'The College Writing Toolkit'

Many of the students in today's college writing classroom are career-oriented and have little interest in literature; they also may not be native speakers of English. A traditional approach to teaching writing -- through reading and writing about classic literature -- may not reach these students.

August 2, 2011

Many of the students in today's college writing classroom are career-oriented and have little interest in literature; they also may not be native speakers of English. A traditional approach to teaching writing -- through reading and writing about classic literature -- may not reach these students.

But that's the audience that Martha Pennington and Pauline Burton hope to help instructors reach with their new anthology, The College Writing Toolkit: Tried and Tested Ideas for Teaching College Writing (Equinox). Pennington, a professor of writing and linguistics and Georgia Southern University, and Burton, a lecturer at the Community College of City University in Hong Kong, have compiled 18 essays from 25 teachers at a diverse range of institutions, from the University of Vienna to Miami Dade College. Each essay outlines a different assignment or in-class exercise.

The first section is entirely dedicated to writing personal essays, which the authors see as an easier way than analyzing literature for students to learn the basics of writing. Olivia Archibald, an English professor at Saint Martin's University in Washington State, suggests a personal essay on a transformative life experience as the students' first assignment, as a means of discouraging students from "dumping" -- writing four pages of researched facts and saving all of their analysis for the second-to-last paragraph. It's more likely that students will see the value in interweaving facts and observations with reflection in a personal essay, she argues.

"I am interested in having students hone their ability to effectively balance evaluative claim with specific detail," Archibald writes. "In a good college paper, the thesis does not just appear in the introduction and conclusion; it is interwoven throughout the essay via such strategies as transitional moves and evaluation/reflection of the evidence presented."

Other assignments are geared toward providing students with more practical instruction. Sky Marsen, a linguistics and communications lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, suggests having students write reports for imagined business or professional scenarios -- for example, a student might write a report on changes to the airline industry for a fictional passenger airline. Zuzana Tomas, who teaches linguistics at the University of Utah and ESL at Salt Lake City's Westminster College, argues that many international students don't understand the line between appropriate paraphrasing and plagiarism in American academe, and suggests a few in-class exercises for combating the problem. Ana Oskoz of the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Idoia Elola of Texas Tech University ask their students to write a collaborative essay on a wiki -- a web page that can be edited by several users at a time -- and communicate via chat.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed anthology editors Burton and Pennington about the changing approach to teaching one of academe's most basic and important skills -- writing.

Q: You make a brief reference, in the first chapter, to traditional methods of teaching first-year composition “on the basis of literature.” Why you think that approach falls short with today’s students?

A: A traditional approach to teaching composition starts from a common reading, which students analyze and critique, often first in class discussion and then in written form. Typically, the common reading was a piece of literature, such as a famous novel or short story. This approach was traditional because it was thought that an important aspect of learning to write well was to read the best models of writing, which were considered to be literary models, and also because those teaching writing were usually English literature majors, so this was their expertise.

Nowadays, many of those teaching writing come from backgrounds other than English literature, such as rhetoric and composition or applied linguistics. Many English departments have fragmented into separate subsections of literature and writing, with professors who mainly teach literature in the first category and professors who mainly teach writing and are often themselves creative writers. Increasingly, the separate subsections of English departments are becoming autonomous departments and/or merging with other departments in new academic alliances. For example, at Georgia Southern University, the largest department combines writing and linguistics, a department that includes subsections in creative writing, technical and professional writing, writing studies (which includes the teaching of writing), and linguistics. The part of the former English department that is focused on English literature is now part of a department of literature and philosophy.

Although it is generally still believed that an important aspect of learning to write well is to read the best models of writing, it is no longer accepted that these "best models" all come from literature. In fact, every field has its own "best models" of writing, i.e.. books and articles that are considered to be excellent models of the kinds of writing done in that field. These models differ very significantly from one field to another, and do not necessarily follow the same kind of structure or thesis-driven orientation. There are several burgeoning academic specializations focused on disciplinary differences, each of which has its own professional organizations and scholarly journals – in the areas of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP), both of which have evolved from the Applied Linguistics field, and in the areas of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID), both of which have evolved from the English and Writing fields. Models of good writing coming from a wide range of disciplines and contexts will give a more diverse basis for students’ own writing than those tied only to literature and so help students prepare for writing in all of the general studies (or core curriculum) course requirements and in their major subjects.

Q: You used the metaphor of a “writing toolkit,” when describing the way the suggestions in the book should be used, as opposed to using it as a recipe book because “the ideas must still be adapted to specific circumstances.” What is the difference between those two approaches?

A: Of course, recipes can also be changed and adapted according to taste and circumstances, so a recipe book could be a valid metaphor for a collection of teaching plans. The “toolkit” metaphor, however, foregrounds the idea of college writing teachers as skilled practitioners, especially in using and adapting activities and approaches to meet their own students’ needs. That’s why we asked the contributors to explain the thinking behind their activities, to describe how the activities actually worked in a real-world classroom setting, and to make some suggestions as to how they could be adapted to different contexts – for example, between students from different disciplines, from professionals to college students, from native-speaking to international students, or vice versa.

One important difference between a toolkit and a recipe book is the idea of flexibility and re-combination: readers can, if they wish, follow through on a whole activity and try it out (as one might with a recipe), but they can also “pick and mix,” combining ideas from different chapters.

Q: You have an entire section on the use of personal writing. Why do you think of this as a better approach than simply introducing students to the standard thesis-driven argumentative essay – the kind of essay they’ll probably be writing for most of their courses?

