improved noticeably more than in previous semesters. I never fail to be struck by the extent to which logistics can shape learning...

On Letting Students Choose a Topic


I have always thought that letting students choose their own topic is a good idea because they can choose a topic they are already somewhat familiar with and interested in. In my first-year composition classes, following Ilona Leki's idea of sequenced assignments, I have always asked students to choose their topic at the beginning of the semester and stick to it.

This semester, in an attempt to create a more generic syllabus (partly because I wanted to develop one that would serve as a sample syllabus for new teachers in my program), I consciously moved to a more traditional, compartmentalized model. Writing projects are still loosely related to one another, but students got to choose a new topic for every writing project rather than having to stick to one topic. The result was the usual frustration I had always heard from other teachers but had never experienced myself. More than a handful of students this semester seem to have chosen their topics based not so much on what makes sense rhetorically but more on what they think would make their lives easier.

I was perplexed because I had never really encountered these situations before. But I can see how the sequenced assignment helped to prevent these problems--the choice of topic takes place long before students have the chance to think about the logistics of each of the projects. I've had a few students mention that they got tired of the topic by the end of the semester, but all I had to do to take care of this was to explain how they could take different perspectives within the same topic.

This experience has led me to reconsider the notion of letting students choose their own topic. Letting students choose their own topic makes sense in personal writing, but for informative or persuasive writing, which requires students to develop a certain level of content expertise, the freedom to choose the topic seems less important than, say, the ability to engage in sustained discussion of a topic in a rhetorical context--which can be facilitated by asking the whole class to choose a related topic or by asking them to stick to the same topic throughout the semester.

For the next semester, I am thinking about going back to the sequenced assignments, where students stick to the same topic and explore different aspects of it through different types of writing. Another possibility is to provide a theme for each project (or for the semester) and use some common readings so students can discuss the readings together and incorporate them into their writing projects.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Responding to Problems, Not Symptoms

Kathryn Evans

On WPA-L, David Schwalm has recently reminded us of Mina Shaughnessy’s important advice to inquire into the source of a student's error—to ask why a particular student is making a particular error. I’m often struck by how useful this advice is not only for sentence-level error but also for more global “error.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, this advice can be especially useful in helping instructors distinguish between students’ writing problems and mere symptoms of those problems.

Last month, for instance, two of my students were having trouble supporting their claims with evidence—yet they did not have the same problem at all. For the first student (call him Arun), the problem underlying the symptom was the concept that what counts as evidence varies. As I realized while conferencing with him, his concept of evidence was very general (what we would actually consider just a slightly more specific claim)—and he didn’t realize that academic audiences wanted more concrete evidence.

Arun’s assumption about what counts as evidence, I’ve found, is quite typical—so typical that I started to treat the second student as if she had the same problem. Fortunately, I was also conferencing with this student (call her Tammy), so I quickly saw my mistake: she and I actually were “on the same page” about what would be an appropriate use of evidence for her audience; her underlying problem, instead, was that she divided her work into several sections—each containing its own introduction—without signaling this division to her readers. Not realizing that the unsupported paragraphs interspersed throughout her work were actually introductions rather than body paragraphs, I expected support that I didn't get. Once we realized that lack of signaling (rather than different conceptions of what counts as evidence) was the problem, we decided that she could add subheadings throughout her work, thus signaling to readers that she had mini-introductions interspersed throughout her paper.

Addressing underlying problems rather than surface manifestations can allow us to respond more effectively to students. If we tell more stories about cases such as Arun’s and Tammy’s, we can build a repertoire of the range of different problems that can underlie the same symptom. I’d like to hear about more such cases.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Critiquing Peer Critique

Andrew Strycharski

The idea that peer review is an important part of the writing process is by now well established, and I've spent most of my teaching career practicing "traditional" peer response. However, I have recently adapted another approach, having started to see two problems I had with the "traditional" approach. First, peer critiques had themselves become pieces of writing that students produced "as something to be judged," rather than as part of a dynamic writing process. Second, they were built on assumptions about the universality of a specific writing process. One of the fundamental insights of post-process theory is that there is no universal writing process that will guarantee successful communication, and I have begun to apply this particular insight to the idea of peer review, reconceptualizing peer review as an activity that can have different meanings and work in different ways.

Relying on George Hillocks' idea of "instructional modes", at times, I will conduct review sessions that lean toward the natural process mode, where I do not give students a specific heuristic but instead encourage them to react to pieces of writing and develop their own ideas about what works, what doesn't, and what to do about it. In other sessions, I provide a very particular focus in the environmental mode, asking them, for example, to identify a few different stylistic techniques in a reading and then find places in each others' drafts where they can apply these same techniques. At another time, I will use a more presentational mode, where the entire class reviews a single essay or a pair of essays. I lead them through questions about specific characteristics of the writing, e.g., the kind and presentation of evidence, allowing them to generate their own observations and then asking them to apply our insights to their own writing.

Mixing the instructional modes knocks some of the formalism out of peer review, making it part of a dynamic process of helping each other and building audience awareness. It allows me some control over the direction review and revision take in the class, while relieving me of the burden to be the sole arbiter.