Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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Learning to Question the Answers

posted: 4.15.11 by archived

We’re about a month from the end of the semester, and in the first-year composition world that means we’re deep into research paper time. I just got a batch of short research assignments back this week, and it has me thinking about how students use research sources.

I’m intrigued by the work that Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson are doing with the Citation Project to collect and analyze student use of sources. Their preliminary findings indicate that “Of the eighteen student research texts we studied, none included summary of a source, raising questions about the students’ critical reading practices. Instead of summary, which is highly valued in academic writing and is promoted in composition textbooks, the students paraphrased, copied from, or patchwrote from individual sentences in their sources.”

This is an enormous research project whose results will undoubtedly have many important, practical implications about how we can best teach research. But my concern right now is much simpler: why do my students have such trouble understanding the concept of in-text citation?

For the short group assignment, each student wrote one paragraph that had to include at least two sources. Despite (or because of?) my incessant chant that they must include in-text citations, approximately 80 percent of the rough drafts did not include parenthetical notation of any sort, and another 10 percent or so used a non-MLA format. So what’s going on?

Tentative explanations. Because of the complications of MLA guidelines, perhaps I put too much emphasis on citation form instead of fully explaining a citation’s purpose. The primary problem wasn’t that citations were formatted incorrectly but rather that they were totally absent. After thinking more about it, I wondered if perhaps the fundamental issue (and one I hadn’t articulated in quite this way or thought about enough) was students’ relationship to texts. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Working with Sources
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Learning to Ask the Questions

posted: 4.1.11 by archived

Shopping at the mall with my daughter this week, I shuffled from rack to rack, fingering material and trying to look like I was enjoying myself. I stopped in front of a rack of pastel, short-sleeved shirts in a linen-like material. The sales price was a mere $5.99, which prompted me to look at the label at the back neckline: Made in Indonesia. I checked a half-dozen other racks and found India, China, Vietnam. Is it ethical to buy clothing without regard to where it is manufactured?, I asked myself. I wondered what percentage of clothing from this retailer was manufactured overseas, when this started, how this has impacted local economic conditions, and what remedies, if any, have been proposed.

I want my students to start asking questions like that—real questions that they need research to answer.

I think about such questions each time research-paper time rolls around: how can I stimulate students’ sense of curiosity? If they had that first spark of a question they cared about, I could help them to refine it, to find credible information, to formulate a position, or at least to clarify the competing claims. But once we move beyond the personal essay, they settle so easily on the same tired topics of abortion, death penalty, or the drinking age. They want to spool out the argument they’ve already heard, read, and written, laced with a few facts plucked from short articles they found from a Google search.  Instead, I want students to start with questions they hadn’t considered before, something new and quirky they hadn’t noticed or some long-held assumption they want to challenge. [read more]

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas, Research
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The Value of Writing Classes

posted: 3.10.11 by Andrea Lunsford

Many of us listened to the NPR report on Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s exciting research, which is reported on fully in their Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press). The book is being widely reviewed and has also been the subject of an interesting thread on the WPA listserv, sparked by Nick Carbone’s summative posting. Arum and Roska monitored the development of critical thinking and writing ability of 2,300 students at 24 different colleges over the course of their college career, as well as the amount of writing they were required to do in their classes. The results were pretty dismal: nearly half of the students saw no improvement in these abilities from the first to fourth years in college.

I have ordered the book so I can read it carefully. I know I will have questions about the methods the authors used, about their definitions of writing and critical thinking, and about some of their interpretations. (Abilities were measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment test, taken three times over the course of college.) But I am grateful to them for doing the study and for raising these issues. And perhaps the negative implications of the study have been overemphasized in the reports and discussions that followed—because Arum and Roksa’s findings also confirm something positive about the value of writing classes: students who had at least one writing intensive course in college fared better than did their counterparts. This will not come as a surprise to anyone in our field. We know with complete certainty that writing goes hand in glove with thinking and that Cicero’s formula for improvement in speaking and writing (at least some natural ability added to good instruction and continuous practice) is as accurate today as it was in ancient Rome. That’s what is so heartbreaking about colleges and universities cutting requirements, raising class sizes, and underfunding the teaching of and support for writing—talk about penny wise, pound foolish! [read more]

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Categories: Research
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Audience and Collaboration

posted: 1.27.11 by Andrea Lunsford

Audience and collaboration—those two words represent strands of research that have engaged me and my friend and long-time co-author Lisa Ede for decades now. When we first began to write about audience, we wanted to distinguish between what we called “invoked” and “addressed” audiences—that is, between the real-life audiences we speak and write to and those that we invoke, imagine, or hail. This basic distinction allowed us to build a rough taxonomy of audiences and to think about how writers might best go about reaching them. At the same time, we were writing a FIPSE grant proposal to undertake our first study of collaborative writing (eventually published in Singular Texts, Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing, which you can preview here on Google Books).

