Panel 5: Philosophies of Teaching University Writing II: Making it Happen in the Classroom

So how do you make it happen, in the classroom? How do you bring all that heady, ideal, gorgeous, philosophical/theoretical/pedagogical-capital-P thinking about teaching down to the earth of actual day-to-day interaction with students?

That was the question of the day.

It was February 25th of this year (I’m finally starting to catch up, in this blog, though so much has happened even since then!). The assembled panelists were, as usual, a collection of colleagues whom I’ve come to admire — except perhaps for the fourth one, on whom my jury’s still out. They were three fine people plus … (that uncertain fourth) … me.

Our prompting questions were the same as those that got so productively exploded at the last panel — what is a university? what is university writing? and what is your approach to teaching such a thing? — but now we had the added emphasis on bringing the philosophy down to earth. Interestingly, fewer people attended this panel. Was it because our focus was applied? Was it because it was February? Because it was noonhour? At any rate, it was, as usual, a very fine conversation.

“College Lecture” by Sean MacEntee, 2010 (Creative Commons Licensed for non-commercial re-use and sharing)
“College Lecture” by Sean MacEntee, 2010 (Creative Commons Licensed for non-commercial re-use and sharing)

First up was Sara, a very experienced instructor who has taught writing in Communications and Business as well as in the English Department — where her office door is across the hallway from mine. I get to witness what an effective teacher she is every time (and, truly, it happens frequently) students come to her office and thank her outright for a really useful course. It’s impressive.

Sara spoke about where she’s at these days with a problem she’s wrestled with at length: what to do about teaching grammar. “I’ve come to the conclusion,” she said, “that I can’t teach it at all.” Significantly, this is when she’s working with her business students, or her technical writing students — both of which accept that clarity and correctness in writing are even more important in their contexts than it may be in other areas. And this is after years of experimenting with different ways of teaching grammar: she’s tried teaching it directly, tried just “reviewing” it with students, and nothing seems to work. Either they’ve already got it down, Sara observed, or there’s something… they don’t care, maybe? In any case, they’ve certainly been taught grammar before, but it doesn’t seem to help to do it again. “If you explicitly teach grammar, you’re telling them it’s okay that they can’t do it already.” And basic addition isn’t re-taught in every math class, she pointed out!

So here, Sara said, is what she’s trying this term. At the very start of the semester, she mentions: grammar’s really important. Here are some resources. I’m not going to teach it — just know that these are here, in case you need to consult them. One week into the semester, she gives them a grammar quiz, worth 3%. The following week, another quiz, worth 7%.

It’s possible, she said, that this approach is working. The Business department she’s teaching in still has a “correctness policy” that governs how one marks grammar in assessing student work, and following that policy she “hits [her] students hard in their major assignments,” so they know it’s important. But despite the rigour of that policy, the department chair is still asking, “How come our students can’t write?”

Sara’s experiment, as she described it, is with turning that question back on the students themselves: if you need to work on your grammar, do it. Your teachers can’t do it for you.

(Sara’s thoughtful presentation, and her impressive work as a teacher, make me think of influential research on the formal teaching of grammar. In Patrick Hartwell’s essay, “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” originally published in 1985 in College English and collected in several editions of the important anthology Cross-Talk in Comp[osition] Theory, Hartwell reviews and comments on years of research on the teaching of grammar. He cites the striking finding that, “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or […] even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”)

The next panelist was Glen, a historian who teaches in the General Education department, a generous, inventive, and thoughtful instructor who (with his collaborator Aileen) has won a prize from the Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education for their research project on developing academic writers.

Glen began by recounting his own experience of learning to write, and the painful process of learning all the way through graduate school what it meant to write and how to get the hang of it. He empathizes with students who struggle and want to avoid writing, but he commented as well that students recognize that in order to learn how to write they will have to do it. In the General Education courses, he explains, he and his fellow instructors try to bring rich ideas and fascinating content together with writing instruction, so that the exciting ideas can help reluctant students cross the threshold into writing.

It is a challenge, though, he commented: some students will have really valuable ideas, but their writing struggles to get those ideas across to the reader.

So Glen tries to really work with them at their writing, and to structure his courses to emphasize it: he now makes it a priority to do writing in class every week and to assign substantial amounts of out-of-class writing, some of it low-stakes. He and his students talk about writing in class, and they work on giving each other peer feedback. He emphasizes feedback and revision throughout the course, building it into the structure of the assignments: when they first submit their final essays, he grades them, and then requires students to meet with him. He’ll point out two areas where they can significantly improve their essays, and he requires them to fix those areas, and to write a reflection on the changes they made. He offers up to a 5% additional mark for the revision work they do.

Glen also tries to break up the writing assignments into meaningful chunks: ones that focus, in turn, on key academic writing practices including paraphrasing, summarizing, and quoting. Students say they know how to do these things, Glen remarks (and I’ve seen this confidence expressed on student surveys, too — SB), but they don’t actually know how to do them well. He finds he has to get them working at learning this stuff again, for their writing to really improve.

