Inkshed 25: May 16, 2008

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"Reflecting on the Reflection Paper"... Nancy Johnston sees self-reflective writing as a means to encourage students to understand their writing process as well as to connect academic experience with their own lives. She put the question to us--why do we ask students to reflect? I see such assignments as a means to an end, i.e. helping students "warm up" and become more comfortable with writing, helping them break the log-jam that blocks them from using "I, me." We value self-reflection as a form of competent learning; we see it as an essential component of thinking critically. But, as our discussion unfolded, other questions arose. Is self-reflective writing becoming too trendy? Is it too easy for students to question (or work around) its authenticity? What is authenticity? Ideally, students' personal, individual processes are centred...but how much time do we have to think about and articulate writing processes (meta-statements)? Nancy suggests learning models, cases, and strategies to encourage and enable self-reflection about processes--especially critical when writing is considered mainly as a product. Ends or goals for self-reflective responses? A basis for further work, generating and stimulating ideas, "wrestling" with texts. Nancy also raised the question of how we evaluate self-reflective writing and suggests a rubric, for she argues that it is possible to generate a reflection that doesn't engage much with learning or writing processes.

Amanda's response: I'm much more comfortable with critical reading responses than with personal-life writing; the latter tends to open up boundary-setting issues that writing teachers aren't necessarily equipped to deal with.

Russ's response to Amanda : I think part of my problem with both is that the dialogue is between the instructor and the student, but it's not a dialogue -- both the critical reading responses and personal-life writing (and pretty much everything else student might write in this situation) is really discourse being ut into an impossible rhetorical situation: you have to pretend it's dialogue, but neither of you actually engages in it dialogically.

"Why do we want our students to write?" ... Patricia Patchet-Golubev reviewed "typical" faculty complaints about student writing--even grad students. If students are "missing the point," what is the point? We need to connect writing to the learning goals of a course. What's the point of our writing assignments? Patricia's interest is in working with faculty on writing-assignment design, esp re addressing the connections between learning and writing, and whether/how these priorities are changing in the light of online courses and heavy writing demands. Among other strategies, Patricia encourages faculty she works with to move away from writing as solely a "testing" or evaluative mechanism (as a means for students to demonstrate how well they've absorbed information); consider students' need for input into the assignments; provide "improvable" examples of past writing; and connect various genres to the variety of purposes and situations their students will encounter. Patricia asked us for feedback on sample assignments. Some of our group's questions about a sample assignment: does it mirror their field or professional issues? is there a rhetorical framework? is it clear and non-repetitious in structure? does it help students identify their topic and become "situated" or motivated? Other questions raised by the whole group touched on the "politics" of approaching faculty about designing more effective writing assignments, and the challenges of supporting TAs who must work with unclear assignments.

Writing Instructor / Writing Student Relationship ... Theresa Moritz recently worked with a student on a research project. She first invited us to tell a story about our very best experience of working with a writing student. Can we make a model that articulates the successful interaction between teacher and student? Or should we? There are such idealized expectations of what a teacher is and should be, the roles teachers should play...Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker! Discussion--who are we? Sage on the stage or guide on the side? Are successful situations teachable, or is a successful relationship above and beyond mere strategy? Do we tend to stray into doctor-patient mode--and if so, what are the consequences? How does the issue of evaluation--being marked--influence the instructor/writing relationship? Whether the instructor/student interaction is in a writing centre instead of part of a course may also influence the "modeling" of the interaction.

Amanda's story: Perhaps my best experience so far has been working with a student doing an independent study exploring relations between PR writing and rhetorical theory. She set her goals and listed the PR readings; I then suggested the rhetoric readings and initial outline. This was collaborative only in the sense that I supported her in building a relevant and sophisticated project, where she not only critiqued the rhetoric of PR but set out practical strategies for ethical PR writing. But it was certainly fulfilling and dynamic for me, and I'm confident my student felt the same way.

Amanda's response (it seems I'm not supposed to call what I'm doing here "inkshedding"!): Theresa asked if it's possible for every student to have the same kind of positive experience/treatment that her student received. One of us has just wondered whether one-on-one is really the most effective means of working with students. In writing and learning centres, we do rely extensively on the 1-on-1 model. Though it’s often very effective for helping motivated students capitalize on their strengths and be more aware of their weaknesses, there is no way that institutions can afford (in all senses of the word) to have instructors use their time this way. Also, do we risk perpetuating the doctor-patient mythology, for one-on-one can get very “clinical,” especially if the relationship is expert-to-student. One way to deal with this is using student peers, well trained and with a history of success strategies. (And yes, Susan...coaching is part of this relationship!)

Nancy's response to Theresa's presentation: Theresa raised the issue of multiple appointments in the context of a positive relationship with students. I can see how multiple appointments, in fact, allow us to see development over time, identify progress in writing, and share in the exploration of writing in the context of one or multiple courses. I have two concerns. The first is our perception or our models of the successful student. Can we or do we measure this outside of course contexts? Are we valuing an active engagement in their own writing, their willingness to learn from their mistakes and successes, or even their willingness to defer to our "expertise" as writing specialists? The second issue relates to my more common experience working with students over time who come to the writing centre who do not necessarily begin as actively engaged students in their own writing process. They do not always improve between appointments or with new assignments. These consultations can be exhausting (resisting and cajoling students) for the instructor/tutor. I fear that sometimes these students do not / or are not yet able to take responsibility for their writing process and that the consultation process may limit the hard work of self-development.

Russ comments: I'm concerned (here and elsewhere; this isn't about Nancy's comment particularly) about our expectation, or hope, that students will be " actively engaged . . . in their own writing process." This seems to me pretty unrealistic: for students, writing has virtually never been more than an empty demonstration of competence -- "a chance," one of my students said a couple of decades ago, "to hope that someone won't rub salt in your open wound." I can imagine a situation is which someone was actively engaged in trying to make an idea clear -- but there have been extremely few students in my experience who thought the writing process was anything other than an opportunity to triumph or be humiliated. It's not been about communication or social engagement.