At the time, we thought of these two projects as pretty much completely separate: we had our work on audience and our work on collaboration. That was before the digital revolution allowed writers to reach audiences that were literally beyond their wildest imagination only a few years before—and before other advances made the Internet more and more interactive, which is to say collaborative. About five years ago, with something of an “aha” moment, we saw the two distinct strands of our research come together and merge. What an exciting time to be teachers and researchers! We could now study forms of collaboration that were impossible when we wrote our first book, and we could watch students interacting with audiences of every kind. [read more]

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Categories: Research
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Grounding Teaching in Research

posted: 1.13.11 by Andrea Lunsford

My last post detailed principles that have guided my teaching over the last thirty-five years. One additional principle has also been important to me:  the best teaching of writing is thoroughly grounded in research.  I use the term “research” fairly broadly, to include research in the histories and theories of rhetoric and writing as well as on the writing practices we see all around us.

In fact, I first became interested in textbooks because of some research I was doing on student writing in Canada and Scotland in the last part of the 19th century: what I found was that teachers were commenting on and marking “errors” that were very different from the ones I saw in student writing in this time and place. I still remember one professor wringing his hands over the inability of students to properly distinguish between “shall” and “will.” Those research findings led Bob Connors and me to our national study of error in student writing—back in 1984. (Those research findings on errors, and additional research we did on teacher response, informed the first edition of The St. Martin’s Handbook.) [read more]

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Categories: Research
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The Great Challenge

posted: 12.22.10 by Barclay Barrios

The assignment sequences in our program follow a general pattern: the first paper works with one author, the second paper with two, the third paper with three, and the fourth paper with two. That third paper is always a challenge for students—they just start to figure out how to work with two texts and suddenly we’re asking them to work with three. But I think it’s an important challenge. In asking students to work with three authors we give them a first glimpse of how knowledge is produced throughout the academy. As they move into their majors and disciplines they will often be asked to work with multiple sources; this third paper assignment gives them early practice with those skills.

We also try to broaden the scope of this assignment to move beyond the texts of the classroom and back into the world in which we live. What does such an assignment look like? Well, here’s the one we came up with this past fall:

HIV/AIDS continues to be a global epidemic. In “AIDS, Inc.” Helen Epstein examines HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Africa, finding that not only are conversations about the disease important but that certain kinds of conversations are particularly essential. To what extent can her insights be used to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases here in the United States? Using all three essays we’ve read so far, write a paper in which you propose strategies for halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the United States and across the globe. [read more]

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Categories: Working with Sources, Writing Process
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Inviting the Personal

posted: 11.19.10 by archived

Most of my traditional students had been writing five-paragraph essays for years: no first person, thesis in the first paragraph—the removed and the impenetrable. So while they may have thought that the move from writing to proclaim to writing to explore sounded exciting at first, they soon discovered that learning to explore their own opinions and experiences isn’t just a matter of having the freedom to say what they think; it’s a matter of taking responsibility for the complexity and thoroughness of that thought.

After a semester of discussing what it means to write a complex essay, we arrived at our last reading, Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” Her work was broken into sections, but the components of personal experience and the larger questions of language, culture, and sexuality were almost impossible to tease apart.  Those elements were constantly influencing one another, sentence by sentence, segment by segment. We looked at examples of paragraphs my students had written that did something similar. What is the impact of allowing the personal to inform your position?

For their essays, I asked students to use their own experience (or that of someone they knew) to illuminate a larger social issue that was important to them.  The challenge I posed was to move elegantly between the personal issues and the social issues, to ultimately make them inseparable. [read more]

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Categories: Pitt Instructors, Ways of Reading, Working with Sources
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Image and Inquiry in Ways of Reading

posted: 11.11.10 by archived

As I read the anonymous student evaluations made from l800px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_021ast spring’s section of Seminar in Composition, one particular comment almost made me laugh out loud. Prompted by the question, “what suggestions do you have to improve this course?” one student wrote that over the course of the semester, we had, it seemed, looked at “too many pictures of naked people.”

How many naked people add up to too many? Just about half of the staff syllabus I used in my second semester as a graduate teaching assistant at Pitt relied on two of Ways of Reading’s most revealing selections. Linda Nochlin’s intellectual romp through eighteenth-century representations of (nude women) bathing and Susan Bordo’s sexier exploration of culturally constructed commercial masculinity at the end of the twentieth each furnish liberal images to complement their scholarship. These texts served as cornerstones for a course aimed at exploring issues of identity through the ways we see, and engaging with images seems key to thinking about sight, both literally and metaphorically.

