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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Soup to nuts: A recent piece of my writing that technology allows you to follow from idea to completion.

Posted: Oct 27, 2016 17:10;
Last Modified: Jun 25, 2017 16:06

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I was discussing writing and editing with a student the other day, and somehow the question of how I worked came up. As it turns out, I have a very recent example where you can pretty much follow the entire process from start to finish.

In showing all my work like this, I’m not making any claims about the quality of my own writing or the efficacy of my method. It is just the case that in this case, modern technology allows me to show the entire process I happened to use in writing a specific piece that people can read in its final form. For some students, I suspect that’s useful.

If you are interested, here are the relevant links to my recent Globe and Mail Op-Ed on “preferred pronouns” and the entire history of its drafting (because I wrote it in Google Docs, you can follow the whole history from start to finish). If you want to follow the revision history, you can find it under “File>See revision history” or by using alt-ctl-shift-h.

It looks like it took me a little more than about 12-14 hours to write, though I don’t remember how long I spent on the notes. It came in in its published form at about 800 words. 12-14 hours is a little long for me for writing an op-ed—I usually do them in about 1 day (so say 6 hours or so). But I found this one hard to write.

Tools that I used were the following:

Here are the different versions:


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Academic Suicide

Posted: Mar 12, 2014 16:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 06:03

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The so-called “college paper” has been a debated topic practically since its initial inception. A recent class statement brought the debate to the forefront of my mind. Professor O’Donnell stated, in a tone of bemusement, that his students tend to perform better on the blog assignments than on their actual papers. It does seem odd that a discrepancy exists between two writing exercises. However, the answer formed almost immediately within my thoughts and has expanded through the discussion of prescriptive rules versus descriptive. The reason students are so terrible at writing the “college paper” boils down to differences between prescriptive rules and descriptive rules. With that I commit myself to academic suicide by breaking the general guidelines and prescriptive rules of academic writing and adhering only to grammatical prescriptive rules and a more formal dialect to explain the phenomenon of why students are incapable of writing the traditional North American college paper.

In terms of grammar, students are already limited in the way that they can communicate their ideas in a paper by having to adopt a more prescriptive based, formal dialect. I am NOT arguing that students can get by in the world, and more specifically their university career, without an academic and more formal dialect. Just like the young student with only a formal, prescriptive dialect who is beaten up on the schoolyard for not having a more descriptive based dialect that allows him or her to fit in (Wallace 51), the university student will be figuratively beaten up in the classroom if they do not possess a formal, more prescriptive based dialect. It is necessary for university students (and anyone who wants to be successful in the English-speaking world) to adopt a second (or third or fourth) dialect that allows them to fit into their surroundings. There are various situations in which prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily than descriptive rules and vice versa.

Professors, however, ignorant of the fact that students are already restricted by a dialect that may not be second nature, impede the ability for students to effectively communicate their ideas further by creating their own set of stylistic prescriptive rules. In the Humanities (and Sciences) it is a major faux pas to use first person pronouns. The only time ‘I’ may be acceptable in a paper is when it is used to clarify the student’s argument from a secondary source. ‘Helpful’ topic ideas only serve as an agent of restriction, tightening the figurative noose around students’ ideas. There are few things more disheartening in the post-secondary experience than completing an essay that has veered so far from the original topic that it almost seems pointless to hand it in. Whether well-written or not, whether ideas have been communicated appropriately and interestingly in an academic dialogue does not matter to professors who set guidelines. The paper that succeeds in communicating ideas may receive a lower grade if it does not meet the guidelines. Professors need to realize that the more prescriptive rules they place on their papers, the worse students’ papers will be. The more rules, the more confining the box that students need to fit their ideas into. This is why students perform so much better on blogs. A blog has no rules aside from one: it must be “within shouting distance of the course” (O’Donnell). Students are therefore free to express themselves and communicate the ideas that they find interesting in compelling and captivating ways. After reading several blogs, despite the lack of rules, it becomes evident that there is a second, unwritten rule that comes naturally to almost all university students: they use a more prescriptive based, formal dialect than what their typical descriptive dialect would permit.

Another guideline or prescriptive rule set out by professors is the limitation of secondary sources to scholarly articles. Although it is understandable that the use of websites like ‘Wikipedia’ should be maintained to a minimum, it is another guideline that prevents the development of strong, relevant ideas that support the argument. With social media permeating our everyday lives, professors need to accept changing times. Why should a student be restricted from using blog posts of highly educated people in respectable positions? Why does a professor’s journal article garner more merit than a post on their blog site? It shouldn’t; and even one of the ‘scholarly articles’ cited for this paper (Steven Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”) can be found in a blog. Clearly this prescriptive rule of how research material for papers ought to be gathered is about as outdated as the grammatical prescriptive rules that, as Steven Pinker points out, are based on Latin and 18th-Century fads (20).

The problem, however, is the fact that prescriptive rules are extremely difficult to abolish. They have become so engrained into our minds that we don’t challenge them. This fear of driving change is also perpetuated by “the worry that readers will think [the author] is ignorant of the rules” (Pinker 20). As a result we limit our thoughts and ideas and force them into tiny, prescriptive boxes. We avoid engaging in a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with our grades by playing it safe and coughing up redundant, highly repetitive, excruciatingly painful to read, and bluntly put, shit. The failure of the college paper is not due to the students, as Rebecca Shuman so strongly states in her blog post “The End of the College Essay”, but that of the professors who are not willing to wake up to the 21st Century and rethink their own set of restrictive, prescriptive rules.

I personally used to love writing. I enjoyed it. I didn’t even mind writing essays. And I wrote good ones. Over 50% of my class failed the first essay in my English 1900 course. I received a grade over 90% and embarrassingly had to tell the girl beside me who had received an abysmal 4% that I had done very well and leave it at that. Somewhere along the way, however, something changed. Professors implemented more guidelines and maybe even my own standards rose. Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same, I no longer feel capable of writing essays. How can I when students are repeatedly informed that they do not know how to write essays and are incapable of producing good ones? I am now so replete with anxiety concerning whether or not my essay will be long enough (or too long), if it will sound academic enough, and whether it will actually relate to the topic, that I have become immobilized. I do half-assed, last minute essay writing to avoid the stress of completing something that I may be simultaneously proud and doubtful of because it is well-written but does not fit into a professor’s prescriptive rules. I would rather accept a lower grade on something that I slapped together the night before it was due than have hard work torn apart by a “SNOOT” professor (Wallace “Tense Present”).

