Composition Pedagogy

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Pre-Test, Post-Test

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the pre-test I gave students in my English 101 class the first week of the semester. Two days ago I gave them the same survey and compared the results. As with the results I reported last time, I'm only recording a response for the open-ended questions if two or more students wrote it. Twenty-five students took the survey the first week, and 22 took it on November 16.

1. What are some qualities of a good argument? List at least four.
Pre-Test Post-Test
17 said it has to be supported with evidence
12 said it addresses opposing views
8 said it has a strong position on the topic
5 said it uses personal experience
3 said it is well-researched
3 said "confidence" (spoken arguments, maybe?)
3 said it has a good introduction and conclusion
2 said it has a good tone
19 said it addresses opposing views
14 said it has to be supported with evidence
7 said it uses personal experience
6 said it must have a claim and reason
4 said it includes criteria
4 said it uses multiple appeals

Apparently a couple of people decided a good argument doesn't need evidence? -- this was the joke when I presented these results in class today, anyway. I like that there were increases in "addresses opposing views" and "uses personal experience." I have been encouraging them to write about topics they are well qualified to write about, to use their personal authority. We've been talking about claims and reasons this semester, and we've done an evaluation argument (using criteria) and are working on a definition argument, which will also use criteria.

2. What do you know about writing an introduction for an essay?
Pre-Test Post-Test
17 said it must include a thesis statement
11 said it has to say what the paper will be about
6 said it has to have an attention-grabber, or hook
6 said it has to have topic sentences (for body paragraphs)
4 said it has to have an overview or background on the topic
2 said it must be brief
13 said it must include a thesis statement
12 said it has to say what the paper will be about
6 said it has to have an attention-grabber, or hook
4 said it should lay out the structure/outline of the paper
3 said it must be brief
3 said it should give background information

I'm not surprised to see the sameness here. The question lends itself to matters of technique, as does the next one.

3. What do you know about writing a conclusion of an essay?
Pre-Test Post-Test
23 said it should restate the thesis and main points of the essay
5 said it should have a "clincher sentence" at the end
3 said it must not bring up any new information or points
21 said it should restate the thesis and main points of the essay
2 said it should have a "clincher sentence" at the end
2 said it should make a call for action

I'm glad to see that they've relaxed about the "no new information" rule, which has always struck me as especially arbitrary.

4. How do you know if the evidence supporting an argument is valid or not?
Pre-Test Post-Test
6 said if the evidence is cited (not sure if "cited" here means simply that, or "it's cited, which enables you to evaluate the credibility and bias of the source)
5 gave answers suggesting that they use their own judgment
4 said if you research the topic
4 said if the sources are reliable and credible

7 said if the sources are reliable and credible
6 said if you research the topic
6 said if you have personal experience with the topic
5 said if the evidence is cited

Again, I'm liking that some of them are showing confidence in their own experience as a source of knowledge.

5. What do you do if you're having a hard time getting started writing a paper for a class?
Pre-Test Post-Test
11 said brainstorm
8 said prewrite (some variation in phrasing but generally this activity)
4 said write an outline
4 said create a chart or concept map
3 said talk to the teacher
2 said read/research the topic
2 said listen to music
2 said have a conversation with someone about the topic
13 said brainstorm
10 said prewrite (some variation in phrasing but generally this activity)
4 said talk to the teacher
3 said create a Toulmin schema for the topic
2 said list some criteria
2 said create a chart or concept map
2 said change the topic

I wish more of them had written "talk to the teacher," but oh well. We've done some Toulmin schemas, which accounts for its appearance here.

6. What do you do if you've written a paper for a class but aren't sure if it's good or not?
Pre-Test Post-Test
14 said get "someone" (unspecified) to read it and give feedback
6 said show it to the teacher
6 said take a break and then re-read it
4 said look at the rubric
11 said peer review
11 said show it to the teacher
6 said get "someone" (unspecified) to read it
5 said go to the Writing Center
2 said look at the rubric
2 said take a break and then re-read it

I'm happy to see the increase in "show it to the teacher." I've commented on (required) rough drafts all semester, and they seem to find it helpful. I'm glad also to see the Writing Center listed.

Term Pre-Test %age Correct Post-Test %age Correct Improvement
kairos 32% 59% 27%
ethos 20% 50% 30%
logos 12% 45% 33%
pathos 28% 73% 45%
enthymeme 16% 68% 52%

As I've said, this was just an experiment. It's hard to say how many of the correct responses (for the pre- and the post-) were lucky guesses, but here are the results anyway. I'll be using some of the remaining class time this semester to reinforce ethos and logos, that's for sure.

