Monthly Archives: May 2019

School Shouldn’t Bore Teachers

Suppose you are teaching a unit on the modern workplace. For the past few weeks, you’ve been talking about the gig economy, the rise of Uber and AirBnB, and the increasing pressure of automation. You’ve assigned some relevant readings, lectured engagingly about them, and led the students through classroom activities to stimulate their own thinking. Hopefully you’re not already bored with this scenario but, if you are, I invite you to re-imagine it around any other subject (take Hamletplease). Imagine that both you and your students are interested. Even under those conditions, of course, Nigel Caplan is right to worry that examining the students might be a bit of a chore, no doubt as much for them as for you. “What jobs are safe from the gig economy?” he imagines asking the students. “Write an essay in response giving specific reasons to support your answer.” He dismisses the idea with a single word: “Yawn.” In this post, I want to consider his alternative, suggest why it is unnecessary, and propose a different attitude. There’s no reason you should fall asleep while grading school essays.

“What am I asking students to do here?” Caplan asks, and answers: “I want students to make an argument that is convincing because it uses strong appeals to logic, emotion, and authority (ethos, logos, pathos), so they need an audience in mind.” He thinks that the original assignment lacks a proper rhetorical situation, which he then provides: “Write an article for your school or university career service newsletter arguing why a particular job is a good choice in the changing workplace.” That does the trick, he says: “Now we have a genre (an opinion article), a context (career service newsletter), an audience (peers), and a purpose (defending or promoting a career choice).” Of course, the situation remains “imaginary” since the students aren’t all going to get their work published in the relevant newsletter, but it primes them to adopt a rhetorical posture, and that’s certainly a good thing.

But is Caplan right that the traditional school essay doesn’t provide the students with genre, context, audience and purpose? In his version, he says, students are given an audience of their “peers” to write for, but he means this in the broad sense of the entire student body, potential readers of the career service’s newsletter. The traditional essay, by contrast, has much a narrower and, I would argue, much more interesting audience: the community of peers who are taking the same class, have read the same readings, and have participated in the same discussions. Trying to persuade this critically equipped audience that a particular job is “safe” will be much harder and require much stronger arguments. It should also therefore be much more interesting for you, the teacher, to see what they come up with. That is, we already had a genre (the academic essay), a context (the class or discipline), and an audience (knowledgeable peers). We also have a purpose: to open your thinking to criticism from intellectual equals. That’s what we want them to be good at on the subject of the modern workplace.

Caplan begins his post by promising to make grading less boring. “No, you don’t win a house or a new wardrobe, but you might not fall asleep during your next grading session.” I know that a lot of academics dislike grading, but this is partly because we often ask too much of the exam situation. There is no way around the fact that the students are trying to demonstrate their competence to the teacher. The trick is to make sure they understand that the relevant “competence” is the ability to discourse intelligently with their peers on the subject. Next, remember that there should be a perfectly respectable “middling” performance of that competence, which will indeed be yawn-inducing but doesn’t need to put you to sleep. It shouldn’t take any effort to identify; just give it the C it deserves and move on. The student will usually feel the same way about the assignment, so everyone is happy. The interesting papers are the ones you’re going to give As and Bs to and you’ll have more interesting things to say about how they can be improved as well. You perk up and do the feedback accordingly. Ds and Fs need to be considered carefully because these are students who may not even belong in your class and would be happier elsewhere. But this can only really be determined if the student wants to talk to you about the grade. Don’t sweat over it.

Grading, like writing, is a difficult business. You should always design your assignments so that they give you an insight into whether the students have learned what you have tried to teach them. You should of course be interested in whether your students are learning what you are trying to teach them, so grading should be an interesting part of your teaching experience. But we should never overthink it. The students can’t be wholly and truly themselves during an exam because they are inexorably trying to show you they’ve learned the big words you’ve tried to teach them. Remind them that you are really more interested in making them able to talk precisely and critically to each other and that you have an ideal vantage point on the minds of their peers, whose papers you’re also grading. Education requires us to watch with affection how people grow, as Confucius said. Grading is a good place to see this happening.

Swales and Feak on Audience

In preparation for a series of posts on Nigel Caplan’s “genre makeovers”, I had a look at John Swales and Christine Feak’s very influential Academic Writing for Graduate Students. (Caplan mentions it in this makeover.) I think I now understand why I feel myself somewhat at odds with the English for Academic Purposes field and its “anti-five paragraph essay campaign.” Caplan’s main objection to these exercises is that “they lack situation, audience, purpose, and meaning.” And I have been arguing that this isn’t as obviously true as he thinks: the situation is the classroom, the audience is a classmate, the purpose is to expose your ideas to criticism, and the meaning is the content of the course.

