Friday, August 17, 2012

"Writing across the curriculum"

This is a new push on my campus. And I mostly agree with the idea. The more writing a student does in ALL areas, the better his or her writing is going to get. Provided, of course, the people teaching the students are capable writers themselves and that they take the time to grade well.

Unfortunately, a lot of our intro comp classes are heavily adjunct-taught. Which means there's a wide range of commitment: from people who work hard and bust their butts to teach the students to write, even though they are working under poor conditions (low pay, no benefits, large classes, and a student pool that really doesn't have much writing experience), and then there are others who just phone it in.

I have writing assignments in all the classes I teach, ranging from short "positional" papers in the non-majors class to a large research project in my majors classes. I also have critiques of journal articles that several of my upper-division classes do. Generally, the upper-division students are pretty good: they usually come to me after having one of the two real hard-ass people in the department who hammer on them until their writing improves. In those cases, I don't have to do too much other than not allow the students to get lazy.

Sometimes I get people in my upper-division classes who are getting me first, before either of the hard-asses. That makes my job a bit more involved. In some cases, I think it's laziness: students want to see what they can get away with. I've once in a while gotten a paper with text-speak in it, and I've really graded that down harshly: you need to be able to communicate in a way that is accepted by a majority of the population who will be reading what you write, and I'm sorry, but text-speak is NOT YET ACCEPTED in the vast majority of workplaces.

One thing I'm going to increase emphasis on this fall is: know your audience. Think about the audience for which you are writing. There are many styles of writing, even within scientific writing: you will write differently if you are writing a manuscript for a national journal than you would if you were writing a report for the local highway commission. You will write differently if you are writing for other scientists than you would if you were writing for the general public. You will write differently if you are writing up your own experimental research than you would if you are simply doing a review of the existing literature.

Also, in my non-majors class, I'm going to remind them about considering their audience. And that these are positional papers and not opinion papers: what is important is the quality of your argument and the quality of the sources with which you support that argument. I had a few instances this summer of students writing papers that essentially said, "I believe this is the correct opinion so I'm saying it" and they didn't bother to find sources. They got graded down quite a bit for that.

I did also have some very good writers; I hope they have not spoiled me for the fall, especially seeing as I had a class of 18 this summer and will have twice that this fall. One of the real frustrations I have is just the whole process of slogging through. (I know: English teachers have it much harder, because their students write more and the papers are longer). But it's so discouraging to get the fifth paper where the person doesn't get the difference between their/there/they're or something. I've threatened to have stamps made up explaining:

its/it's (I know that one is more subtle and easily missed, and occasionally I have to stop and go back and correct myself when I'm writing. But still.). 

Also, I want a stamp that explains that apostrophe-s is how you make a POSSESSIVE, not how you make a PLURAL. (I'd get the Bob The Angry Flower Poster that refers to that, but I'm afraid certain of TPTB would interpret it as "too mean and demeaning to the students," so I don't).

These are the largest things the students screw up. I have fewer problems with verb agreement (though sometimes people mess that up, especially if they have a long sentence with funky clauses in the middle of it, and they lose their place, and they forget what the subject was). I have a few problems with the totally wrong word being used. (Best example ever: the student who said "boneified" in a paper when they really meant bona fide).

I have LOTS of problems with plain old awkward writing. I tell the students, "Read your paper out loud to yourself. If it sounds ugly and clunky, rewrite the part that sounds ugly and clunky." But I don't know. Maybe some people can't "hear" clunkiness like I can?

I also occasionally get people who do sentence fragments. Or who do big giant run-on sentences with way too many clauses. I'm actually sometimes guilty of that but at least my run-on sentences stick to a single topic. (I jokingly blame my long, many-clause sentences on my part-German heritage).

I don't often get someone who "doesn't know what a sentence is" (one of our English profs claimed this was the case with some who came through his classes). But I do get people who can't spell, or who think that they can just put a word in the paper that they heard somewhere and never saw printed out, but that they kind of sort of think they know how to spell it, and how it's used. (I get some people who use badly wrong words in the hope of looking "smart.")

I don't worry so much about passive voice, though few of our students have that problem. I also don't harp as much - at least in the non-majors class - on split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. (Though I will say I've also seen it argued that both of those are outmoded rules, and that they are actually "ghosts" of people with backgrounds in some other language - Latin, maybe? - claiming things about English syntax that are not necessarily true. I don't know enough to be able to argue one way or another, but in my formal writing I do try not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions, just in case my reader is one of the old-school types who has a real problem with that. I admit in my grading I'm mostly happy if people can write coherently and have the important information in their paper, and what I view as smaller "stylistic" touches I'm less likely to note.)

One of the bigger issues I have with some of the research papers - and this may be partly a laziness issue, and an unwillingness to dig as deeply - but a lot of times I get students putting in all kinds of irrelevant information. Meaning, "I found an article on my topic but it's not really on my topic but I need a citation so I'm going to use it any way rather than searching more." So I will get a long discourse on leafcutter ants in a paper that's really over one of the local ant species or something. And I find that some of the students are a little stymied or upset when I grade them down on that and tell them the information is "superfluous." I'm not sure best how to counteract that. I know that writing is a very experience-oriented thing, and knowing what information is "right" for a paper, versus what is unnecessary or "too much" or "too off topic" is something you kind of have to just learn for yourself by working. I don't know.

I will say I think my colleague who threw a hissy a couple years ago over some plagiarized papers in his class - and stopped doing them - is having to start doing so again because of this new WATC project. I have to admit I'm kind of gratified by that, in a schadenfreude type of way, because he kind of smugly told me one day, shortly after he decided to stop doing papers, that he was "glad" I still did papers in my classes, because "The students still get writing experience without my having to offer it." Seriously, man, seriously?

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