Chris Atherton‘s most recent blog post makes a great contribution to debates about assessment, and essay writing in particular.
Go read it and come back. This post started as a comment that got out of hand. I’ll wait.
Tum te dum te dum.
Hi, you back. Interesting wasn’t it.
Are you assuming reading and writing are generic skills?
Chris’s post got me thinking about something I used to do when I was teaching. It started when I discovered that my final year undergraduates couldn’t summarize the main argument of an academic article.
They would talk about what they read as an “and then” story. You know the kind . First they say this, and then they do this, and then …
While everything they said was true, they missed the main point of the article. It got me thinking about how they read and whether I was expecting them to read in a particular way without ever teaching them how.
That line of thinking led me to the concept of “academic literacies” via a very interesting article which I cannot recall enough details about to link. The basic principle is that how we read, how we write, how we think, varies by discipline. That part of what “discipline” in the academic sense is about is a method of doing things. It isn’t a coincidence that we use the same term for military discipline.
And that led to some interventions in the Introduction to Sociology course that got me accused of being patronizing but seemed to work. Chris’s post got me thinking that I didn’t go far enough.
Writing essays is a core academic skill
For me, part of the problem is that discussions of student essays and essay writing skills tend to treat essays and term papers as something fundamentally different from other kinds of academic writing. As something students do.
They aren’t. All academics write essays. Professional academics call them journal articles or book chapters.
We make our students read journal articles and book chapters. Thus they have exemplars. Exemplars of a style of writing, a style of argumentation, a way of referencing the work of others, etc. The problem is they don’t usually realize this.
What I used to do was make that link explicit for students. Tell them that they are novice sociologists (I taught sociology) and go through a sociology journal article or two pointing out some of the structural features. A projector and an online version of the journal makes it possible to do this in a lecture with 180 students in it.
My purpose was twofold. First, I wanted them to read for more than facts. To see arguments. To see that any article was part of a conversation even though the introduction may be more or less explicit about what that conversation was.
Second, I was giving them an exemplar of how they were to write. I was clear that this was a level they wouldn’t reach but I stressed that their task in writing an essay (what in North America gets called a term paper) was fundamentally the same as a professional academic writing a journal article. The scope is different. The standard expected is different. But the activity is not.
What makes a useful exemplar?
What I see, reading Chris’s post and having also observed some things about learning as a parent, is that we should also provide exemplars in a range that our students can achieve. Something between the professional journal article and where they are now.
For example, while it is useful for young actors to see professional performances, it is hard for them to imagine how to get from where they are to that professional level. The leap is too great.
I recently went to a High School Shakespeare Festival in Stratford (Ontario, Canada) with my daughter and her drama group. Students performed 15 minute scenes and were adjudicated. There were 4 scenes per afternoon and the groups watched the other 3 scenes. They also heard the adjudication (formative, this was not a competition) of all 4 groups and were encouraged to then provide positive comments to other groups.
It seems to me that one important part of this experience was that students were seeing other students of a similar age and ability perform. The gap was bridgeable. They could imagine themselves being that much better. They could also see what they were doing well, or even better than some of their peers.
Seeing others at a similar level, enables them both to stretch and grow, and to develop judgement about their own performance.
Writing is content
Part of what we are teaching is a particular way of writing. Our methods of assessment assess not only content knowledge but the ability to write in that way. Exemplars are a good way to teach that knowledge for all the reasons Chris outlines. (And if you haven’t gone and read her post, go do that now.)
We need different kinds of exemplars, though. Professional ones, which we explicitly connect to the kinds of work we expect students to undertake. And exemplars within the range of possibility for our students.
As one of the commentors on Chris’s post points out, peer editing of drafts might be a good way to provide the latter. And I recommend Lee Skallerup’s blog College Ready Writing for discussion of how those methods get used in an actual classroom.
To return to the concept of “academic literacies”, though, I don’t think this type of teaching should be relegated to writing courses.
Because writing is part of disciplinary knowledge. And what a sociologist means by evidence, argument and the like, and how a sociologist writes an article/essay, differs from how a historian, a literary scholar, a psychologist, or whoever write those things.
It is not someone else’s responsibility to teach your students how to write in the way that people in your discipline write. Writing is not a generic skill.