But then I read the opening pages of Swales and Feak’s book and realized what I’m up against:

Even before you write, you need to consider your audience. The audience for most graduate students will be an instructor, who is presumably quite knowledgeable about the assigned writing topic and will have expectations with which you need to be familiar. Other possible audiences include advisors, thesis committees, and those who will review research you may want to present at a conference or publish in a paper. Your understanding of your audience will affect the content of your writing. (p. 4)

This understanding of the audience will indeed affect the content of our students’ writing and it is precisely this, not the five-paragraph form, that makes Caplan yawn at the prospect of reading another set of student essays. While the actual reader of a school assignment is, of course, usually the instructor, and while a paper does need to satisfy its reviewers before it is published, the implied reader is always an intellectual equal, a knowledgeable peer. The instructor is not expecting to be impressed with the depth of the student’s understanding of the material (but is, of course, happy to be surprised); the grade is given on the basis of how well the student engages with the material at the level set by the class. The peer reviewer, likewise, is always reading the paper on behalf of the disciplinary community that the writer is presumably a part of. In other words, Swales and Feak simply get the audience of academic writing wrong.

This has far-reaching consequences.

Audience, purpose, and strategy are typically interconnected. If the audience knows less than the writer, the writer’s purpose is often instructional (as in a textbook). If the audience knows more than the writer, the writer’s purpose is usually to display familiarity, expertise, and intelligence. The latter is a common situation for the graduate student writer. (p. 6)

In actual fact, the latter is a common misconception about academic writing, one that is perhaps understandable among undergraduates (though still wrong) but absolutely in need of being abandoned by graduate students. They must feel like their purpose is, not to show the teacher that they are smart, but to open their thinking to criticism from people who are qualified to tell them they are wrong. If they are to “display” anything it is their awareness of possible sources of error in their thinking and their willingness to stand corrected if they’ve made a mistake. The common situation of the scholar (and that is what a student is trying to become) is where the audience knows about as much as the writer on the subject at hand. The business of scholarship is to expose ideas to criticism.

I can see that I have my work cut out for me. But I think my plan still holds: I’m going to work through each of Caplan’s “makeovers” and show that the introduction of “genre” considerations really just affords us an opportunity to return what a rather reductive understanding of “essay” removed from the more familiar school assignment, namely, the situation, audience, purpose, and meaning of traditional scholarship, ordinary academic work. With those things firmly in mind, the five-paragraph essay offers a rich, if of course limited, opportunity for experimentation.

Genre Study

Campaigners against the five-paragraph essay often suggest replacing it with a genre-based assignment. When John Warner asked Nigel Caplan and Ann Johns to provide some practical advice for teachers who had been persuaded by their critique of the form, for example, here’s what they said:

A good place to start is by choosing one “essay” assignment in your course and making it genre-based. For example, if your curriculum requires you to teach “description” so you’re currently assigning a “descriptive essay,” think about real situations in which description is useful, such as an online product review, a real-estate listing, or an entry in art exhibition catalogue. You’ll be teaching the same rhetorical mode and points of language. But your students will find the task meaningful, which will be reflected in the quality and depth of their writing.

[Update: Caplan has a series of posts on his blog about “genre makeovers”, which offer more suggestions for how to rethink traditional five-paragraph assignments.]

I have been trying to argue that the academic essay offers an entirely “real situation” for students to engage with. It is important to get the students to understand that academic work is “meaningful” too, and to demand that they reflect this understanding in the quality of their writing. I think a huge opportunity is lost when teachers give students good grades for vague and shallow writing just because it meets the formal requirements of the assignments, as if that’s all we were asking them to do. Do we reward students merely for writing an English assignment in English, or for observing a word limit? Of course not. That’s just the minimum requirement. Surely, the grade should be determined on the basis of how well they do the work within the constraints they’ve been given.

One of the problems with the five-paragraph essay, then, has to do with how the students (and apparently some of their teachers) understand success. And here Matt Johnson offers some excellent advice. In a post from last year, he described how he got students to see the purpose of the parts of the five-paragraph essay and, therefore, to see how the same goals might be achieved by other means. His idea is to subject the five-paragraph essay itself to genre study. He knows that it’s not actually a genre, of course; he’s just letting it represent the essay genre as a whole. It’s a sort of laboratory specimen, we might say.

