Composition Pedagogy

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Chronicle article on classes in the library

I really want to respond to this Chronicle article on scheduling class meetings in the library classrooms to be led by research librarians. Specifically, the author, Todd Gilman, expresses concern that professors are "rebuffing" librarians' offers to lead classes in library research skills. He gives the following five reasons:

I sense that one or more of the following factors might be at work, depending on the faculty member. First, some college instructors have only a vague idea of academic librarians' expertise -- despite the fact that many of us hold two master's degrees or a Ph.D. or both -- and an even vaguer idea of how librarians might help them help their students. In essence, such instructors do not respect librarians as colleagues.

Second, some professors may be less than enthusiastic about sharing control. They don't want librarians in their classrooms -- physically or virtually -- because it means they themselves are no longer the sole authorities present.

Third, as I began to suggest above, other professors -- particularly at elite institutions -- may be unaware of, or unwilling to face, the full extent of their students' ignorance (and -- gasp -- their own) about negotiating the library's research tools.

Fourth, some professors may feel unfairly burdened by the thought of having to devote class time to a primer on how to use a research library. They may feel that way even when the librarian would cheerfully schedule the session in a state-of-the-art electronic classroom at the library, do most of the talking, and answer any follow-up questions throughout the semester. Their thought process goes something like this: "Why didn't someone else cover that so that I don't have to use up my precious class time on it? Isn't it bad enough my students can't write -- forcing me to provide high-school-level instruction in English -- without throwing the complexities of college-level research into the mix? Besides, research education is only tangential to my course content."

Finally, some professors may object to the call for "information literacy" -- a phrase that has become the mantra of some academic librarians in their efforts to teach research skills. And the term can rankle. It risks sounding elementary, or condescending, or alarmist, or perhaps seems like an affectation by which librarians seek to mystify and aggrandize what they do via jargon.

I respectfully disagree with some of these based on my experience. It has never been my impression that professors look down upon librarians or perceive any lack of expertise there. If any professors do hold that opinion, I'd be utterly disgusted. Librarians cannot be extolled enough. As for the second reason, that professors don't want to share authority in the class, that may be the case with some people (but again, no one I've ever met), but such egomaniacs shouldn't be taken seriously. I can understand how it would be annoying, though.

I disagree with the third reason as well. Teachers, especially writing teachers, are painfully aware of students' library skills, or lack thereof. I agree, however, with the last two reasons. Library skills could be an entire semester-long course, and I'd love to see it required, at least for some majors. And I know people personally who find the term "information literacy" tiresome (I myself do not), so I can't argue with that one. But I can tell you the two reasons I don't do more in the library. They have almost nothing to do with the librarians themselves.

First, all of the library classrooms I've encountered at universities where I've taught have looked like this:

and not like this:

If I don't schedule a class in that room, it's primarily because I don't want that day to be a wash: 50 minutes spent by the students mostly on Facebook, shopping, emailing, etc. The configuration of those classrooms pretty much torpedoes any hope of actual engagement with library research.

Second, there are times that I think librarians try to pack too much into one or two class periods, and students get overwhelmed. A full class period could be spent on nothing else but learning the differences between a popular magazine and a scholarly journal.

I agree wholeheartedly with Gilman's conclusions -- that faculty and librarians need to collaborate more on lesson plans and come up with graded ways to assess learning:

Better yet, why not work with that librarian to develop one or more assignments for a grade that will enable your students to apply what they have learned while the library is still fresh in their minds? That way they are sure to take the library seriously, reap the maximum benefit from their interaction with the librarian, and get practice using the library for something more than study space.

Agreed. I'm interested in hearing more of what librarians have to say about this article.

Oh, and watch this video (via).

