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Class over, grades in, I always reflect on the semester just past, and I’ve been thinking a lot about context.

In my academic writing class, I’ve come to believe that one of the most significant barriers to students improving as writers is the understanding of context. They enter the class laden with “rules” they’ve been told about writing, i.e., essays should be five paragraphs in length, but very rarely do they know what these rules mean. They’ve been told the “what,” but never the “why."

It’s like they’ve been given a bunch of chess pieces, and been told generally how they’re allowed to move, but then been denied the board on which to place them.

I ask them about these writing rules as part of  a clearing-of-the-air exercise at the start of the semester, and at the end of the discussion, I tell them that things are different now, that we are to engage in writing processes, that each piece of writing is a custom job that employs certain principles and guidelines, but for which there are no rules.

They think it’s a trick, because to them, school is a game. Not just a game, but something like the Hunger Games, where the game master has the ability and the right to change the rules at whim. I think they believe that I’m just substituting one set of rules for another, the latest game master.

Unfortunately, I believe a generation of No Child Left Behind-style testing has trained our students to worry almost exclusively about the “whats” rather than the “whys.” They arrive in my class oriented towards learning the rules that must be followed to jump through each successive hoop. The difficulty of flipping the switch from rules to choices seems to increase with each successive cohort.

When they look at those “hoops,” I want them thinking that they’re not something to jump through, but to walk around, or better yet, torch with a flamethrower, but I have seen them experience significant anxiety at the idea that there may be no such thing as hoops, of if there are, they are of our own construction.

It’s as though I’m introducing them to a cliff and encouraging them to leap, a game master luring them towards their doom.

What I’ve realized is that much of our semester is actually spent helping them to conceptualize the context of writing - to understand a rhetorical situation, to analyze a particular audience. I’m asking them to “see” the board, and in so doing, to substitute choices for rules.

To use another analogy, if I am Oz, I’m begging them to look behind the curtain.

When the switch flips for students – and it often takes this form, a darkened space suddenly with light – many other seemingly intractable problems disappear. Difficulties with structure and transitions melt away as they write towards an audience’s needs. Mangled syntax uncrimps as the writer understands the purpose of her message. Assignments are suddenly more polished as the stakes for the communication become clear.

The end-of-semester grades are often a reflection of how soon during the semester that switch flips. I see it in the grade book, a full-grade leap from one assignment to the next.

I tell them that to write their best, they need to channel their inner three-year-olds, and ask the three-year-olds’ favorite question, “why?” Children can’t stop asking “why” because they are relentless builders of context, each stimulus crammed into the puzzle of the world they’re constructing for themselves.

At some point many, if not most of my students largely stopped this process.

I’m thinking about how we can do more to start it up again.

Next time in “Thinking Context”: What’s a university, and who is that person in the front of the room?


Twitter is pretty lousy at context.


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