Fascinating Paper

This post is primarily about teaching writing in an EFL context, especially in terms of using templates and modeling various writing “moves” or “techniques”, and the use of group crit sessions in essay-writing or other writing courses. If you’re not interested in that, you’re best to skip this post.

So this paper I just graded, it’s probably the most best piece of writing I’ve seen from an undegrad student, Korean or otherwise, in the decade since I started teaching writing. (And I’ve seen a lot.) There are holes, of course — problems with parts of her argument, or things that she’s assuming, or moments where she somewhat uncritically takes for granted this or that author’s claims.

But considering how she produced this paper as the rewrite of a significantly different paper, I was shocked and amazed at how, well, competent and intelligent it was. Even in the parts I disagreed with. It’s the kind of paper you’re surprised too see an undergrad producing, even a really smart undergrad. And yes, it’s fairly clear she did indeed rewrite it. There’s just enough of the EFL awkwardness — not “errors” per se, just a vague sort of awkwardness in word choice or structural tendencies — and just enough of her original paper throughout for that to be absolutely clear.

One thing I’m particularly glad to see is how some of the techniques I was teaching in class really sank in. For example, the practice of quoting a source: that is, you don’t quote people because people who publish their ideas are by default right and authorities to be appealed to as “proof,” but rather because you see interesting or important ideas expressed in a very clear and powerful way by people whose credibility on a given subject can at least be attested to on some level, and because quoting them provides you with an opportunity either to agree and expand on those ideas, or to dispute them. This student was constantly expanding on the arguments she agreed with, and also using quotes as a spring board to allow critique of the ideas she disagreed with!

I’m so happy that I’m going to give credit to the writer whose insights and techniques helped change the way I teach writing: Gerald Graff’s book Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind is an outstanding book for anyone who is even a little bit frustrated with how undergrads can simply not get some of the basic, simple things that are fundamental to academic writing, academic thought, and academic exchange.

(Like, why they have no idea why citing sources is so important, or why they can’t seem to grasp why we quote other people in our writing, or how to get them to see what academia is, which is, really, a great big huge exchange of ideas, disputation, disagreement, amplification, and so on. Well, it’s more than that, but let’s try to see the Ram and not get hung up on the Ravana.)

Some of what I did this semester in my writing course was like in past semesters, but one of the things I changed was how I got students to interact with texts. I had them write a text arguing one side of an argument. Then I had them randomly exchange with classmates, and had them write a new text, one which quoted or paraphrased the ideas of the first student, but also included a response of some kind. They could agree and amplify on some area of the previous author’s argument, they could disagree and explain why, they could cite conflicting evidence: for each of these moves, I provided them with a template, like this one:

TITLE: ________________________

The general argument made by AUTHOR X in his or her work, ____________________________, is that _____________________________________. More specifically, X argues that ________________________________________________________________________. She/He writes, “__________________.” In this passage, X is suggesting that ____________________________. In conclusion, X’s belief is that ______________________.

In my view, X is wrong/right, because___________________. More specifically, I believe that ___________________________________. For example, ____________________________. Although X might object that ___________________________, I maintain that ___________________________________. Therefore, I conclude that __________________________________________.

That’s taken directly from Graff’s book, and it’s really interesting because what it does is models a way of stating in writing a summary of someone’s for the purposes of presenting one’s own disagreement with those ideas. For those of us who are really bookish, or who have been in university for years and years, this is something we either don’t remember having had to learn, or else it’s something that came naturally to us.

In years past, I would probably have seen this kind of teaching by template as unfairly confining students to a specific kind of writing, and as something that they would end up being dependent on, but this was, it turns out, an underestimation of my students. The reality is, as usual, that some of them internalized it and moved past using an explicit template, while retaining the basic structure or, well, technique that the template modeled. Meanwhile, among those who failed to internalize it and move past it, some at least produced better work by using a workable model of disagreement, while a couple (as usual) pretty much ignored the whole thing and kept doing what they were doing before they enrolled in the class.

So now I see template exercises as something akin to practicing scales: a really useful way of developing specific technical moves or skills in writing. I’ll definitely be working up some (loose) templates to use as exercises in my upcoming “Magazine Writing” course next semester.

