Friday, October 10, 2008

The Scarlet P

Before those first drafts start pouring in, I want to share an article a colleague recently passed on to me discussing plagiarism and the use of plagiarism-detection software.  I found it thought-provoking, and it renewed my belief in multiple drafts.  I used the piece in an activity in my argument class, and it sparked a lively debate (mostly between me and the students).  I welcome your thoughts/ideas about dealing with plagiarism in your own classroom.

Additionally, if you're looking for further resources for talking to students about plagiarism, (and while our website resource library is still under construction) the Purdue Writing Center website has some nice activities you might borrow.    

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Josh's Favorite Assignment

What is a cheeseburger? A piece of beef with cheese on a bun? What if it's soy cheese? What if the burger is really REALLY small? What if I take individual atoms off a McDonalds cheeseburger, one at a time, until there is nothing left. At what specific point did it stop being a cheeseburger? Which was the crucial atom?

The first milestone of the cheeseburger activity is to realize that the word "cheeseburger" is just a tool we use to organize our own thoughts and to communicate with each other. The fact that we have such a word does not necessarily mean that certain objects in the world actually ARE cheeseburgers and others ARE NOT. Rather, we use the word to denote a rather fuzzy collection of things. If we try to define exactly which things are cheeseburgers and which aren't, we find that language and reality do not have a 1:1 correspondence. As Korzybksi said, "The map is not the territory."

THIS IS TRUE OF MOST WORDS. Good. Asian. Conscious. Reasonable. Our private thoughts and communiques are so inextricably bound to language that we often forget that the words we use presuppose a set of categories the world is not obliged to obey. To forget this is to place undue trust in our own concepts, falling victim to false dichotomies in myriad forms. The designation of certain groups of people, for example, or even certain collections of cells, as being "human beings" has profound historical, contemporary, legal, and economic significance. Millions of fates and lives turn on the belief that words have meanings and realities beyond our own conceptualization. What if there simply "is" no such thing as a human being? What if there simply "is" no such thing as "right?"

Writing assignment (2 pages): Without using any form of the verb "to be" (e.g. is, are, am, were, was, etc.), critique ONE of the following statements: (1) "Human life begins at conception." (2) "Every American has a right to decent health care." (3) "We have an obligation to protect and preserve ecosystems."

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Incorporating Creative Writing

The three overarching University Studies writing goals for students are:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of the writing of the writing process (generative strategies, prewriting, drafting, revision).
  2. Produce various types of academic essays.
  3. Explore creative writing avenues such as poetry and short stories.

In the portfolio review last year it seemed that many students weren’t given creative writing assignments in their freshman inquiry classes or weren’t choosing those assignments as illustrative the UNST goals for their portfolios.

It makes sense to me that creative writing (CW) may get to different corners of the writer's brain than traditional academic writing assignments. In my experience CW sometimes allows students a greater sense of experimentation – an important ingredient to progress and growth for learning writers. Students see the evaluation of CW as being more subjective and therefore, expect the instructions and process to be less formulaic than traditional essays. In addition, these activities and assignments allow those students with a penchant for CW to shine.

Certainly, all instructors of freshman inquiry are academic writers. But if instructors aren’t creative writers themselves, they may not feel confident using these different genres.It is also possible that some faculty aren’t sure how to incorporate creative writing in their assignment sequences without making it feel “tacked on.”

Following are some suggestions of creative writing assignments/activities that are meant to help students understand academic writing principles. I hope they might give you some ideas for your own classes and inspire you to share your own applications of CW.

Use CW as a process. In a previous entry, I talked about using dialogue to help students get at the idea of academic discourse, as a way for students to move from summary to integration and innovation -- elements necessary to making more “academic” moves. This type of writing can work both as a formal assignment and a generative activity in preparation for something more traditionally academic such as a research, argument, or synthesis essay.

Asking students to rewrite a piece in a new form or genre can also be useful as a process of revision because it forces global changes. I’ve had students rewrite argument papers as short stories and asked them to notice how warrants and support change, and how concrete examples, imagery, and figurative language can influence their ability to convince an audience.

