Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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But does it work in theory? Developing a generative theory for the scholarly commons

Posted: Sep 02, 2016 17:09;
Last Modified: Sep 03, 2016 10:09


…It is said that a learned professor of Heidelberg forbade his students the repetition of a certain experiment.

“But,” they protested, “it has always been successful.”

“Nevertheless,” he said, “its position among experiments is absolutely untenable from an intellectual point of view.”

The boys stared.

“The thing may answer very well in practise,” said the professor, “but it is not sound in theory.”

—“A professional paradox.” The Youth’s Companion: For All the Family 85.40: 515, Column 2. October 5, 1911. Hathitrust (from Quote Investigator).

The “Scholarly Commons Working Group”

(See also the further discussion)

I am part of the Scholarly Commons Working Group at Force11. The goal of this working group is to “define and incubate” a “Scholarly Commons”—something we define as being a set of “principles, best practices, interfaces and standards that should govern the multidirectional flow of scholarly objects through all phases of the research process from conception to dissemination” in any discipline.

As part of this work, we have been working on developing the actual principles that can be said to… well, this is a bit of an issue, actually—govern?, describe (?), organise (?), define (?). Let’s just say, right now, “develop a set of principles that will help in some way identify and establish the Scholarly Commons in some useful, non-trivial fashion.”


The work so far

With the help of a grant from the Helmsley Foundation, we’ve been developing these principles over the course of the last year. In the Spring, we held an invited workshop in which various intellectual leaders within the world of Scholarly Communication and Knowledge Mobilization got together to analyse the problems, lacunae, and disciplinary differences within current publication systems and practices. This group also came up with a list of statements that it felt contributed to the identification, governance, definition, or description of this Commons. In a couple of weeks, we will be holding a second workshop in which another set of leaders in the field will review this work and help further develop the concept.

The Principles

For the last several months, the Steering Committee of the Working Group has been working on attempting to refine the work of the Madrid participants: taking the principles, observations, and examples produced at that workshop and teasing out a single set of statements around which we think the community might be able to develop a consensus.

The result, in its current form, is a set of 18 Principles group under four main guiding qualities: that the Commons is (or should be) Equitable, Open, Sustainable, and driven by Research Culture. The principles themselves (in their shortest form) are as follows (I should stress that this is a quotation from an in-progress draft that is highly likely to change before it is released):

E1 – The commons is developed and governed by its members through their practice
E2 – The commons is open to all participants who accept its principles
E3 – The commons welcomes and encourages participants of all backgrounds
E4 – The commons assigns credit and responsibility for all contributions without imposing an intrinsic hierarchy
E5 – The commons accepts all contributed objects that adhere to its guidelines on an equal basis regardless of form
E6 – The commons has no intrinsic hierarchies, scores, rankings, or reward systems
O1 – The Commons is open by default: its content and standards are free to read, reuse, and remix by humans and machines, unless there is a compelling reason to restrict access, e.g., personal health information.
O2 – Content is FAIR: Findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable by humans and machines.
O3 – A publisher in the Commons is any entity that will ensure that outputs are open and FAIR.
O4 – All outputs are considered published when they are made available according to the principles and standards of the Commons.
S1 – There is global commitment and participation in the Commons’ long-term viability and preservation.
S2 – All activities and outputs that take place in in the Commons remain in the Commons.
S3 – Use of the Commons cannot devalue the Commons.
S4 – There is an expectation of service by Commoners to support research and scholarship in the Commons.
S5 – The Commons itself is continuously required to respond to the requirements of Commoners.
RC1 – The Commons exists independently of the technology, funding, and business models that support and enable it
RC2 – In the Commons, incentives apply to all stages of the research cycle and are designed to reward behaviours that support the best scholarship
RC3 – In the Commons, the form research is disseminated in is determined by the needs of the research itself rather than the demands of tradition or reward or evaluation systems

Some problems with the Principles as written

I am one of the people responsible both for generating these principles and copy-editing them into their current form. So my criticism of these will therefore hopefully be seen as constructive rather than nihilistic.

But, even as we get them to the stage where they are almost ready for release, I must confess that I am not very happy with them. Not because I don’t agree on the whole with them, but rather because I am not confident that they are that well put together from a formal perspective. Some of the issues that I have with them:

  1. Why this number? Are there really eighteen principles to the Commons? Or did we just happen to think up eighteen? How do we know we are not missing some?
  2. Why this distribution? Why are the RC (i.e. “Research Culture”) principles under RC? Do they follow naturally from the idea that the Commons must be driven by research, or are they there because “Research Culture” seemed as good a place as any to put them? Why are the “E” (Equity) principles under E and “O” (Openness) Principles under O?
  3. What about the mix of scopes and types within the “principles”? “The Commons exists independently of the technology, funding, and business models that support it” (RC1) seems like a different type of claim than “In the Commons, incentives… are designed to reward behaviours that support the best scholarship” (RC2): the first seems like a genuine principle; the second more like good practice.
  4. Is there not an inconsistency to the kind of entity they define? Sometimes the Commons defined here seems like a consensus among like minded people (e.g. E1); other times, it seems like a club with implicit officers and rules—or at the very least, peer pressure (e.g. S4). When you review the more detailed descriptions we have, you find more and more profound issues like this: there are rules about how one must be identified (perhaps implying some kind of enforcement mechanism); there are rules about what kind of reward systems must be in the Commons and about how there are to be no metrics or evaluations, and so on.