The reason students are incapable of writing college papers is not because of some kind of innate inability nor is it because students do not possess an academic dialect. The students are not to blame for their poor attempts at the “college paper”; it is the professors who need to realize the defeating, restricting effects of their prescriptive rules who are to blame. Just like the machine that is capable of duplicating human language in Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”, students are given a number of prescriptive rules to follow and just like the machine, we sit there, immobilized, unable to communicate our ideas (19). Prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily when it comes to the college paper and academic writing, but without descriptive rules students, like the machine, don’t know how to say what they want to say. Perhaps if allowed to break the rules, students could actually write the infamous “college paper”.

Works Consulted

O’Donnell, Dan. English 2810. 8 Jan. 2014
Pinker, Steven. “GRAMMAR PUSS. (Cover Story).” New Republic 210.5 (1994): 19-26. Business Source Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Schuman, Rebecca. “The End of the College Essay.” Web log post. Slate. 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014
Wallace, David Foster. “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage.” Harper’s Magazine 04 2001: 39-58. ProQuest. Web. 14 Jan. 2014

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Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Posted: Feb 08, 2014 16:02;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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I just posted the slides for my lecture to the Department yesterday: Class 2.0: Digital technology & digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom.

Abstract: This lecture discusses some preliminary results from an ongoing research project on the use of digital technology and digital rhetorics in the undergraduate classroom. The goal of the project is to explore how these technologies and rhetorics can address common problems in the literature classroom: weak composition skills, lack of engagement, poor preparation. Initial, at this point still largely anecdotal, results suggest that the committed integration Web 2.0 technologies and rhetorics in the classroom can greatly improve outcomes in this area.

The lecture discusses how these techniques are used and some of the results we have seen.

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Teaching prescriptive grammar hurts student writing

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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_Update: Actually, the chart I was really thinking of can be found here.

The other day in my grammar class, I mentioned an article that reviewed years’ worth of controlled studies into methods of composition structure. The article I was thinking about was George Hillocks, Jr., “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies,” American Journal of Education 93.1 (1984): 133–170.


The table I was thinking of in class is from page 157:



I’d overstated this conclusion a little: while teaching grammar was indeed the only thing people did that made student writing worse, I was wrong when I said it had a greater effect in absolute terms than any other method.


On the more general question of whether teaching grammar is effective, here is Hillock’s conclusion:


Grammar.-The study of traditional school grammer (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. 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 that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems (160).


Although you need to be careful, because the results are not alway independent, this conclusion has been reached time and time again in different contexts over at least the last forty years. One relatively recent study from an English context is: Dominic Wyse, “Grammar. For Writing? A Critical Review of Empirical Evidence,” British Journal of Educational Studies 49.4 (2001): 411–427.

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Schuman is right that we need to get rid of the "College Paper." But wrong when she blames her students for not being able to write them. The "College Paper" has always been an exercise in futility

Posted: Dec 19, 2013 09:12;
Last Modified: Aug 20, 2015 13:08

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Rebecca Schuman has recently argued in Slate that we should get rid of the College Paper. “Everybody hates college papers,” she writes. “Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them.”

Instructors, she suggests, hate them even more:

Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

If anything Schuman understates the case. The “college paper” as it is taught in North American universities really is a waste of everybody’s time. It is absolutely time that we got rid of it. Where she is wrong, however, is when she suggests that the problem with the essay is that her students are simply no longer up to writing them. The “college paper” has always been a problem, and students have never been good at them. It is an artificial form that experts and students have been trying to abolish almost from the moment it was first introduced into our universities.

A History of the American “college paper”

Before we get rid of the college paper, we should be clear on what it is we are talking about.

The kind of paper Schuman is describing—the kind of paper that students go through the motions of writing so that instructors can go through the motions of reading—is a relatively recent and very American development. It is a highly formal, template-based approach to argumentation that has its origins in “the daily theme,” a nineteenth-century writing exercise, introduced most influentially at Harvard in 1884, which led ultimately to the development of the famous “five paragraph essay.”

In fact, this form of writing was originally thought of as an introduction to essay writing rather than a form of the essay writing in its own right. In his influential 1853 textbook, A Practical Introduction to English Composition, Robert Armstrong drew a distinction between the “Essay”, “wherein in the writer is a liberty to follow his own inclination as to the arrangement of ideas,” and the “Theme”, “an exercise in which the subject is treated according to a Set of Heads methodically arranged.” The point of asking students to begin by writing the more restrictive theme, Armstrong suggested, was to prepare them for the greater work of actual essays: “It is desirable… that the pupil, before he attempts the writing of Essays, should be trained to the habits of consecutive thinking; and to this end the Theme, as experience has shown, is admirably adapted.”

Ultimately, however, the theme began to be seen as an end in and of itself. The format became increasingly rigid and the goal more and more about forcing students to think and express themselves in a highly standardized, tightly structured, way.

The clearest expression of this new attitude towards composition instruction is found in an astounding 1959 paper by Victor Pudlowski in the English Journal. Identified by Michelle Tremmel as one of the first explicit descriptions of the “five paragraph essay,” Pudlowski’s article explicitly privileges form over all other aspects of his students’ writing. He begins by discussing the “chaotic” attempts typical students produce when asked to write on common composition topics like their pets or their summer vacations. He then explains how he and his colleagues have developed an almost algorithmic template (“we call it a formula”) to force students into writing “well-organized compositions”:

1. We want the student to make one generalization (main point) concerning his composition topic.

2. Then he must reinforce his generalization with three supporting statements. All of this is done in the first (introductory) paragraph.

3. In the next three paragraphs (body), each supporting statement becomes a topic sentence. The first supporting statement is the topic sentence of the second paragraph. The second statement becomes the topic sentence of paragraph three. Supporting statement three is used as the topic sentence of the fourth paragraph.

4. Finally, topic sentences 1-4, when strung together, constitute the concluding paragraph. The generalization from the first paragraph becomes the topic sentence. The other topic sentences are used to support the generalization.

