Investigative paper? Inquiry paper? The paper that-must-not-be-named?

In Richard Larson’s article, “The ‘Research Paper’ in the Writing Course: A Non-Form of Writing,” he brings up several important points regarding the ‘generic research paper.’ I especially liked his claim that “the generic ‘research paper,’ so far as I [Larson] am familiar with it, is a concept without an identity, and that to teach it is not only to misrepresent research but also quite often to pander to the wishes of faculty in other disciplines that we spare them a responsibility that they must accept” (221). Given my strong opinion regarding WAC, I think Larson is shedding light on a really important idea. It’s unrealistic to assume that in a single first-year composition class we can prepare students to handle and present research specific to their field of study. Larson points out early on in his article that there are many different forms of research (217). If we restrict our students to scholarly articles and books published within the last 10 years, we’re significantly limiting the types of research they’re exposed to. Likewise, students could walk out of our classrooms thinking this is the only way to research or use research. What Larson doesn’t seem to mention is what we should assign in place of this type of ‘research.’ He mentions the values and lessons he wants his students to take away from the class. On 221, he says the best service we can give students is helping them to recognize, among other things, “their continuing responsibility…for seeking out, wherever it can be found, the information they need for the development of their ideas.” My question is how do we give them this?
I decided to take a look at Auburn’s course objectives for Comp II as stated in the giant binder we received at orientation. The third objective reads:

To develop the student’s ability to locate appropriate scholarly sources of information, engage meaningfully and critically with those sources, use them to develop and support an extended argument, and document them correctly according the documentation style appropriate to the field or task. (Giant binder)

While the course objectives for 1120 don’t fall directly into the trap of over-generalizing ‘research,’ it’s not quite clear what constitutes as an ‘appropriate scholarly source.’ Also, what if a student needs more than just “scholarly sources” to address the “field or task” that they’re ‘researching?’

In “Developing Writing Assignments,” Erica Lindemann points out that “If we omit some of the factors that, in real life, help us define rhetorical contexts, we can expect students to perform poorly” (217). My question is, when, in real life, are students going to have to write this sort of paper outside of academia? If it’s not our job to teach students about research in other disciplines (which I agree with) and we’re supposed to create ‘real life’ assignments, where does the ‘research paper’ fit in? I think it’s important for students to learn how to analyze texts and make solid arguments using relevant evidentiary support, but I’m not 100% sure how to do that if I’m supposed to make real world-like assignments and I don’t make the ‘research’ specific to a discipline. I agree with both Larson and Lindemann, but I’m unsure of how to approach the stereotypical research assignment without either over-generalizing ‘research’ or designing an assignment that ultimately doesn’t help prepare students for ‘real life.’