Particular forms in creative writing can be used as templates of analogies for the elements of academic forms. To get at the idea of thesis or claims an instructor I know had students write fables in order practice distilling ideas. I’ve used a poetic form called the haibun, a combination of prose and haiku in a similar way.

The Shakespearean sonnet is a poetic form that lends itself particularly well to practicing argumentation. I’ve had students write sonnets as a way to help them identify the elements of their argument. For example, the first four-line stanza is support or evidence, the second four-line stanza is the counterargument, the third is rebuttal, and the end couplet is the claim.

In my conversations with faculty, I’ve heard tell of Ann Marie F. asking students to rewrite and enact a scene from Antigone in her “On Democracy” classes and Scott P. saying he’d used scene writing in his classes. Some day when I have more time to tap my creative juices, I’m going to figure out how to translate text messaging into a creative writing cum academic writing process. Until then, I look to my colleagues for their innovative ideas. Please send your own suggestions and/or questions either as a response to this entry or in an email to

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Favorite Assignment

Last term my favorite assignment was a three-draft paper involving research and analysis. We called it the Biography/Dialogue. My goals for the assignment were to have students to get some basic practice in research, citation, incorporating sources, summary, analysis, global and radical revision, and thesis development.

Here were the steps, in a nutshell:
1st Draft
Choose a historical or well-known influential figure who experienced a transition in his/her life (we'd been reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and talking about the heroic journey). Research this figure's life. Write a 3 page narrative that identifies what this transformation was and why it mattered (thesis). Use at least one primary and one secondary source.

2nd Draft
Imagine a conversation between your chosen figure, yourself, and one of the theorists or characters we've read, i.e. Erikson, Malcolm X, Mary Shelley, etc. Write a 3 page dialogue between these three people in which they have a discussion, i.e. they agree, disagree, draw connections, extend ideas of one another.

3rd Draft
Write an explanation of your dialogue. Explain why you think each person would have said what he/she said by supporting your ideas with actual quotes from the source. Determine what the main point or what conclusion might be drawn from the conversation. This will be the thesis of your Explanation draft. For instance, "Although ______ and ______ would disagee about _______, they would agree about _______."

What I liked about it:
Impossible to plagiarize
Don't get me wrong, plagiarism was rife in the first draft. That was, partially, the point. Because it was a report, almost none of the text was their own ideas. It should have been littered with in text citations. It was a great opportunity to talk about common knowledge and when to cite. But the second draft couldn't be plagiarized. They were to use no sources, just their imaginations and astute observations about what and how others thought.

Creative and difficult
Oh, they moaned and fretted about the dialogue! Moaning is often a good indication to me that I've done something right. So often my students want a clear template of exactly what I want them to say and how I want them to say it. This time they had to take a risk, use their own imaginations, and see what happened. I couldn't give them a here's how you do it exactly.

Separates interpretation and reporting
A difficulty I have with the traditional research essay is tearing open students' white-knuckle grip on their sources' words. I find it difficult to "teach" them how to not just say what other people said, but interpret/analyze what it means. This assignment allowed them to walk into the second draft alone, then invite their sources back into the third draft, but with the student as the driver of the information, not the sources.

Forces dialogic thinking,
a process critical to other necessary skills like taking good notes and having meaningful class discussions, not to mention creating a good thesis statement.

Mistakes I made
It would have worked better had we not let them duplicate public figures. I'd have liked to have more variety in figures, and have pushed them to have to search a little harder for lives that piqued their curiosity.

What helped
They had time to generate ideas in class and mentor session, to practice freewriting from different points of view. They were encouraged to notice and practice not only what their sources might think, but why and how they think and speak.

How else I might use it
I can imagine using the dialogue as a low stakes writing exercise for other papers, rather than something they turn in. Students could also "perform" these dialogue for one another: an alternative to traditional class discussion or presentations.

What is one of your favorite writing assignments or activities? Have you done something similar to the Biography/Dialogue?

