“Could it be that this all of this op-ed commentary about pop culture serves more to fill our empty places—those places deep within us that desire to make and say and express but are completely disengaged within the context of the kind of lives most of us live as consumers, not makers. Have we all become so obsessed with commentary and critique because actually making and creating is just too damn hard?”
Found this on Facebook, and the attributed source is Gary Provost.
With apologies to the writers of this essay, I think they’re on the wrong track. Take a minute to read their full article.
We hate grading them; they hate writing them. But if we really value meaningful student learning, it’s time for academe to put more energy and resources into the project of better writing instruction, argue Martha Schulman and Gwen Hyman.
The problem is this:
You can’t fix weak, disorganized, thoughtless writing without addressing the thinking that underlies it. It’s the discipline of understanding ideas, organizing ideas, entering into dialogue with a much bigger conversation around your essay that’s the hard part.
I’ve taught writing for a long time now, to students ranging in age from 11 to 22. It’s hard work, but it isn’t inscrutable: shoddy thinking underlies shoddy writing.
Yes, students can and do pile on grammatical mistakes, bad syntax, and weak writing style. But if your focus as a writing instructor (or professor in any course) is merely to fix the surface-level mechanics of the English language, you’re missing the point.
In fact, pushing students to continue producing examples of a relatively outdated and irrelevant academic format of writing probably hurts them more than it helps them. Sure, the students headed into grad school will not escape the academic essay for a few more years, but only the tiny percentage of career academics and nonfiction essay writers benefit from repeated drilling of the essay format.
Am I arguing that writing is unimportant? Absolutely not.
I’m arguing that good thinking is important, and alongside it, strong communication skills: a simple, clear, crisp writing style and a grasp of fundamental grammatical usage.
But the communication skills break down when the underlying ideas do.
Points to consider:
- The bulk of college students will not spend their lives in academic careers. Higher ed tenure track positions are becoming a thing of the past. At some point, the adjunctification of higher ed will be complete, and the few slots remaining for paid scholarship will be full for a long time. We don’t do students a service by assuming that educating them in history or English or whatever means teaching them to write like an academic expert in that discipline. Students should learn to model disciplinary thinking and understand the jargon, but multiple options for communicating ideas would prepare students better for the world they will work in.
- Cognitive habits and abilities must be taught and practiced like any other skill set. Unless teachers in K-12 and higher education are proactively, intentionally, and directly teaching students to ask better questions, organize thinking, draw models of processes, and labor until their understanding is clear, students will not become “better writers” because we spend X amount of time on “writing instruction.”
- New forms of literacy – and “multiliteracies” – have moved to the forefront. Have you watched YouTube lately? Participated in a discussion over on Medium? Picked up a textbook printed in the past 5 years? The way we process text+image+layout has changed the way we understand ideas, and that’s not a bad thing. [For more on multiliteracies, I recommend this research article by Cope & Kalantzis]
- Writing instruction as a discipline needs to move forward into new approaches. Process writing at least gave us a start, but even that pedagogical basic seems lacking from most undergraduate writing assignment guidelines. Below I will mention a new DT approach I find intriguing.
- We act as if college assignments exist to teach students to become professional writers. That’s not their purpose – not unless the student is aiming to make a living through writing. And even then, professional writers and journalists work with editors and collaborators to help them write the best possible novel/essay/article. Only in the classroom do we expect students to handle the whole process by themselves, achieving mastery of each individual component. No one works that way. Few are that skilled – nor should we expect that.
So what could make college-level writing better? Perhaps….
- Reframe writing assignments as wicked problems to be solved using creative methods and Design Thinking approaches. I got this idea from Carrie Leverenz and I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Here’s her article, “Design Thinking and the Wicked Problem of Teaching Writing” (link opens PDF)
- Place students more in the center of the college classroom, offering them genuine responsibility to shape assignment structure, questions, and content. This idea scares many professors; I do understand the fear (remember, I’ve taught middle schoolers!). But without agency, students are merely cogs in a machine over which they have no control and thus no investment. Everything about our assessment-drunk educational system right now produces compliant, thoughtless students – not rigorous, challenging thinkers. As long as students feel like they’re playing a high-stakes game of pleasing the professor in order to earn a decent grade, they aren’t going to learn to write. And that’s our fault more than theirs. (We’re in charge of the grades.)
- Acknowledge 21st century communication shifts by requiring a variety of products for assessment. Want to assign an essay? Fine. But use other forms of communication and tools along the way — a sticky note “tree” to work out logical arrangement of ideas; a process map; a Prezi organizer for research; an oral presentation to the whole class of the core argument with opportunity for critique and feedback. Make your assignment – as a whole – multimodal and multigenre.