More on Plagiarism Detection Services

I have a little more to say about the anti-PDS arguments. They don't address the underlying principles thoroughly enough, in my opinion. That is to say, the anti-PDS arguments don't provide any specific and practical alternatives. The CCCC-IP statement does recommend that if faculty members or institutions are going to use PDS, they should provide an opt-out clause for students, but they don't say what that opt-out clause would entail, or why. A good anti-PDS argument, one that one be more persuasive to me, anyway, would address the following questions:

Are all plagiarism detection methods undesirable? If not, which ones are acceptable, and why are some preferable to others? I remember back in the day when I was in high school and college (late 1980s, early 1990s), we didn't have the internet (most didn't, I mean), but that didn't stop people from plagiarizing. Professors detected it by intuition, and they called students into their offices to interview them about it. They might, for example, ask students to bring in all their sources and notes. This invariably caused great vengeance and furrrrious anger among students, especially those who had not, in fact, plagiarized (this happened to friends of mine). Some professors required that we turn in our "paper trails" along with our research papers -- every single source, notecard, note written a cocktail napkin or brown paper sack, etc. I was only too happy to do this; I was proud of having done every bit of that work myself, and I wanted the professor to be able to see it.

The internet made it easier to plagiarize, and it also made it easier for professors to prove instances of plagiarism. Obviously a professor feels less accusatory asking a student into his or her office to discuss a possible plagiarism case if he or she has the verbatim source in hand. The downside (or upshot, depending on your personal teaching philosophy) of this was that the burden of proof essentially shifted from the student to the instructor.

Okay, so back to my question. In my discussions with opponents of PDS, it's unclear that any methods of plagiarism detection at all are acceptable. Too much zeal to trust students can lead to a tacit "look the other way" practice which is naive, irresponsible, and just as likely to breed resentment among students who do the writing as PDS do. The alternative offered is something along the lines of "start a dialogue with students about authorship and intellectual property." "Require students to submit multiple drafts and monitor the writing process closely." "Talk to students about the importance of speaking for oneself and what a meaningful act that is. Frame it in such a way that shows that copying a paper from the internet is basically letting someone else speak for you."

Fair enough, those are all valid practices. But professors who do those things can end up with plagiarism cases in spite of all of it. What exactly do you do at the moment of encounter with that paper that you're 99.9% sure is plagiarized? Assuming you should try to verify this, how should you do so? Please know that I'm not trying to set up a false dilemma or slippery slope. I realize that "use Turnitin or do nothing" are not our only choices. What I'm pushing for is a clear alternative: a set of specific recommendations, each with a rationale.

1. Googling passages from the paper;
2. Calling a student into the office (without attempting to get any proof in advance);
3. Requiring a paper trail along with the submission of the paper;
4. Having students interview each other during peer review about the ethical use of sources and then preparing an "originality report" like Turnitin does as part of the peer review;
5. Having students submit multiple drafts;

all are plagiarism detection methods. What's the difference between these and Turnitin? The boldfaced difference is that Turnitin makes money and the others don't.

Googling passages from the paper would probably meet the criterion of "does not foster a 'guilty until proven innocent' culture," if you don't google passages from everyone's papers, only those that are suspicious for whatever reason (see my last post).

Calling a student into the office can arouse immense hostility and rage, one of the arguments against Turnitin. [Edited to clarify: Calling a student into the office without any proof can make a student angry, perhaps especially if the student didn't plagiarize, and this anger can spread to the entire class. This compromises the desired supportive, friendly, trusting teacher-student relationship that is conducive to developing student writing.]

Requiring a paper trail with the paper is similar to Turnitin in that everyone has to submit to it, again the "guilty until proven innocent" argument.

Having students interview each other during peer review and prepare originality reports for each other is something that, I'll admit, just popped into my head as I was trying to think of all the possible ways to detect plagiarism. Again, though, if everyone has to do it, it too does not meet the "does not foster a 'guilty until proven innocent' culture" criterion. But someone should try it and let me know how it goes.

Having students submit multiple drafts, thereby allowing the instructor to micromanage the writing process and give the maximum amount of guidance and feedback, is good in a lot of ways, but in order to be a way to detect plagiarism, there has to be some source or set of sources to compare the drafts to, so I'm not convinced that it's all that effective as a plagiarism detection method. Plus, one could write a draft, revise it a few times, then for the final draft, add a big chunk of text from a web site. Then what do you do?

I just want to see all the options clearly parsed out and considered from all angles. Maybe there are lots of people whose only beef with Turnitin is the fact that they make money and who would argue that any other plagiarism detection method, provided it doesn't make money, is fine. If that's the case, I'd like CCCC-IP to say so.

It's, like, the Turnitin carnival!