The point, as Pudlowski indicates, is to require students to organise their writing in a specific way. His method has nothing to do with improving their sense of what is interesting or important or to make them better writers in anything but an organizational sense. It does not “pretend to make unimaginative personalities interesting on pieces of paper.” And, as he freely admits, it is both “rather restrictive” and results in work that “tends to be repetitive.”

With his characteristic honesty, moreover, Pudlowski notes that his students, much like those Schuman is reporting on a half-century later, actually hate being assigned these kinds of papers.

The comments students make about the outline are revealing. Some complain: (1) ‘It ties me down too much’. (2) ‘It takes my style away’. (3) ‘I don’t like putting links in’. (4) ‘I can’t express myself’. (5) ‘I want to write my way’.”

But this, he suggests, is also partly the point:

There is, perhaps, a degree of truth to some of these remarks. Students are undoubtedly tied down when they must compose a composition consisting of a specific number of paragraphs. No longer are they able to blunder their way through an assignment by becoming verbose. They can’t shroud themselves in verbiage. This, among other things, is what a student means when he complains that his style is being destroyed. Young people simply do not like being forced to practice the techniques of the craft of writing.

We have always hated them

Almost all North American college students have been taught to write using some version of Pudlowski’s method (the same method is taught outside North America, but far less universally). Not every student is instructed that an essay must have five paragraphs (though experience in the classroom suggests that most students have been told this at some point) and very few seem to be taught his particularly rigid approach to linking the introduction, main body, and conclusion together. All, however, have been drilled on its core elements: an introduction that makes “one generalization (main point),” a main body that is focussed on providing supporting statements for this generalization, and a conclusion that repeats the generalization and supporting statements from the introduction.

The emphasis on this model in composition classes is so strong, indeed, that many students come to see it as being synonymous with writing itself. I have been asked by reporters for the campus newspaper where the thesis has to go in their news articles. And a common question among higher level students who’ve been asked to write longer papers is how many paragraphs of evidence they should include to fill up the extra pages. What was once seen as a training exercise for the more expressive genre of the essay is now usually taught as an end in itself.

Student complaints about the tediousness and irrelevance of theme-based essay writing could be dismissed perhaps if there was any evidence that the method improved their writing. But instructors too have been aware of the problems with this approach to essay writing for almost as long as they have been assigning such papers. In a lecture on [“The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status,”] read before the English Department of the Maine Teachers Association in October 1916, William Hawley Davis of Bowdoin College mentions some examples of similar negative student comment about theme-based instruction before going to examine “the very moderate effectiveness of what we are doing in English composition:

Few branches of educative work are attacked more frequently or more bitterly on the score of inefficiency. As a teacher of secondary school English I was always painfully conscious of its shortcomings; I fancy that all conscientious secondary-school teachers are quite as conscious of them as I was. I have observed that my associates in college teaching discharge quite effectively from year to year whatever responsibility rests upon them to be your mentors in this connection. I also observe, however, that the results of English composition work in colleges are likewise far from satisfactory. Only the totally uninitiated any longer suppose that the conversation and the personal or business correspondence of college students is either precise or elegant. At Harvard College, where, I believe, courses in English composition were first instituted and where able teachers have all along been organizing and conducting work in composition, a committee of the faculty is operating under a vote of the Board of Overseers, a vote which states that students “fail to write correct, coherent, and idiomatic English” and demands the formulation of some plan “for bettering the written and spoken English of Harvard students.” If other institutions in Maine and elsewhere are not confessing to themselves a similar condition, who shall say that it is not because they are in that respect far in the rear of Harvard ?

Indeed, the list of problems Davis saw in the writing of the college students of his day closely reflect those seen by Schuman in ours. Reading an advertisement for a composition textbook that was supported by endorsements from professors and students, Davis remarked with sadness on the obviously poor quality of the students’ contributions:

What pierced me through as a co-worker of the instructors of these enthusiastic youths was the crudity of their expression, their appalling awkwardness in using this tool of expression which no student can avoid practice in using and which each has such strong reasons for wanting to use well. Presumably these students had every intention of writing their best in these letters to the editors; presumably each had consciously or unconsciously used the paper as a model-and the paper itself was above reproach. But, you say, they were only students. How expressive that comment! We cannot take pride or even comfort in our position as teachers of a subject recognized everywhere as indispensable until our students write “correct, coherent, and idiomatic English.”

Fixing the college essay

The students Davis is writing about in 1916 belonged to the generation that fought World War I. Few if any are alive today. When modern professors complain about declining educational standards, the golden age they are comparing the current situation to, presumably, is the one Davis and his students inhabited.

But if his students were also making a hash of things then the problem may not lie with the students but the exercise. Indeed, since the 1960s, it has been difficult to find few if any professional educational researchers who are prepared to defend the “college theme” as an adequate approach to teaching composition. In a 2011 review of research since 1907 across thirty academic journals, Michelle Tremmel found three times as many articles arguing against the value of the theme as an exercise as those making the case for its utility.

Indeed, as Pudlowski’s students tried to tell him when he first codifed the five paragraph format back in 1959, this formulaic approach to teaching writing is completely counterproductive. The point of writing essays is to research, discover, and communicate to others the things that interest us most about culture, history, and philosophy. Focussing on how students write rather than what and why they are writing is a terrible way of training to students to engage in the kind of “thoughtful analysis” Schuman wishes saw more of. By breaking their style and forcing them to fit their ideas into a standardized template, what we are really doing is asking students to produce exactly the kind of turgid muck Schuman laments in her essay: “‘arguments’ that are at best tangentially related to the coursework… flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law.”

The real solution, as Davis argued almost a century ago, is to ask students to write in a context that provides both audience and motivation.