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WAC: questions & qualms

Susan McLeod’s “The Pedagogy of Writing Across the Curriculum” left me intrigued, worried, and curious. I like the idea of “helping students become critical thinkers and problem-solvers as well as developing their communication skills” and I can certainly see the benefit of helping students develop these skills in multiple classes (150). The idea of meeting with faculty from other disciplines to discuss the most prevalent problems in student writing also seems like it could be immensely beneficial. However, it concerns me that as Composition instructors, we would be giving authority to professors who aren’t exactly qualified to teach writing. It also seems that the field of composition is being somewhat belittled and casually thrown into other disciplines. For example, no would suggest something as absurd as MAC (Math Across the Curriculum); it would be left to the experts. Why, then, should we not put composition on the same pedestal?
McLeod points out that one of the major concerns about WAC is that it would turn into “grammar across the curriculum” (151). What’s disturbing to me, is that while we could do everything in our power to keep this from happening, we ultimately have no control over what other professors teach our students. McLeod even points out that while teachers from other disciplines claimed that their chief concerns were centered on content, they still primarily marked up the student paper for grammatical mistakes. Despite how good our intentions may be, what happens if we ultimately end up simply empowering more grammar Nazis who haven’t taken a composition course since they were freshmen in college? My point is this: we take classes on teaching composition, we’ve taken plenty of composition classes ourselves, and we read about different pedagogies and analyze their effectiveness. We’ve been trained to teach students about writing, just as Chemistry professors have been trained to teach students about the elements, Anthropology professors have been trained to teach students about civilizations, and Art History professors have been trained to teach students about famous paintings and sculptures. What qualifies these Chemistry, Anthropology, and Art professors to teach outside of their disciplines?
However, almost every college class requires writing at some point or another. The professor of each class certainly has her own expectations and grading criteria and it’s up to her to make that information clear to her students. But if we teach our students how to follow an assignment sheet, how to consider their audience, how to analyze a text, and how to develop an argument, shouldn’t they, in theory, be prepared to deal with writing assignments in different disciplines? I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, but I think they’re worth considering.
The one exception to my thoughts on WAC is learning communities. If an entire class is made up of students in the same learning community, I think WAC could be extremely useful. McLeod writes that WAC “invites teachers to think about how they might place students in rhetorical situations that approximate those they will encounter as professionals in their fields and learn to use the appropriate genres and discourse conventions” (157). If students have voluntarily been placed in a learning community classroom, then I believe it’s appropriate to create assignments that cater to their academic interests and goals. For example, it would be fitting to require an education learning community to write lesson plans and perhaps collaborate with their education professor when creating the assignment. The education professor would be responsible for teaching the content and the composition professor could help with formatting and clarity. If students willingly register for this section of composition, then I completely support implementing WAC into the course. However, many classes house learning communities, but aren’t made up entirely of member of that learning community. I don’t think it’s fair to require students who just happen to be in the class to complete assignments irrelevant to their interests or goals.
I can see the appeal of WAC, but I have major hesitations about it. I feel like it requires composition instructors to give up some authority on their discipline and students could easily end up with more confusion than clarification.

Where’s the middle ground and who actually knows best?

I came away with mixed feelings after reading Maxine Hairston’s “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing.” I found that I actually somewhat agree with part of the point she is trying to make. This reminded me of one of the critical pedagogy essays last week when Ann George quoted Dr. V, writing that classrooms should not turn into “political arenas” (George 99). I agree with Hairston in that I don’t believe that professors should use their freshman comp class as a political platform and I don’t think that first-year necessarily needs a “higher purpose” (Hairston 185). However, I think she gets a little extreme in her viewpoint and fails to address the gray area of her argument. Also, it seems that a lot of the evidence she gives to support her claims is a bit problematic.

It seemed like a lot of the examples she gave in the beginning were extreme cases, such as when she quotes Ronald Strickland, writing, “He [Strickland] admits that his position ‘conflicts with the expectations of some students [and] these students make it difficult for me to pursue my political/intellectual agenda’” (Hairston 181). Hairston doesn’t really address any sort of middle ground on the issue. Towards the end of the article, she does write, “If freshmen choose to write about issues involving race, class, and gender, that’s fine. They should have every encouragement” (Hairston 189). But Hairston never acknowledges the possibility of a composition teacher requiring their students to examine a news article, for example, objectively with no political agenda. I think there’s a fair bit of middle ground here that Hairston chooses not to recognize.

Another issue I have with Hairston’s article is her insistence that students know what’s best for them. She writes, “But the topic should be their [the students] choice, a careful and thoughtful choice, to be sure, but not what someone else thinks is good for them”  and that “Only then will they be motivated to invest real effort in their work” (Hairston 189). If we adopt this way of think, I think we’re doing our students a disservice. Realistically, students will not always to write about the topic of their choosing. As teachers, we’re not preparing them for the “real world” or even the next three years of college if we only teach them to write about what they already like to write about. Realistically, they are going to have writing assignments in other classes that require them to adhere to strict criteria. Furthermore, students don’t come to college to have their own idea of what they think is good for them reinforced; they come to college in order to learn what that academic institution they attend believes is good for them. I think this brings up a dilemma that I’ve been having over the course of the semester: expressivism vs. realism. I want them to be able to develop and explore ideas that interest them, but at the same time, I want them to be prepared for what they’re going to have to write in other classes. I still haven’t really figured out where I think the line should be drawn, or if a line should be drawn.

Critical pedagogy…sans the soapboxes & picket signs

In Ann George’s “Critical Pedagogy: Dreaming of Democracy,” she states that she suspects “that there’s a place in critical pedagogy for the not-yet-radical among us, although it’s a place that remains unimagined in scholarship” (104). Personally, I hope her suspicion is true because I would really like to use Critical Pedagogy in my comp class next year, but I don’t plan on having my students protest or decide what all of their assignments will be.