I mentioned my colleague Karen Manarin and her research in my post about Panel 3, on “Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom,” and I was delighted that — having been unable to make that panel — she was able to be the third presenter in this panel. She’s a senior scholar at Mount Royal and someone who is deeply read in composition theory.

After hearing Sara’s and Glen’s presentations, Karen remarked that a lot of what we’d been talking about in this panel were issues of “transfer.” (Learning transfer‘s been a major buzzword in composition studies recently, as scholars take up their version of the question Sara hears from her department chair — why aren’t students learning what we’re teaching them? Or, properly, what can we do to support students being able to take what they learn in one class and transfer it into other situations? For a discussion of how ideas about learning transfer have been taken up in composition studies, see for example this article by Liane Robertson, Kara Taczak, and Kathleen Blake Yancey.)

It’s not that transfer doesn’t happen, Karen said. Transfer actually happens too often. It’s ubiquitous. The problem is that students aren’t wisely and selectively transferring ideas from one context to the next: they get 1000 signals from any course, 100 of which are verbal, and 10 of which are really meant to endure. And they don’t filter the 1000 signals effectively.

So, for instance, when it comes to learning citation — that key academic move — Karen finds that students have never thought about what a citation is supposed to do in an essay. They’ve never thought about creating a dialogue between their thoughts and someone else’s. And so they carry with them some lessons about what citation’s about and what’s important to get right, but they’re rarely the lessons that allow for real understanding of citation as a meaningful academic practice.

Karen confessed that, given her recent research and her current awareness of the mistaken and one-dimensional ways students perform practices like citation, she now feels that for years she was teaching them to do research papers that were as faux as a cardboard wedding cake. Beautifully decorated, maybe, but hollow. Ultimately, she realized, what she really wanted was real cake.

She told us that since these revelations, she’s been trying to think about why students would engage with academic writing, and her answer so far is that–in order to teach the substance not the surface, and to have a hope of them selecting to transfer the real lessons about citation and academic practices — she’d have to get them to do original research. From first year to fourth year. In first year courses, this might amount to something manageable: an original analysis of an image, say. They might connect their findings about that small data set to wider scholarly discussion; one of her students, for example, did a research project about the selfie phenomenon, offering original analysis as part of a conversation with other scholars. In fourth year, Karen’s students are asked to write about a question others haven’t written about: they are entering more substantially into scholarly conversation.

Returning to the question of transfer, Karen remarked: if we want them to transfer what the important things are, we have to rearticulate those lessons over and over again. And we have to reward students when they perform those lessons — however imperfectly — rather than rewarding the other, trivial stuff (the beautiful icing on the cardboard cake). Because unless we really focus our assessment on the  lessons that ought to be central, it’s the trivial stuff that they’ll select to learn.

…It was another excellent panel.

I’m omitting my own contribution, here, because I’ve got a post about that coming up, so stay tuned. In the meantime, though: thanks again to all the presenters on these five fabulous panels. You inspire me!

Panel 4: Philosophies of Teaching University Writing

What is it that I really do? — Aubrey

This was one of our best-attended panel discussions this year, with a good crowd of people from a variety of disciplines joining us at noonhour on November 17th, 2014 — and lots of lively discussion. Perhaps the broad, impractical sweep of the panel topic was part of what drew people to the conversation? I’m no philosopher, but the idea of a teaching philosophy has always sounded to me attractively and richly thoughtful, and it felt right to start the new year of discussions off with something rather grand.

Plus, as I confessed to the group when opening the conversation, the question of how we might approach university writing is one of my personal obsessions these days. It starts, for me, with the presumptuously broad question,

What is a university?

And it heads for the consequent question,

What, then, is “university writing”?

We hear from U.S.-based textbooks and talk of admissions tests and high school preparation of something called “college writing,” and I’ve read with interest some of the essays in Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg’s collection, What Is “College-Level” Writing? When surveyed about what they want to get from their foundation-level writing courses and what they think such courses should be all about, Mount Royal students often mention an introduction to what they call “university-level writing.” And my colleagues and I who teach those foundation-level courses think a lot about preparing students to write effectively in their university coursework, among other things.

My obsession with questions about “university writing” is fueled by new rhetorical genre theory, the theory of what writing is, why we write, and how to think about teaching writing that I have found most compelling over the past five or seven years. (See Deborah Dean’s book Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being for one very accessible, teaching-focused introduction to the theory.) This theory emphasizes that writing, like any other social action, is a motivated response to constraints or opportunities we perceive in a given rhetorical situation–a way of taking action in a given social and rhetorical context, a way of getting something done. That is, we really only write because we’re trying to achieve some context-specific, context-compelled (or context-inspired) action. We write reports because our bosses want to know what we’ve learned and what we advise. We write thank you notes because we’ve received a gift from someone whom we ought to treat with some old-fashioned formality, and convention suggests that this is a nice way of acknowledging the gift. We write Facebook posts because we want to compose an identity for ourselves and stay visible and relevant in a particular social network. …All of these are “genres” of writing, or types of social action, that are prompted by and influenced by the particular social contexts in which we want or need to act at the moment.

