One of my classes this semester, History 240: The Historians Craft, is fairly writing intensive. The goal of the class is to teach a small group of students basic historical method, to introduce them to a smattering on historiography and philosophy, and, finally, to produce a 10-15 page term paper based on independent research (a paper that should be substantially better than a term paper for a typical, "content based" class). The papers are to be rooted in the academic discourse and based upon primary sources.
I am encouraging a kind of slow writing in this class. We build through a series of assignments from short book reviews and an annotated bibliography, to a formal prospectus, to an outline, and then a series of at least three critiqued drafts. I work hard to make the student aware of their writing and insist on a formal style across all of the projects that build toward the final product. The greatest frustration, however, is with students who for whatever reason, just don't get it. They either continues to write in an painfully informal or agrammatical (that is not ungrammatical, but seemingly devoid of any awareness of grammatical rules) style. Or more frequently, fail or even refuse to engage the scholarly discourse either in their research or in their writing.
Last week, I met with a group of faculty from across campus to discuss Gerald Graff's and Cathy Birkenstein's little book, They Say/I Say: Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (New York 2006). The little seminar put on by our Office of Instructional Development and the Writing Center focused on the books techniques for encouraging writers to understand the scholarly discourse. This is the "They Say" part of the books title. Graff and Birkenstein propose teaching students a series templates or formulas which force the writer to engage their fellow scholars. Most of the templates are so familiar to scholars as to be almost second nature. For example, "In their recent work, Y and Z have offered harsh critiques of Dr. X for __________." (Graff and Birkstein 21). For students, however, these "moves that matter" set a paper up from the start as a kind of conversation with the broader world of academic research. While the book has its flaws, such a kind of patronizing tone that might rub struggling student writers the wrong way, its basic approach to writing is compelling.
Our students lack of familiarity with these kind of verbal cues that define so much of the rhetoric and substance of academic writing reflects our students lack of basic academic literacy. In large part, I consider it my biggest challenge and responsibility to encourage students to read and write. Even in my 100 level, introductory class, I encourage the students to write weekly. On the of the thing that is remarkable about this is that students who take the weekly writing assignments serious did much better on the midterm exam. As I described before, I gave the students options on the exam. They could either do an all multiple guess, a half multiple guess and half essay, or an all essay exam. Students who regularly contributed weekly writing assignments scored statistically better on the exam. They were also more likely to take essay versions of the exam, which had higher grades in general, and average weekly writing score for the students who took the all essay exam was marked better than for those who took the multiple choice exam. What I think this indicates is that students who like to write, feel comfortable writing or at least feel obliged to write. This is hardly surprising (although it is nice to have statistics of a sort to back it up), but it does add another component to my goals as a teacher. Not only do I need to encourage a kind of slow writing, and teaching writing, but it is clear that I need to encourage the students to see writing as something interesting, challenging (in a good way), and even fun.
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