Kairosnews has been giving a lot of coverage to Turnitin, a plagiarism detection service used by many universities and high schools. An employee of Turnitin has engaged in a dialogue with composition teachers here (see also here). Kairosnews has also linked to the CCCC-IP statement on plagiarism detection services. Then there are other posts about plagiarism detection services.

My position on plagiarism detection services is maybe somewhat contradictory and possibly not what you'd expect. I'm more sympathetic to Matt's comments (Platypus Matt here) than one might think. Let me try to lay out my position by responding to the most common arguments against plagiarism detection services:

They make an enormous amount of money off student writing. This is by far the most persuasive argument, in my opinion, against plagiarism detection services. When students submit papers into Turnitin, copies of them are kept in a database. This is done without the student's consent (the consent is coercive, anyway). They are able to charge lots of money for university contracts because they have amassed such a large database of student writing. Truth be told, if Turnitin were a nonprofit service, I may not have had much of a problem with it.

They take the responsibility off the teacher -- the responsibility to design plagiarism-proof or plagiarism-resistant assignments, the responsibility to teach quoting and paraphrasing skills, the responsibility to get to know your students well enough to know what their voices sound like, etc. This I can agree with, but only to a point. I've heard this argument carried out to extremes that really don't suit my taste. My view is that, at bottom, it is not the teacher's fault if a student plagiarizes. Ultimately, it is the student's fault. This view is informed by my conviction that students are ultimately responsible for their own learning. To assume otherwise is paternalistic. I've encountered plagiarism cases in which colleagues have tried to rationalize the plagiarism: [after finding proof that an assignment was taken whole hog from the web] "Well, maybe she didn't understand the assignment. Maybe she thought she was supposed to go out and find an annotated bibliography, not do one herself." It's a writing class. I simply can't take arguments like that seriously.

Obviously, I do agree that teachers are responsible for teaching paraphrasing and integrating material from sources. They are also responsible for getting to know students. And yes, it would be nice for teachers to update assignments (writing about current and local events is a good way to do this!). One would think teachers would get sick of reading the same essays over and over anyway.

But, I don't think that the burden should be on teachers to design a plagiarism-proof assignment. I think teachers should be able, if they want to, to let students choose their own topics for essays without getting a "well, you asked for it" type of snide remark if students plagiarize. (See "it's the student's fault.") There are sound pedagogical principles behind giving students the freedom to choose topics they are interested in. I think teachers should be able to assign papers about Shakespeare's plays; Jane Eyre; important issues of ongoing debate and concern like euthanasia, legalization of marijuana, abortion, the death penalty, etc. Again, there are sound pedagogical principles ("teaching the conflicts," writing to learn, etc.) undergirding these. Are there some topics that students shouldn't be expected to have to engage just because a lot of people have written about them? Has the teacher really done such a bad thing if she has students write on these types of topics? Has it actually become unreasonable to expect students to do the writing themselves on these topics? If it has, then, to borrow from Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith, we are truly lost.

On to the next common argument against plagiarism detection services: They don't reflect the Internet generation's ideas about authorship and intellectual property. Eh, I guess this makes sense if teachers are assigning remix essays or doing plagiarism as part of the assignment (brilliant idea, by the way -- read those posts). But honestly, I mostly think this is another one of those arguments that takes the responsibility for learning off the student.

Plagiarism detection services foster a "guilty until proven innocent" culture. This is a perfectly reasonable and fair argument. Sometimes, though, well often, really, I google phrases and sentences I see in students' essays, and I don't see anything wrong with that. My job is to help students develop as writers, and I want to know that I'm not wasting my time commenting on some random person on the internet's writing. Part of me thinks that, even though I am very open with students about the fact that I google phrases from their papers, especially in red-flag circumstances like: 1.) an eleventh-hour "I changed my topic!"; 2.) a seemingly deliberate attempt to obscure the locations of sources in a works cited page; 3.) PhD-level vocabulary; 4.) a paper that has the formulaic sound of a newspaper article; it's more open and less sneaky just to use a plagiarism detection service. I never have, though. I stick to Google.

