Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Lessons learned

I've just finished reading through my MATH 179 students' final exams. There I'd asked them each to write in response to three different questions; briefly: (1) how has our course challenged your assumptions about mathematics?, (2) How does UNC Asheville, as a liberal arts university, differ from traditional state schools?, and (3) how would you describe your own "writing process" as you completed one of the writing assignments required of you in our class this semester?

The students' responses to the first question were rather erratic and varied wildly in quality, ranging from unelaborated lists of concepts like meddos, abaci, or alternative bases of arithmetic to carefully crafted descriptions of personal change. Sadly, there were far more of the former than of the latter, and as often as not I suspected the students of writing what they thought I wanted to hear rather than what they truly felt. The responses to the second question were predictable, focusing on small class size, the potential for one-on-one interaction with faculty, and a curriculum emphasizing development of the student thinker as a whole.

The students' responses to the third question were the most eye-opening to me, and gave me a good deal of direction as I develop as an instructor of first-year (rather than disciplinary) writing. For instance, it's clear that in the future I'll have to be more explicit in discussing the purpose for various stages of the writing process. Several students pooh-poohed the need for revision, saying, essentially, "I don't like to write in drafts, because I'm pretty happy with how it sounds after the first draft." Others bemoaned being asked to write outlines or rough drafts; one student said, more or less, "they just get in the way of what I know I need to write about...I just want to get to the point." One of the stronger student writers explicitly questioned the validity of the writing process, indicating he felt it was a waste of time and served only to objectify what is ultimately a very subjective and personal activity. Although one could argue that this student is really a budding post-process theorist, I think it's more likely that he's simply not yet learned why we do all of the things we do when we sit down to write a piece.

I noted too that students have a very hard time viewing writing as anything but linear. Perhaps because reading (traditionally, anyway...let's not speak about the way one reads on the web) has always been seen as a linear process, something done from start to finish, from the first word to the last, students have come to think of writing as a similarly linear activity. For example, no fewer than three (out of 18) students complained about how hard it was to write the introduction to a paper. "Once I get the introduction out of the way," they seemed to be saying, "the rest of the paper comes really easily." The upshot? "You can't write anything else until you've written the first paragraph, because that's where you lay out what you're going to say." It hasn't occurred to these students (and, admittedly, I did a pretty poor job this term in helping them to see) that perhaps they're better off saying what they want to say first, even elaborating it a bit, fitting together all of the important pieces of evidence, and maybe even wrapping it up by discussing their own conclusions based on that evidence, before even thinking about writing an introduction. Most of us who write academically know well that the introduction (or abstract) to a paper is often the very last thing we write: it's so much easier to lead the reader into what you wanted to say after you've already said it.

These ideas are ones I'm not used to having to make explicit in teaching writing, as I'm not used to working with novice academic writers. I've got to keep these ideas in mind for the next time I have a chance to teach first-year students general academic writing skills.

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