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!

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One thought on “Panel 5: Philosophies of Teaching University Writing II: Making it Happen in the Classroom

  1. As a high school (and this year Grade 7) English teacher, I used to waste days teaching grammar. To learn grammar, I found, you have to use those terms as part of the classroom culture. But I also noticed that if students didn’t understand the key words like “preposition” then I couldn’t have a meaningful conversation with them and have them understand what I was talking about (i.e., speaking about comma splices, for example, or “Use more precise nouns”). But it was always a struggle to get that basic level of knowledge down.

    My methods for teaching grammar: Give a pre-test that doesn’t count so they can see what they might not yet know. Encourage some research. And use those terms frequently in your everyday language (i.e., “This is great example of a comma splice”). Then deal with them one-one-one to fix the holes, as you can only push any student so far before it begins to suck a disproportionate amount of time to get the next increment. But they really learn it when they do it, that’s for sure — correct each other, do online tests, and get feedback in person that applies it.

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