Are they undertheorised?

One explanation, of course, is that we are just sloppy thinkers, or that the principles are still very much a draft. But another explanation—and the one I prefer—is that they are undertheorised. I.e. that our “principles” are not really principles at all, in their current form, but rather a consensus collection of observations, hopes, aspirations, and political goals that have been collected on an ad hoc basis with “little attempt to analyse, explain, draw out common features across situations, identify patterns of behaviour, syndromes of factors, and so forth” (See Woods 2006 ‘undertheorized’). The problem, in other words, is that these have been thought up (or observed) on an ad hoc basis, rather than generated from any underlying theory of how the Commons works or ought to work.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in saying this: any project like the Scholarly Commons project needs to bounce back and forth between observation and theory. You can’t, or at least probably shouldn’t, theorise without gathering any material for your theory to explain; and, conversely, you can’t, or at least probably shouldn’t, continue to collect ad hoc examples without stopping every so often to check if these examples do suggest some larger theory that accounts for them. You know you’ve reached the end of your work when your theory can be used to generate from first principles claims that look very much like those you originally developed by observation; or, conversely, that you can map the observations you made onto an explanatory set of principles (I realise that some scientists might object to this as ‘HARKing’—Hypothesis After Results Known. Since I’m a Humanist and defining principles like this is a Humanities question, however, I don’t have any problem with this: in the Humanities Harking is such a basic methodology, you’d think we all have a smoker’s cough)

Principled principles?

So, applying all this to our observations of the Commons, is there in fact a real set of principled principles—that is to say, a set of statements from which everything in our observations can be derived or implied?

In fact I think there is. In anticipation of our upcoming workshop in San Diego, here’s my attempt to develop a set of principles that describe what participants in the workshops thus far have meant when they have discussed “the Commons”:

P. The Scholarly Commons is a consensus among knowledge producers and users that
    P1. research and knowledge should be freely available to all who wish to use or reuse it;
    P2. participation in the production and use of knowledge should be open to all who wish to participate;
    P3. our practices should be such that there are no systemic barriers and disincentives to prevent either free use or open participation.

R. On the basis of these three principles there are four basic rules to the commons:
    R1. Participation and access are the only intrinsic reward systems within the Commons. The Commons does not itself have systems for rewarding participation in any other way1;
    R2. The Commons does not require the use of any specific technology, approach, process, or system2;
    R3. The Commons does not prevent the development of either external systems for either reward or specific technologies, processes approaches, and systems, but such rewards, technologies, processes, approaches, and systems cannot be part of the definition of the Commons3;
    R4. Commoners may not participate in external activities that hurt the viability of the commons.4

How do they line up?

With the exception of the last rule (R4), which I am not entirely sure is a core value, and the third principle (P3), which might just be a negative restatement and operationalisation of the first two, I believe that these principles and rules can be used to generate all non-contradictory principles put together by the Scholarly Commons Working Group participants—and where they can’t, the fact that they cannot is actually an indication that there a problem with the original principle: that it either contradicts something else, is not actually a core value, is formulated poorly, or has some other problem.

To demonstrate this, here’s a table, in which I map each of the new principles against the original 18:

New Principle Original Principle(s)
P E1, E2, O3, S1, S3, S5
P1 E3, O1, O2, O4, S2, RC1
P2 E4, O4, RC1
P3 E4, E5, E6, O2, O4, S2, S5, RC1, RC3
R1 E4, E6, O4, RC3
R2 E4, E5, E6, O4, RC3
R4 E2, S1, S2, S3, S4

This suggests that the only original “principle” that can’t be reconciled with my more compact formulation, is RC2 (“In the Commons, incentives apply to all stages of the research cycle and are designed to reward behaviours that support the best scholarship”), and that there is one new rule that doesn’t map easily onto any of the original ones (R3 “The Commons does not prevent the development of either external systems for either reward or specific technologies, processes, and systems; it is just that such systems and technologies cannot be part of the definition of the Commons”).

I would argue, however, that these are related to each other and that neither is a fatal flaw. In the case of RC2, the original principle seems to me to be inconsistent in its current formulation with the rest of the original principles: incentives, by their very nature, discriminate against non-incentivised activities (in this case, non-“best” scholarship). This could be understood as violating original principles E2, E4, O4, and especially RC1 and RC4 incentives that are “designed,” moreover, imply a central governance and, perhaps, enforcement mechanism that is inconsistent with original Principles E1 and E6. (Written negatively, on other hand—i.e. “In the Commons, incentives do not reward behaviours that harm the production of the best scholarship”—principle RC2 in fact maps onto new principles P3, “R1”#r1, and R4).

In the case of R3, I think that the problem is a related lacuna in the original text: there is actually a lot of discussion in the description and operationalisation of the original principles about how and to what extent the Commons is compatible with existing systems and participants, such as major commercial publishers and university promotion and reward systems; but with the exception of the problematic RC2, there is no specific principle in our original set discussing, in abstract terms, how the commons interacts with these structures, systems, and participants. Taken together, I believer that the new principles expose (and clarify) some issues with the question of rewards inherent to the old statement.