Johnson begins by leveraging a fact that Warner, Caplan and Johns are actually campaigning to make a thing of the past. “I assume,” he tells us, “that my students have all probably encountered the five-paragraph essay before.” Notice this general virtue of a canonical form, which is also a virtue of canonical content. We can endlessly debate whether Harold Bloom is right to put Hamlet at the center of the Western canon, but surely we must all grant that it’s useful to be able to assume that all your students know who Hamlet is and what he symbolizes in our culture? Likewise, a common understanding of the “classic” introduction can facilitate a discussion about the essay genre, as Johnson shows:

On the first day I put up the following question for each section of the classic five-paragraph essay:

-What is the classic explanation for how the introduction to a five-paragraph essay should go?

-Why do you think an introduction is supposed to follow that form?

-Are there other ways one could accomplish these goals?

One natural issue that arises here is about the “thesis statement”, which the students will initially say should go at the end of the introductory paragraph. I think there are lots of good reasons to do this. There are good reasons not to make it the first sentence: this is often boring (“I will argue that…”) and doesn’t feel motivated. Instead, begin with a commonplace that establishes a shared area of concern between reader and writer. There are also good reasons not to leave it to the end of the essay (in the conclusion): the reader wants to be able to assess your arguments critically along the way and therefore wants to know where you’re going before you get there.

Are there exceptions? Sure. Are there alternatives? Yes, of course. But the students are here investigating the rationale that has led to the widespread use of the general form. They can also therefore see that simply having a thesis statement in the last sentence of the introduction isn’t a guarantee that you’re writing well. You still have to accomplish the goal of an introduction: to motivate your argument and render it open to critical scrutiny.

Johnson’s exercise will naturally get students thinking about their reader. And this is the most important thing for me in my defense of the “school essay”. It trains students to write for their peers. It’s one thing to describe a product you are reviewing for someone to be able to decide whether to buy it, it’s another to discuss it at a technical level with someone else who is also qualified to review it. Likewise, describing a house for the purpose of selling it is one sort of art; describing it for the purpose of redecorating it in collaboration with other people who live there is another matter. Helping students to write well “for academic purposes” is all about fostering awareness of the knowledge you share with your reader. That’s why I think Johnson’s exercise is an excellent way of explaining to students why academic work is meaningful; it helps them to appreciate the specific sort of meaning that is made of academic texts. It’s not for nothing that I define the genre as knowledgeable people writing down what they know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. Students need to learn the value of this art.

A Peer-Grading Experiment Revisited

I’ve written about the use of peer grading at university before (here and here) and suggested a specific way of integrating it a course (here). After discussing it with colleagues, administrators, and even legal counsel, I’ve thought some more about it. What I want to suggest is still pretty abstract and schematic, but I think the basic idea is sound and I hope to try it out at some point in the future.

Let’s think about this within the framework of a one-semester course, with 10 weeks of instruction (and weekly assignments) and six weeks of independent research, culminating in a final term paper.

  • 50% of the grade comes from the term paper.
  • 35% of the grade comes from the weekly assignments.
  • 15% of the grade comes from how well a student’s peer-grading matches the teacher’s.

Here’s how it would work. Every week the students are required to write a single paragraph about that week’s reading and submit it 24 hours before coming to class.

The teacher reads and grades these paragraphs as part of class preparation. The teacher is given two minutes per paragraph and the students are told that these are the conditions under which the paragraphs are read. They are told to write in such a way that the qualities of their writing and thinking are obvious. The teacher gives the first paragraph 50 points. All the subsequent paragraphs are given points relative to the first. The students are then given a grade A, B, C, D on a normal distribution. (Fs are given only to paragraphs that receive 0 points, which is to say paragraphs that are woefully incomplete.)

Note: In a class of 60 students, needless to say, this will be a lot of work. About two hours. The idea is to count this as a substantial part of the teacher’s prep time. It should be obvious how reading a paragraph from each student about how they understand that week’s reading will be useful in planning and executing the lecture. Learning how to make use of this information may itself be an occasion for pedagogical innovation.

After class, the students are given 5 paragraphs from their fellow students to grade, ranking them from best to worst. The paragraphs are selected randomly but so that each letter grade is represented: there is an A and D in each packet, and at least one B and C. The students are told this in advance.

The students now get a grade according to how well they predicted the teacher’s grade. Getting all five in the right order earns an A. Each mistake costs one letter grade.

I imagine there are many possible objections to this approach. I want to acknowledge, first of all, that this places some pretty strong demands on the teacher, whose grading is now subjected to rather public scrutiny. The students must be told that this is sort of a game and it isn’t always entirely fair. Just as in sports, the umpire can make the wrong call sometimes. The point is that, in the absence of outright corruption, these little injustices average out over the long run. This in itself is an important lesson for students to learn. Quality in writing is not only partly subjective, it is subject to error. Get used to it.