(The purpose of which is less to get students to become competent magazine writers and more to get them competent at writing interesting, clear, structurally solid texts on subjects that they are interested in, with the theory that (a) good academic writing is easier to learn when you’re able to do those things, and (b) that a lot of the writing they’ll do outside of university will require these portable skills.)

Back to the Graff: while I suspect it’s probably not going to be useful to most people who are teaching writing courses in Korea — lots of writing courses, after all, focus on grammar, sentence structure, and pulling together a workable paragraph — anyone who  is working in a context where they’re trying to get students to step up to that higher level where they can write in an academic, intellectual manner, this book has some invaluable insights and comments.

(And if you’re working to address the gap between what professors expect, and what students think professors expect, then you definitely want to read this book. Doubly so if you’re a non-Korean, as there’s probably an even bigger gap between your expectations and what students assume you expect and take for granted.)

The other thing I can’t stress enough is that group workshops really do help students, even EFL students, to improve their writing. Because of the range of skills and viewpoints you get from a classroomful of peers reading their work, students get a huge amount of useful feedback. But more importantly, by looking at their peers’ work, students can really develop some critical reading skills which, over time, they can start applying to their own writing.

The one warning I must offer, though, in terms of workshops, is that one must beware the slack tendency. That is, a lot of students will do critiques in earnest until someone starts missing class, or turning up at crit sessions with six-word crits like, “It was really good. That’s all.” As soon as that happens, the bar gets lowered, so an instructor must be very careful about how he or she goes about assigning crit work and assessing the crit component of the class. I’m thinking that written critiques submitted in duplicate — one for the prof, and one for the student whose essay is being critiqued — is how I’ll handle it in future. Hell, that also provides even more writing practice for the students doing  the crits, so it can’t hurt! (And it gives me something tangible to grade, which translates to more effort from those students whose main motivation is grades.)

I can imagine many classes won’t be up for critique sessions, since after all, many people who cannot produce a decent written critique will also struggle to verbalize their criticisms of peer work when talking face to face in class. But that said, crits are a great way to run a writing class for TEFL students above a certain level of writing ability. And it’s not necessarily as high a minimum level as you might think…

6 thoughts on “Fascinating Paper

  1. (… wandering back in after a prolonged absence…)

    Okay, this is fascinating enough that I may have to pick up that book even though I’m not teaching. It’s also significant because it ties in to a long-running — eh, not argument exactly, but confusion, between me and Dan. We both majored in English but the ways we were taught criticism are so different that I sometimes wonder if it didn’t come from a different planet. I was taught to take apart a work, look at what was being said and implied and assumed, and then discuss it; the professor was merely first among equals in the discussion (yay, tiny liberal arts colleges.) Dan had what I suppose is a more standard background, where “criticism” meant fancy techniques to dissect a work. You were taught techniques by the professor, applied them, and then were told where you were right and where you were wrong. (The one he’s mentioned that I remember was something about taking a single word, and then looking at the words on either side of it and analyzing them, and then looking at the next words out and analyzing them… it sounded kinda retarded, frankly.)

    The result is that I analyze books all the time, to the point of it being a subconcious thing, and he never does. This drives us both a little crazy, him because I insist on ripping apart silly sci-fi books that frankly weren’t meant for it, me because he doesn’t SEE what I do (there’s at least one series that he enjoys ’cause it’s fun and I can’t stand for purely subtext reasons.)

    No big, I suppose, and he did come out of college with a perfectly good grasp of writing and grammar, so I suppose it wasn’t a wasted four years. It’s just that I came out of a very similar program with so much more, and without a bad attitude towards academic criticism, besides. It seems a pity.

  2. Kat,

    Yeah, all I can say is that even people who have gone through the same system or schooling can emerge with reading styles as disparate as yours and his.

    (I come in somewhere in between, maybe, though closer to your side. I can’t shut off the subtext-analyzer at will, but it sometimes gets preempted by “Wheeeeeeeee!” And sometimes, I feel put off when I feel like an author is almost prompting me to read a book this way. (As some of the Adam Roberts books I’ve read seemed to me to be doing. I think he’s a hell of a writer, but he tugs me towards litcrit a little to much for me to stay in the “Whee!” zone.)