Please pass yours on, even if you only have time to give us the nutshell. I'm an avid collector of good writing assignment ideas, and I know from meeting with many of you that there is a wealth of innovative ideas in UNST, even if we don't all have time to meet and share.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

New Term Resolutions

Last term I co-taught two accelerated sections of  The Constructed Self with Victoria.  With this experience under my belt, I've returned to the classroom and the blog with some new insights into the challenges and opportunities of teaching writing to freshman in University Studies. 

At the end of each term, I like to sit down on my hindsight and make a list of "dos and don'ts" for future versions of the course and number them because there is something comforting to me about this.  Perhaps the numbers lend a sense of authority; I become the "woman with the plan."  Here are some of my current lists.

Classroom Resolutions
1.  My goal is to talk less.  Engage students in creating discussion topics, questions, and creating/finding class materials.  A particular challenge to me in freshman inquiry was class size.  Because small group activities demand more planning and orchestration, as well as more physical space, it was easier for me to rely on lecture format in a class that stressed the seams of the room.  It would be great to hear from others about how they accomplish a student-centered classroom in a tight space/time.

2.  Keep encouraging risk.  As much as students were made uncomfortable by our more open-ended and non-traditional assignments, these were ultimately the most successful in eliciting real analysis and critical thinking (stay tuned, more on these risky assignments later!).

I've also got some ideas about working with frinq faculty and mentors.  
1.  Host regular workshops for faculty and/or mentors to swap ideas and support.  
Some possible topics: 
* sharing your best writing assignments
* using creative writing to teach academic writing
* teaching research skills without the research paper
* incorporating revision in writing assignments
* teaching argumentation, drafting the portfolio essay throughout a term.
* critiquing our written instructions for assignments

2.  Collect and share writing assignment, exercises, and web-based materials such as this blog I like.

3.  Reorganize and update the writing center blog for undergraduates with frinqsters in mind.  

4.  Meet with students, faculty, and mentors during my drop-in hours: Tuesdays 9:30 - 11:30, 12 - 2; Thursdays 10 - 12.

Here's what you can do.
1.  Tell me what kinds of writing assignments you're planning this term and what writing challenges you anticipate.  Send comments to my email, post comments to this blog, or visit me in the Writing Center.

2.  Offer ideas about what to cover in workshops and when you can come.  Then come to them and share your expertise and wisdom.

3.  Send your students and mentors to the Writing Center, our website, and our blog.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Writing Assignments: The Rhetorical Triangle or The Bermuda?

Although it can make us tutors feel uneasy, much of what we do at the WC is helping students understand writing instructions from their professors. We are uneasy because we don’t want to second-guess professors, nor do we want to undermine their authority and expertise by admitting that we may not understand the assignments. We very often begin and end these sessions with the hearty recommendation to visit office hours and/or email their professors for clarification. Unfortunately, we don’t know how much our advice in this regard is heeded.

As both a writing tutor and instructor, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to look at assignments from these two different angles. As I try to help students understand other instructor’s assignment instructions, I’m able to reflect on how and why I write my own.

Considerations of the Rhetorical Triangle in Writing Assignment Instructions

In one corner of is the writer – the student; a position that may seem to students a fixed mark. But many freshman are still trying to figure out how to address and communicate with varied audiences and how their own new identities -- as college students, adults, scholars, roommates, etc. intersect.

A Freshman Inquiry professor recently shared with me an email exchange with a student who asked “can u hook me up with an A?” The student promised to do better next term. This talented and very patient professor graciously declined the A and pointed out how the student’s use of slang and unpunctuated text-message lingo undermined her argument. The contrite student thanked the professor, and very likely won’t make that mistake again. I count these kinds of writing incidents: tortured syntax, whiplash shifts in levels of diction, the difficulty deciding when and how to use “I,” as proof of students’ struggles to switch voices, to claim a new identity as a “scholar.” As an instructor and tutor I’m an informant, sometimes introducing students to new genres, the vocabulary and conventions of which may be very foreign to them, as hard as that may be for us to believe.

This unfamiliarity shows up in the Writing Center when we see students trying to decipher the basic vocabulary of assignment instructions. Just consider the word “reflect.” When I instruct students to reflect, it means “look back and analyze your experience and thought process. Look for epiphanal moments and draw connections between your experience and concepts/theories covered in class.” But many students are likely to be familiar only with the general definition “to cast back from a surface; to give back or show an image of; mirror.” In that respect, reflect might mean to summarize or reiterate.