What I Hope Will Transfer

Most people who are paying attention to the field of rhetoric and writing are aware that knowledge transfer is a highly fashionable research area right now and has been for a while. See this work by Kathleen Blake Yancey and colleagues and this work by Mary Jo Reiff and Jenn Fishman, for starters.

It's certainly an important topic; the consensus according to various universities' assessments and lore is that students do not take what we teach them in one class and apply it in the next class. I know that in my own interactions with students, when I've encouraged them to write a paper for my class about something they're doing in another class, they've balked immediately, as though it were out of the question, preposterous. It was as if they thought that was something only an overzealous nerd would do; doing that kind of integration and cross-boundary transfer would constitute an engagement that was too close, and the (socially, culturally?) appropriate thing to do is to keep one's mind at a tasteful distance from one's coursework. Or maybe they've thought it was cheating, somehow, to cross the boundaries. At any rate, there has always been strong resistance on students' part to that kind of encouragement from me. I see all this as a problem of a cultural cynicism of higher education and of anti-intellectualism, not a fault of students themselves.

So, transfer. I want them to do the transferring. I'm still tooling my assignments and course materials to try to get there, but one thing I'm trying this semester is a really simple "What I Hope Will Transfer" handout that I'll be giving them sometime between now and the last day of classes. Completely weak? Probably, but I will give it a shot and see how they respond.

The Pre-Test

On the first or second day of the semester, I gave my English 101 students a pre-test, or opening survey. I'm going to be giving them the same survey in about a week to see if their responses are any different. I plan to give them a summary of what they said (my compilation of their responses) for both surveys, but I reserve the right to change my mind. This is really for my personal use in developing my pedagogy.

What follows is the list of questions and my compilation of their answers. Twenty-five students took the survey, and I'm not writing down all the replies here, only the ones I saw in two or more of the surveys. The (sighs) are directed toward the obviously still heavily dominant 5PE formula in high school English classes, from the attention-grabber to the clincher.

1. What are some qualities of a good argument? List at least four.

17 said it has to be supported with evidence
12 said it addresses opposing views (this was a pleasant surprise)
8 said it has a strong position on the topic
5 said it uses personal experience
3 said it is well-researched
3 said "confidence" (spoken arguments, maybe?)
3 said it has a good introduction and conclusion
2 said it has a good tone

2. What do you know about writing an introduction for an essay?

17 said it must include a thesis statement (sigh)
11 said it has to say what the paper will be about
6 said it has to have an attention-grabber, or hook (sigh)
6 said it has to have topic sentences (for body paragraphs) (sigh)
4 said it has to have an overview or background on the topic
2 said it must be brief

3. What do you know about writing a conclusion of an essay?

23 said it should restate the thesis and main points of the essay (sigh)
5 said it should have a "clincher sentence" at the end (sigh)
3 said it must not bring up any new information or points (sigh)

4. How do you know if the evidence supporting an argument is valid or not?

6 said if the evidence is cited (not sure if "cited" here means simply that, or "it's cited, which enables you to evaluate the credibility and bias of the source)
5 gave answers suggesting that they use their own judgment
4 said if you research the topic
4 said if the sources are reliable and credible

5. What do you do if you're having a hard time getting started writing a paper for a class?

11 said brainstorm
8 said prewrite (some variation in phrasing but generally this activity)
4 said write an outline
4 said create a chart or concept map
3 said talk to the teacher
2 said read/research the topic
2 said listen to music
2 said have a conversation with someone about the topic

6. What do you do if you've written a paper for a class but aren't sure if it's good or not?

14 said get "someone" (unspecified) to read it and give feedback
6 said show it to the teacher
6 said take a break and then re-read it
4 said look at the rubric

Then I listed five rhetorical terms that I planned to talk about over the course of the semester and put a list of definitions beside them. I asked students to draw a line connecting the term to its definition.

Kairos: 8 right, 18 wrong

Pathos: 7 right, 18 wrong

Ethos: 4 right, 21 wrong

Enthymeme: 4 right, 21 wrong

Logos: 3 right, 22 wrong

Using "I" in Academic Writing

This post is going to be something like my official position statement on the use of "I" in academic writing -- or more specifically, a critique of the arguments against using "I" in academic writing, most of which I find utterly baseless. My opinions have been informed by conversations with many teachers over the course of my eleven(?) years teaching college writing, and I'm not singling anyone out. If you've said anything like the following statements to me, you can be sure that it's about the dozenth time I've heard it.