I believe that we do not adopt means ready to hand for making the study seem valuable and important to students. In ordinary composition work, theme writing, I am convinced that the cart is before the horse, or rather the cart is supposed to propel itself. “Write,” we tell the student, and we succeed but poorly in placing any impelling motive behind the effort. If we could first make sure of his desire to communicate something, and should then get him to communicate it appropriately in written composition, much of the labor and drudgery of composing would be unconsciously drawn by the tractor-desire to communicate. The preparation of assembly programs, news as to school and current events, school and community festivals and celebrations, especially those which are historically significant, social events, school notices and advertisements-all of these, skilfully made use of by teachers of English composition, would provide natural, concentrated, and highly effective training in writing. Debating has for some time made use of a powerful artificial incentive to industry and care in composition work; but the field of debating is narrow and by no means free from the perils attaching to intensive cultivation. A very efficient course in composition in Dartmouth College, I am informed, makes use of the journalistic motive throughout its work: the members of the course produce and offer for sale a monthly magazine. On a smaller scale but with, I believe, a satisfactory degree of success I am making use of a similar device at Bowdoin. Now the variety of opportunities for practical motivation of composition work is not so great in college as it is in the secondary school. Surely opportunities are available there in abundance for supplanting the vague motive of learning to avoid errors and to write effectively, with the very real motive of instructing or entertaining others on a given occasion. We cannot wisely neglect these opportunities.

The “college paper,” as it is traditionally taught in North American universities, simply does not provide this type of motivation or opportunity. Students write for a single, private, reader (their instructor) and they do so for a reward (grades) that they fear but do not respect. Far better is to ask students to write for real audiences on things they actually care about. To work on correcting and improving their real writing and argumentation rather than to force them to adopt an artificial style they will only ever use in the college classroom.

Davis, who seems to have been something of a Edwardian nerd, thought that technology might provide opportunities for promoting a suitable kind of publicly engaged writing. In his essay, he asks why Physicists get better equipped classrooms than English professors and suggests that composition instructors should not be afraid to ask for such cutting-edge equipment as “a practical duplicator, with supplies; stereoptican equipment, with projectoscope attachment for throwing on the screen a page of theme writing, etc.; a victorola and educational records… and a printing outfit.” The duplicating machine in particular, he considered essential to the task of letting students see what it is like to write for real audiences:

The uses of a duplicating machine are mainly two: first, to bring typical errors and defects-drawn, not from some strange and remote list in a textbook where they are necessarily mingled with much that is not typical, but from the pulsating product of a known fellow-student-to bring these errors or defects vividly before the entire class; and, secondly, to place good composition work where it will secure the only real reward ever given to good composition work-that of being read.

Davis’s technology may be a little dated, but his approach is as the contemporary as the “flipped” classroom: in his proposal, students learn to write meaningful work by sharing with and reacting to each others’ contributions. With modern technology, we are in a much better position than he ever was to address the kind of deficiencies he (and Schuman) point to in the traditional “paper.” Learning Management Systems allow us to create virtual textual communities in which students can publish and share their analysis and insight—learning, in the process, about why one writes as much as how. Blogging and microblogging applications allow students to participate in global conversations about the subjects they are studying, and, potentially, influence debate far more than was possible with even Davis’s largest and most elaborate printing press.

Not all students will be equally interested in (or capable of) participating in such larger discussions in ever class they take. Preliminary results from research we have been conducting on the use of blogging and other student-centred approaches to teaching composition, however, suggest that a majority do find composition instruction helpful when it begins by focuses on the students’ own interests and ideas and then helps them develop their explication in reaction to the responses to real audiences.

So in the end, Schuman is right about getting rid of the college “paper.” It really is hated by everybody. And students, on the whole, really do tend to produce some godawful examples.

But she is wrong when she argues that this is the students’ fault or that the solution is to give up on asking them to discuss their thinking in written form. The problem with the “paper” is not the students but the exercise itself. The traditional college paper is an artificial project whose flaws have been apparent from almost the moment it was first introduced into American higher education. We have long known what we need to do to get rid of it. The question is how long it will take before we all “finally admit defeat” and start replacing it with more meaningful assignments.

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Using blogs in class

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

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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.

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Well Done, Dan and Michael

Posted: Sep 13, 2013 12:09;
Last Modified: Jun 26, 2016 13:06

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An interesting discussion of form is encapsulated by the article “An Apology for Form; Or, Who Took the Form out of the Process?” by Richard M. Coe.

The article’s first premise is that form and content cannot exist without the other, which gives us an interesting consideration for our research. He says that content is created out of form, by to some degree dictating what will be written.  Coe says, “[f]orm in its emptiness, is heuristic, for it guides structured speech. Faced with the emptiness of a form, a human being seeks matter to fill it” (19). Here, he directly addresses the five paragraph essay. He states that the reason students write three body paragraphs – not two or four – is because the form dictates that there are three empty spaces to fill. Therefore, the writer invents until he has three points to discuss. And then he stops.

Luckily, it’s not all cynicism. The author applauds people like Dan and Michael who are creating new forms to fill in the gaps. He says, “as rhetoricians, we should explicitly invent forms to meet new needs” (21). He also suggests that “a new form often must be created in order to express a radically new idea – and that knowing a form with which an idea can be articulated improves the likelihood of thinking that idea” (25).  That is an interesting point to address why students are always coming up with same, rather dull and unoriginal ideas.

He ends by restating the importance of creating new forms in order to invent new ideas. So well done Dan and Michael, in creating an avenue for students to express themselves in previously unknown (or at least long-forgotten) ways. Coe applauds you.

http://0-www.jstor.org.darius.uleth.ca/stable/377786?seq=13

Coe, Richard M. “An Apology for Form; Or, Who Took the Form Out of the Process?” College English 49.1 (1987): 13–28. JSTOR. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.
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Timeline of the History of the Five-Paragraph Essay

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

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The Ideas Create Themselves

Posted: Jul 25, 2013 13:07;
Last Modified: Jul 25, 2013 13:07

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I began this week’s rather broad search under the blanket of the question “How to we teach students to have good ideas?” This is not a very straightforward question, or answer, for that matter. Upon embarking on my search, I discovered this interesting fact: there is a lot of information on teaching creativity. However, there is almost none on teaching innovation or critical thinking. Is this a distinction, or a synonym? Does it matter? It is a subtle nuance, but I believe it represents the distinctions of our society and what it values.

Teaching innovation to students usually comes packaged in the outfit of the sciences. What does this suggest? That innovation is only valued in the practical and practicable arenas of the science world? But does this type of innovation help students write essays? We need them to be able to disassemble something, and rather than build something new, they need to be able to figure out a way to creatively tell you how it was built.