Comp Nuggets

Taking a cue from Mike, I would like to get some ideas from you about what issues are the most pressing in the following areas, along with the books and articles that best address them:

  1. Writing Centers
  2. Writing Program Administration
  3. Writing Across the Curriculum
  4. Writing in the Disciplines
  5. Writing Assessment
  6. Basic Writing

I have a lot of books and articles about these topics -- just did a haul from the library -- but I'd like some of you to help me prioritize these readings. I'm curious to see if there's any critical scholarship in Writing in the Disciplines -- anything that problematizes discursive norms in the various disciplines and encourages teachers to encourage students to disrupt those norms.

Also, right now I'm reading A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, and I finished Lad Tobin's chapter on process pedagogy. It's a good historical overview of the context in which process pedagogy emerged and the most common objections to process pedagogy ("Process pedagogy has become so regimented that it has turned into the kind of rules-driven product that it originally critiqued." "Process pedagogies are irresponsible because they fail to teach basic and necessary skills and conventions." "Process pedagogy is outmoded because it posits a view of 'the writer' that fails to take into account differences of race, gender, and class." "By focusing on the individual writer, process pedagogy fails to recognize the role and significance of context.").

I found the following passage in Tobin's chapter to be a good encapsulation of the problem encountered by a lot of writing teachers who want their pedagogy to be richly connected to theory (or Theory):

It is not hard to see the postprocess movement of the late 1990s as an extension of the critiques in the mid-1980s. The criticism of process for promoting a view of writing that was too rigid and that ignored differences of race, class, and gender became an outright rejection of process for its naively positivist notions of language, truth, self, authorship, and individual agency. Similarly, the criticism of process for not providing students with sufficiently significant and challenging content and context became a rejection of process as ahistorical or arhetorical. As a product of contemporary critical theory, these critiques make some sense to me. As a classroom teacher, though, I have my doubts, for while positivist notions of agency, authorship, voice, and self may be philosophically naive, they can still be pedagogically powerful. In other words, it may be enormously useful for a student writer (or any writer for that matter) to believe at certain moments and stages of the process that she actually has agency, authority, an authentic voice, and a unified self.

As I read this passage to Jonathan as he drove down I-95 (we're in North Charleston for a wedding this weekend), he bristled, as he always does, at what he feels is an inaccurate use of "positivist" in a lot of composition scholarship. Then he said that he thought the theory by Barthes, Foucault, and others doesn't necessarily apply to all writers and all writing, but that they were looking at contexts that were more specific. Makes sense to me. I need to reread them.

Academic Year Resolutions

As seen at Geeky Mom, New Kid, and Workbook.


  • Make things easier on myself by speeding up my grading turnaround time (which isn't bad, but it could be better). Plus, I think I heard somewhere that student evaluations are higher the quicker the turnaround time. Anyone else heard that, or found it to be true in your own experience?
  • Get lots of people lined up to observe my classes
  • Keep a teaching journal so that when I write up my reflections as part of my personnel action dossier (PAD), I'll have a lot to work with
  • Enjoy it! I can already tell that my students are creative and enthusiastic. I've hailed Celebrity vs. Thing before as a really clever and interesting writing exercise, and I've been wanting to use it in my writing classes for over a year now. I'm pleased to say that students have taken it and run with it, to wit: Tom Cruise vs. MySpace, Michael Jordan vs. Playstation, and Simon Cowell vs. The Alarm Clock. Ha!
  • Whip up some compelling flyers for the courses I'm teaching next semester, which include (unless something changes) an undergraduate introduction to rhetorical studies course and a graduate seminar in research ethics. I've always thought creating flyers to advertise courses was a little sad, but at the same time, I understand that the title of a course in the catalog might not describe it accurately and that a flyer is a good way to get the word out about a class.


  • Send that rejected grant proposal, the one I coauthored with esteemed colleagues, the one I haven't mentioned here so you have no idea what I'm talking about, right back out after getting some good feedback and revising it
  • Be aggressive about asking people to read manuscripts, proposals, etc. before I send them out (the worst they can do is say no)
  • Send out two articles based on my dissertation*


  • I'll go with everyone else and say "exercise," but I need to figure out a gym situation first
  • Worry less about money
  • Use all my stockpiles of stuff before I buy more (this means shower gels, facial cleansers, lip gloss, lotions, and hair care products), no matter how cute/good-smelling/innovative the newer stuff is
  • Go out to eat less often; I don't do it much anyway, but I'd like to do it less

* Yes, they will go to PRINT journals. Also, what's a good goal here? I tried to be realistic and say that the goal is to send out two article manuscripts, and that's for the year, not the semester. Is that enough?


