Site icon

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…

Exit mobile version