There seems to be a generally accepted theory that states that every child has within himself the ability to generate good ideas, and these ideas will naturally come forth if given the proper outlet, which, fittingly, is exactly what the Unessay suggests. Strategies for promoting creativity in students generally focuses on an open output formula, where the results are not specified and discussion and assignments are student driven. This would suggest that good ideas are generated from the individual, and it is within every students’ power to come up with them.

But, as most instructors have probably noticed,  just because an idea is creative, that does not mean it is necessarily a good one. Are creativity and critical thinking the same thing? I think probably not.


But the consensus seems to be that if you give students the reins to discuss and question, they will figure out which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. The simple act of discussion and engaging with the material lets a student know whether a topic is worth exploring or if it will be easily exhausted. But as the Unessay proves, students fare far better when given the chance to question and examine.

The most poignant truth I discovered when researching was simply this: we learn by imitation. We seem to believe that students come up with brilliant ideas from within themselves. But they must have learned what questions to ask and where to go for inspiration somewhere.  As one theorist suggests, “when allowed to do what we want to do, we are most likely to revert to whatever we previously found enjoyable and/or successful”.

So what is the solution here? If we learn by imitation, yet students can also to a certain extent create innovation from within themselves, I think the answer is that we need to give them something good to imitate, that they can run with. The Unessay does that by allowing students to explore the areas that interest them while channelling the results and discussion  into a scholarly format. If instructors could find a way to be more transparent about their own idea-generating process, and put more emphasis on teaching students how to tell good ideas from bad ones, and then let students run with it, I think the seeds of critical thinking would easily be born.

Works Consulted

http://people.goshen.edu/~marvinpb/arted/tc.html

Gary, William L. “Letting Students Teach Themselves.” Community College Week 15.7 (2002): 4. Web.

McLester, Susan. “Student Gamecraft.” Technology & Learning 26.4 (2005): 20–24. Web.

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The History of the Form Revisited

Posted: Jul 06, 2013 13:07;
Last Modified: Jul 06, 2013 13:07

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I mentioned in a previous post an article which attributed the origins of the five-paragraph essay to the early 20th century in Germany. Unfortunately, this snippet was the only glimmer of knowledge I could acquire for some time. After searching vainly for weeks for more about the history of the form, I was today finally gratified when I stumbled across an article called “The Five Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing”, by Matthew J. Nunes.

This article traces the commonly perceived origins of the form,  describing its basis in the realm of current-traditionalism, which had its day between 1870-1920. While the article is actually questioning the origins of the form in this period, it does concede the solid placement of the form within the period which I think is worth describing here.

While the sophisticated and intelligent readers of this blog may be familiar with current-traditionalism, I myself was not. Nunes describes the main features of current-traditionalism  “as being an emphasis on product over process” (297), as well as a great emphasis on rules and results. As Nunes says, “[i]nvention, in current-traditionalism, is essentially disregarded in favor of rule-based arrangement” (299).

This certainly seems to describe how we use the five-paragraph essay today; as a formula into which any argument can be implemented and the result satisfactory. But, as Nunes so eloquently puts it, “the fact that the five-paragraph essay is an important current-traditional form does not mean that it originated in current-traditionalism” (297).

While Nunes is actually disputing the claims of origin in current-traditionalism, he agrees with many points that are an interesting insight into the history of the form. He mentions how textbooks from the current-traditional period often contained “how-to” sections for writing paragraphs and longer essays that ended up much like our five-paragraph form today.

What Nunes is really suggesting is that the form came from the development of Theme writing, in the same period as that of the current-traditional. A similarly structured form of writing, it included “detailed directions and assignments” (301).  The title is relatively self-explanatory; it indicates a theme on which students are supposed to write and create an argument. This format is common today in written examinations (301). These themes included directions for an introduction, body paragraphs, and a carefully summarized conclusion. But while Theme writing was popular and widely used in the current-traditional period, it was in use even before the Civil War in America (304). The same standards were in use  in Great Britain, as their educational system continued to “dominate American language instruction long after she had ceased to dominate America politically” (Armstrong 71, qtd. Nunes 305).

Nunes notes the more rigidly structured evolution of theme writing from Montaigne’s original attempt at the essay. Much as they are used today, theme writing was used to teach students the basics of essay writing before they moved on to more complex discussions (306). He goes on to explore theme writing throughout history, noting references to the practice by John Locke, and others in the 17th century ( 308), with much of the strength of the form being created even earlier, in the 16th century.

As a nice sum up, Nunes states that, in reference to the five paragraph essay that pervades and plagues our educational institutions “its history can inform our understanding of why it persists” (309). In this, Nunes also addresses my frustration in the inability to find scholarship addressing the beginnings of the five paragraph form. There is little that tells us how it came to be, and instead of questioning this invisibility, we simply take it as a symbol of its undisputed supremacy.

This article offers a neatly placed glimpse into the possible origins of the form that is so cemented into our educational system. With its history, we are offered the opportunity to place the form in our own context, and make the invisible seen, bringing understanding to our practices and how we may change them.

Work Cited

Nunes, Matthew J. “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing.” Rhetoric Review 32.3 (2013): 295–313. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web. 4 July 2013.

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The Importance of Student Motivation

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

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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.

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Scaffolding and The Zone of Proximal Development

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

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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

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Instructional_scaffolding&oldid=548517392

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Zone_of_proximal_development&oldid=558276245

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.

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Unfortunately, Planning and Structure do not Equate to Comprehension and Creativity

Posted: Jun 19, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 19, 2013 13:06

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In the realm of our Unessay research, researchers cannot seem to agree on a few questions. What is the best way to teach students to write with vibrancy? Is it to give free reins and let them run with anything? Or is what is needed a more central focus on the tools needed to write effectively, like grammar, syntax, and other stylistic concerns? And where does argumentation fit in? Where will students learn to think critically and insightfully about the issues they are presented with, rather than just forming unoriginal, albeit well supported, formulaic essays?

These were my questions as I begin to search for the ways in which other researchers, apart from Dan and our Unessay crew, have approached the issue of teaching essay writing to students. Many approaches mirrored that of Dan and Michael’s, in that they favoured a more analysis-centred approach, leaning more towards giving students the opportunities to think and to question. Form and structure typically take less of a focus, and the emphasis in instruction is placed on critical thinking and questioning.

For students with learning disabilities, planning and a focus on structure seems to be the key to writing a good essay. Sexton et. al.  (1998) conducted a study in which they helped sixth graders with learning disabilitiesmore effectively incorporate the aspect of planning and development into the essays they write. Now this is an interesting notion. These students were writing poorly formed essays based on their mental function that often removed the planning stages from their writing. Could older writers be doing the same thing? It certainly appears as if students without learning disabilities have taken the emphasis on structure and used it as the measuring stick for all of their essays?

Perhaps a lack of planning often contributes to undergraduates’ essays. Many write essays by pulling an all-nighter, and simply getting it done in one twenty-four hour timespan. While adult brains have a significantly larger capability to understand and comprehend things in the long-term, maybe undergraduate essay writers are not utilizing this ability. Papers come out stilted because they have not been planned, simply been stuck in. Originality to some extent comes from thought about a topic and its counter-arguments. When students write essays, they are not thinking about the writing process, and how they are to formulate an essay, Instead, they are thinking about how they can take the form they were already given and plug into it what is needed.

The exercise of planning helps students with learning disabilities get a grasp on the form of the essay as a whole, so it can be tied together and its separate parts joined. University students are missing this step in the process. They see the five-paragraph form not as a way to tie things together, but a way to break them apart, into easily manageable pieces that require no originality and no planning, only the evidential proving of each separate piece in a sequence. As opposed to using these building blocks to build a bridge to bigger and more complex ideas, university students tend to use them to build a wall around themselves, one that keeps them from seeing and understanding the flexibility and possibilities of the essay form.

But why? Is laziness simply the answer? A lack of time, or rather, adequate time management? Or has there been something so engrained in our students that teaches them when it is time to reach down into the very depths of their knowledge and understanding, and to discourse effectively on it, the only thing to do is replicate their model?

This seems like a rather alarming precedent. In a society that professes to value creativity, in terms of students’ essays, there seems to be a disconnect in what we practice and what we preach. More can certainly be researched about how the essay format influences students’ and instructors’ individual perceptions of what is required for a well-written essay, and how these expectations differ.

Works Consulted

Gary, William L. “Letting Students Teach Themselves.” Community College Week 15.7 (2002): 4. Web.

Andrews, Richard et al. “Teaching Argument Writing to 7- to 14-year-olds: An International Review of the Evidence of Successful Practice.” Cambridge Journal of Education 39.3 (2009): 291–310. EBSCOhost. Web.

Fallahi, Carolyn R.Wood. “A Program for Improving Undergraduate Psychology Students’ Basic Writing Skills.” Teaching of Psychology 33.3 (2006): 171–175. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 June 2013.

Prosser, Michaelwebb. “Relating the Process of Undergraduate Essay Writing to the Finished Product.” Studies in Higher Education 19.2 (1994): 125. Web.

Sexton, Melissa, Karen R. Harris, and Steve Graham. “Self-Regulated Strategy Development and the Writing Process: Effects on Essay Writing and Attributions.” Exceptional Children 64.3 (1998): 295–311. Web.

Lavelle and Zuercher, Ellen and Nancy. “The Writing Approaches of University Students.” n. pag. Web.

Young, Beth Rapp. “The Grammar Voyeur: Using Google to Teach English Grammar to Advanced Undergraduates.” American Speech 86.2 (2011): 247–258. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 June 2013.

“Let’s Kill the Term Paper – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

“In Teaching Composition, ‘Formulaic’ Is Not a 4-Letter Word.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

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A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays"

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

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I’ve become quite interested in the idea of machines grading papers ever since I read the New York Times Article Dan posted in the group library: “New test for Computers: Grading Essays at the College level.” For now I am just going to concern myself with the article in my title, but I am working on a much larger piece which combines several scholarly articles as well as a few editorials, on an educational issue that I feel will become increasingly relevant as technology expands: grading machines.

This article is interesting for several reasons, but mostly because it tests the abilities of human-markers against machine-markers, which is after all the most important issue when determining the efficacy and usefulness of these machines. Can these machines pick out those things that produce an effective piece of writing? The article defines what it means by effective writing, which I believe is an adequate but unfinished definition: “The literature in the teaching of writing suggests that invention, arrangement and revision in essay writing must be developed in order to produce effective writing. Stated in practical terms, students at all levels, elementary school through post-secondary education, can benefit from practice applications that give them an opportunity to work on discourse structure in essay writing.” I think we can mostly agree that if a machine can fulfill these requirements, that while imperfect, it is headed in the right direction.

So how well do the machines in this experiment perform these functions? Firstly, it is important to look at what it is the machines are being asked to do. In a broad sense they are being asked to identify the thesis and conclusion statements in a few hundred student essays. But the greater goal is to have them outperform a positional algorithm; this would show evidence that the machines can not only recognize specific examples input into them, but can also apply knowledge based on those examples.

The positional algorithm pertains to how a computer marks an essay based on length and position of words and paragraphs:

Essay length is highly correlated with human or machine scores (i.e., the longer the essay, the higher the score). Similarly, the position of the text in an essay is highly related to particular discourse elements. Therefore, we computed a positional label for the thesis and conclusion discourse categories. The method outlined in Table II was used for computing baselines reported in a later section” (462). The computing baselines for the positional algorithm are as follows, where P=paragraph:

For thesis statements: (1)# of P=3 or more all text in P 1, excluding the first sentence. (2) # of P=2 or more select all text in the first P. (3) # of P=1 Select nothing

For conclusion statements: (1) # of P=3 or more all text in final P (2) # of P=2 or more select all text in final P (3) # of P=1 select nothing.

The Results: “the performance of both discourse-based systems exceeds that of the positional algorithm, with the exceptions of the topic-independent system, PIC, for identification of thesis statements” (465).

“For identification of conclusion statements, the topic-dependent and topic independent systems have overall higher agreement than for thesis statements” (465)

“Thesis statements are more difficult to model as is apparent when we compare system performance for thesis and conclusion statements” (465).

”Overall, the results in this study indicate that it is worth continuing research using machine learning approaches for this task, since they clearly outperform the positional baseline algorithm” (465).