A: Nowadays, students have a tendency to write on a topic by going straight to Wikipedia or doing a Google search as a first step, a practice which shortcuts the process of exploring a topic oneself and leads to highly derivative, unoriginal, and sometimes plagiarized writing. Using personal writing as the initial stage in a college composition sequence can motivate student interest in a topic, as they are able to discover through personal writing how a topic relates to their own knowledge and experience. It can therefore help them to become invested in a topic and to develop their own orientation to it before they explore the words and ideas of others, thus potentially avoiding the tendency to rely on others’ words and ideas. It can also, as some of our contributors argue, provide a bridge between the students’ own discourse and the discourse of the university, which may be remote and unfamiliar to them.

Developing good writing habits and critical thinking while working on emotionally engaging tasks can help students become more dedicated and involved, as well as more confident and creative, in their approach to academic writing. In addition, writing short personal reflections in response to new subject matter can help students throughout their university career, and beyond, as they write in order to think about a topic and think through ideas which they evolve through the writing process. In the best case, college students learn to explore others’ knowledge, ideas, experience, and language in relation to their own developing knowledge, ideas, experience, and language, through reading, discussion, personal writing, and various kinds of research and use of outside sources.

Q: Essays refer to issues that challenge some ESL students. Where else do ESL students generally seem to struggle, in your experience? Are there areas on which instructors need to put more emphasis to meet the needs of the ESL population?

A: Referring to and discussing someone else’s words and ideas – through such strategies as paraphrasing, summarizing, quoting, critiquing, and analyzing – and avoiding plagiarism are among the most advanced and so most difficult writing skills to master, ones which native speakers also struggle with, as a growing body of research suggests. These are in addition to written language skills involving such matters as word choice and sentence structure that are not mastered by most people until well into their college years. Second-language students, depending on their proficiency level, may need extra help with specific language problems or may need to be provided with more clearly defined stages in learning to write a new type of text. The differences between ESL and native-speaking students are most often differences of degree, not differences of kind, and the same approaches and activities can work well with both.

It sometimes happens that ESL students are less familiar with certain genres, styles of writing, or discourse traditions – and often also with certain classroom procedures and teaching approaches – than those who grew up with them, and so more time is needed to introduce and work through readings, preparation for writing, and giving feedback toward revision. There is also considerable variation in how much stress is put on writing in different cultures and countries; sometimes ESL students have almost no background in writing beyond the sentence level and need considerable extra help, while in other cases they are quite experienced and sophisticated writers and quickly rise to the top of the class.

Q: One of the themes of the book is the growing interest in teaching students to write for specific, real-world audiences. Is this an approach that fits today’s students better than it would have fit previous generations?

A: It is typical nowadays to teach some general principles of good writing – such as effective introductions and conclusions, making and supporting points, choosing the most relevant and precise word or expression to get one's intended meaning across, and constructing complex sentences – in addition to presenting a wide range of samples of writing of different types and from different fields. Writing analysis generally focuses on the purpose of the writing, its audience, and the conventions of the specific field or genre. Writing for real-world audiences is a way of getting students to think seriously about all of these principles and apply them to an authentic task; if their writing is read outside the classroom and receives a response, this can be a powerful motivator. Teachers are using this approach more because students enjoy it and see its value, and it works. It is well-adapted to present-day students, who are used to the ease and speed of modern communications and the interactivity of social media; however, like most good teaching ideas, it is far from new.

Q: You dedicate a section to teaching students to use digital resources in writing and research. Some instructors might grumble that teaching those things takes away from other topics. How much responsibility for teaching students to use technology should fall to writing teachers, and how much of it should be covered by basic computer literacy courses?

A: Generally, students come to writing classes with well-developed word processing skills and extensive knowledge of the Internet, yet do not know how to effectively search for and use digital and internet resources (beyond the most obvious ones such as Wikipedia and online dictionaries) in their writing. Teaching the use of digital resources and searches on the internet, in the context of specific writing projects, is an important part of what a writing teacher can help students with. Digital technologies can be a powerful tool for students to gain access not only to information, but also to authentic audiences for writing and various kinds of writing assistance. In addition, as some of our contributors argue, new technologies can be used to promote dialogue between teacher and students, and between groups of students working together, to develop their thinking and develop their writing. In short, digital technologies offer many new resources for writing and ways to approach writing tasks that can be applied and practiced as part of a writing class but not easily outside the context of actual writing projects and activities, nor outside a context of writing-focused pedagogy and expertise.

Q: The American student body is changing – it's becoming more international, and is increasingly made up of nontraditional students. What kinds of challenges are writing instructors facing in meeting the needs of these students?

A: International and nontraditional students often need even more support in their writing than the typical native-speaker student writer. On the other hand, they bring diverse and interesting experiences that can enrich classroom discussions and the topics of writing which those in a given class pursue. Many teachers are already aware of the challenges (as well as the gains) brought by diversity; indeed, writing teachers increasingly reflect this diversity themselves, being drawn from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, including the great and growing number and variety of speech communities that use English as a second language. Rather than asking teachers to change or improve, policy-makers and administrators need to support them by providing the best possible in-service teacher education, access to best practice through print and online publications, and opportunities to share their ideas and experience with each other. The provision of opportunities for writing teachers to grow within their own communities of practice through sharing their successful teaching ideas is the impetus behind The College Writing Toolkit.

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Derek Quizon

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