  • In my composition courses this semester (two FYC and one Advanced Composition), the first assignment is a list-style composition after the style of Being Poor, preferably engaging the local setting -- life in Greenville or North Carolina. The first-year students are doing this as a collaborative assignment. As I've said before, I think there's really something to the list as form that makes it especially participatory. Notice how many people built on the White Privilege Checklist (links) and the 350+ comments at the "Being Poor" post, many of which contribute to the list. There was also a separate response to "Being Poor" which I'm assigning along with several other list compositions. The idea is that in the first-year classes, students have to get to know each other enough to find some common ground, so that each one can contribute points to the list. Hopefully it'll go well.
  • In reading some back columns of Dear Margo, I was a little disappointed with her advice to a coworker of a new mother. How about, "Ask the company to provide her a separate space so she doesn't have to pump in the bathroom in the first place"? (The woman was pumping in the bathroom and making business calls at the same time, and the Dear Margo advisee was uncomfortable flushing when someone was on the phone.)
  • My fear of flying has been renewed.
  • I had an awful dream last night. My left arm had been torn off at the shoulder somehow, and I was holding it with my other arm. It was heavy, and I couldn't lift it high enough and hold it steady enough to set the bone. I thought, "I'm going to have to find a doctor to do this, and it's going to hurt."
  • I'm close to finishing the knitting project I've been working on for SUCH a LONG time and getting sidetracked from: a felted handbag. I'll post pictures if it looks okay.

Notes toward the design of a composition studies methods course

I imagine that at one time or another I'll end up teaching ECU's Research Design in Rhetoric and Composition course (description -- scroll down). What I'd like to do is take the best aspects of the four (!) methods courses I took at the U of Minnesota, two in rhetoric and two in feminist studies.

In UMN's methods sequence, the year I took it anyway, the first half is an overview of the field, with readings of landmark articles with an eye toward sussing out what the methods and research questions are. We also read articles about methodological approaches, including Davida Charney's "Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word" and others. In this first half, the final project was a lengthy proposal for a pilot study on a topic of our choosing. In the second half of the sequence, we did the study.

When I took the second half of the methods sequence, it had an applied methods approach in which we had guest speakers from the department talk about methods in which they'd had a lot of experience. We talked about survey design, interviewing, case studies, ethnography and naturalistic research in general, experimental design, think-aloud protocol, textual analysis, grounded theory, rhetorical analysis, content analysis, and similar methods. We read Creswell's Research Design, Denzin and Lincoln's The Handbook of Qualitative Research, McNealy's Strategies for Empirical Research in Writing, etc. Since then, they've designed it so that the second half of the methods sequence focuses on one method in depth. So far, they've done it on ethnography one year and case studies the next. While I generally think it's more useful to have a broad background in many methods than a deep familiarity with one method that you may not even be interested in using for your own research, I do, however, think the one-method approach is okay if the focus is either grounded theory or case studies. I'll come back to this in a second.

The feminist studies methods sequence had a heavy focus on the relationship between theory and method -- theory as truth claim, or knowledge claim, and method as how one arrives at a given knowledge claim. I got a good background of methodology at the epistemological level. We talked about the difference between feminist empiricism and feminist standpoint theory, the postmodern critique of knowledge claims, and many other problematics.

So: In my version of the methods course, I'd want to combine that emphasis on methods at the epistemological level -- critiquing the limits of certain methods, identifying questions they can and cannot answer -- with a broad knowledge of many methods, but with an emphasis on grounded theory and case studies, because they are, in my observation, the killer-app methods of composition studies. Finally, I want to make students aware of research design as a concept -- to be able to recognize it when a study is designed well and when it isn't. If one is designed well, the research questions, methods, and objects of analyses have a very clear coherence that makes sense even to a non-specialist in that field (within reason, of course). For example (and this is not a great example, but bear with me), let's say I have:

RQ: How has the teaching of technical writing changed over the last twenty years?
Object of analysis: interview transcripts
Method: interviews with senior scholars in technical communication who have at least twenty years' experience teaching technical writing

Well, okay. No doubt you can get some sense of how the teaching of technical writing has changed from talking to senior scholars who have a wealth of accumulated knowledge. But wouldn't it be better to try to do some archival research along with that -- look at syllabuses from the last twenty years, if available? Textbooks from the last twenty years? Add a method (possibly grounded theory) to analyze the archival data?