I also want to point out that the students will be asked to assess the quality of the written work of their peers on a weekly basis. This, I want to suggest, is an invaluable experience. They will be asked to notice that it is, in fact, possible to compare written output and evaluate it. They will be asked to detect the differences that distinguish the best work (A) in a sample from the worst (D). All the work may be “good” in its way. They will be asked to decide what made one better than another. They will not be allowed to say that this is meaningless question or an impossible task. Hopefully, this will give them some insight into the teacher’s predicament as an examiner. It may even occasion some empathy.

A Familiar Yet Highly Complex Piece of Mechanism

“…the difficulty encountered by the student is that of representation by drawing of a familiar yet highly complex piece of physical mechanism…”

Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands

I suspect that one source of the animosity that some writing instructors feel towards the five-paragraph essay is a failure to appreciate the complexity and variety of individual paragraphs. But we should remember that telling students to “write a paragraph” is almost as open a task as telling them to “use their hands”. Indeed, I often compare the task of writing a paragraph about something they know to the task of looking at their own hand and drawing it. Notice I didn’t tell them what they had to know, nor did I tell them what position to hold their hand in. But what if I had? “Write a paragraph about your opinion of the Prime Minister.” “Draw a picture of your fist clenched in anger.” Even when the content is specified, the possibilities are endless. We are making some reasonable assumptions about the student’s mind and body, which may sometimes need to be modified to accommodate exceptional cases. (Not all students have a Prime Minister to opine about; not all students have a fist to clench in anger.) The student is now free to solve the problem in a manner that demonstrates the competence we are (obviously) testing.

The first thing the student must do is to specify the object. The student no doubt has many different and perhaps contradictory opinions about their head of state. Since the task is to write a single paragraph, some decisions have to be made. Will the student concentrate on the substance or the style of the leader? Will the student choose a single idea to present unequivocally or will the student declare their ambivalence? Likewise, the student’s fist can be observed from many different vantage points. Will the student represent it from their own point of view or from the point of view of an observer? Will the observer be the person toward whom the anger is directed? Will the fist be shaking in the air or pounding a table? Again, there are many different ways of solving the problem. An idea, like a hand, is a complex object.

The next thing to consider is the reader, the viewer. What assumptions does the receiver bring to the experience of the representation? When writing, I always present this as “the difficulty” that the reader faces when confronted with your idea. Will the reader find it hard to believe, hard to understand, or hard to agree with? You may think your prime minister is an inspiring leader or a mass murderer. What does your reader think? What is hard about the claim you are making? What resources does your viewer bring to your drawing of your fist? What symbolism are they capable of discerning in it? What will they make of the cufflinks you include in the drawing? What will they make of the ring on your finger? What will they make of the hair, the wrinkles, the tattoo? All of these are questions that need to be considered when solving the problem of expressing anger through the representation of a hand.

Finally, there’s the question of time. How much time to do you have to produce the drawing or the paragraph? And, given that, how many attempts will you be able to make? If this is an external constraint, the question can influence the decisions you make about the content and audience. If you are free to decide yourself how much time to put into it, you will obviously take the result of those earlier reflections into this one. I won’t pretend to know anything about drawing, but when it comes to writing I recommend working in 18- or 27-minute sessions separated by 2 or 3 minute breaks. That’s a good amount of time to get a paragraph down. You can make two or three attempts an hour that way, and if your aim is to improve your writing, it’s a good idea to practice. So if you’re trying to improve your students’ writing, I likewise encourage you to get them to write in this way. Get them to appreciate the finitude of their problem. If possible, get them to enjoy it.

A paragraph, like a hand, is a highly complex mechanism. But it’s also a very familiar one. I consider the paragraph to be the “unit of composition”; John Warner prefers to think of the “idea” as the unit. Our important point of agreement is that this focus of our attention should become familiar to the student. Writing a paragraph should be as ordinary an experience as having an idea. Writing a good paragraph should be a bit more rare, but students will also have significantly fewer good ideas than ideas in total. And this sense of quality in writing and thinking is much like our sense of quality in drawing and seeing. The good writer is better able to think something through; the good draftsman is better able to see the aspects of things. The craft of representing improves the precision of our experiences. What is really happening is that we are coming to appreciate the complexity of the “mechanism”, what Kant might call the manifold of experience through which we come to know the objects among which we live. Overcoming the difficulty of representation is a matter of becoming familiar with complexities.