    FWIW, as much as I know about literary studies, yours is the more common background, and Dan’s is more unusual. Most of the lit classes I took at two very different universities involved a lot of group discussion with the prof, if not first among equals, then at least as a kind of safari guide who expected us to run off and chase animals out of the bush ourselves. Even my intro English Lit class was like that. And that’s certainly how I teach Lit when I do, here.

    (Of interest: one of my students in my Lit course this past semester is a Korean Lit major, and she confessed to me she’d never studied Lit this way. It was always about being told what the symbols mean, definitively, by a professor, and committing the accepted analyses to memory for exams. She said when she becomes a prof, she wants to teach Korean way along the lines of how I taught the Can Lit course. I was pretty moved by that.)

  3. Great post. I’d lost your feed in my move to Google Reader. I’ll have to add it again.

    My biggest struggle is getting students to actually write. I have non-credit courses, so homework is so rarely completed. I can see the above working nicely during a class session (or multiple sessions) given two papers with competing claims.

    Dan

  4. Dan,

    Thanks! Yeah, non-credit courses are so hard! Luckily, I don’t face that.

    And yeah, the template thing works well when you have students write up a text, then submit a copy to you (as teacher) and a exchange their second copies with a randomly classmate. Then have them write a contrarian response that (a) frames the original argument, and (b) points out what’s wrong with it.

    (This also works for other moves like amplifying a claim, expanding on an argument, clarifying a point missed by the other author, and so on.)

    Not only is the practice as summarizing or paraphrasing others’ words useful, but it also gives them a chance to practice specific argumentative postures one by one.

    (The hard part being when they have to disagree with an argument with which, in real life, they utterly agree. But that’s good for them too, I think.)

  5. Excellent. You are doing much better work than my honors writing professor in university. I cannot think of a single thing I learned from the catty “group critiques” that we had (with the student’s name on the paper), which really turned into suck up to the teacher festivals and contests to see who could tear it apart the most.

    It really is best to keep it private and want students to experiment and explore without fear of targeted embarrassment.

  6. Steph,

    Thanks! I’m flattered to be doing better than one of your profs. :)

    Oh, yeah, I’ve been through critique sessions like you describe. One of the most toxic things for a workshop class is any uncertainty about how the grading is done (or in fact, maybe it’s a feature of grading in general): it seems to contribute to a mood where cutting down something, or kissing ass, is the purpose of crit.

    (And when you have people who fancy themselves hip to postmodernity and theory, the potential for time-wasted frontin’ and maxin’ with quotes and buzzwords from Derrida and Foucault and Spivak just goes up. I think, indeed, this also serves a second, hidden function: it distracts everyone from fundamentally boring and mediocre student writing samples which are sadly all too common in creative writing courses!)

    I should stress, though, that I think group crit probably works somewhat differently in a classroom where everyone is (a) writing, and (b) critiquing, in a foreign language.

    This simple fact can do stunning things in terms of leveling the playing field, even: a lot of students with really great spoken English write how they speak (slang included); sometimes the ones who speak less well write better than them, because they’re taking less for granted, and they’re really putting the time in on proofreading, editing, and rewriting.

    I definitely agree that anytime you’re pushing students to experiment or explore, there has to be an atmosphere of safety. But I also find that there’s a bad effect when too much writing is held in private confidence: kids get to assuming that’s natural (when it isn’t) and they develop a hypersentivity about it.

    Given the risk-averse tendencies of so many Korean students of English, one reinforced both by education and culture, I find this really hampers development.

    (If making no mistakes if your top priority, you can’t learn by doing, because doing involves far too much risk of making mistakes. Which is why I SO wish middle school teachers would stop *punishing* kids for wrong answers on exams and so on.)

    The long and the short of it is: the classroom needs to be a safe environment, where students can both explore and experiment, but also where students can be reminded of the fundamentals that their peers see clearly need to be mastered. Striking the balance is a bit like spinning multiple plates on long sticks.

    (UPDATE: By the way, I just realized you’re not the Steph I thought you were at first. [Unless you are?] So if the sudden referencing of Creative Writing programs, as opposed to traditional academic comp programs, was a jolt, then I apologize!)

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