…So, then, according to this theory, university writing is some type of writing that’s specific to the particular social and rhetorical context that is a university.

What is a university? What is university writing?

Le_Penseur_at_Columbia_University by InSapphoWeTrust CC licenced for reuse
“Le Penseur at Columbia University” by InSapphoWeTrust (Creative Commons Licensed for non-commercial re-use and sharing)

…I was very curious to see what this wonderful panel of thinkers would have to say about their approach to and experience of university writing.

First up was Audrey, a colleague who has done wonderful research on disciplinary writing and thinks carefully about the practice of teaching writing within academic disciplines: she has taught writing in science and geology programs and currently teaches business writing courses. It was wonderful to start the panel with her perspective because, immediately, her perspective punctured the stretched umbrella of so-called university writing, reminding us about the particularity of disciplinary writing practices and the ways that professional writing practices, like those taught in Audrey’s business writing courses, respond to contexts well outside the academic boundaries of a university.

There’s now lots of research out there on writing in a variety of disciplines, Audrey reminded us, and the research points out that disciplinary practices are unique, socially determined by context, and mediated by texts: writing is different in each of the disciplinary contexts she’s taught in.

She offered us some beautifully-distilled “principles” of disciplinary writing instruction, derived from research and her practice:

1) writing instruction should value and engage with the disciplinary or professional community’s unique genres and rhetorical practices. To teach those genres and practices, we ought to investigate (for ourselves, and with our students) the texts produced by the community–noticing, for instance, that “persuasion works in a particular way,” in a business context. (It works much differently, I imagine, than persuasion in a literary studies context say! –SB). We can do this investigative work by way of ethnographic research into the community’s practices or through analyzing their texts.

2) writing is part of, should go along with, real participation in a disciplinary community. Our students are situated in various overlapping communities at once, of course–participating simultaneously, for example, in several different disciplines, in university communities, in personal and professional communities outside the uni. We might see students as “legitimate peripheral participants” (a term from genre pedagogy research) in some of these communities, and invite them to write as participants. …But we do need to ask, what’s realistic for a given student? What communities can we realistically expect them to see a way to joining, by writing?

* And, finally but very importantly, writing-in-a-discipline instruction benefits from strong partnerships with members of the disciplinary community. Particularly when we’re teaching students to write in genres and communities we’re not part of ourselves, we need to — and can effectively! — enlist the help of participating members of those communities to help understand their practices.

Next up was Aubrey, a colleague of mine from the Department of English who has recently won an award for teaching excellence. He teaches literature courses as well as composition, so his teaching context is so different than Audrey’s that the contrast between their concerns and approaches exploded my question about “university writing” even further. It was wonderful!

Aubrey thought back for us over his experience teaching composition within everything from English lit classes to “writing skills for engineering students” courses at a variety of institutions, and recounted his reflection on his own philosophy and practice: “what is it that I really do?,” he asked.

He’s come to think of teaching university writing, he said, as being all about the conversation: about starting a critical conversation with students, and engaging them in that. So there’s a balance that needs to be struck, he finds, between teaching the correct use of commas and teaching critical thinking—and the conventions, and the patterns of dialogue, that go along with thoughtfully joining a critical conversation.

What he finds, Aubrey reflected, is that encouraging critical thinking and an entrance into the conversation seems to be about developing good citizens, critical thinkers with their own habits of mind. It seems to be about developing ethics and ethical thinking–qualities that seem appropriate to strive for, in university teaching!

All of this, he has found, requires creating a safe, welcoming atmosphere in the classroom. Ultimately what we hope for, Audrey remarked, is that students begin writing more than just their opinion—that they come into a well informed opinion.

Following Aubrey in the panel was another English Department colleague, Kit — a specialist in Canadian literature and culture, and someone who (in collaboration with another English colleague, Kenna) has developed a version of our foundation-level “Critical Reading and Writing” course that focuses on reading and questioning “the university.”

I had thought to invite Kit because he has done some important thinking about what a university is — not only in his class, with his students, but in giving invited lectures about the history and philosophy of this institution. In 2013 he gave a talk titled, “Disciplining Knowledge: What is University?” and I was curious to see what he’d bring to this panel.

Kit prompted response immediately, when he opened his talk, but explaining that he wanted to start by thinking playfully through one word that seems to crop up everywhere in students’ writing: “relatable.” A general laugh of recognition rolled around the room, and one audience member piped up laughingly, saying of “relatable,” —“it should die!”

Kit remarked that the word seems to be used in student work as a shortcut to critical opinion: if something is relatable, it is good. …End of story? And he wondered whether, if students evaluate texts, films, things on the basis of their relation to themselves, on how “relatable” they are, could we see this as—perhaps—a xenophobia? A couched, unconscious one? A fear of the other? An unconscious fear that what is other is bad?

We can see “relatable” as a problem for teachers of university writing, for teaching generally, he offered, if we think of education as a process of introducing someone to something other than themselves. It becomes a problem if we think of the university as one of the “others” to which students struggle to relate. An assessment of “relatability,” then, ought to be just the beginning of learning, the beginning of analysis… and we might hope to prompt students past their initial fear of whatever is so far other to themselves.

One response to this problem of the impulse to fixate on what is “relatable,” Kit offered, is to work, in educating students, to introduce them to the opposite of a xenophobic response, to a posture that is a welcome of the other. This is theorized elsewhere as allophilia, as an opposite to prejudice. His own approach to teaching university writing, in his “Critical Reading and Writing” course, has been to teach texts about universities, and hence to try to lead students into comfort and conversation with the university — leading them to welcome this unknown.

Our final panelist was Karim, a philosopher himself, and chair of the Department of General Education (the liberal arts core program through which Mount Royal’s foundation-level writing courses are offered). Like each of the other three panelists, Karim took us exploding off in yet another direction. By now, the idea of an identifiable rhetorical situation for “university writing” had been thoroughly pulverized. What we were experiencing in its place, I suppose, was the sometimes cacophonous plurality of an actual university: no universals to be found, but a universe of approaches, focuses, and concerns.

Karim introduced us to an idea — that “the limits of my world are the limits of my language”— and a set of experiences that informed his sense that one comes into university-level thought through reading. In particular, he remembered for us the experience of reading a particular novel alongside Wittgenstein…

And he pointed to a debate playing out in recent media: a claim that “it’s a waste of time,” to teach writing (teach them, instead, to tell a story, says the argument), and the frequently offered counter-claim that there is great value to writing and the teaching of it…

Karim wanted to frame his thoughts about the question of university writing, not by saying that writing and teaching prose isn’t important, but rather by pointing out what he feels his students primarily lack: reading. They read lots of things, he acknowledged, but doesn’t seem to be generally the richly complicated, extended, thoughtful stuff that we might hope.

So his approach to teaching writing, as he described it, tends to be through teaching reading, for starters: his students read the text, they read it aloud in class, they reflect together on its meaning, they write about the argument. And he purposefully teaches texts that have no relation to their lives at all (distinctly un-relatable texts), or he tries to. These readings offer models of the type of writing his students might aspire to produce, and a wide enough variety of such models that eventually the students learn that they cannot just mimic one writer but have to find their own voice and their own argument—a voice that is different to, but competent to engage, and equal to engaging, the model.

Whew. Another divergent, challenging, thought-provoking panel. Some through-lines I observed in its explosion of perspectives included the following:

– university writing is difficult (and difficult to teach);

– it is immensely varied, and is demanded of students from a multitude of different disciplinary contexts;

– it is thoughtful and informed;

– it is about being in conversation with texts, ideas, other thinkers—about being equal to that conversation;

– it demands that students move past who they think they are and where they think they are into new relations with others, with the university, with ideas, with models.

Questions from the floor:

Are there more practical suggestions for how to get students reading and writing?

Is it possible to teach a generic good writing that will be of use to students across disciplines?

Ought we to be focusing more on teaching reading?

Panel 3: “Reading in a Writing Classroom”

How–and how well–are our students reading? What can’t they (or don’t they) seem to do, with their reading, that we wish they would? What strategies might we use to support them learning to read the way we want them to?

These were the questions I wanted to use to frame our third panel discussion. They were questions I’ve heard surfacing everywhere, since arriving at Mount Royal. My colleagues in English talk about their literature classes, and the types of enduring, disciplined, disciplinary, critical reading they try to encourage. Friends from sociology or history talk about their challenges trying to motivate even their senior seminar class students to work through all the material for a given day’s class. And the questions keep surfacing for me as I follow the work of my colleague Karen Manarin, who, along with her co-investigators here at Mount Royal, has recently done a substantial empirical study of student citation practices. Their study sheds some sharp light on the ways students use–I’m not sure I can say read–scholarly articles when they’re asked to cite them. Karen has also published a dynamite article about her work teaching reading strategies in her first-year writing class. In the article she points a way forward and exhorts colleagues to take the teaching of reading seriously, closing with this chilling and motivating final note:

What we are talking about is the ability of people to learn, the ability of people to sift through various forms of rhetoric, the ability of people to participate in a democracy. What we are also talking about is the possibility that we are partially complicit in this failure to learn, if not by action then by omission. We need to recognize that if indeed reading comprehension skills are eroding, we need to do something about it, even if we think students should know this material before they reach the postsecondary classroom, even if we are not trained in literacy instruction. The stakes are too great for us to do nothing. –Karen Manarin (294)

So questions about teaching reading were on the table, when we met for the third discussion in March, 2014.

The first speaker, Julie, is a Writing and Learning Strategist at Mount Royal. Her work with students allows her to see things instructors can’t: students approach her and her colleagues with questions they’re not willing to disclose to their instructors, including questions about what on earth an instructor means when she says, Read this. Write this. I often find W&L strategists’ perspective a bracing reminder of my own assumptions and blindspots, and I appreciate that they offer that reminder so gently: “We understand,” Julie said on the day, “that faculty came to writing intuitively.” We were rarely explicitly taught to do what we do, and hence we can’t quite see the thresholds we had to step across in order to figure out how to write and read in certain peculiar ways. W&L strategists often can, because they’re following current pedagogical research, and because they see so many different instructors’ assignments–through students’ eyes. The picture they see is a little bleak: “Most students don’t quite understand what’s being asked of them,” Julie revealed. For starters, they don’t understand they difference between the different types of texts we’re asking them to read, and the different types of reading strategies that each one assumes.

Julie pointed out that W&L strategists can come to our classes; they can integrate into our courses; they can work with our students, and they’re happy to. They help students tackle texts, by encouraging them to undertake a set of reading activities before, during, and after scanning the text. (See Karen’s article for her comparable approach to this problem.) They help students perceive the distinct genres we ask them to work with — “journal article,” “academic encyclopedia,” “edited book,” “textbook — and help students see what we mean by the direction to Read. There is a whole umbrella-full of activities and purposes involved in this business of reading, and the activities differ depending on the genre at hand.

If Julie’s reminders–and Karen’s research, which was invoked in her absence (she was ill that day)–were bracingly uncomfortable, Jane’s and Janice’s presentations were lovely instances of the variety of things faculty are doing in their efforts to engage and train student readers.

Jane is a senior professor of English (now retired), and an energetic advocate for students; for feminist, anti-racist, anti-bullying, and pro-queer politics; and for people power in general. Her approach to teaching reading in the writing classroom connects with a tradition of critical pedagogy that’s long been strong in U.S.-based composition instruction: it’s an approach to getting students reading that draws on their lived experience and their deeply felt (if sometimes unarticulated) responses to the power differentials and identity questions that shape their lives. Jane’s emphasis is on “generating incentive to read” by getting them engaged in ideas via narrative. She tries to make possible “an empathetic match” between the students’ perspectives and the texts they read. Using the textbook Pens of Many Colours: A Canadian Reader, she steps them into a discussion by inviting them to read about an issue in a sequence of different genres: a poem, then a short story, then an essay. Like Julie, Jane commented that sometimes, “even getting students to identify the different genres is difficult,” because they’re not used to navigating the different rhetorical purposes of different types of text. But gradually you can build comfort with genre difference, she said, and start encouraging students to develop rhetorical strategies of reading that accompany each type of text. They start flexing their “inferential muscles,” drawing inferences that allow them to forge the “invisible links” between dispersed ideas. And this development, Jane says, can begin with engaging, approachable narrative.

Janice, our last speaker of the day, is a professional journalist and a full-time faculty member. Working with her on committees and meeting her at various fora around the university, I’ve seen firsthand Janice’s ability to “read” discussions and sift all the paraphernalia of university debates: at meetings, in email conversations, she’s always actively noting, questioning, gathering, synthesizing, and passing on what she’s hearing. A true journalist! I think, as an outsider to that profession. Janice spoke about her experiences teaching writing for online audiences in a senior journalism course. The context for her students’ reading and writing was dramatically different than that in Jane’s class — but (as ever, on these panels) there were neat links between them.

Janice’s students, like Jane’s, are reading texts that engage them, and allow them to participate in their world, as citizens. Her students slog through dense texts, gradually coming to figure out how to read–and eventually how to write–for a particular set of rhetorical purposes. What Janice’s students are reading, though, is municipal government documents; they’re covering the City Hall beat. Despite that these documents are supposedly written in “plain language,” Janice commented, they’re dense and even painful to plough through. But her students get there, and learn on the way a style of professional reading that allows them to serve their readers and editors: Janice asks them to distill the documents, to pick out what’s happening here, what’s the political agenda, where’s the research, whose opinions are we getting? Her students write documents that selectively take up what’s being said by City Hall and translate them into a journalist’s version of plain language. They write synopses–a form of written reading, we might say–and analyses. They ask questions of what they’re reading. They read, Janice says, to assess credibility. They read for story ideas. It’s not so much a reading that dedicates itself to hefting the “cognitive burden” of the documents’ content, but an efficient, common sense-making, functional reading practice specific to their discipline.

* * *

Here’s the poster image I used to advertise this panel discussion. Looking back at it now, I realize I like this image. It’s still posted on my office door, almost a year later. But what a difference, in some ways, between the reading that’s pictured here — comfortable, confident, absorbed, domestic, on paper — and the variety of demanding and diverse sorts of reading we were talking about that day, and that we must keep talking about. Here’s a reader who’s got her strategies well in hand. May we give the gift of this sort of self-sufficient textual mastery to many a student to come!

Miss Auras by John Laverys
“Miss Auras” by John Laverys (CC licensed for non-commercial reuse and sharing)

Panel 2: Evaluating Writing

The next panel topic emerged out of our the first.

In the question period following the “Big Picture” panel, Jill spoke up. She called our attention back to what Richard had said about training his writing students in “non-evaluative” responses to each other’s work. “I love that,” Jill said. “I am working on that too. It’s wonderful. But can I ask you–how do you approach evaluating your creative writing students’ work, when it comes to that? How do you navigate grading?”

Her question was right on, and a flash point for lots of recent and not-so-recent reflection and research in writing pedagogy. (See, just for example, professor/blogger P. L. Thomas’s synopsis of the various arguments in his co-edited, US-focused book called, De-Testing and DeGrading Schools:  Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization [Peter Lang, 2013].)

How does one navigate evaluating students’ work? However supportive, attentive, and productive a discussion we foster with our students in a writing workshop or in the margins of their papers, things get tense when it comes time to assign their work a grade. Our students care a lot about grades, as their responses to a recent department survey indicate. Grades are emphatically significant in students’ lives–perhaps especially when they’re still in university: when they’re still taking prerequisite and general eduction classes in hopes of getting a strong enough GPA to be accepted into the professional degree program of their choice. Or when they’re trying to accumulate confidence and get oriented to the institution while warding off academic probation. Or when they’re driven by their own sense of pride and work ethic, as so many of them are, and crushingly worried about achieving a mark that will satisfy them that they’ve earned their tuition money’s worth and learned something that will help them in the future.

How does one handle that ultimate, inescapable evaluative moment, as an empathetic person, with any sense of integrity and justice? Colleagues of ours at the University of Alberta occasionally choose not to. The U of A has recently won the prestigious Certificate of Excellence from the Conference on College Composition and Communication, a major international organization, for its interdisciplinary course called Writing Studies 101–a workshop-style course that guarantees students at least a B- if they engage in all the required activities. They can get better grades, if their work is excellent, but genuine and responsible participation in the workshop means no-one–student or instructor–has to cope with a C. Or an F.

The question of how to navigate evaluation is a big one in other ways too, of course: grading and giving feedback on student writing it is a mentally-demanding, time-consuming feat. It demands focus, stamina, a sense of proportion, and enduring generosity of spirit. From the moment I floated the idea of Issues in Teaching Writing panel discussions, I heard from colleagues that they were keen to talk about evaluation. I was too. It is, frankly, the aspect of teaching that I find most daunting and draining. And that’s a shame, because it’s also my opportunity for most intimate contact with my students’ writing–my chance for in-depth dialogue with them about their work. (See Diana Lin Awad Scrocco’s article about dialogic feedback techniques in marking commentary; her findings are yet another reminder that this is important business.)

“Throes of Creation” by Leonid Pasternak ca. 19th C. CC licensed for sharing and re-use.
“Throes of Creation” by Leonid Pasternak ca. 19th C. CC licensed for sharing and re-use.


So we gathered, with anticipation, to think together about evaluation. This time we were not given a smoked-glass room or a glowing oval table, but a classroom on the first floor of the Arts building. There was a JugoJuice doing buisiness outside. It was a mundanely pedestrian, functional, but sizeable room with flexible seating:  somehow the right space for the conversation. We circled our tables and got down to it. As with the first panel discussion, I found this one illuminating, and I found myself marvelling at the wisdom and savvy of my colleagues. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my notes about this panel discussion–a serious filing error!–so what follows is the faulty record of my erring mind.

Since it was Jill’s question that had prompted the panel topic, she went first. She spoke about the compromise she’s drawn in her efforts to evaluate her creative writing students. She teaches poetry-writing classes, and the rich discussions focus on the overlapping energies of craft, process, and the poetic heart. Jill, like her colleagues Richard, Natalie, and Micheline, supports and encourages her creative writing students as expressive people, as artists working to render experience and imagination on the page. But when it comes down to evaluating their work, she says, she retreats to a focus on form, on craft. This seems gradable; the soul of the work, the personal practice of the artist, does not. That was the compromise she’s been drawing. It’s not fully satisfying, she indicated, but it works.

Sandi went next, and (as ever, with these panels) the contrast between her teaching context and Jill’s illuminated the diverse sorts of writing students do at a university. When Sandi teaches writing to Public Relations students, she is preparing them to face a demanding and hasty public and professional audience: her grading gives them an index of how well their writing would perform in the busy world, so her feedback is necessarily rigorous. But unlike the silent public, Sandi’s response to her student’s work is informative and instructive: it offers them a chance to learn knowingly from their mistakes, rather than to wonder later what went wrong, when their texts fail to hit a mark. Wanting her responses to be informative, then, she has developed carefully specific rubrics that detail what her students’ writing must do. And the rubrics allow her to highlight precisely where they didn’t do it. The approach works.

David followed Sandi, and he told an instantly recognizable story of marking fatigue. How do you escape the frustration that comes when, inevitably, you find yourself needing to say the same things again in the margins of many student papers in a row, or to the same student, again, yet again? David, who teaches literature as well as writing, showed us some software he had developed (somehow, in his spare time!!) that allowed him to generate a remarkably layered, personalized, and informative paragraph of feedback for each student paper, largely by selecting sentences to add from a substantial database of routine comments. Indeed, I say paragraph, but it was a full page of single-spaced type: a ream of relevant and detailed commentary far more readable than the pencil-scrawled paragraphs I’ve often written, and far more patient in tone than mine has often been, towards the bottom of the marking stack. It works!

Finally, Bill offered his thoughts. Bill, who writes novels, who was hired to teach professional and technical writing, and who, like Randy from the first panel, is always seeking to make electric experience happen in the classroom. How does one do that–with marking? Bill manages to get his students to do the marking for him. Or that’s not right: he gets them marking each other–giving feedback, yes, but also literally assigning grades. And then he marks their marking, noticing how much insight and effort they’ve put into that work, adjusting grades up or down if necessary. Bill came up with this way of handling evaluation after trying to make peer review really happen in the classroom, and finding that it just never sparked. Student peer review is often cautious and superficial, in my experience, and Bill had found similar things: a reluctance to buy in, an unlikelihood that they were learning much from the experience. So he decided to make it real, and, as he told the story, energy and focus snapped into place, in their attention to each other’s work and what they were doing with it, as soon as they were asked to evaluate each other. “It’s messy,” I recall him saying of the peer-grading exercise. “But it works.”


Panel 1: “The Big Picture: Approaches to Teaching Writing”

I have no answers. –Sharren

Our first panel discussion about Issues in Teaching Writing took place on a blizzardy December afternoon in 2013, late in the day. Many colleagues came, despite the dark–they came from English, from Journalism, from the department of General Education, from Public Relations, from Writing and Learning Services. Everyone looked tired; it was late in the term. Everyone was genial.

We sat around a truly massive oval table in a meeting room with fogged glass windows, as the snow accumulated on the roads outside, and listened with interest as four faculty members from English told us how they think about teaching writing. The room crackled: each one was a magician. We almost never get to hear this stuff revealed in any detail. Each one wove such a different kind of magic.

"Fire Writing" by naturalturn (2009) -- CC licensed free to use and share
“Fire Writing” by naturalturn (2009) — CC licensed free to use and share

Sharren spoke first. A deeply experienced teacher who spends hours meeting one-on-one with students to workshop their writing, she described a pragmatic teaching that attends carefully to students’ needs. What she offered recalled, for me, the theory and pedagogy of teaching “basic writing” for university students–a pedagogical tradition that wants to support students in acquiring skills of error-free, recognizably-structured writing–skills that bestow a crucial confidence, and the equally-crucial mark of the mature member of the educated class (see, for instance, the work of Mina Shaughnessy, Andrea Lunsford, or David Bartholomae; see Deborah Mutnick and Steve Lamos’s chapter “Basic Writing”). Her teaching starts wherever her students are: What do they need to know, at the start of a term, at the start of a university career? What do they already know?

Well, not very much–yet. They know very very little about critical reading, Sharren pointed out; they have few research skills. And they know it: “They don’t feel good about their lack of ability, have no confidence. But I can guarantee that they’ll be better at writing by the end of the term.” How does she do it? Sharren offered a musical metaphor: “I believe in a really prescriptive approach. I teach the notes,” so that they’ll eventually be able to play the tune. She teaches basic, useful forms, ones that give students confidence: the 5-paragraph essay; the paragraph itself. But she also introduces them to the rhetorical strategies that are valuable in a university environment, such as the ability to summarize and respond to another writer’s ideas. She uses Graff and Birkenstein’s important textbook, They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing–“it is our duty,” Sharren feels, “to help students enter the conversation. And when we do, they’re very appreciative.”

* * *

My notes from that evening tell me that Ivan spoke third, but I remember his account as following Sharren’s, because it contrasted hers so distinctly. And yet there were resonances between them–harmonies sounding around the idea of the academic conversation. An American literature scholar invested in theory and a critique of the biopolitics of AIDS medicine, Ivan’s approach to teaching composition is influenced by his own story of learning to write for his academic studies: “I learned to write on the job,” he said, without any formal instruction in how on earth to do it. Remembering the rigors of that experience, and noticing how swiftly undergraduate students are asked to read and work with peer-reviewed academic essays, he sets himself the task of preparing them for that work. What do we do with these strange essays?, he asks his classes. How can we identify their arguments and incorporate those conversations into our own writing? Students build their answers to these questions by looking closely at the features that makes this type of writing so stylistically and rhetorically distinctive, Ivan explained, and they investigate why academic writers style their writing the way they do.

Ivan and his students read Canadian researcher Janet Giltrow’s (and her co-authors’) brilliant textbook–Academic Writing: An Introduction (now in its 3rd edition)–alongside academic essays, as they acquire for themselves the quintessential academic genres of citation and summary, and as they begin to identify the connections between different scholars’ arguments, and the gaps in current research where there might be room for a new voice to speak up. His approach, based on Giltrow’s, is evidently informed by New Rhetorical genre theory (see, for instance, Anis Bawarshi and Mary-Jo Reiff’s chapter on “Rhetorical Genre Studies“): Ivan deliberately introduces his students to the university, as distinct social setting and discourse community with its own goals, motivations, and recognized activities; together, they learn how to write in ways that will allow them to participate in those activities as members of that community.

Gradually, the creative writing students started saying, Yuck.– Randy

It was Randy who went second. He too uses Giltrow’s text with his students (who tackle it with him in a second-year Intermediate Writing class). But what he wanted to tell us about was the experiment he tried with one particular class, when–it turned out–every single one of the students identified as being creative writers.