The machines are better at identifying conclusion and thesis statements than the positional baseline algorithm, but they are not as effective as the human markers. However the machines can do this process much faster than the human markers, providing almost instant feedback. What we see here, I think, is that machines are helpful when we want to identify specific discourse elements related to writing: i.e. grammar, thesis and conclusion statements, punctuation etc., Machines handle the mechanical aspects of writing quite well. What I have been finding, however, is that machines are notoriously poor at dealing with the creative aspects of writing, including subversion of writing rules.

My larger blog will focus on a synthesis of the creative and mechanical aspects of writing and the pros and cons of machine grading that goes along with those. Specifically, I will look at how a machine might deal with some of the more unusual writing pieces the unessay is likely to produce. Can a machine ever be relied upon to mark something that bends the rules of writing for a purpose?

Works Cited:

Burstein, Jill, and Daniel Marcu. “A Machine Learning Approach for Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays.” Computers and the Humanities 37.4 (2003): 455–467. JSTOR. Web. 31 May 2013

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From Reading to Writing: Why the Essay isn’t Working

Posted: Jun 01, 2013 13:06;
Last Modified: Jun 01, 2013 13:06

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Academic literature is rife with conflicting reports on the nature of the five paragraph essay. Discourses from composition professors, high school teachers, and disgruntled students cover the pages of journals and blogs, offering up heavy-handed insights about the benefits and tyrannies of the typical five paragraph format. Many praise the formulaic model that allows for expansion and embellishment, while others disparage it as the ultimate indignity in stifling any creative impulses a student may have had. So what then, is to be the consensus?

I wanted to examine the origins of the form, and hopefully tie it to its modern instructional methods. Most associate the origins of the essay with the 16th century author Montaigne, who provided the name for the genre when he described his literary experiments as essai, the French verb meaning loosely “to try” (Atwan 110). Montaigne classified his works by no other category, but simply by their common attempt to engage critical thought and the processes of questioning and answering. Yet, the deviation from this original and idealized model in students’ writing today is startlingly clear. But that is something we already knew, as the whole goal of this project is to try to examine from where this disparity originates.

These days, loose and undefined attempts at critical thought are not what students are asked to write in the classroom. In Atwan’s article, “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay,” I found a statement that neatly reiterates something I wrote a few weeks ago: “[i]n short, they were asked to read essays but required to write compositions” (113). He is talking about the obvious disconnect between the true and vibrant essays that make up the academic canon and the simply formulaic models students are asked to produce in a poor form of mimicry. The serious disparity between the literature that students read and what they are expected to write is indicative of a much larger problem.

In discussing the exercise of essay writing in schools, G. Kim Blank suggests that:

[t]he practice, hustled from its German origins early in the 20th century, began earnestly enough: It was one way for students to demonstrate that they could absorb what they had read, a form fairly close to what we now call a research paper. The practice exploded in the second half of the century, and it continues today, having also devolved into variations of the now ubiquitous five-paragraph essay.

But here is where the misadventure begins: While the research or term paper and its spinoffs had the good intention to show that a student had assimilated material—that is, that the student could think, not to mention read—today its function revolves around whether the student can write. (1)

If this is really the case, it has massive implications for the teaching paradigm. If this shift is truly exemplified within the education system, it makes perfect sense that students have trouble thinking critically about what they read. What was originally created to determine reading comprehension is now used to measure writing ability. The focus on critical thinking skills that it was meant to teach are now suspiciously absent, and even more disconcertingly, what has taken its place?. In high school, students are taught how to write an essay, not to critically think through its parameters. We teach students to write the five paragraph essay, not the essay in its original form, which was really a “thinking-through”, and an attempt at understanding.

How many high school teachers mark essays based on comprehension of the material? They are marked based on the defensibility of the thesis, and the argument’s execution. This is where the fundamental disparity lies, and what needs to be addressed if students are to approach secondary education more fully prepared for the engagement and critical thinking that is required of them at this level.

Works Cited

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.” River Teeth 14.1 (2012): 109–117. Web.

Blank, G. Kim. “Let’s Kill the Term Paper – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 31 May 2013.

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What Makes Writing Good?

Posted: May 25, 2013 14:05;
Last Modified: May 25, 2013 14:05

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The whole point of the unessay project, as I understand it, is to further develop and understand tools that enhance good writing. The unessay is one such tool. My early research has been dedicated to the dissection of the unessay: what principles underlie its composition? how does it fit into current theories on teaching writing? And how and why is it an effective tool? Much of this research is centered around the theories of meta cognition and scaffolding. The unessay requires that its user consider every aspect of the writing process (metacognition): form, argumentation, style, topic etc., It also attempts to bridge the gap between the formal essay and free-writing, by giving the writer complete control, allowing them to utilise the skills they already have in a form they are comfortable with. The end goal is always the formal essay, but the achievement of that goal is through the slow addition of knowledge to a student’s pre-existing knowledge (scaffolding). It sounds almost painfully obvious that learning is simply the expanding framework of an existing body of knowledge, but the formal essay often disregards this concept. A student is given a framework, and it is assumed she already understands how to utilize it. I think what many teachers find–myself included during my brief stint in the education program–is that many students do not understand the form, nor do they feel particularly inclined to utilise it.

With a decent framework through which to understand the unessay, and its place in the contemporary teaching of writing, I shifted the focus of my research, broadening it slightly, to try and answer what I feel is the most significant question when assessing any writing tool: what makes good writing? If we can compile a series of attributes that constitute good writing then surely we can come up with a tool which fosters those skills.

“What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers” is an article I came across while investigating this very question. The article begins with an interesting question: how do teachers evaluate a student’s writing? There are numerous issues when doing so, subjectivity being the most contentious: “reader-response theorist Louise Rosenblatt, whose transactional theory to reading, famously defined reading as ‘a transaction between the reader and what he senses the words are pointing to.‘” When a teacher marks a student’s paper she is responding to the student’s writing, and making a judgement call about how successful the student is at pointing those words to the topic at hand. Because of the highly subjective nature of this line of inquiry, teachers have attempted to come up with some objective ways of evaluating writing. The 6+1 Traits model of assessment is one of the more popular approaches used in schools. It creates a rubric to define objectively good writing: “In this model, the key traits that define strong writing are ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions, and presentation” (319). Creating objective marking systems is probably the most popular method of teaching writing right now. It allows the marker to appear impartial, and it allows the student practical, tangible guidelines to follow.

The problem with this method, apart from it being impossible to reduce writing to a formula, is that it diminishes the creativity of writing, which according to many writers and teachers is an essential component of any written work. The unessay, while being far more difficult to mark than a paper adhering to the 6+1 traits method, is more realistic and accommodating because it supposes that writing can be successful in many different forms. A study conducted in this article comes to a similar conclusion. The study: “three groups composed of teachers, teaching various age groups, academics, and professional fiction writers were given a series of Q statements about writing (ex: Good writing is clear and easy to understand. Readers don’t have to struggle to get what the author is saying.), and asked to rank these statements from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’

The results of the study:

Group 1: emphasized “the connection between writing and thinking” (322). They tended to disregard standard conventions as a necessity of good writing. They valued creativity, surprise, and ideas over rules of convention or form.

Group 2: “emphasized organization and ease of understanding” (323). They thought good writing adhered to predictable forms, making it easier to read, and that the audience was unimportant–good writing will be clear regardless of the audience.

Group 3:  “valued clear purpose, voice, and correct writing mechanics” (324). They thought that good writing ought to follow the mechanical rules of grammar and punctuation, but that writing was not hindered by subverting conventions in argumentation or style.

This study suggests that there is no such thing as a universal standard for good writing. It is conditional, and based on a number of factors. One of the most important factors in determining good writing is fashion. What kind of writing is fashionable or ‘in’ at that particular moment in time? The article cites the influential Elements of Style as one such example. The Elements of Style preaches the hemmingway-esque style of writing: stripped-down, plain and clear language, using adverbs and adjectives sparingly. The article emphasizes that though this may be the dominant style, it wasn’t always, and is unlikely to remain so indefinitely (319-20). Take Nabokov’s Lolita for example: the language is flourish and overdone, soaked with adjectives, adverbs, and very wordy, yet it is considered one of the greatest novels of all time; its language and style being two of the biggest parts of that success. Nabokov uses the language to convey themes and ideas, to suggest that language can disguise the hideousness of an action or individual.

Nabokov demonstrates something that the article touches on in its conclusions, namely, that although there is no ultimate standard or checklist to define good writing, there are some general rules which will help all writers: “within each perspective teachers do need to consider the purpose for a particular piece of writing. For example, a creative personal narrative about a new stepmother does not need to adhere to the five-paragraph structure, nor should an essay written for a standardized test get ‘creative’ with punctuation” (325). As the unessay promotes, the common theme to good writing is an understanding of your purpose for writing, and how that purpose is best relayed to an audience formally. The decisions are yours to make. The success of your work is deterimined by your abilities, not adherence to one kind of writing.Consider the audience, the purpose, and the form when writing. Teachers should be aware of their biases and adjust marking schemes accordingly.

Works Cited:

Nauman, April D., Terry Stirling, and Arlene Borthwick. “What Makes Writing Good? An Essential Question for Teachers.” Reading Teacher 64.5 (2011): 318–328. Print.

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Unessay and Standardized Testing

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

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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.

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Teaching Grammar

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

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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.

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The Unessay and Metacognition

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

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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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Introduction to Unessay Research

Posted: May 15, 2013 13:05;
Last Modified: May 15, 2013 13:05

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There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction.

But of course we must have a thesis. Professors require a melding of the genres, into what Heilker calls “exploratory, essayistic discourse” (Heilker 191), to be mixed with a strong thesis proven in a logical and well-supported manner. Indeed, Heilker continues, “[c]larity and order are virtues, no doubt, but overdone they produce prose that is flat, predictable, and boring” (197). But why does a separation of merely rambling discourse and a logical thesis seem so hard for students to come by, and to produce such stilted writing that it pains professors to read it? Heilker states the plight of professors most clearly when he says that “[t]he ideas of pleasure reading and student writing seem contradictory, but it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be that way” (Heilker 197). There must be some model of argumentation that is so often ingrained in students that it requires an extensive remodelling to overcome.

There is also often an absence of emotion in traditional student writing. In my own experience, I know this to be true. As a high school student, I was told to take all personality and all traces of emotion out of my writing, and to produce a technically sound and cleverly written piece of prose. This is easier said than done. University professors and the grades they assigned to me seemed to agree as I realized that my best writing was often produced in a state of passion and emotion. It was the overwrought, overdone, and highly manipulated phrases that came out the most critiqued and awkward.

I loved writing the blogs, because there were quite literally no rules, other than they had to get done. For the first time, I felt liberated from the strictures of removing myself from my work; personal opinion, emotion, and cheering enthusiasm were all tolerated. What a novel experience! Upon beginning the blogs, I never imagined that I would be allowed, even encouraged, to write essays in a similar manner. While I never had any major difficulties in formulating some acceptable argument, I often felt frustrated when it came to conclusions. My essays would often be returned with an exhortation to expand and elaborate in my conclusions, to question and answer the question “why is this important”? “But I thought I did,” I would exclaim. I had neatly summed up my points and provided a short abstract about possible implications for my conclusions. But this was not questioning. This was restating the obvious.

So what is different between secondary and college level writing? What is expected, but more saliently, what is taught? I have had instructors tell me that a brilliant idea argued poorly will earn a much lower grade than a mediocre idea presented clearly. While to some extent this premise makes sense, is this the standard that should be strived for? Based on these standards, good grades earned from essays written begin to become a bit more arbitrary. A’s are earned not because of inherent brilliance written into the student’s work, but because there is nothing overtly wrong with it.

In pursuing this strain of research, I would like to continue to examine the literature on the way essays and argumentation are taught at the secondary and undergraduate levels. I think it would be helpful to speak to professors in the Academic Writing department, and possibly in English and Education, to determine how students are emerging from their high school education, and what is specifically lacking in the arguments constructed by undergraduates. Dan’s Unessay research has already determined what differences emerge when writing and argumentation are approached from a different angle, so I would like to provide the context for why students writing efforts are not living up to the expectations presented in a conventional undergraduate classroom.

Works Cited

Heilker, Paul. “Twenty Years In: An Essay in Two Parts.” College Composition and Communication 58.2 (2006): 182–212.

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