- Explain to students what you’re asking them to do, why the skills are important, and how the assignment fits into the overall structure of the course. Dr. Mary-Ann Winkles at UNLV is doing some amazing things with her Transparency in Teaching and Learning initiative. A very simple rubric asking faculty to clarify assignment purpose, goals, and assessment standards for any course assignment has made a huge difference at UNLV.
- Focus your instructional and grading attention on the underlying ideas from a student, less on grammar and style. Before a student has ironed out her ideas, it doesn’t really matter how many comma splices you find. Because the broken ideas are a worse problem than the bad grammar. Students can get help pretty easily with grammar – the college writing lab should be staffed with people who can help. But really, the only person who can help a student fix her broken ideas is YOU, the professor. It’s your class, your subject area. Help students realize what they need to learn, point them to good sources, and hold the expectation that you won’t accept papers constructed with shoddy ideas. And that means loosening your class structure so that you’ve got enough time to both assess where students are in their ideas and adjust your large-group instruction (modeling, lectures, discussions) to address the problems you’re seeing in this particular class.
Honestly, if students never wrote another academic essay, I wouldn’t care. But I would be sad if collectively the college classroom experience continued to polish the brass knobs on student writing while ignoring the catastrophic inability of students to understand and organize ideas.
We should print it in big, bold letters because that’s how this idea rolls:
I’m teaching this semester, and despite all of my emotional hand-wringing in my last post, I genuinely enjoy it. I’ve got a good class and so far they’re working to do what I ask and stay engaged. They keep showing up every day, an effort that I genuinely appreciate.
I’ve got goals – big, lofty ones and realistic, smaller ones – that I’m working to achieve in my students and in myself.
One of my goals is to improve my own pedagogy by unpacking and implementing some of the ideas I’ve learned in the past few years about active learning, student-centered learning, and critical pedagogy.
Active learning happens when teachers choose learning activities that engage the student in participating meaningfully in the learning process. This reduces the time given to passive receiving of information (lecture, watching videos, in-class reading) and gives that time instead to a variety of techniques which demand involvement, ranging from basic discussion to group projects, collaboration, thinking activities, improv, building, prototyping, communicating, creating.
Student-centered learning is a similar concept; it probably involves a lot of active learning but each occupies a different axis within educational practice. I like to define it as the broad attempt to move the student to the center of the classroom experience, usually by pulling the teacher off the center stage. This doesn’t mean that the instructor is less important, but it does raise the value of a student’s voice and it implies that students have agency over what they learn and how they go about it. A student-centered classroom puts the questions raised by the learners at the center of lessons, and teachers who pursue this model invest a lot of work into teaching students how to ask deeper questions, research for more than a pat answer, and fuel their studies through internal motivation (what the student wonders, loves, wants to know).
Critical pedagogy is a term that could take weeks to define. If you go forth into the wilds of the internet searching for an explanation, you may return scarred and terrified — yet, at its heart, critical pedagogy offers us an important focus for human education. Let me compress these ideas into something straightforward: critical pedagogy builds on the work of legendary Brazilian educator and lawyer Paolo Friere, who worked with the poorest of the poor in his native country. He realized that literacy means nothing to people who own little and feel they cannot control much in their lives. Their relationship to “power” is totally broken as they live out the realities of social injustice. Yet even “uneducated” people are rich with experience, and if someone takes the time to teach them how the world works, how power structures work, how they can step aside and critique the way their world is working, even the poorest people can begin to take charge of what agency they do have and turn it into something useful to make their lives better.
Friere recognized that whether a student comes from poverty or privilege, he or she can be enriched by learning how to critique power structures, act as agents as change to achieve greater justice in their social structures, and enjoy the freedom and joy that comes from being someone who understands better how the world could work. Friere’s writings are infused with explosions of joy and theological presuppositions that I find quite refreshing. He might be one of the most “Christian” educators I’ve ever read.
So. For me, this means changing the following about my habits of teaching:
- I want to move my students into the center of my classroom experience. That means less talking from me, and more work on my part to generate strong questions or learning prompts to drive students deeper into their own inquiries. Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier to just lecture….
- I want to master the skills of facilitating better discussions, both as a class and when students are working in small groups on tasks. That means sharpening my own critical thinking and analysis skills, but also shutting up and listening more than I talk.
- I want to be more aware myself of critical perspectives on texts, toward the daily news, of national crises like the Ferguson / Charleston shootings so that I can model for my students what it looks like when we step outside of our contexts and critique those contexts through a variety of lenses. My lens tends to be shaped by what I believe are biblical concepts of human dignity, social justice, economic systems, power relationships, etc.