Now Randy is a creative writer himself. He teaches literary theory; he teaches literary genres like science fiction. Like his fellow panelists, he thinks hard about teaching composition. But I remember asking Randy to be on this panel especially because he’s a gutsy teacher. He tries to put his students in situations where they’ll feel things. Where stuff will really happen.

So in this class, Randy told us, he decided to start the term off really straight-faced. THIS is the standard conventional academic essay, he would say, pointing to examples. THIS is how it must be written, he would say, pointing to Giltrow’s textbook. One thing we must do, as academic writers, is soak up all the interesting information you’re trying to convey in your sentence into noun phrases. Big long abstract dense high-level heavily-loaded noun phrases. Writing in such phrases forces you to talk about the world in an academic way: it allows you to categorize and to classify, to prioritize, to place objects in causal relationships to each other. “It gives your writing,” Randy recounted to us, “the appearance of complexity.” THIS is how it’s done. A nominal style gives you power in the academic domain. Write like that.

Eventually his students rebelled. It was beautiful. Their critique bubbled up out of the pressure-cooker of his deadpan demand for conformity. Academic style, his students protested, was “a static, clunky, chunky, constipated form”–and it was untruthful about the world. The world moves, they decided. It is actually a place of momentum: things happen; they don’t just exist to be categorized. The students, Randy told us, decided to place their writerly faith in the verb.

It was marvelous to hear this story, of course. It was a story of the stage being set for students to discover, for themselves, both the constraining contours of academic style and what longstanding wisdom knows about writerly craft–good writers write muscular, active sentences. Randy’s story reminded me of editing theory and of authoritative discussions of writing as practice. (He’s since pointed me to Robert Miles and his co-authors’ excellent textbook, Prose Style: A Contemporary Guide.)

* * *

“I don’t do any of these things,” Richard laughed, as he opened his presentation, the fourth and final one on the panel. He marveled with us at how complicated writing is: how is it that so many of these disparate strategies work?

Richard’s a poet, a literary critic, a reader and theorist of comic books and pop culture and–totally–a teacher of writing. He speaks ringingly, and articulates an astutely postmodern sort of humanism until I find I could march out of the room following him wherever he might lead. It was a good thing he went last.

Richard’s pedagogy fits into what they call the “expressive” tradition, influenced, for example, by the classic work of Peter Elbow, and it’s dynamite: “teaching writing,” Richard reminded us, “is about teaching living.” It’s about encouraging the students into voice. They’ve been alienated from their own voices, reading authorities on the page who sound nothing like themselves–so they don’t recognize how much they know, how much they have to say. Teaching writing, then, is about treating students like writers and allowing them to find themselves on the page. Through techniques of freewriting, of listening to one another’s voices, of workshopping, of hearing non-judgmental responses to their work, Richard’s students learn to hear their own voices as authoritative and knowledgeable. This, he explained, allows them to “become powerful like us.”

…Phew. It was a remarkable conversation.

Panel discussions and my humbling colleagues

Though I say it myself, deciding to organize a series of informal panel discussions about writing may have been one of the best ideas I’ve managed to cook up in the past couple of years. Distinctly better than setting too many assignments last semester; better even than my sugarfree oatmeal cookie recipe. This experiment sounded good from the beginning: what better way to flush out and corral the scattered, diverse, busy people who teach writing in disciplines across this university? What better way to harvest all that wisdom or to build community?

My colleagues, as it turns out, are brilliant and deeply experienced teachers of writing–and they’re very generous people. In batches of four, they graciously accepted my invitation to steal time from their teaching prep, committee work, and their research time, their office hours, email hours, and commute hours, or, sadly, their scrounge-some-food minutes, family time, or discreet, exhausted, between-classes naptime, and to offer their perspectives on thorny issues to do with writing for 6-8 minutes in turn.

What they had to say was always thoughtful and on-point. And the diversity of their responses to the problems they addressed, well. It showcased precisely the diversity of the field of writing and composition studies; it indicated the independence of mind and, happily, the academic freedom exercised here; it pinned to the wall how very complex and thorny the problem of teaching writing is.

So far, the panel discussions have addressed the following questions:

  • what’s the big picture, when it comes to teaching writing?
  • how are we to evaluate student writing?
  • how can we teach reading in the writing classroom?
  • how should we approach teaching writing in a university context?

See the following posts for accounts–very partial, sketched from my faulty memory–of the conversations that unfolded .

And stay tuned! There are more panel discussions to come, and there’s more conversation to be had here, on this blog.

Hello world! Let’s talk writing.

This is a blog about writing. It’s about the people who teach writing, who research it, who do it–all under the fine roof of Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (For more, please visit our About page.)

It’s a great day to start a blog, today: there’s a chinook wind blowing, so it’s warm here for a Calgary January. That’s encouraging. Plus those winds make people edgy and give us all the jump of a static spark, so here’s to sparking something new in this dry chinook air.

Stay tuned to this space: there’s lots to come.