While it is true that part of my job as an instructor is to introduce students to the rhetoric and processes of academia, I’m not sure my courses need be a full immersion program. It makes sense to me to first establish a common language, rather than let students flounder under false assumptions. While I can’t second-guess every word for common definition, I can search my assignment instructions for possible professor-ese. I can also ask students to paraphrase the instructions back to me as a way to turn up potential pitfalls.

Of the three parts of the RT, audience seems the most difficult to pin down for students. It is also seldom addressed in the assignment instructions, nor in the class preparation for the assignment. I usually vaguely allude to it as “a general, well-educated population.” Last term, while working with a FRINQ student on his research paper, I was reminded of the unique and somewhat absurd fiction regarding audience that students must navigate in academic writing.

When I pointed out to this student that he needed to define the term “camera obscura” for his reader, he said, “but my professor already knows what that is.” Fair enough. I explained he was really writing for two audiences, an imaginary general audience, and the real professor, who is watching and judging how well the student is able to present information to the imaginary audience.

I listened to myself and watched his forehead crinkle. I thought about my explanation and suddenly pictured a TV cop show, the interrogation room, and the one-way mirror.

I realized that if a writer doesn’t have a clear idea of his audience – can’t picture them or relate to them in some way – he doesn’t know what kind of evidence is going to be convincing, what kind of vocabulary or diction is appropriate. It becomes difficult to establish common ground or ethos. In order to write well-reasoned arguments a writer needs to have a concept about the values his audience holds in order to appeal to them.

In a class I teach called, “Argument, Logic, and Style,” I have each student choose a specific audience whom she would like to convince of her particular claim (each student has spent a few weeks researching her own chosen topic) and write what I call an “eloquent letter” to that audience. Inevitably this argument is vastly better than their previous papers. I suspected, and they confirmed that they were able to write more convincingly because they were more confident about whom they were addressing. They could build arguments based on that particular audience’s values and needs.

I also have students write their final portfolio essay as a letter to me – by that point they know me well enough to know what I value and how to address me in a familiar, yet respectful way.

Consequently it may make sense to be more transparent about whom the audience is for each paper and to have some discussion about how to appeal to that audience. Or it might behoove instructors to have assignments address a variety of audiences, i.e. one that is directed at the class; one that is written as a position paper to present to an advisory board of a non-profit, one that is directed to university studies faculty, etc.

Donald Murray, in his book A Writer Teaches Writing, lists fourteen elements to consider when designing assignments. He gives Purpose, Genre, and Models their own categories, but to my mind, these are interrelated and connected to each corner of the RT. He advocates offering models to students as a way to define and demystify the genres and forms we are asking them to produce. He points out that freshman “may have no common idea of what is meant by such simple terms as essay, argument, narrative, fiction, non-fiction, or research paper. One student may think essay means argument; another may think it is creative writing – a short story. They may well have a clear sense of what another teacher has meant by those terms, but the students need a model in a closed assignment [one in which they do not choose the topic and form] especially if the teacher has a model in mind.”

He recommends having three models available to students that “present a range within the genre” so students aren’t painting by numbers. At times I’ve taken this idea further and either annotated or discussed these models in class, pointing out where particular moves that I value are being made in the model pieces. I collect student essays from past classes as well as professionally written essays.

When designing an assignment, Murray advocates making clear what the educational goal is. I often see purpose and goals listed on FRINQ assignments, especially in relation to “The Goals.” But I think there are different levels of goal, some that may come out of one’s area of discipline, and still others that we may not be aware of, that have to do at some core level with our own values as writers.

Recently, in a Writing Center meeting we invited an English literature professor as a guest. While discussing what we as tutors can do to help her students complete her assignments successfully, she talked about approaching student papers as readers and introducing them to the idea of motivation. She frames her goal for student writer as motivating a reader (that professor) to keep reading. Although many of her students are perplexed by receiving B’s for competent explication and interpretation of a text, she insists on reserving A’s for papers that provide a reading of the course text that isn’t obvious or commonly held. She asked us-as-tutors to help students-as-writers to think about what professors-as-readers need to motivate them to keep reading. Given that a professor is probably intimately familiar with the text presented, the student is challenged to find a way to tell and show her something she hadn’t already thought of.