In a couple of weeks we’ll be presenting some version of the original principles to our workshop participants for comment, criticism, and revisions. While I’m sure that the proposal here must be missing something, I’m putting this up as a blog now so we can use it in our preparations and discussions for that workshop.


1Anything else would potentially run foul of P3, since there is no such thing as a perfect reward system and reward and incentive systems work by privileging certain kinds of work or behaviour and, as a result, creating systemic barriers to others.

2Anything else would violate P1, P2, and P3, since it would prevent unfettered access, stop participation by anybody, and, as a result, create systemic barriers.

3This is because constructing a system that prevented the development of external reward systems or proprietary technology would violate all three of the core values: it would systemically disincentivise access and participation (i.e. by those, such as commercial presses or Universities, who wanted or needed to design such systems.

4This seems to be required, or else the Commons would rapidly cease to exist. But I’m not sure it actually belongs here, because I can’t see how an enforcement mechanism is consistent with literally the first principle: P.


Straw bibliography: A common error in student writing

Posted: Feb 08, 2015 17:02;
Last Modified: Feb 08, 2015 17:02


This post describes a particular rhetorical technique that students often use in their essays that professional scholars never do: something I call the “straw bibliography.” If you learn to recognise these in your writing (and more importantly, learn how to handle them more professionally), the quality of your research will improve immensely.


What is a “straw bibliography”

“Straw bibliography” is the term I give to statements like the following, when they are unsupported by citations:

The question of the definition of medieval literature has long been a source of debate

Critics argue constantly about the role of women in literature

Ever since the Greeks, writers have debated the role of fate

I call these “straw bibliography” on analogy to “straw man” arguments: a straw man argument is an argument where you create non-existent opposing arguments that you can easily demolish in order to bolster your own case; a straw bibliography is a non-existent bibliographic claim that you make in order to bolster your own argument by suggesting it is widely studied.

Straw men arguments and straw bibliographies are both bad for the same reason: they prevent actual debate and discovery by substituting a false one instead. In a straw man argument, you create fake arguments that nobody would ever actually make in order to defeat them—ignoring actual counter arguments that it would be far more productive to engage with. In a straw man bibliography, you create a fake bibliographic record in order to support your argument—and ignore the almost certainly more interesting actual bibliography on a question that you could be dealing with.

How to avoid them

The solution to a straw bibliography is very simple: never make a bibliographic claim you cannot supply some examples for. I.e. if you say that critics have long discussed the lack of women in Huckleberry Finn, supply some examples in a citation immediately after you make the claim: since in this case I am claiming both that critics have discussed this and that they have done it for a long time, my list of references should include several works stretching back whatever you consider to represent a “a long time” (perhaps 50 years or so?).

This is in fact what professional scholars do. It is very common in professional research articles to have an early section that discusses previous bibliography on a question. Depending on the specific argument made, this will either include an actual discussion of the different views and positions or a lengthy footnote or parenthetical citation listing a number of people who have previously discussed this issue.

An example

By way of an example, here is a discussion of scholarly opinion about the errors in a famous manuscript of Bede’s Historia ecclesiatica from Notes and Queries 49.1 (2002), p. 4. The text in bold is the bibliographic claim; underlined text is the support that stops it being a straw bibliography:

IN the course of the last twenty years, a scholarly tradition has arisen concerning the remarkable accuracy with which the `St Petersburg Bede’ (St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Lat.Q.v.I.18 (referred to hereafter as P))1 reproduces the text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. While the precise context in which this accuracy is claimed varies from scholar to scholar, its extent is described in almost identical terms in each case. As Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe puts it, `[P] is a particularly careful copy of the text. Excepting errors in the sources quoted by Bede (and thus, probably, in the originals), editors have reported only six errors in the text of Bede’s Historia, and these errors are minor.’2 Similar language is used by R.D.Fulk (`there appear to be just six errors in the text, so …the work [i.e. P] must be very close to the author’s autograph copy’)3 and M.B.Parkes (`there are only six errors in the text written by Bede himself. The high quality of the text in this copy [i.e. P] suggests that it cannot be very far removed from the author’s draft’).4


1 This is the manuscript formerly known as the `Leningrad Bede’. The shelf-mark was Leningrad, M.E.Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library, Lat.Q.v.I.18. The manuscript is often referred to by the siglum L in secondary discussions.

2 K.O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990), 33.

3 R.D.Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia, 1992), 427.

4 M.B.Parkes, The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Jarrow Lecture 1982 (Jarrow, 1982), 5.

The text in bold is the piece that could easily be a straw bibliography, if I didn’t have the citations to back it up; the parts that stop it being a straw bibliography are underlined.

In this particular case, since the article is actually about what “accuracy” means, I go into detail about what some of these scholars say in particular, providing a sentence or two about each with an associated footnote. But if my article had been about something else this bibliographic tradition touches on, I could have done something like the following:

IN the course of the last twenty years, a scholarly tradition has arisen concerning the remarkable accuracy with which the `St Petersburg Bede’ (St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Lat.Q.v.I.18 (referred to hereafter as P))1 reproduces the text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica.”2


1 This is the manuscript formerly known as the `Leningrad Bede’. The shelf-mark was Leningrad, M.E.Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library, Lat.Q.v.I.18. The manuscript is often referred to by the siglum L in secondary discussions.

2 See for example, K.O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990), 33; R.D.Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia, 1992), 427; M.B.Parkes, The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Jarrow Lecture 1982 (Jarrow, 1982), 5.

(I’m using footnotes here, because that’s what Notes and Queries, the journal where this was published, requires. But most modern journals would prefer this in parenthetical form in the main text).

Why this isn’t pedantry

At first glance, this might seem like pedantry. Does it really matter that much that I can show specific examples of people talking about problems that I’m pretty sure have been discussed a lot?

The answer is that it really does matter. Especially in the Humanities, exactly who said what and exactly what they said are very often the source of extremely interesting analysis (this is why, in contrast to many other disciplines, humanists cite page numbers). Bibliographic patterns and histories, therefore, can reveal an awful lot about how people in the past understood things and about changes in this understanding through time.

Indeed, the article I am citing here is an example of that: I discovered this problem when I was collecting citations to avoid a straw bibliographic claim in a different article that scholars “have always recognised that the St. Petersburg Bede is among the more accurate of Bede manuscripts.” What I discovered when I checked the actual references I gathered to support this was that it had nowhere near “six” errors in it (that would be impossible in such a big manuscript)… and I ended up with this article explaining why people mistakenly thought it was.

So get in the habit of always supplying some examples when you make claims about how often some work or topic has been discussed. You’ll sometimes find that it actually hasn’t been discussed as much as you think it has, or that the debate goes off in a different direction than you suspect.

In my experience, the bibliography is never as straightforward as you think it is.


Some quick notes on citation practice for undergraduates

Posted: Feb 04, 2015 18:02;
Last Modified: Feb 04, 2015 18:02


Students seem always to get very nervous about citation… and, interestingly, perhaps through that nervousness, end up doing it in ways that professional scholars don’t.


Here are some tips that pros use for citation that undergraduates tend not to know:

Plagiarism is not a property crime.

Many students treat citations as, in essence, payment for ideas. Or perhaps better said, they seem to understand the absence of citations as a property crime: you “stole” somebody’s ideas or words.

But citation is not (primarily) an economic activity, but rather an evidentiary one. The point of citation is not to pay somebody for their ideas or words, but to show where your words and ideas came from. If you don’t cite things, then people don’t know what the basis for your evidence and claims is and they can’t refine or develop your arguments. Nobody is so original that nothing they say is based on what others said. You cite things so people can understand the context of your ideas.

You don’t need to quote things in order to cite them

Many students seem to think you need to quote something from somebody in order to cite them. You don’t and, unless they say something memorable the formulation of which is important to your argument, you probably shouldn’t.

There are three reasons why you might cite a work you are not quoting at some point in your paper:

  1. You are paraphrasing them: i.e. your point or evidence is very similar to theirs, but, since there was nothing important or memorable about how they said it, you are simply repeating what they said in your own words;
  2. You are synthesising or summarising information from them: i.e. you got your information from a source which you are now summarising in some way or extracting and reusing in a form that isn’t more or less exactly the way your source did it;
  3. You were influenced by the source (and perhaps others): i.e. you aren’t directly using their conclusions of evidence, but their conclusions or evidence had an influence on yours and agrees with yours or supports it.

In each of these cases, you would provide a citation to the work(s) in question; but you probably wouldn’t quote them.

Quotations should be in some way memorable

The only time you really need to quote somebody is if they say something you want to use in a memorable, non-obvious way and their particular formulation is important to you. You don’t have to quote formulations that are trivial or non-memorable. There must be 10,000 books about Jane Austen, for example, which contain the words “Austen writes…” somewhere in them. You don’t need to put “Austen writes” in quotation marks, however, because one of your source has this.

Citations can be retrofitted

An interesting exercise (and actually good for you as well), is to try and retrofit citations: i.e. add citations to your text after it is written.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to write your paper the normal way, citing things as you use them, and then, when you are finished, go back through your paper and see how many additional sentences could reasonably contain a citation to the works you have already used. The second is to write a paper and then go through it trying to find evidence and sources for the things you’ve already said, or examples of other people who have said the same thing.

The point is to try and be extra generous with your citations, including them whenever they are related to your work, rather than just when they are the source of your work. Students often seem intent on including the minimum number of citations possible in their work; professional researchers, on the other hand, generally try to err on the side of the maximum possible number of references.


Using blogs in class

Posted: Dec 15, 2013 15:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


I’ve used blogs in most of my classes for the last seven or eight years. I find them to be a superb teaching tool, both as a way of teaching students to research, think, and write about the subjects they are studying and as a means of modulating my instruction to match a given class’s strengths and weaknesses.

I’ve been told by some colleagues that they’ve found it difficult to integrate blogs into their classes effectively. They’ve find it difficult to get decent participation, find the blogs to be not very informative, and wish that their students would engage with each other’s work more deeply.

I’ve not had any of these problems (well, perhaps the participation rate has been weaker that I might wish in one or two classes). On the whole, I find that students participate regularly in the assignment, that they are enthusiastic about it and understand its relevance to their learning, and are willing to engage with each other’s work. And, at their best, my students’ blogs contain some of their very best writing—in some cases far better than they hand in other contexts.

I believe that some of this success comes from the way I handle blogs in my classes. And, since I haven’t come across anybody who does exactly what I do, I thought I would explain my technique here so that others can use it.

1) Allow lots of freedom

Students in my classes are told that the blogs are a part of their contribution to the development of the community that is our class. For this reason, they are given no set topic, minimum length, or specific model or rubric they have to follow. They are told that the point of the blog is to participate in an ongoing discussion about the class material and that appropriate blogs make a good faith effort to be part of that conversation.

This means, for example, that a good blog could be an essay or a reflection on something that came up in the previous class, or it could be the draft of an essay. It could be a detailed discussion of some event in a given work or theme or question that ties several works in the class together, or it could be a link to a YouTube video.

As in real life, the important thing about blogging in my classes is that it is a way supporting the development of the community, and anything that does that is acceptable.

2) Mark pass/fail

If you don’t mandate any specific length or topic, then it becomes very hard to grade blogs on anything but a pass-fail basis. Is a link to a very relevant YouTube video more or less “excellent” (and hence deserving of an A) than an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of some point raised by a student in the previous day’s class?

For this reason, I grade blogs as pass-fail. If you post your blog on time, it looks like it was done in good faith, and it seems more-or-less relevant, you get a 1; if it isn’t all of these things, you get a 0.

Initially, this actually scares students: how will they know if I will consider a blog to made in good faith or more-or-less relevant before they submit? My answer to them is that they can’t. And so, as a result, I won’t give something a 0 (except for late postings) without prior warning.

What this means in practice is that I promise students that I will warn them if it begins to look like their blogs are not meeting the minimum standard for getting a grade and will only start taking marks away if there is no change in their behaviour after we have discussed that warning and what they can do to improve things. In actual practice, I have never, in the seven or eight years I have been doing this, had to warn a single student that their work was consistently off topic or failed to show that they made a reasonable effort.

Not all my students complete all their blogs on time (or even at all). And some students end up completely very few or none (though most students complete most blogs). But I have yet to have a student who has participated in the exercise post anything that looked like a less-than-good-faith effort. In my experience students either participate in good faith or they don’t participate.

3) Don’t sweat the comments

A common complaint I read from facuty who use blogs in class is that it is difficult to get students to comment on each other’s blogs.

I have the same problem, if by “comment” you mean “add comments using the comment function to another student’s blog posting.” In the course of a year, indeed, I suspect I would be lucky if we get five comments from students in that sense of the word.

If by “comment” you mean “read and respond to the other students’ postings in any way,” however, then I have no problem with getting students to comment on each other’s work. Instead of writing comments at the foot of each other’s postings, my students seem to prefer to comment on their colleagues’ work in the main body of their postings. As far as I can tell, most students begin their weekly blogging by reading the positing that have gone before. Certainly they commonly attempt to situate their own opinions in the context of the other students’ work.

Since the point of blogging is to encourage students to see themselves as belonging to a community that is exploring the topic of the course together, this type of response seems to me to be, if anything, preferrable to a simple comment.

4) Use the blogs in class

I make a point of reading the blogs before I go to class and referring to them in the course of our discussion. Indeed, increasingly, I structure our in-class time around what the students have written in their weekly postiings. I try to draw my questions from things they have said and, if the discussion begins to lag, I try to move it along by raising comments or arguments made by students in their blog postings.

Occasionally I do this by showing one or more blogs on the projector in our class. But more commonly I just do it by simply mentioning what I have read. As part of this process, I usually ask the author of the posting I am referring to to identify themselves for us—and then often take the opportunity to probe the question more deeply with them

Another way that I use the blogs in class is by encouraging students to post their essays and drafts to the blogging site. This encourages them to see this work too as being less about assessment and more about contributing to the community as a whole.

The important thing here is that this approach reinforces the communal nature of our endeavour: that research, writing, and learning are a community endeavour and that what we think about things is interesting and useful—even if only as a springboard for other’s ideas.

5) Keep them behind a firewall

I find the blogs my students write to be so interesting, I wish I could share them with the wider world. But having done some surveys, I know that the students themselves tend to prefer posting behind a firewall. Since the goal of the exercise is to encourage them to speak out, I do what seems to make my students most comfortable and keep them inside the walled-off section of our Learning Management System.


Timeline of the History of the Five-Paragraph Essay

Posted: Aug 17, 2013 13:08;
Last Modified: Aug 17, 2013 13:08


The Importance of Student Motivation

Posted: Jul 05, 2013 13:07;
Last Modified: Jul 05, 2013 13:07


I’ve gone in several different directions with my research for the unessay project, because as a writing tool I think its results are significant and varied. I’ve looked at the general principles that underlie it–scaffolding and metacognition; I’ve tried to understand what qualifies as good writing, and whether or not the unessay promotes that; and I’ve looked at how the unessay might fit into an increasingly mechanized educational system, where machines are marking papers. The main thing I’ve found is that the rules constituting the unessay promote good writing. Dan and Michael have both expressed the uncanny differences between the essays they mark and the unessays they mark.  Student writing, when liberated from the stringent way essays are taught, becomes something completely different. The ideas are better, they flow better, and they can help the student build a foundation upon which he/she can come at the essay with more flexibility. The whole basis of education is to provide a space for students to push existing skills to their limits, with the intention of having those skills overlap with new skills, and so on and so forth.

After all that’s what this whole project is about. Its about developing a tool for educators, who are finding that an increasing number of their students are lost when it comes to the essay. Its form is foreign. And its rules and systems don’t resonate with their experiences or interests. An interesting article, “The Writing Approaches of University Students,” explores the processes and motivations of a group of university students. Conducted as a series of interviews, this study attempts to discover how process and motivation effects how individual students see themselves as writers. Do they think they are good or bad writers? Do they enjoy writing?

The article begins with an indictment of writing theory, which serves as the springboard upon which the case-studies are hurled: “Writing theory remains limited. One shortcoming involves the reductionistic nature of the traditional cognitive perspective, which results in isolating processes such as planning, translating and revision; doing violence to the nature of writing as an integrative process. Along the same line, the assumption that the writing processes occur in a tidy, linear sequence is questionable. Additionally, the role of writers’ intentions and beliefs as related to writing processes has not been a major consideration. Writing is an externalization and remaking of thinking, and to consider writing as separate from intentions is not to address composition as a reflective tool for making meaning” (Lavalle 373) The essay is taught in a series of rigorously ordered steps: you read, you research, you plan, you write, you edit. But what if you prefer to start at a different stage or treat the writing process as a circle instead of a straight line? The unessay is a tool designed for the discontented writer; it allows her to approach all aspects of the writing process however she chooses, and whenever she chooses. There is a sense that the decisions you make when writing are your own, when using the unessay. With the essay student motivation is relegated to extrinsic factors–grades, praise etc., Educational theory has long preached against the use of extrinsic motivating, with things like candy or objects. Intrinsic motivation is more effective, because it is a burning from inside the student, a hunger to achieve and do well as an end in and of itself, not as an obstacle in the way of the true goal: “When the student’s goal is just to comply with task demands, the learning activity involves a low level of cognitive engagement (e.g. memorizing or repetition) and a superficial, linear outcome (listing or organizing), a surface approach” (374). This is a severe issue involved with motivation. Students are not engaging with the essay; they are regurgitating information into a prescribed form. This creates a low level of engagement, and superficial retention of class material.

The study identifies five major approaches in the writing of university students. Three of these are problematic (Low Self-Efficacy, Spontaneous-Impulsive, Procedural), while two are optimal (Elaborative, Reflective Revision). Below is the appendix from the article. It contains the style of writing, followed by the motivation, followed by the methods used by the students):

(Pg. 389) Approaches to writing: 1. Elaborative- to self-express (visualisation, audience)

2. Low Self-Efficacy- To acquire skills/avoid pain (study grammar, collaborate, find encouragement).

3. Reflective-Revision- To make meaning (Revision, reshaping, drafting)

4. Spontaneous-Impulsive- To get done (Last minute, no planning or revision, just like talking).

5. Procedural- Please the teacher (observe rules, organize and manage writing).

All of these are important factors necessary to understand how and why university students write, but I think the second–Low Self-Efficacy–is the most important when talking about the unessay. Low Self-Efficacy “describes a highly fearful approach based on doubting ability and thinking about writing as a painful task. . . . This approach evolves around poor writing self-concept, accompanying perceptions of skill deficits, and little, if any, awareness of the function of writing as a tool of meaning and of personal experience” (376). From my many conversations with Dan about the unessay or blogging or any from of non-traditional writing, I unequivocally get the same response when asking about student writing: it’s fantastic. The ideas are sophisticated, and on a more basic-level, the grammar, punctuation, etc., are all above expectations. Our conversations on essays are the exact opposite. I think this says something profound about Low Self-Efficacy. Students feel that they lack the skills and knowledge to perform on the essay, and it is those beliefs and motivations that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not that they lack the skills or knowledge, in reality, because they are performing them with excellence on informal assignments.

How do we motivate and convince students that they have the skills to perform on writing tasks? The unessay is a stepping-stone. It allows students to hone writing skills, without feeling the gnawing pressure of the essay. It allows students to pursue interests, thus motivating them, both through form and content. The article argues that, ” The key to facilitating writing at the university level is found in designing a high quality writing climate to include deep tasks, emphasis on revision and meaning, scaffolding, modeling and integrating writing across content areas (relevance)” (386). Deep tasks and thus deep writing, is a by-product of integrative teaching, with an emphasis on relevance and freedom, not fixed forms and one-size-fits-all writing.

Works Cited

Lavelle, Ellen, and Nancy Zuercher. “The Writing Approaches of University Students.” Higher Education 42.3 (2001): 373–391. JSTOR. Web. 26 June 2013.


Scaffolding and The Zone of Proximal Development

Posted: Jun 29, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 29, 2013 13:06


Two of the most important terms in a teacher’s repertoire, and two of the most popular teaching ideologies in education right now, scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development are simple yet elegant ways to describe how teachers build on a student’s current knowledge so they can ascend to ever higher plateaus. The unessay is nothing if not a product of scaffolding and the ZPD.

Using Wikipedia’s definitions, which are more than adequate for understanding these terms, scaffolding is ” a learning process designed to promote a deeper level of learning. Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals. Instructional scaffolding is the provision of sufficient support to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced to students. These supports may include the following: resources, a compelling task, modeling a task, providing coaching. These supports are gradually removed as the students develop autonomous learning strategies, thus promoting their own cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning skills and knowledge. Teachers help the students master a task or a concept by providing support.

And the Zone of Proximal Development is ” the difference between what a learner can do without help and what she or he can do with help.” Beginning as a small circle in the middle, signifying what the learner can do unaided, and branching out in concentric circles of increasing size, with each circle further from the center denoting the need for increasingly more aid for the student.”

The terms are so similar they have come to be used almost interchangeably, so for the sake of clarity I will use the ZPD to describe both. Further defined in “Vygotsky, Tutoring, and Learning” we can see the theoretical principles of the unessay at work: “Vygotsky’s definition of the ZPD leaves open to us the task of identifying the nature of the guidance and collaboration that promotes development and a need to specify what gets learned during the course of a given history of tutor/learner interaction” (Wood 5). The nature of guidance in the unessay operates off of an assumption: that university students are capable and proficient writers. The results of the unessay as well as blog assignments have demonstrated this, according to the both Michael and Dan. Michael and Dan assumed that the writing itself was not the issue, rather, it was the form the writing was forced to adhere to which gave student’s difficulties.

The traditional essay is foreign and awkward to many, meaning it is not a part of a student’s ZPD, and if it is part of her ZPD, it is to such slight degree that she is unable to perform adequately without guidance. This is where the unessay comes in, as the bridging device between a student’s ZPD and the plateau the teacher wants her to be at. You don’t go from walking up a hill to scaling Everest, nor do you go from writing rigid five-paragraph essays to the intricate and nuanced essays expected in university. ZPD and scaffolding ” emphasize that learning is a complex process that depends, in large part, on changes that occur in a learner’s strategic knowledge, domain-specific knowledge, and motivation” (Harris 297). Once these skills are fostered and added to the student’s current body of knowledge then the ZPD expands and you can slowly pull off the ‘writing-trainin-wheels,’ so to speak.

Works Referenced

Harris, Karen R., Steve Graham, and Linda H. Mason. “Improving the Writing, Knowledge, and Motivation of Struggling Young Writers: Effects of Self-Regulated Strategy Development with and Without Peer Support.” American Educational Research Journal 43.2 (2006): 295–340. JSTOR. Web. 26 June 2013

Wood, David, and Heather Wood. “Vygotsky, Tutoring and Learning.” Oxford Review of Education 22.1 (1996): 5–16. JSTOR. Web. 29 June 2013.


Unessay and Standardized Testing

Posted: May 24, 2013 13:05;
Last Modified: May 24, 2013 13:05


In studying the origins of the five-paragraph essay, I stumbled across an article called “Teaching Writing in the Shadow of Standardized Writing Assessment: An Exploratory Study”, by Hunter Brimi. His article begins to dissect the relationship between standardized testing and the writing skills of students. He suggest that the standard format of a five-paragraph essay originated as a marking rubric for the markers of the state-wide tests, to determine the success of the essays written by the students (Brimi 53) And while it appears to have originated as a general standard to assess writing and argumentation skills, it quickly evolved into being the method by which writing and argumentation were taught (Brimi 54). As is typical with standardized testing, teachers begin to teach the material from the test directly to ensure that their students are successful, as well as to make sure they remain free from the trouble that may ensue if their students’ grades fall too far below the line standard set by the tests (Brimi 55).

The whole goal of essay writing in schools is to teach argument and critical thinking. While this is a difficult thing to measure, especially under the strictures of standardized testing, in a backwards sort of loop, the attempt to create a model that will test the critical thinking of students in effect diminishes it. The ability of a student to “plug in” the appropriate structure into a given format does not increase his or her writing ability, nor does it promote original or critical thought. Studies provide evidence that critical thinking and argumentation skills are not garnered most effectively from the five-paragraph structure. Rather, discussion and other modes ways of developing logical and rhetorical skills are what builds appropriate responses throughout the school years of a child (Newell et al. 277), and that a focus on a formulaic structure rather than content inhibits the writing of students.

It is agreed that essays regarding some sort of analysis or interpretation are few and far between in high school. The statistics are stunningly low for the ability of students to correctly interpret or analyze a text, as well as be able to formulate a coherent argument about it, following the recommended structure (Newell et. al. 277). This may relate to the fact that teachers themselves receive little instruction in teaching composition (Brimi 66). While teachers undoubtedly do their best to ensure the success of their students, when they themselves have receied little instruction in the actual act of teaching writing, their fallback into teaching the marking scheme is understandable.

There are also studies suggesting that the single disciplinary approach to argumentative writing in high school negatively affects the essay writing abilities of students. Teachers agreed that most of the writing their students did related to literature and the analysis of it (Brimi 70). This may diminish the capacity of students to argue persuasively across genres.

As I continue researching, I plan to look more closely into the history of the five-paragraph essay, and its relationship to standardized testing.

Works Cited

Brimi, Hunter. “Teaching Writing in the Shadow of Standardized Writing Assessment: An Exploratory Study.” American Secondary Education 41.1 (2012): 52–77. Web.