Two pedagogical threads, then, emerged for me as I reflected on our classroom work in the context of the anonymous student’s final comment. I was interested in the comment’s focus on the images themselves—it wasn’t that we’d read or written too much about naked people, it was that we’d seen too many representations of them. This, to me, is rather one of the strengths Ways of Reading offers as a textbook—eight of the twenty-one excerpts and essays that compose it include paintings, photographs, advertisements, or figures. Authors read culture through the image: photographs from Palestine drive Edward Said’s “States”; prison diagrams punctuate Michel Foucault’s “Panopticism.”  It’s as if the collection emphasizes the intertextuality the editors encourage composition students to explore—when we write, as published authors write, we must take into account what we see around us, the images and objects constituted by our world. And it is through careful attention to representation that critical questions can emerge. [read more]

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Categories: Pitt Instructors, Ways of Reading, Working with Sources
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Thinking Gray

posted: 12.9.09 by Barclay Barrios

I recently chatted with a group of teachers at a nearby institution who were going to test the readings in Emerging, Appiah’s “Making Conversation” and “The Primacy of Practice.”  One of the things we talked about is that students always want to flatten what they read, a particular problem when it comes to essays with subtle and complex ideas like Appiah’s.  After reading these selections, students will want to say, “We should all just get along,” or “We just need to talk more and that will solve things.”  And, yes, those reflect Appiah’s ideas.  But things are not so simple, so black and white.  Sometimes the challenge of teaching writing is getting students to think gray—to deal with the messiness of complexity, and to think their own way through it.

I shared with those teachers some of the techniques I use to get students thinking gray.  For example, the class will gravitate to certain sections of an essay or certain quotations; these will probably be the key sections of the reading, but they will also probably be the ones students “get.”  I try to direct students to the ignored parts of an essay.  If a section feels unimportant, then why is it there?  What does it do for the argument?  Along these lines, I ask peer editors to find quotations from the essay that challenge a student author’s argument.

But sometimes the best way to think gray is to pay very close attention to the text.  That was my suggestion for Appiah.  Students will want to dismiss him as all “kumbaya” and “Let’s all get along.”  But then I direct them to a small but crucial quotation from Appiah’s text: “Cosmopolitanism is the name not of the solution but of the challenge.”  Asking students to explain what Appiah means, to account for this quotation within his larger argument, to see cosmopolitanism as both a challenge and a solution… that is the stuff of thinking gray.

What are your methods for engaging students in a “messy” reading?

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Categories: Argument, Critical Reading, Critical Thinking, Emerging, Rhetorical Situation, Working with Sources
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The Super Secret Formula: Still Super If Not So Secret

posted: 11.6.09 by Barclay Barrios

When I think back on all of the little class activities I’ve developed in my time as a teacher I don’t think any have spread or persisted as much as the Super Secret Formula.  It’s on my mind because one of our former teachers (now in Georgia pursuing her PhD) mentioned using it with success in a recent e-mail.  That same week the waiter at my favorite breakfast place (who also happens to be a freshman at school) also mentioned loving it.

So what is the Super Secret Formula?  Well, simply, it’s

Cl > I > Q1 > E > T > Q2 > Ce

Students start their paragraphs with “Cl,” a sentence that states the claim of the paragraph.  Then with “I,” they introduce a quotation from the first author, adding a sentenced that explains it (“E”).  The next sentence makes a transition (“T”) to a quotation from a different author, “Q2.”  Finally, students take a sentence or two to explain the connection between the two quotations (“Ce”) and how it supports the argument they’re making in the paper.

The concrete structure of a “formula” provides a good scaffolding for students to build a solid paragraph that works with quotation use but the risk is, of course, that all their paragraphs will becomes (literally) formulaic.  When using this exercise, I start by having groups use the formula to make a sample paragraph.  Then I challenge groups to come up with other formulas for working with quotations.

This is my Golden Tool of my Lore Bag—it always seems to work and students love it.  I think of course they love having a concrete pattern and set of instructions to learn how to think connectively and thus to synthesize while working with quotations.  But I always find that taking the writing class out of the writing classroom has some near magic effect.  There’s something about a scientific-looking formula that taps into some other region of students’ brains and bypasses any anxiety they may have about writing.

So, still super if not so secret.

(If you’d like to see more ideas for working with quotations, read my older post “5 ways I help students to work with quotations.“)

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Integrating sources, Student Success, Working with Sources
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