I'd do a lot of these kinds of exercises with students, except in a lot more detail.

Oh, and for something completely unrelated, but which I'd like to bookmark: There's an excellent Kos diary entry, The Middle Children of History, on the low level of activism among young people. The author, VoteHarder, pulls together a lot of different phenomena and shows how they work together to exacerbate apathy.

Now in Greenville; the Political Discourse Awareness Project

Whew. We finally got here to our new house in Greenville yesterday. ABF should be bringing our stuff in a few days.

Also, I recommend that you go and check out this post of Holly's about the personal and the political. I have more to say about it, but I'll have to write that post later. For now, I'll just say that I've been thinking a lot about what "political discourse" is, and how it's interpreted and misinterpreted. I'm toying with the idea of doing maybe a weekly post under the rubric of "the political discourse awareness project," in which I link to a couple of posts that I consider to be political discourse, but perhaps many others wouldn't recognize them as such. Then I'd do a bit of explanation of why I think they count as political discourse. Here are a couple:

Badger's essay about trying to get health care coverage for her late husband's illness. This was a precise point at which government (SSI, Medicaid) met the personal.

Then there's this post at Raising WEG about children's shoes and clothes. Here are some excerpts:

Did you know that Payless didn't make a single athletic sandal for "youth" girls (wearing sizes 10.5 to 4.5) this year?  All our old "girly" sandal standbys, Dora and Strawberry Shortcake and Disney Princess, are only available in toddler sizes, through size 12.  Once girls reach kindergarten, however, their mainstream sandal choices narrow down to a few strappy sandals -- most of them with small heels -- or flip-flops.

How did I not notice this?  All week long during VBS activity time, we had four- and five- and six-year old girls tripping over cement walkways and running too carefully through the grass as they tried to negotiate athletic activity while wearing flip-flops.  This is probably a peak age for the embrace of all things girly, and when these girls go to buy shoes, they no longer fit into the clunky Princess sandal that gives them enough traction to climb trees, kick balls, or just climb a standard set of stairs without worrying about walking right out of their shoes.

No, instead they find a light-up Princess thong.  They find an entire shelf full of flip-flops, espadrilles, and thongs.

There is one single youth-sized rugged sandal marketed to little girls at Payless.  It has a one-inch heel.

No little girl can grow to adulthood in American without learning the cardinal rules of shopping. Of course everything about girls' clothing signals the importance of buying new clothes as often as possible. The US economy might crash to a standstill, if ever girls started expecting to buy the thick cotton t-shirts over in the boys' and mens' departments. Imagine what might happen, if my daughters' Target t-shirts had held up to more than a season's worth of washings. Their drawers might be filled with two-year old t-shirts, as their brother's are -- and we certainly can't have that.

I'd like to write that I've given up wondering why preschool girls need to show all of their thighs while wearing shorts, but preschool boys get to ward off cancer-causing skin rays with shorts that come down to their knees. But it would be a lie. Every time I think about this, I get a little apoplectic. There is no physiological difference between the waists, hips, and thighs of preschool boys and girls. What perverse set of sexual standards do we embrace when we teach our four-year old girls to show four times more skin than their brothers?

Have you ever considered how much more time girls have to spend getting ready to go outdoors than their brothers, because of the sunscreen issue alone? Thanks to his t-shirts with actual sleeves and nice long shorts, Wilder is out the door and playing before I have either one of the girls fully slathered.

I find this one to be political due to its far-reaching consequences. Freedom of movement is a fundamental freedom, and girls' freedom of movement is being compromised, subtly, every day. Arguably, this has implications for girls' confidence, physical strength, ability and willingness to protect themselves, consumption habits and economic standing, body image, Title IX, and more.

What do you think? Would you like to see me do a weekly "Political Discourse Awareness Project" post? Ideally this would be a collaborative effort; I'd love it if others would participate too.

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