While I don’t think this is or should be a goal of every college writing assignment (she admitted that she never has freshman in her classes), it points to the underlying values of that professor as a scholar and writer. She cares about originality, “the close reading,” as well as the ability to apply theory. But if students don’t have some cue about this value system from the professor or the assignment instructions, many aren’t going to figure it out -- at least not right away. If they think the professor wants to know that they read and understood the text, they’ll write a competent explication and expect an A.

Perhaps most important and least considered when designing assignments is the issue of “WHAT KIND OF PAPER AM I GOING TO WANT TO READ 70 VERSIONS OF?” Although it is the students’ responsibility to figure out how to engage with the material and present it in a clear and interesting manner, there are some assignments that lend themselves more or less to innovation, or creativity. As corny as it sounds, part of why I teach is to learn from my students. I want to be moved; I want to read something I hadn’t thought of before; I want them to make me laugh (on purpose). For me, assignments that move beyond the traditional thesis-driven/researched/synthesized/and applied theory of course texts model provide more opportunity for students to surprise themselves and me.

I as an audience who holds the red pen have some duty to let on about what matters to me as a reader. Some assignments really are just a test for competent comprehension. Other assignments may have a goal of practicing or mastering a particular skill, like incorporating source materials into one’s own prose. I consider these assignments performance-based. I also have many assignments for which the sole purpose is to get students writing for the sake of trying something. I want them to write in a way that makes them uncomfortable, as a way to challenge them or get them out of ruts. These I would define as more experience-based. The final product is less important than the attempt.

I’m also learning that my personal values as a writer tend more toward risk and creativity. In some assignments I see revision as an end in itself; I think it’s good for you to write something and make it into something radically different, just to see what happens. But sometimes revision needs to be about making a piece as clear and polished as it can be in a given amount of time. These are all things I try to take into consideration when designing assignments. What will I value in the product and process of this assignment: competent demonstration of a specific set of skills, creativity, originality, attempt, mastery...? An important question I ask myself when designing an assignment is “how will I know if they’ve met the goals of the assignment?” One attempt I make to answer that question is making a grading rubric to accompany the assignment.

When I get back a stack of papers, all from the same assignment, that don’t meet my expectations, that feel directionless and vastly different from one another, I grumble about my lazy students who obviously didn’t carefully read my assignments. Then I return to my instructions and try to approach them as a reader. It’s the same process I ask my students to go through when refining their arguments: Where might I have questions if I weren’t myself?

Lately as I design new assignments I picture a student sitting down with a tutor to decipher it. Is there enough information so that someone unfamiliar with the course material would be able to figure it out? Is there too much information – am I giving too many instructions or suggestions on how to complete the assignment, instructions that might be better used in class writing activities?

This term I’ll continue to ask you to share your ideas about writing and staging assignments. My goal is to create a site where we share assignments, rubrics, and activities to support writing in Freshman Inquiry. Send me any thoughts, ideas, or materials, or stop by the Writing Center, CH188F, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays to chat.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Finding Time to Write: Low Stakes Writing for Practice, Preparation, and Play

One of the problems that inevitably surfaces when I talk to instructors about writing in Freshman Inquiry is that of time management. With so much content to cover in a course, much of it complex and meaty, requiring a great deal of class discussion, it is challenging to find time for writing and “teaching” writing. Some people feel they need to reserve class time for discussion and pass the writing activities on to the mentors for mentor session.

The problem with looking at writing instruction this way is that it assumes writing is a compartmentalized task separate from the real work of the class: reading and understanding concepts from the text. Implicit is the idea that writing is something we do after we’ve read, discussed, and mulled over course content. I’d argue that this way of thinking assumes that students should write only in order to prove comprehension or to show they can make certain scholarly moves in writing (developing thesis statements, building an argument, supporting assertions with details, incorporating and citing sources, etc.). In this way of thinking, writing for college courses boils down to a performance.