When George explores the definitions of Critical Pedagogy in the beginning of her essay, she writes, “…critical pedagogy engages students in analyses of the unequal power relations that produce and are produced by cultural practices and institutions” and that it also “aims to help students develop the tools that will enable them to challenge this inequality” (92). For a first-year composition class, I think it’s more practical to focus on the analysis of issues rather than how to fight the issues. I strongly agree with Villanueva in that I don’t believe it’s beneficial to the students when classrooms turn into “political arenas” (99). However, I think that Freire’s idea of “critical consciousness” is an admirable and sensible goal for a composition course. If our goal is to help our students become coherent citizen writers, should we not also strive to help them become sound citizen thinkers? As much as I advocate more literature in the composition classroom, I’m compelled by the idea of using real-world sources such as news articles, advertisements, political speeches, etc. By teaching students how to analyze the media, etc. that they’re constantly confronted with instead of literary works that they’re only exposed to for classes, I think they would develop better analytical skills and get more practice using them.

Oppression gets mentioned a lot towards the middle of George’s essay. I don’t necessarily think that we should assume that all of our students are oppressed in one way or another and I don’t think our prerogative as instructors should be helping students to discover how they are personally oppressed; it’s seems more beneficial to help them recognize oppression in general rather than trying to make it personal for them. Especially since, as George points out, many comp classrooms are “filled almost entirely with white, middle-class students who will likely fare well in the system” (103). I think that might be where the line is drawn between practical and radical Critical Pedagogy: between recognition and action. Personally, I’m more concerned with recognition. For example, I don’t plan on teaching my students how to plot a coup d’état, but I would like them to be able to recognize and analyze the implications that political turmoil can have on society. I want them to be able to figure what demographic a certain advertisement is targeting, to determine what some of the motives might be behind the latest Presidential address, to question the information they hear on the evening news, etc.

It’s important for students to develop an awareness of the world around them and to recognize how it might affect them. I think Critical Pedagogy lends itself to this teaching goal. I think that analyzing the world around them might help them develop stronger analytical skills because the information is relevant to them. Better analytical skills and better understanding will, I believe, lead to better, clearer writing.

Feminist Pedagogy: A slippery slope (and since when can only girls solve problems?!?)

In “Composing as a Woman,” Elizabeth Flynn addresses some of the major differences she’s noticed between the writing of male and female first-year composition students. She informs the reader that female students tend to write about relationships whereas male students tend to focus on themselves (586). While I find this information interesting, what exactly am I supposed to do with it? How can practically apply this knowledge to a composition curriculum or my own style of teaching? I think that Feminist Pedagogy offers some useful statistics and facts that explain why students might act a certain way, but ultimately, I don’t think it’s especially applicable to the first-year composition classroom.
Some of the points Flynn made in her article didn’t just apply to women writers. Furthermore, parts of her argument seem like the start of a slippery slope into über-subcategorized composition courses. For example, Flynn writes, “And if their writing strategies and patterns of representation do differ, then ignoring those differences almost certainly means a suppression of women’s separate ways of thinking and writing” (591). Is it just women whose writing strategies and patterns differ from the norm? How do we determine what the “norm” is? Is the “norm” simply male writing? If so, is all male writing grouped together or are only certain ethnicities counted as normal? I think Flynn enters dangerous territory when she starts talking about suppressing women’s writing. What happens when certain ethnicities begin feeling oppressed? Or specific socio-economic groups? Or athletes? Going back to last week, what happens when a student feels like their writing style is suppressed because they would rather write in Grammar 1 than Grammar 4? The list could go on all day.
Catherine Lamb provides a somewhat more practical approach in “Beyond Argument in Feminist Composition.”  She makes the important point that “A feminist composition class could easily be a place where matriarchal forms are as oppressive as the patriarchal ones once were, even if in different ways” (232). I agree with her idea about a more broadly based and accessible approach, but I don’t see why anything about it is or must be feminine. Her mediation and negotiation assignments weren’t just for understanding perspectives of the opposite gender; both assignments required students to analyze and make sense of another person’s point of view. This could be extremely helpful in a first-year composition class. However, she kind of ruined it for me with point 2 on page 241. Lamb writes, “The ‘attentive love’ of maternal thinking is present at least to some degree (or they would not have been able to come up with a solution acceptable to both of them).” What does this kind of thinking show our male students? That compromise cannot be achieved without maternal/feminine thinking? The negotiating is essentially feminine? I don’t think maternal thinking had anything to do with the students’ ability to work with and understand each other.
I agree that it’s important for students to learn how to analyze another person’s perspective and see issues from different angles, but the feminine point of view is just one small piece of this. Ultimately, I don’t see how feminine pedagogy can be effective in a typical, co-ed first-year composition classroom.

Details, details…

In “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language,” Richard Ohmann analyzes the way that different composition textbooks teach students to use specific details in their writing. I found his commentary on Weathers & Winchester’s text particularly useful. When discussing the problems with the example they provide, Ohmann writes, “The point, I take it, is not the kind of flowers people used to grow, but that they had gardens” (388). Ohmann emphasizes the importance of getting to the actual meaning rather than adding superfluous embellishments that lack meaning. I really like, and at the same time somewhat disagree with, the point he is making here. It is important for students to write clearly—to say what they mean to say effectively. I think it’s important to students to learn clearly before they learn to write eloquently. However, I think Ohmann may have been a bit too harsh when it came to scrutinizing the use of adjectives, proper nouns, etc.; description and imagery can help with understanding. I certainly don’t think we should discourage students from trying to provide more detail. It’s much easier to take out unnecessary or distracting terms when revising a draft than it is to add them later. Descriptive techniques are part of a writer’s individual style that they develop over time.
Weathers discusses the importance of teaching style in “Teaching Style: A Possible Anatomy.” I think it’s important for students to be cognizant of style and aware of the fact that they have a writing style that’s unique to them. However, I’m not sure if it can really be taught. I think it’s something that must be developed. You can teach students certain techniques and give them certain tools, but ultimate they get to choose whether or not they use them. Weathers also mentions the “great values in the stylistic analysis of a text” (370). He makes it perfectly clear that analysis alone is not enough—that students must practice the techniques as well. However, this does bring up a question I often have about composition: how much reading should be assigned in a composition class? Furthermore, how much can we honestly expect our students to read? Personally, I believe there’s a direct correlation between my own writing skills and a life-long love of books, of stories. While I don’t pretend to be an amazing writer, I’ve never had a particularly difficult time putting my thoughts into coherent sentences. At the same time, I understand that many people don’t share my love of reading and that many students won’t read an assignment unless they’re being quizzed on it or have to write a paper about it. To be fair, it is a composition class the students are taking, not a literature course. On the other hand, literature and composition have always had somewhat of a symbiotic relationship. When I took freshman composition, I had to read two novels. Those in the class who read the books seemed to enjoy them and benefitted from the in-class discussions on the author’s stylistic techniques. It was, however, blatantly obvious that not everyone in the class bothered to read. So how much room is there for literature in the composition curriculum? Where should the line be drawn?

Linguistics in first-year composition: what’s useful, what’s over-kill?