- I want to resist stepping in too early to rescue students as they labor—often with great anxiety—to give birth to a new idea or understanding of the world mediated through their reading or writing or experiences. Being able to give “the right” answer feels very heady, like drinking from an authority fountain. I think professors and instructors secretly love that feeling. But our drinking comes at the expense of our students’ growth.
- I want to facilitate better relationships among my students, forming us into a discrete learning community that displays love and care for each other as well as concern for the broader world. This is much more difficult, I’ve found, in college where my contact hours are much fewer and students in my class may see one another only during my period. If teaching is relational (and it IS), then I need to also acknowledge that learners are related to one another. Asking them to step into difficult, challenging spaces with a group of strangers will never do.
I titled this post “Trust the Process.”
The thought hit me recently as I walked down the hall from the day’s lesson that I’m gambling a lot on my insistence that teaching writing be grounded in teaching students better thinking skills. I think a lot of us find it easier to grind through grammar exercises and assign writing prompts that focus on the pedantic, nit-picky final stages of the writing process.
Those stages are structured and codified. I can easily recognize a comma splice. I can mount an argument to defend the Oxford comma or criticize overuse of linking verbs. I can quote handbook sections in response to unclear pronoun referents, and dump the responsibility on the students to figure out how to fix those broken sentences in their latest papers.
And while much writing instruction claims to talk about the thinking behind the writing, much of what we DO in the name of writing instruction doesn’t actually do much to force students out of incomplete, inadequate thinking patterns into new ones.
It’s my firm belief that if I spend a lot of time shoving students into better habits of mind, proving to them that fuzzy thinking can never produce clear writing (only clear thinking can), then in the end—even if things are really rough around the edges right now in their papers—they will emerge in three months as better thinkers and therefore better writers. And that improvement will stick, if I can fundamentally alter the way they approach thinking about a question or a problem.
And if their thinking changes, even in small ways, that brings them closer to being people who have a shot of developing the ability to step out of themselves and ask the hard questions about their situation. Why aren’t we accepting more Syrian refugees? Why haven’t our legislators reformed the US’s abysmal Gordian knot of an immigration system? Why aren’t Christians who claim to be guided by biblical morality demanding reforms in immigration as an outworking of the Gospel in their thinking? Our power structures are broken. Our economy smashes some people so that others can consume the excess. Our politics descend to angry ranting. My friends, these things ought not so to be.
My experiment may fail.
I’m not assessed to death like K-12 teachers are, but my day of reckoning will come when the final papers (argumentative essays) enter the pile for the committee to read in May and assess how well my students’ writing stacks up against the course rubric.
Some English professors are all about the fine points of grammar and argumentation, popping veins when students try to modify the word “unique” (pro top: unique means “the only one of its kind”; don’t tell me something is “really unique”) or misplace the adverb only in a sentence. I’m convinced even they would agree with me that moving students toward clearer thinking is worth more. I’m also convinced that I can teach students how to cope in a world that demands good spelling and decent sentences … but that must come alongside sharp and clear thinking.
So I guess we’ll see….
I’ve run across so many excellent short pieces of writing on the Internet recently that I am going to serve up a list of Posts Worth Your Time this weekend. None of these are particularly long, so grab them as mental snacks when you have time:
My friend John Ellis’s passionate review of Bill Mallonee’s latest album convinced me that I need to give it a listen today, and if I like it, to buy it. #becausemusic And that’s a pretty impressive album review considering I don’t even particularly follow that genre. I appreciate people with excellent music taste who write fervently about good music.
“An Unfortunate Review” | No Depression
I saw firsthand the power of improv games in my classroom and among my students to grow their confidence, develop rapid-thinking techniques, and build deeper relationships and community. Guess what, this is great for adults too!
How Improv Can Open Up the Mind to Learning in the Classroom and Beyond | MindShift | KQED News
Not really an article, but I just heard that there will be a live (and streamed) performance of the entire Iliad in Britain this summer. Cool!
Almeida Greeks | Homer’s Iliad to become an epic online performance – BBC News
I never realized Buzzfeed did actual journalism until this spring, when I looked past all the listicle and found genuinely good reporting. This short piece about the way TLC exploits Fundamentalism and conservative Evangelicals for profit as reality TV is both sad and angering. I’m sad that Christians are so easily duped by the likes of TLC, and angry that Christians are defending the Duggars instead of crying out for much needed reforms in our circles. Sarah Jones contributes a good analysis:
How TLC’s Fundamentalism-As-Kitsch Hurts Women | Buzzfeed
Also in the land of Fundamentalism is another good read from Samantha Fields on Defeating the Dragons about how something as simple as grammar rules can be twisted into an issue of righteousness and conscience. Not all grammar nazis think prescriptive grammar is next to godliness, but I absolutely heard this line of thinking when I was in college.