Newell, George E. et al. “Teaching and Learning Argumentative Reading and Writing: A Review of Research.” Reading Research Quarterly 46.3 (2011): 273–304. Web.


Teaching Grammar

Posted: May 23, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: Jun 26, 2016 14:06


As a supplement to the unessay, Dan asked me to take a quick look at whether or not teaching the formal rules of grammar has any use; Does it improve a student’s writing?

The short answer is an unequivocal no. In the article “Responses to Error: Sentence-Level Error and the Teacher of Basic Writing” Foltz-Gray argues, through a series of studies spanning several decades, that teaching grammar has no positive impact on student writing, and in may cases is detrimental. Below are a few of the studies.

Richard Braddock’s landmark 1963 study for the National Council of Teachers of English, Research in Written Composition, concludes ‘in strong and unqualified terms’ that the teaching of formal grammar “has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on improvement in writing” (19).

Study conducted twenty-years later: “School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice which should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing” (19)

2004 study University of London: “published a review of over 4500 studies on the effect of formal grammar instruction on improvement in the ‘accuracy and quality’ of writing in learners aged 5 to 16. The reviewers found no ‘higher-order’ evidence that formal grammar instruction has a beneficial effect on writing performance” (19).

These studies were done independently of one another, across time, and across space, but they all came to the same conclusion: teaching grammar is unimportant. This is not to say that grammar is unimportant, rather, we understand the rules of grammar intuitively and teaching the rules tends to make us self-aware of things we do quite naturally. But what does all of this have to do with the unessay?

Teaching grammar and the smaller constituents of language is known as “bottom-up writing” (letter-word-sentence-paragraph-essay). The thinking is that a solid base can be built on. We master the basic components of language and then move on to essays. The unessay represents the opposite end of the spectrum: top-down writing which is “the entire essay, not sentences or paragraphs, should be the focus–and starting point–of instruction” (24). This theory assumes that we understand the basics of language because we are exposed to them all of the time. Top-down writing, based on the research, seems to be the more successful of the two approaches.

Interestingly though, there are parts of the unessay that represent a bottom-up approach, making it a sort of as yet underutilized hybrid. The unessay focuses on the whole of the work–an entire paper–but it does not employ the rigid rules of the formal essay. Instead, the unessay allows the writer freedom to explore his/her ideas and form, with the belief that this will eventually liberate him/her when writing a formal essay. Perhaps merging these two styles will be the key to producing consistent, quality writing.


The Unessay and Metacognition

Posted: May 16, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: May 16, 2013 14:05


In order to understand what the unessay attempts to do for writers one must understand the underlying philosophies that govern it. In my preliminary research for this project I attempted to dissect the unessay, revealing its structures, and then relating those structures to the larger theories of teaching writing.

So what is the unessay, and what principals underlie it? Using Dan’s description of the project as well as Ullyot’s blog, I came to several answers to this question: firstly the unessay is concerned with ideas, that is, what does the writer have to say about a particular topic, and just as importantly, how will the writer present these ideas? This asks the writer to be self-aware both of the subject upon which he/she will base her writing, and also with regards to form. The writer must come up with a method appropriate to the content to disseminate her ideas, which forces her to consider her ideas and how the conveyance of those ideas is effected by presentation. Self-aware and self-conscious writing seems to be the most important aspect of the unessay, as adherence to strict form is relegated to the background. In the larger educational literature this is referred to as METACOGNITION (thinking about thinking). This is where I would like to focus the crux of my research on the unessay project. The articles I have combed through so far all stress the importance of understanding why we make the decisions we make when we write. If you can answer these questions you are better able to correct mistakes and reinforce strengths.

The other common theme I found in teaching writing, one related to the unessay project, is the importance of viewing writing as a process. I think the weakness of the formal essay is a result of how it’s taught: students are given a list of rules they ought not to violate, a word count, and a list of topics. These are all useful guidelines, but they relate exclusively to the end-product. The articles I have read, which range from a kindergarten class to a university class, all stress the importance of workshops and the process of writing. What good does a word count do if you don’t know how to construct a proper argument? How does adherence to proper MLA format teach an individual how to edit in a way that higher level concerns are addressed (argument validity, evidence etc)? The unessay does some of these things as it forces the writer to become responsible for every aspect of the design process, instead of relying on the formal essay’s rigid framework. Finally, the articles focusing on younger students stressed the importance of writing without writing. Having students talk out writing, draw writing, or act out writing, gives different types of learners the opportunity to form ideas, which can then be translated into literal writing.

Works Cited:

Cleary, Michelle Navarre. “How Antonio Graduated on Out of Here: Improving the Success of Adult Students with an Individualized Writing Course.” Journal of Basic Writing (CUNY) 30.1 (2011): 34–63. Print.

Cummins, Sunday, and Ruth E. Quiroa. “Teaching for Writing Expository Responses to Narrative Texts.” Reading Teacher 65.6  (2012): 381–386. Print.

Jacobs, Geralyn M. “A Classroom Investigation of the Growth of Metacognitive Awareness in Kindergarten Children Through the Writing Process.” Early Childhood Education Journal 32.1 (2004): 17–23. Print.


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