I became very excited about the reading for this week upon seeing ‘linguistics’ in the title of one the assigned chapters. Perhaps I’m a bit biased when it comes to including linguistics in a composition course, having developed a strong interest in the field in undergrad, but I honestly believe that there’s a place for linguistics in the first-year composition classroom.
Lindemann concludes that while it’s important for the teacher to have a basic understanding of linguistics, it’s not necessarily something that the students need to be taught. However, the field of linguistics is much broader than her overview suggests. Lindemann does acknowledge that “a knowledge of grammar translates into knowledge of language” (74). I think a large part of composition is understanding language: how it works, how it can be manipulated, how meaning is made. The problem, it would some, lies in figuring out which aspects of linguistics to teach students—which concepts or skills would most improve their writing?
Lindemann notes that “An important feature of structural grammar, then, is that it emphasizes the relationships that exist among words and phrases in a given sentence” (79). I think it could be beneficial for students to learn some basic phrase structure rules. It would be important for the instructor to emphasize that the rules do not apply to all sentences and that there are plenty of sensical, grammatically correct sentences that cannot be diagrammed with the basic S à NP + VP formula. However, I think it would help students learn to identify parts of speech and to understand the relationships that different parts of speech have with each other. If they can see how the adverb is actually modify the adjective in a systematic way, perhaps the definition of ‘adverb’ will make more sense to them. I’m not suggesting that this method would be useful or helpful to all students, but I think some of the math and science majors would grasp the concept better if they could see it in a more systematic way.
I also think that first-year students especially could benefit from a lesson on componential analysis. After reading the Bartholomae text, we discussed at length how many freshman composition students struggle with word choice. Many of them resort to using the Microsoft Word thesaurus option and their sentences end up on the verge of nonsensical. I think by showing them the importance of connotative versus denotative meanings and proving that there are really no true synonyms, we could make them more aware of the words they use and how diction affects overall meaning.
Lindemann concludes the chapter by writing, “If we teach grammar as a subject matter, we isolate language study from language use” (85). I recognize that linguistics is a separate field from composition, and that one could easily go in-depth to the point that students are no longer making connections to their own personal use of language. I agree that there’s no place for complex phrase structure rules, IPA transcription with obscure diacritics, and Government & Binding theory in first-year composition. However, I do think students could benefit from learning a few linguistic skills and concepts.

Composition students: fated to pretend?

In “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction,” Ong discusses the importance of creating, or fictionalizing, an audience. He discusses the difficulty for both writers and readers alike when the “audience” is unknown; readers don’t know who they’re addressing and readers don’t know how they’re supposed to interpret the writing. However, I don’t believe that the majority of first-year composition students are sitting at home fretting over who the intended audience should be for their papers. More often than not, I think they assume that the professor is the audience, or at least the only audience they’re concerned with. Ong writes, “From the very beginning, an infant becomes an actual speaker by playing at being a speaker, much as a person who cannot swim, after developing some ancillary skills, one day plays at swimming and finds that he is swimming in truth” (Ong 74). Does a writer really have to pretend he’s writing to actually write? And if so, how does one distinguish between ‘pretending to write’ and ‘actually writing?” Another problem I have with this concept is that I don’t think students necessarily have to “pretend” in order to write. Futhermore, I don’t really think they should. I agree that students have to “invent” the university and figure out how to use academic jargon by experimenting with it, but Ong seems to suggest that the student should actually pretend to be someone else. It makes sense that the student should try to adopt a scholarly persona, or demeanor, when composing an academic paper, I don’t think they should pretend to be an entirely different person. I haven’t completely sorted out my opinion on this matter, but the idea of a student writing as someone other than himself strikes me as odd and unnecessary.

As far as audience is concerned, I agree with Elbow in that there are “many good reasons for writing with audience some of the time” (Elbow 336). It’s important for students to know who they’re addressing, especially when it comes to formality. It wouldn’t be appropriate for a student to write a formal essay for class the same way he would write a personal journal entry. Determining audience can likewise help a student to figure out what content is appropriate for a certain paper. For example, a student would report scientific findings differently to a composition teacher than he would an actual scientist. However, why does this audience have to be fictional? Why is this something the writer has to spend time figuring out? Students often know exactly who will be reading their work before they hand it in to be graded.

Ong says that he means two things when he says that the audience is a fiction (60). The second thing is “that the audience must correspondingly fictionalize itself. A reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him” (60). To this I ask: How is the reader supposed to know what he’s been cast as? What if the reader plays the wrong role? If he has to read the piece to figure out what role he’s supposed to be playing, is he then biased when he re-reads the text while in the ‘role’? I think this concept has too many problematic variables to fully process. My opinion is that whether or not he places himself in a different role or not, he’s still the reader, or the “audience.”  I think students should compose their thoughts, ideas and opinions as effectively and clearly as they know how to; the multiple, potentially misconstrued interpretations that could come from their writing are ultimately out of their control.

Process in First-Year Comp: A Balancing Act

Tobin made a very interesting point when he said “that students actually have something important and original to say and will find ways to say it if we can just get out of their way, give them the freedom to choose their own material, and show them that we are interested” (5). I understand the idea he’s trying to get across and I do agree that super strict rubrics and guidelines can often hinder students more than help them. Students get so concerned with the structure and organization of their essays (the thesis goes here, the conclusion must do this, etc.) that the writing itself actually suffers. However, I think at some point students, especially first year students, do need some structure. So how do we achieve this balance? How do we give them ample freedom and creative license while still giving them some sort of guidelines? Do we vary the stringency of requirements for different assignments? After all, public universities aren’t Montessori schools.

In “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product,” Murray argues that “the process which produces ‘creative’ and ‘functional’ writing is the same” (6).Murrayspeaks to educators directly, writing “You are teaching a product your students can use—now and in the future—to produce whatever product his subject and his audience demand” (6). I’m not entirely sure if I agree with this. I do believe that any and all forms of writing help to improve writing and that if you can write an outstanding work of fiction, you can probably write a decent business letter. However, what about the citizen writer? Yes, the writing would most likely be decent in the business letter, but some documents do have to adhere to certain forms. Wouldn’t it be beneficial for our students to know how to format a resume or a cover letter? Again, I think we need to find some sort of balance here.

Tobin writes that he once began a semester by telling his students that “they could write their first essay on any subject, in any form” and that while he would respond to them, he would not grade them (6). This idea really stood out to me because the students in the freshman composition class I co-teach seemed to have mixed feelings about not having their personal narrative essay graded. Some felt like they’d been cheated—that they did all that work for nothing. One student actually confessed to me that he wouldn’t have spent as much time on the assignment if he’d realized that he wouldn’t be getting a grade for it. Albeit, if he’d read the assignment more carefully he would have known this. Yet this does leave me with a question: is it ethical to assign a paper without telling students that it won’t be graded? Even the students who did know the essay wouldn’t be graded seemed a bit peeved by it. However, if the students know upfront that they won’t receive a grade for an assignment, do they work as hard? Will they get as much out of the assignment?

It seems that once again, I’ve come up with more questions than solutions. I think that there’s a lot of room for process pedagogy in first-year composition curriculums. However, I do think that there needs to be some structure and a few assignments that are more formal. On some level, guidelines and specific criteria are a part of life and our students need to be prepared for that.

The Cheeseburger Conundrum (consider this a sort of footnote)

I distinctly remember one poster that hung on the wall of Mrs. Armbrust’s fourth grade classroom. It was an instructional poster meant to teach our class of 10 year-olds how to write a formal essay. This poster was shaped like a cheeseburger and had some clever title like “How to put together delicious writing,” or something equally preposterous. The top “bun” of the paper was the “Intro paragraph” and the sesame seeds on the bun were “fun facts to engage the reader.” There were three toppings between the buns. Two were meant to act as supporting paragraphs (I believe these were cheese and lettuce), and the middle piece was the actual burger—the meat, the juicy details, the most important part of the paper. And then of course, there was the bottom bun titled “conclusion” that was meant to neatly re-state and wrap up everything (no interesting seeds). Perhaps this was an effective way to teach small children how to format an essay. However, this format, though called by different names, followed me right on through AP English, at which point it became more of a double cheeseburger—meaning you could say two important things and sometimes even three! (if you were brilliant…or mad). I couldn’t find the exact poster online, but it looked something like this book report format:

http://www.google.com/imgres?q=cheeseburger+paper+writing+poster&um=1&hl=en&biw=1065&bih=643&tbm=isch&tbnid=T3QrNtaxvIUPdM:&imgrefurl=http://www.uniqueteachingresources.com/cheeseburger-book-report.html&docid=bXxUyMJG1v4sDM&w=262&h=513&ei=TqpdTr_5AsKcgQf0qrmGAg&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=849&vpy=320&dur=3&hovh=195&hovw=100&tx=133&ty=116&page=2&tbnh=161&tbnw=82&start=16&ndsp=17&ved=1t:429,r:11,s:16

My question is this: What’s the best way to fix this? Do we un-teach it or can we expand upon it? How do we make the most of this? What’s the least confusing way to teach students that there’s a better method of composing? Does “un-teaching” make them question, or start to doubt in, the educational system? If a student has been taught to do something a certain way for the past 12 years, wouldn’t they be somewhat skeptical when a teacher tells them they’ve been doing it wrong? What do we do about these burgers? It’s been said that we are what we eat, but should we really write what we eat? Okay, that was a really bad pun, but still… Thoughts?