But also, I recently taught Kate McKinney Maddalena's wonderfully sensible "I Need You to Say 'I': Why First Person Is Important in College Writing, so my thoughts are informed by her essay too. Here goes:

Arguments against using "I"

"Students have to follow the rules in writing before they should be allowed to break them."

But "don't use first person" is not a rule. Do these people read academic writing, I want to ask. From the July 2010 issue of College English:

In this essay, I suggest that blogging is better understood as a technology that enables an expansion of the private sphere for the Orthodox Jewish women who write them...My analysis is based on research conducted between March 2006 and January 2008. In the earliest phase of research (March-November 2006), I began by following the blogging activity of three writers featured in the mainstream Jewish press: AidelMaidel, Nice Jewish Girl (NJG), and Chayyei Sarah.

That's from Andrea Lieber, "A Virtual Veibershul: Blogging and the Blurring of Public and Private among Orthodox Jewish Women," and "I" is used many more times in the article.

From the August 2010 issue of New Media & Society:

By addressing the historical role of telecommunications in the city, I attempt to contextualize the use of mobile social networks not as entirely radical and new, but as a next step in the intricate interdependency between communication technology and urban living. I next outline the mobile social network case study, Dodgeball, and discuss the data collection and analysis procedures. Then I introduce the concept of parochialization as a means of capturing the sense of commonality that emerges among participating co-inhabitants of the social space. I explain how Dodgeball informants used the service to socially coordinate and congregate with others in urban public spaces. I conclude by arguing that spatial factors are very relevant in mediated communication and suggest how this research might be extended to other social media.

That's from Lee Humphreys, "Mobile Social Networks and Urban Public Space."

From the Fall 2010 issue of Pedagogy:

[L]iterature is no different from any other art: how to quantify, for example, the precise amount of value contributed by provenance, condition, artist's stature, workmanship, and medium that go into the valuation of a work of visual art, not even considering the question of its perceived beauty? Confusion is abetted by the plethora of categorizations that have arisen to describe aspects of works of literature and their reception history. To allow for subtle distinctions, and to uncover similarities obscured by competing terms, I will break down these determinants into basic factorial elements, recognizing that any exhaustive classification system will have some ares of overlap.

You just read some of "Constructing Our Pedagogical Canons" by Joan L. Brown.

All that right up there is from published articles in academic journals, so I'd say it's academic writing. I can grab any other issue of any other journal I subscribe to and find first person used in similar ways. It's done ALL THE TIME, especially in the kind of argument-based writing we teach in first-year writing. All those authors who are using "I" in every article and book: are they breaking a rule? At some point, you have to realize that there is no meaningful rule against using "I," and that convention overwhelmingly favors using "I."

"It's better not to say 'I think' because it's the writer's paper; it's understood that everything in the paper is the writer's opinion."

Not so. Maddalena does a fine job debunking this dowdy idea. Not everything in the paper is the writer's opinion; most likely, much of what's in the paper consists of paraphrases of other writers' opinions, and my audience can become very confused if I don't set up contrast relationships properly -- if I don't make it clear when my summary of someone else's argument ends and mine begins. In fact, there's a pretty excellent book about just this!

"Yeah, yeah. OK. I know it isn't really a rule that you can't say 'I' in academic writing. But it still bugs me when students do it; I'm not sure why."

I see several assumptive possibilities here, which all involve an underlying generalized mistrust of or hostility toward students:

  • Students haven't earned the right to say 'I.'
  • It's presumptuous, arrogant, audacious, or otherwise off-putting for a student to say 'I.'
  • The urge to invalidate students' claims of authority and expertise: you don't get to have a boldly stated opinion, underling. You may only whisper it as echoes of a phalanx of experts in cited sources.

Even this article from Neural Development uses first person. And this article in Cerebrospinal Fluid Research.

Does every sentence that makes a claim have to be prefaced by "I argue," "I think that," "My position is," "I contend that," "I posit that," "I claim that," "My claim is," etc.? Of course not. But first person is rhetorically useful and appropriate for a wide variety of reasons, reasons more plentiful and far more sound than any I can think of to prohibit it.

Grade Appeals and Informal Fallacies

As I was preparing for my class meeting about informal fallacies (specifically the appendix about informal fallacies in Writing Arguments), I realized that I've heard almost every one of these in the course of my duties as an administrator, specifically in the form of a grade appeal argument.

1. Student gets an F for missing fifteen class meetings. “I got an F, and I know I missed a lot of class, but I had car trouble, and then I got mono, and then I had a family emergency, and then I got a stomach virus, and then I got a sinus infection, and then I got arrested, and then I got called for jury duty.”
2. Student gets a D; got Cs/Ds/Fs on papers. “But I showed my papers to my tenth grade English teacher who's a friend of the family, and my roommate, and my sister, and my cousin, and they all think I should get an A or a B.”
3. Student gets an F. “But Mr. X is a terrible teacher! He wore the same holey black t-shirt every day and has an annoying high-pitched voice.”
4. Student gets a D. “But I got an A as my interim grade and a B on the first paper.”
5. Student gets a D. “But I came to class every day.”
6. Student gets a C. “But my dad is a professor at this school.”
7. Student: “Hello, I need to talk to you. I got an F in my 101 class, and my teacher is the worst teacher I've ever had in my life...”
8. Student gets a C. “But I should have gotten an A because I did outstanding work in the class.”
9. Student gets a C. “But I always got As on my papers in high school.”
10. Student gets an F. “But I'll lose my TOPS!”

Obviously there are legitimate arguments to be made in grade appeal cases, but these are not among them. Their next assignment is a definition argument, so I think it might be interesting to tie these two activities together. A successful grade appeal argument would persuade the administration that the teacher engaged in "arbitrary and capricious grading" and would argue that according to the program standards and outcomes and course policies, the student deserves a different grade. And, of course, any time a teacher gives a grade to a student's work, that is a definition argument (placing the work in a category according to the criteria of that category).

First-Year Writing Files

This is just a collection of links to files associated with my administration of my university's first-year writing program. I may add files here later:

Instructor Manual

Syllabus for English 509: this is my syllabus for the teacher-training course I'm teaching this fall. Our program requires two pedagogy courses, one that leans toward the theory end and another that leans toward practice; this is the latter.

English 101 <-- This is the syllabus for my English 101 course this semester.

Teaching 101 This Fall

I've been off-and-on planning my English 101 class this fall. We have just made some biggish changes to our writing curriculum -- different textbooks and somewhat different assignments -- and I wanted to be sure to teach 101 so that I'll get this new curriculum internalized and have a solid understanding of how our students respond to it.

The book I'll be using for 101 is Writing Arguments, you know, the one by Ramage, Bean, and Johnson. I'm trying to decide if I'm going to use anything from Writing Spaces as well, and if so, which essays. I'm thinking about What Is Academic Writing, I Need You to Say “I”: Why First Person is Important in College Writing, and So You've Got a Writing Assignment. Now What?. I also think the one about the writing center looks promising.

Actually, I may assign some of these in my teaching practicum for graduate students...especially the essay about first person. I find that inexperienced teachers often cling to arbitrary rules when grading student writing.

Am I an Expressivist?

I've always thought that no, I'm really not an expressivist. I'm much more interested in assigning research-based argument writing in my classes than I am in assigning personal narratives or personal essays. That being said, it isn't as though those genres are mutually exclusive, obviously. Here's where I stand now:

  • In my own experience having written a whole lot of different texts for academic audiences, the response to what I write is overwhelmingly more positive when I make it personal and accessible -- chatty, even -- than when I write a paper that more closely resembles the IMRAD tone and structure. I've also noticed that for academic lectures, not just ones I've given but ones I've attended, audience response is much more positive when a speaker tells stories along with presenting information and argument.

    Everybody wants edutainment. They may deny it, but that is, in fact, exactly what they want, I used to think, with a bit of annoyance. But now I've come to the more charitable view that everybody wants to be delighted while they are instructed.

    I believe that expressive touches (anecdotes, first person, reflective personal response to the subject matter) usually enrich the experience of both writing and reading academic discourse.

  • For teaching, then, that means I want students to feel personally invested in the subject matter of their essays, even though I am requiring them to write arguments supported by evidence from scholarly or high-popular sources in which they must also engage with opposing arguments. I encourage stories of personal encounters with the topic, in the introduction or wherever the student deems appropriate. Conclusions can be reflections on the process of reading a variety of perspectives on the topic and of writing the paper.

So, am I an expressivist?

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