“Rethinking Norms: how will we teach academic writing in the globalized 21st century?”... Melanie Stevenson wonders about our role in the writing centre—translator? survival guide? cross-cultural translator? Will globalization have an impact on academic discourse and how we teach it? Increasing adoption of English as international language of research has implications; for ex, China is revamping its entire college English curriculum. Academics are no longer the sole arbiters of English standards. Is our traditional teaching-focus on North American rhetorical and language conventions still appropriate? Melanie then presented us with three cases of grad students “resisting” standard Western academic norms.

Discussion focused on the student’s motives for seeking help; the notion that learning academic writing is like learning another language (for any student); that learning “standard academic” conventions is an opportunity to use a valuable tool; and whether it’s valid to promote one’s own identity at the expense of one’s audience. The discussion also focused on the importance of considering one’s audience and their expectations. On the other hand, there is a certain arrogance in imposing English standards (which have a history of being exclusionary); it’s humane to see the validity of these viewpoints.

Amanda’s response: With all due respect to those who brought up the argument that international students now are dealing with the same sorts of power structures and attitudes that academic women faced years ago, I think it’s more a question of the social and rhetorical expectations associated with academic writing as a (loose) genre. Years ago, I worked as a newspaper reporter and thought myself a pretty decent writer. When I returned to school to finish my degree, my English prof criticized me for being too simplistic and “journalistic” in my style and argumentation. Well, I played the resistance card. In retrospect, I realize that he was trying to give me valuable tools allowing me to increase my rhetorical scope, while I pig-headedly stuck to the notion that my journalistic writing represented my precious individual self. But he was patient and persistent, and we finally worked things out. He’s dead now, but thank goodness I was able to tell him how much I appreciated what he taught me.

Susan says I don't have any disagreement with what you're saying, except for the fact that I still think that "academic writing [even] as a loose genre" often derives from and continues to speak a set of values that are masculinist. Just as another culture's writing might challenge western values -- such as our emphasis on independence and originality and individuality rather than collaborative and collective and variation, feminism still (sigh) has to challenge those values too. Russ agrees: most of what we might call the firm generic conventions of traditional academic writing come pretty clearly out of a masculinist, agonistic, competitive model of discourse. Here as elsewhere, though, our sense that that model needs to be challenged doesn't live comfortably with our need to help our students get better at coping with a world that's not going to change all that much. It's okay for me to challenge generic conventions with my academic writing -- at my point in my career I don't stand to lose much. But I'm pretty uncomfortable at sending a student out into the fray with a pie plate and a stick. On the other hand, of course, should I be training her in hand-to-hand combat when I don't believe that's how discourse should be conducted?

“Millennials in the Classroom (or not)” ... Geoff Cragg enlisted Brock Macdonald to help him role-play an office encounter with a “slacker” millennial who is not performing well in class b/c of multiple issues. One view is that this generation (born after 1980) values teamwork, cooperation, and clear outcomes; but another view is that this generation’s emphasis on self-esteem creates expectations of entitlement and an increase in narcissism. Some other points: they may not see that their own sense of agency might affect their future, and they rely on online technology for social networking. We need to be cautious about stereotyping these demographic studies; many other attitudes can shape or mitigate classroom experiences. But some trends Jeff encountered include “truculent” independence, ignoring advice, being passive about grades, coming late or missing parts of class, interrupting lectures for information. Being conversant with computers is not helping their writing—Jeff noticed a variety of surface errors as well as problems with coherence, disinclination to read primary texts, major gaps in comprehension, apparent difficulty with vocabulary.

Jeff asks: Are we looking at upcoming conflict between boomers and the me-generation? To what extent do our terministic screens shape these differences? How can we find common ground? Some of the dogmas of millennials are very challenging to us: i.e. that all opinions are equally valid, that fulfilling the autonomous self outweighs the need for cooperation, that multitasking exists and that they’re very good at it. Therefore, how can we convey notions of academic culture in ways that matter? How can we respond actively?

Amanda’s response: I feel really conflicted about this issue of so-called millennial students. I have some sympathy; for I too have noticed lateness, self-centredness, and a peculiar mix of truculence and passivity in some students in some classes. The little bit of the executive summary I read about Twenge’s findings seems to promise some compelling arguments for a profoundly different mind-set (I like Jeff’s use of terministic screens here) between millennials and the boomers who teach them. But, as do we all, I’ve also encountered some amazing millennials who are far more globally aware, passionate, well informed about certain issues, and committed to outward goals than I ever was in my early-to-mid twenties. These are people who give me hope for the human race. Are they truly the exception? I’m not convinced. Though I sympathize with concerns about our “slacker” students, I don’t see us facing the depth of conflict and profound difference in outlook that Twenge seems to suggest and that Jeff summarized. Or if we do, then perhaps both sides will learn from these encounters and be the better for it.

“Attack of the transformers: writing initiatives and curriculum renewal” ... Brock Macdonald gave some background/context for an initiative focusing on writing for geography. One challenge of working with writing in this dept. was to get past the tendency not to want to articulate their writing practices: too many “differences,” too dangerous. But in a way, it proved helpful that units are being required to articulate and discuss their practices; this provided impetus. The writing centre worked “in house” with the geography dept. and was seen as an ally. Brock provided the very broad vision statement; then specific institutional recommendations; then specific learning objectives for writing in the geography program (used to design assignments and assessment). In the recommendations, there is very direct recognition of the central role of writing, though this isn’t yet backed up with full-time staffing and more writing specialists.

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