But what if you start with the premise that discussing, thinking, and writing, while related tasks, are different and will each produce different ideas and understanding of course material? I would argue that a student may develop a different understanding of a concept or a text if she has to write about it. If we use writing as a way for students to “discuss” ideas from the text, we allow students to “write to learn.” When writing without the pressure of an assignment that will be evaluated, students are allowed to use writing as a tool of discovery. They learn what many of us already know: sometimes you don’t know what you think or understand until you write about it first.

Informal or low-stakes writing is practice, preparation, and play -- writing that I, the teacher, may never see (and most importantly to me as I face the daunting pile of typed and stapled formal essays now before me at midterm, I won’t have to evaluate for a grade). It can be a way for students to begin the work of formal assignments, to create the raw material that they later shape into the “high stakes” papers they turn in for a grade. Or it may just be practice – an exercise that gets students used to writing and thinking like writers.

This low-stakes writing can be used in several ways in the classroom. I like to start each of my classes with a guided five minute freewrite in order to get students’ scholarly juices flowing and to turn their minds collectively to the subject we’ve been looking at it. It is a way to center and focus the class and create discussion sparks.

A common concern I’ve heard (and had) about assigning informal writing such as reading journals is that instead of having to read and evaluate a huge stack of essays, teachers are faced with the onerous task of reading and responding to a huge stack of journals. I’ve seen this problem handled in a few different ways, for instance, journals can be read randomly for comments and credit given for simply completing entries on those that weren’t read for content. Or students can respond to one another’s entries, posing questions and augmenting discussion.

But informal writing doesn’t always have to be turned in or evaluated. Teachers can have students turn in only a portion of informal writing exercises for pointed feedback in preparation for writing longer pieces. For instance, I might have students do some brainstorming that might lead to a one-sentence working thesis that I then glance at to make sure they are on the right track before they commit to the typed word.

This prepatory/exploratory writing can be as simple as a ten minute freewrite. I try to choose a prompt that I think will get at a particular challenge in the assignment. For instance if I’m having them write a persuasive letter, I’ll have them brainstorm for a few minutes about ways they might establish credibility and common ground with their audience. If they’ve already written their first draft, I might have them write about a possible revision strategy for the next draft.

One thing I’ve noticed about consistently using informal in-class writing is the first couple of class periods some students write a few words, set their pens down, crack their knuckles, look around the room, and fidget. After awhile, when I say, “ok we’re going to do some writing,” all heads bow to the page, the room quiets, students settle quickly into their task, and their pens move until (and sometimes after) I tell them to stop. They’ve learned the practice of writing, so it doesn’t feel tedious, or scary, or whatever, anymore. They’ve developed some “writing muscles” that will help them when they sit down to write their formal assignments.

I’ve also had great success using writing in place of discussion. I have students read from their writing or write responses to one another’s writing, passing papers back and forth or down a line. It is amazing to look up from my spot at the front of the room and see every head turned toward a paper, actively participating in a “discussion,” rather than hearing the same few extroverted voices, mine included, volleying back and forth.

Informal writing works well as a tool for providing feedback. I got this from the book, Handling the Paper Load. On days they turn in a paper, students write to these three prompts: The best thing about my paper is... . If I had more time to work on it, I’d.... If I were the teacher, one comment I’d write on this paper is.... Students have the opportunity to reflect on their own writing and process and to guide my comments to their specific concerns.

I have a personal teaching policy to never give a graded assignment without having students do some in-class (or homework) informal writing in preparation for it. Instead of handing out assignments with the ubiquitous page of “possible questions to consider when writing this paper,” I save those questions for freewriting prompts. I often have students share and respond to one another’s raw writing and “workshop” their ideas. That way students generate the raw materials for their papers and practice wrestling with the questions where and when I can help them, before they write the formal paper.

Another benefit of low-stakes writing is the opportunity to experiment. One FRINQ instructor told me that he has students write in dialogue, as if writing a play, as a way of helping them get beyond just writing from their own point of view.

Please share your own informal writing ideas. What have you used and how? What’s worked well? And if you’re really brave, what’s bombed? Send me your stories: