Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Woohoo! Conference Week #1 Done (minus 1)

The minus one is because I'm a big ol' softie and I agreed to meet with one student on Friday afternoon. But at any rate, I'm DONE with the others! Yay!

But as I was conferencing I had an idea, and I'd like to run it by you guys and see what you think and if you can help me refine this idea into something workable.

One of the weirdest things to me about student writing is the way that so many students have misconceptions about what their own academic writing should look like. There is a total disconnect between the academic writing that they read all of the time for papers and such (journal articles, scholarly books, textbooks, etc.) and what they turn in.

Now, when I designed the syllabus for my course, I kind of had this in mind when I assigned students a journal article, which they are to have read for Monday but which we will have the whole week to cover. I was thinking that one of the things that I wanted was for them to have experience looking at "real" academic writing as a model for their own writing, which I don't think they necessarily consider real or academic.

So my idea is this. I want to organize some sort of activity that uses the article that demonstrates to them in a concrete way that the following are not appropriate:

1. Keeping your argument a secret because it creates "suspense."
2. Using the words "I feel" to indicate things like thinking, believing, recognizing, etc.
3. Repeating your introduction - word-for-word - as your conclusion.
4. Organizing the essay not in relation to the power of the ideas but in a chronological sort of a way.
5. Using just one technique for transitions - all of them.
6. Opening the paper with rhetorical questions, again, because it creates "suspense."
7. Opening the paper with "Imagine you..." and anything that follows that.

I'm sure that there are more, but those are the ones that strike me that one would just NEVER find in actual academic writing that is published. My point isn't to make rules against these things, but instead to demonstrate that if one is going to thwart the conventions that one should be conscious of doing so and be doing it for a reason. Also, I think it allows us to think about purpose and audience in a more specific way than they're used to doing. When was the last time one of you wanted a journal article you were perusing to create suspense?

So anyway, I'm not sure how I'm going to go about doing this. I had already planned a reverse-outlining activity with the article, and i think that this to some extent goes along with what I'm talking about here, but I also think that it could be fun for them to close off an activity related to the above with asking them to write something in parody in which they break all of the conventions that I'm talking about. Huh.

My apologies for the inarticulate and pathetic nature of the above thoughts. I am totally fried from the conferencing.


phd me said...

Bravo for tackling this sticky issue. Your lesson ideas sound like they'll get the point across. What about a "translation" exercise - taking a sentence from the journal article and rewriting it into typical student language. Then vice versa: take a typical sentence from student writing and turn it into academic language. I used to do this with my students when we studied Shakespeare to get them past the language. They liked it and it definitely got the point across that you can say the same thing in completely different ways.

Getting the gist of academic writing is tough. When I started grad school, I couldn't believe the jargon-filled and paragraph-length sentences we had to work through in all those journal articles. Now, I'm right there with them. I'm not sure exactly how I made the transition - total immersion helps, I suppose.

Let us know how your lesson goes!

Hypatia said...

Your comments about suspense made me think of a tip I got from a professor once - You spell everything out in the abstract/intro because this is NOT a mystery novel. Maybe you should make them rewrite the article in a genre (poetry, mystery, romance)?

rwellor said...

The "I kept my Baby!" strategy. So-called because when I worked in a language lab and abortion was a paper topic at least one crazy woman would premise her entire paper on the fact that she had not aborted her child and thus no one else should.

I don't care what you did - it does not constitute and actual argument.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I have had students critique a bad article, as a way of showing them how f*cking annoying it is when an author does that. It had moderately positive effects.

Telling students not to do something has amazingly little effect. In history, we often get the "since the dawn of time" introduction: e.g., "For all of recorded history, men have argued about how to govern a state. In 'The Prince,' Machiavelli...." No matter how many times you tell them, "This does nothing for your argument, it is mere blather and filler," they keep doing it. Showing them how annoying it is by critiquing an article that does it is more effective.

For that matter, it's why peer review is useful. Very few peers give helpful comments when they review, but the experience of reading their fellow students' papers shows them what not to do. (The semester just began, and I'm already this cynical? Time for a snifter of brandy!)

jo(e) said...

I've done the parody thing. We brainstorm and list all the things a writer should NOT do. Much like the list you've got there. Then they rewrite a paper and deliberately do everything on the list. The best part is when they have to read all these bad papers. After they read about ten papers that open lamely with rhetorical questions, they start to understand what I think when I read one of them ....

The nice thing is that an exercise like that is actually fun. My students work in pairs and get quite excited about trying to make the paper as bad as it can be.

The useful thing, of course, is that they will then recognize bad writing when they do it.

Tree of Knowledge said...

My friend keeps a list of particularly awful (and therefore funny) sentences from student papers. Before the first paper is due in each class, she distributes a handout with the problem sentences, and the class (working in groups) has to explain why the sentences don't work and teach methods to correct the problem. I do a much shorther version of this with the opening line, "Throughout time, history has changed" (from an actual student paper). But I have found that taking up drafts for the first paper and returning them with failing marks seems to do the trick better than anything else.

Axis of Peter said...

Talking about dept. was discussing via email truly awful student techniques. A colleague noted a student paper that began graph 2 with "First of all. . . ." Presumably pages later, the student completed the body with "Seventeenth of all . . . ."

By the way, the introduction often does seem to channel a pallid, bed-bound obese spirt with such flaccid tries as "According to Webster's, X means 'blah'" or "In the World of Today, people enjoy music. . . ." I love the implied liberatory theories of history too: "Way back in the seventies, several [which seems to mean "many" in student writing] people were very conformist. Today, people are individualistical and have a laid back approach."

But what about conclusions that announce to us they are conclusions by using language suitable for conclusion: "In conclusion . . ."?

Dude, I wouldn't have guessed. It never would have occurred to me that the last paragraph in your paper would be (gasp) a conclusion. They do this even, by the way, in technical writing where we often use a heading called some variant of "conclusions and recommendations" or even simply "conclusion."


Bardiac said...

One of the most helpful things a professor told me about conferences/papers: It's NOT a joke, and you're not saving up the punch line.