I was a grammar nazi, and I was wrong | Defeating the Dragons
One of the more surprising Caitlyn Jenner pieces to emerge from the Internet was this one, a personal account from a pastor who says Jenner & the Kardashians helped plant a church in their area. Yeah, I had to read that twice too…. “Caitlyn knows who Jesus is, and Jesus knows her by name. Whether that sits comfortably on a timeline or blog comment, I know firsthand that Caitlyn has heard the good news.”
Sanctuary — I Went to Church with Bruce Jenner and Here’s What Caitlyn taught me about Jesus”
John also posted an article this week by a venerable food historian offering an interesting critique of the Slow Food movement. Is it possible for “industrial” or “processed” not to mean “evil” and “bad food”? She says, Yes. And it’s a really interesting read:
Choice of places to shop for food, choices of ingredients and dishes, choice of restaurants are all clearly ways to express class in the US. The snobbery that goes along with the choices can be irritating. And the use of phrases such as “how can we get them to eat better” set my teeth on edge.
via How Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Slow Food Theorists Got It All Wrong | Washingtonian.
And here: Make some amazing lemon bars this weekend:
Lemon Bars With Olive Oil and Sea Salt Recipe – NYT Cooking.
A beautiful explanation of what daily, ordinary, powerful Love is like, as pictured in a relationship between a husband and his depressed wife:
Crawling Back From the Ledge – NYTimes.com
OK. Enough for now. Tune in again soon for more. 🙂
Several years ago we somehow ran across John Scalzi’s excellent book Old Man’s War. Probably because it was nominated for the Hugo Award that year and our household tends to take note of things like that. And behold, it was good!
As a side note, if you can tolerate science fiction at all, meaning if you’ve watched anything from Edge of Tomorrow to the rebooted Star Trek movie series and liked it, much more classic gems like The Terminator or Blade Runner or the brilliance that is the original Twilight Zone series, go find yourself a copy of Old Man’s War and give it a shot. I promise you’ll be entertained, amused, and intrigued by the story. Plus it’s a quick read so you don’t even have to possess a long attention span.
Anyway, that’s what got us onto reading stuff by Scalzi. We happily mowed through the rest of the OMW series, caught up on his other works like the Hugo-winning Red Shirts, and signed up in advance for anything he decides to publish from now till he meets his unfortunate end.
It’s not that Scalzi is a brilliant writer whose gorgeous prose will change the face of literature… But he’s witty. And thoughtful. And opinionated, which means you can actually disagree with him and it’s fun. And he creates interesting characters who inhabit interesting worlds.
But that’s not actually what I came here to say.
A couple days ago, on a lark, I decided to order a used and cheap copy of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, a print compendium of Scalzi’s blog posts from Whatever, the site where he posts something (usually short) daily. He’s a writer and these are his daily training exercises, if you will. Keeps him limber.
The book has been delightful for several reasons. One, Scalzi is hilarious. It’s true in his fiction, and it’s true in everything else he writes, from commentary on current political messes to acerbic responses to angry readers.
Second, Scalzi writes every day (more or less). I really respect that. And he doesn’t let some weighty sense of “I need to write about stuff that’s important” drag him back from accomplishing what is really a very straightforward goal: Put some words on the blog. Every day. Words that are worth sharing with others.
I don’t write for a living (er, to make a living) so I don’t feel the drive. But I’d like to borrow a cup of Scalzi’s self-discipline and push myself to write regularly, for my own good. And to get better at it.
By the way, here are a few of my favorite posts from Whatever. Prepare to be entertained and probably offended.
I Hate Your Politics (in which Scalzi skewers every political viewpoint equally)
The Existential Plight of Chester Chipmate (in which Scalzi imagines a terrible void in the life of a store-brand cereal mascot)
Leviticans (this one will make most of the Christians I know angry, but he makes an excellent point: following rules =/= following the Gospel… and this from a man who considers himself non-religious)
The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment (in which Scalzi dispenses with the notion that George Lucas has anyone in mind besides himself when making these movies)
The 10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing (a fantastic post that you should share with all the young writers in your life, even though his honesty will probably piss them off)
Being Poor (a great piece for understanding the nitty gritty realities of being poor)