Short assignments anyone?

The October 15 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education features an interesting piece called “An Old-School Notion: Writing Required,” By Dan Berrett.  Quoting scholars of writing studies such as Chris Anson, Paul Anderson, and Chris Thaiss, Berrett argues for something writing teachers will cheer for:  that writing aids “deep” learning.  Citing the National Assessment of Student Engagement and the related Partnership for the Study of Writing in College, he reports that this research tells us that

clearly explained assignments in which freshmen and seniors had to construct meaning through their writing—summarize something they had read, explain in writing the meaning of numerical or statistical data, argue a position using evidence and reasoning—had a noticeable effect on deep and sustained learning.

YES!  In fact, research conducted over the last fifty years has supported this conclusion:  the more writing, the more—and better—learning.  In addition, research strongly suggests that a number of short writing assignments—with clear response from peers and instructors—are more beneficial than the one-shot, end-of-term assignment that is still ubiquitous at the college level.  Every term in our Hume Writing Center, I work with students who come in with a vague assignment to write an essay on some aspect of the course and to turn it in at the end of term.  No draft, no peer review, no instructor feedback.  Just write an essay (often 20 or 25 pages long) and submit it.  Not surprisingly, students have great difficulty with such assignments and routinely file them away without a glance after they are done.

So while there is clearly a strong link between writing and learning, the kind of writing students do is very important as well.  Later in the Chronicle article, Berrett quotes Charles Paine, director of rhetoric and writing at the University of New Mexico.  “You need not assign the big old 25-page term paper,” Paine says. “The kind of writing they do is more important than the amount.”  I’ve been trying to take this lesson to heart in my own teaching, first by having one-page analyses due every week and second by making a series of shorter assignments that link together by the end of the term into a longer, sustained piece of writing.  I like the one-pagers because they give the students an opportunity to synthesize the reading and research for that week and to then carry out a mini analysis of it.  I think of these like mental exercises, and students get better and better the more of them they write.  I’m working right now on a course I’ll teach this winter, on Writing 2.1: The Art of the Digital Essay.  The end goal of the class is for students to produce a powerful digital essay of their own.  What we will do over the course of the term is just what so good writing teachers do:  break the digital essay into chunks or sections or even what Winston Weathers called “crots,” and work incrementally, with lots of feedback and response for each section.  We may end of up with lengthy essays, but we will have worked through the little by little, individually and in small groups and in conferences with me. 

I look forward to reporting on how this course goes when I begin teaching it in January.  In the meantime, I’d like to know how you sequence assignments and what you do to use short assignments to good effect.  (For the full article in the Chronicle, see



When is an interruption really an interruption?

When is an interruption not an interruption?

Like millions of others, I’ve been watching the presidential debates (and the vice presidential debate) wish fascination bordering on obsession.  For a rhetorician and teacher of writing, there’s not much more exciting than this every-four-year spectacle, much of it surrounded by a cacophony of political ads, cartoons, and media commentary.  So I watch intently and purposefully, taping the debates so I can play them over again.  (I’ve also tried listening to them on the radio versus watching them, which is also very instructive.)

The first debate this year, the one in which many viewers felt like President Obama didn’t show up, was particularly interesting for the way both candidates used body language and tried to interact with the audience not just in the hall but via cameras.  While President Obama looked down a lot and seemed to be mulling over points, Governor Romney strode about, “owning” the space much of the time, and even occasionally interrupting.  I noticed the interrupting behavior but didn’t make much of it, except to think that it made Romney seem overly aggressive for my taste.  Then came the vice presidential debate, which featured Joe Biden interrupting Paul Ryan and even talking over him—which seemed to invite Ryan to give the same back to Biden.  So I started watching for interruptions in particular, and I saw plenty of them during the second presidential debate.  By my rough count, Romney out-interrupted the President, though both of them using this strategy.   Sometimes a lot.


