O Canada!

This month found me returning to Canada, land of dreams for me ever since I taught at the University of British Columbia for ten years (1977-1987).  This time I was in Calgary, at Mount Royal University, where I gave a talk as part of their Distinguished Lecture Series and then participated in a colloquium on writing and teaching writing that brought together scholars and teachers from other Alberta Universities.  Calgary still has a frontier feel to me and I loved being in “big sky” country once again. 

Professor Sarah Banting of Mt. Royal’s English Department and Writing Program, convened the colloquium, which began with tea (in real teacups!) and pastries.  And it really was a colloquium, one that left plenty of time for talk and interaction, and that featured panels that were more like conversations than lectures.  (You can check out her blog, Issues in Teaching Writing: A Mount Royal University Conversation, here:  https://issuesinteachingwritingmountroyal.wordpress.com/

One major standout:  five students and one faculty member responding to questions from a moderator.  The students were thoughtful, insightful, and witty, reflecting on their experiences with writing, writing classes, and writing instructors—and on their sense of the role writing may play in their future lives.  One student, a biology major, was particularly eloquent in describing what she had learned about herself through writing and about how she expected to use writing for the rest of her life.  Other speakers described innovative courses and assignments and explored new uses of technology in the classroom.  Heather and Roger Graves (both of the University of Alberta, where Roger is Director of WAC) talked about the development of a fascinating project, The Game of Writing, which allows students to monitor their own writing processes, making progress step by step, and also to receive multiple forms of response to their writing.  You read more about The Game of Writing here:  http://www.ualberta.ca/~graves1/documents/GamificationPaper.pdf

An extra bonus was seeing Nick Sousanis, now on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Calgary.  Sousanis is a comics artist who visited Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project a couple of years ago when he was writing his dissertation at Columbia University, in comic book form (!).  The book based on his dissertation—Unflattening—is just out from Harvard University.  An shape-shifting, deeply engaging meditation on the relationship between words and images and on visual thinking, it’s a book you should check out soon!  (See http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674744431)   

As always, I came away from this colloquium energized and happy to be part of the writing studies community in North America.  After 45 years in the field, it’s good to feel that if I were starting all over again, I’d choose the same path!







Where’s the Index?

Bedford/St. Martin’s editor extraordinaire Carolyn Lengel and I have been interviewing student writers as we’re working on a new edition of The Everyday Writer. We haven’t met these students; all we knew is that they had used Everyday Writer in one of their writing classes.  As we talked, the students told us when and why they used the book, what they thought it had been helpful for, what about it they liked—or would like to see improved.  But we were also interested in HOW they used the book.  So we asked them to walk us through one time when they wanted to find information in their handbook—step by step.  What did they do first, and so on.  To our surprise, several students said they began by looking at the words on the tabs to see if it looked like one or more of them contained the information they wanted.  A couple of other students said they started by looking at “that list in the front of the book,” AKA the table of contents.  Finally, we asked a student if he had checked the index to help him locate what he was looking for.  “So, where’s the index?” was his response.

We subsequently asked all students about the index, and most seemed only vaguely familiar with it.  The online sources they go to, they pointed out, don’t have indexes.  These students, bright and generally school savvy, are not completely savvy about print book conventions.  “So, where’s the index?” is a question worth listening to.

I’ve always urged teachers using one of my textbooks to spend class time early on getting the students into the book, showing them what’s there (these books are packed absolutely to the gills with what I’ve learned about teaching writing over 40+ years, so I know they can seem dense!) and how to find information.  When I teach with one of these books, I use it frequently, often kicking off my course with the chapter on “Writing to Make Something Happen in the World.” I want students to read this chapter, to hear about the students featured in it, and to ask themselves how they define good writing and how often their writing makes something happen in the world.  (I’ve found that students have fabulous stories to tell about such writing!)  So we talk about writing as a performance, as active, as something that makes things happen.  That’s writing, I find, that they can be committed to.

I also love to focus some class time on style, using chapters on sentence structure, on language, on word choice, and so on as a platform for workshopping some of their own work.  I love working on sentences, taking one from each student and working together to make that sentence “sing.”

What I’ve learned over the decades is that if I want students to get the most out of a textbook, I have to bring it into class on a regular basis, showing them how to make it a valuable friend to their writing and their writing processes.  And now I know not to take anything for granted!  So early on I’ll ask a series of fairly abstruse questions and ask students to work together to answer them, using their handbook to help. Then we map the processes they used to find the answers, including false starts and missteps as well as successful moves in locating the needed information.  And along the way, I make sure to ask, “So, where’s the index?”

Corpus Linguistics Anyone?

About a year ago at a symposium at North Carolina A&T, I had an opportunity to meet and talk with Laura Aull, Assistant Professor of English and of the Writing Program at Wake Forest University. I learned that Aull did her doctoral work at the University of Michigan, where she focused on linguistics and especially on using corpus linguistics to compare writing across fields and cultures. Now in her fourth year of teaching, Aull has recently published First-Year University Writing: A Corpus-Based Study with Implications for Pedagogy. (London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015). In an interview, she said that her new book
analyzes over 19,000 essays written by incoming college students from the University of Michigan and Wake Forest for empirical, linguistic features which distinguish first year writers from expert ones.
Having done a couple of very large-scale studies of student writing myself, I was very interested in Aull’s work, and especially about some of her findings. For instance, she found that use of the personal pronoun “I” varies not only across disciplines but also between expert and first-year writers, with the former using “I” primarily to indicate what or how they are going to argue and the latter using “I” to narrate experience. Her research also revealed that expert writers tend to use more neutral words in introducing sources (verbs like “note” or “finds”) while first-year student writers tend to use more loaded words (verbs like “fails” or “ignores”). In addition, she told me, expert writers use more “hedges” or qualifiers than do student writers, who sometimes can come across as more aggressive than they mean to.
I also learned from her how students, and particularly multilingual students, might use large corpora (such as The Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA) to learn how to distinguish between confusing phrases (is it “in regards to” or “in regard to”) or to answer other questions they may have about how expert writers use language in different disciplinary settings.
I’ve recently been reading Aull’s book, and I’m learning a lot from it, so much so that I have asked her to consult with me on how to incorporate some of these findings into tips for student writers in the sixth edition of The Everyday Writer, which I’m revising right now. It’s exhilarating to learn how to begin using corpus linguistics to help first-year writers!