                        Second presidential debate, October 16, 2012

So how did it affect the outcome of the debate, if at all?  Many commentators fixed on one interruption in particular, in which Obama started to say something and was scolded by Romney who said, essentially, “I’m talking now. You wait your turn.”  That seemed to many to have stepped over the bounds of good sense and judgment, making Romney look like a bit of a bully, and disrespectful to boot.  So I was very interested to see Deborah Tannen, well known linguist and author of many books on communication patterns, take up the question in a column in the New York Times.  Tannen points out that not all interruptions are equal—that what appear to be interruptions can often be interjections or corroborations—or requests of some kind.  But she also notes that, in the western world especially, interruptions can often be all about power:

How people perceive interruption is inseparable from their sense of relative power. This is particularly true in town-hall-style debates, where the line between assertiveness and aggression is thin. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney frequently stood up on Tuesday to try to take the floor. Al Gore got into trouble when he walked into George W. Bush’s space in 2000; Mr. Romney’s aggressive posture in Tuesday night’s debate — his hot to Mr. Obama’s cool — risked offending viewers because he was a former governor confronting a sitting president, and a white man taking on a black one.

Tannen also comments on gender, noting that women are typically interrupted more than men, for example. 

Reading her column got me thinking about interruptions in our classes, about who interrupts whom and why and how often.  Over the years, I have done a few studies of my own classes, finding that men speak a great deal more than women, that they interrupt more than women, and that—and this one surprised me—when I speak a male student almost always speaks after me, rarely a woman.  In each class I’ve presented the findings to students and asked them to think about it and then to start monitoring their own behavior and that of the whole class.  Doing so has definitely led to some changes, and almost always to a better balance in speaking time.  Now I think I will try looking just at interruptions to see what I can learn about how students interact with one another.  We want our classrooms to be places where all are comfortable speaking and where all practice the kind of respect that gives everyone space and time to participate.  Can we—or should we–expect the same kind of behavior in presidential debates? 

You can read Tannen’s entire piece, “Would You Please Let Me Finish,” at


A New Industrial Revolution?

The Next Industrial Revolution?

I’ve been a subscriber to Wired magazine since its first publication in 1993, and while its frenetic layout irritates and often baffles me, I still read it regularly.  For one thing, I am interested in following Chris Anderson, Wired’s Editor-in-Chief; he has always seemed like a smart, smart guy to me.  Now he has a new book out:  Makers: The New Industrial Revolution explores the dramatic shift in our culture from consumption to production and the accompanying changes that shift entails.  This is a shift that I along with many others have been talking about for the last few years.  Just as the industrial revolution of the 18th century expanded human productivity by relying on the power of machines, the digital revolution that puts the tools of production into the hands of ordinary people everywhere is spurring innovation, imagination, and productivity.

In a recent interview, Anderson talks about “the maker movement,” the do-it-yourself movement that has been celebrated for the last three years at the World Maker Faire.  The third annual event took place a week ago in New York City, where thousands gathered to spotlight the production, or making, of things.  In an NPR piece on Maker Faire, Stan Alcorn says that at Maker Faire, “there’s a race track for electric cars, classes in lock picking and crochet; there’s even a trapeze for circus acrobats,” even a unicorn that “sneezes glitter and shoots colored methanol fire out of her horn” (this item was made as a wedding gift!).  Maker Faire founder Dale Dougherty sums it up by remarking that at the heart of the Faire is “this notion of participatory culture where we do things, we make things.  You know, we’re not just consumers, we’re producers.” Here’s a link to the full article:

Our students may not be official members of “the maker movement,” but they are embodying it in much of what they do.  No longer content with simply consuming what others have thought and said, our students use this material to make new things—mashups, remixes, parodies, and many other kinds of experimental productions.  And they’re not doing it alone: rather, they are working with others all the time, collaborating, sharing, and most of all, producing

Writing teachers should be particularly ripe for this new do-it-yourself, maker culture.  After all, we have celebrated what students have made themselves in terms of their writing for many decades now, putting value on student writing itself and encouraging students to make that writing their own rather than to simply regurgitate what others have said. That’s part of what makes teaching writing so exciting:  we get to see the germination of ideas, the innovative moves, the experiments—and the results of all that productive labor.

I didn’t get to attend Maker Faire this year, but it’s high on my list for 2013.  In the meantime, I look forward to teaching classes in which students take the reins a makers and producers.  I’m starting to work on such a course for winter term, and when I get the syllabus together I’ll be sure to share it here.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who knows Maker Faire or who has read Anderson’s new book.