Friday, June 13, 2003

Teaching Writing with Blogs

Clancy Ratliff posted a query to her blog, CultureCat, asking for help on how to use blogs in her writing course.

Here's an excerpt:

I'm thinking I'll have each student keep a blog, and at the end of class each day, maybe during the last fifteen minutes, I'll have them do "progress posts"--sort of a "what I've learned, what I've accomplished" thing. That will help the students to synthesize concepts from class, hopefully. I want them to use the blogs to post about whatever they want, too, but ultimately I want the blogs to help the students with their projects. Please give me any other tips you have about having students keep blogs!

She got some really good advice from Mike, who has his own blog at

Mike observed, among other good stuff, this:

I guess one big question would be, how are you planning on evaluating the writing? I would assume that you probably wouldn't use the same criteria as you would with an essay, in the hopes that students might feel more at ease and relaxed in their posts. I've never had students keep blogs, but I've done similar things with journals and bulletin board posts; what worked for me was to set it up as a forum for low-stakes public writing.

I find this exchange between Clancy and Mike illuminating and iconic. Substitute any new writing genre for blog -- WWW site, Flash presentation, PowerPoint, Web discussion board, e-mail -- and you get at the core questions we all face as we begin to incorporate the growing varieties of online writing into our courses.

For me, the questions are:

1. What role will this new writing play in my larger course goals and purposes? Will it be the point of the course, or will it support some other learning and/or writing goal?

2. In what ways can these new technologies and forms of writing help my students become better writers overall?

3. In what ways can these new technologies and forms of writing help students discover and think through the ideas they're asked to explore?

4. To what extent should students be judged on the traditional measures of writing quality (Audience, Purpose, Argument, Clarity, Coherence, Usage, Style, Punctuation, and so on) within the conventions these new technologies create?

The beauty of teaching, the fun of it, is that there never has to be one fixed answer to these questions. Each course is an experiment in learning and teaching, each syllabus and each lesson plan is a hypothesis. It is in practice, when students meet and engage their teacher, the course, the assignments, and the learning technology, that we see what works, what doesn't work, and what sort of works.

My guess is that if Clancy's students find blogging useful for achieving the course goals she sketches out -- developing their projects and summarizing what they've covered and learned each day, that they'll want to also create and keep their own personal blogs, ones outside the course. That is, like email discussion lists and discussion boards and instant messaging and WWW sites, students might strike out on their own, and work outside the blog required for the course.

Testing, One, Two, Three

The New York Times's (free registration required) Tamar Lewin describes learning how to grade papers for the SAT II writing test. Any of us who've done placement test reading on our own campuses or for our own programs will be able to relate to the strange experience of being "calibrated," wherein readers are trained to apply the reading rubrics and ratings the same way.

Read the piece closely, and you'll hear Lewin expressing something any large placement or evaluation test reader must come to grips with: dealing with writing that's not really written to be read, but written to be evaluated. And reading writing not to hear what a writer has to say, but to see if a writer can write at some level of competency. So reading is as regimented as the conditions for writing for the test are.

Students who wrote the exams Lewin read had only 20 minutes to write; they had to "respond to the statement 'The world is getting better all the time.'"

Meanwhile, Lewin and other raters were told:

Ignore the handwriting. Read holistically, not analytically. Do not reread. Read supportively, and grade what's there, not what's missing. If the paper is absolutely illegible, or completely off topic, give it to your table leader. Read the whole thing before making any judgment, since some papers improve greatly once the student gets going. Remember these are children, and they had only 20 minutes to write. And remember, even if this is the 90th paper you're reading on the war in Iraq or Sept. 11, it's the first for the writer.

But that's the nature of this kind of testing: artificial writing for artificial reading. Still, it's better than relying on multiple choice.

The one advantage that writing programs have when they design their own essay placement procedures -- the test question or writing prompt(s); test writing conditions and time limits; rubrics; and reader training -- is that, unlike the SAT II, writing programs can shape the testing to match their courses and goals for first year writing. They can allow students, if they want, to use dictionaries and handbooks during the writing. They can devise questions that might involve responding to readings of the kinds students will get in college courses.

But even with all that, a lot of what Lewin describes will ring true for what many of us do locally when we run our placement programs.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Plagiarism: Why Does it Happen?

The Boston Globe's David Mehegan explores why, with all the scrutiny and the ease of searching text and tracking words the Internet provides, some writers continue to plagiarize. A good question, and good to see it addressed in a major newspaper constructively, instead of as just another story about the horrors of plagiarism and the need to crack the whip on plagiarizers. I'm particularly struck by this passage, early on in the article:
Why do they do it? With the Internet making it easy to disseminate and read virtually anything anyone writes, it has become that much easier to catch plagiarists. So why do writers continue to steal the works of others? There are many explanations: gnawing self-doubt, narcissistic self-confidence, haste, pressure from publishers and editors, unrestrained ambition, a self-destructive need to court disaster, and, sometimes, ignorance of what plagiarism is.

''There has to be some anxiety that motivates it,'' says Louise J. Kaplan, a New York psychotherapist and author. ''It's very much tied up with a person's uncertain sense of personal identity. Tricking people and convincing them that something untrue is true helps them conquer some other anxiety.''
I read this and can't help but think of students. I know self-doubt plagues many novice writers, which is what most of the students I teach are -- novice academic writers struggling to understand academic conventions. And too, many students are also ambitious, or narcissistically self-confident, sometimes self-destructive, and frequently ignorant of what plagiarism actually is. (They're also ignorant of the simple fact that if they can find something on the Internet, so can their teachers.)

So what's a teacher to do?

For me, I've been really struck, and really impressed, by the notion of voice and plagiarism, which is why this Boston Globe article strikes me as so useful. I think one central "anxiety that motivates" plagiarism in students is what Keith Hjortshoi explores in this PDF excert from his book, Transition to College Writing: "Theft, Fraud, and Loss of Voice." He writes,
Both deliberate and accidental forms of plagiarism often result from the central challenge student writers face, especially in research papers: establishing a voice and perspective of their own. I’ve already explained that if you have not established your own authority over the subject and a reason for writing, it will be difficult to identify the boundaries between your ideas and language and those of other writers. What you have to say will be what others have already said. Everything you write will come directly from sources and will seem to need citation.

Again and again I've had students complain to me when I worked as a writing center tutor and explained to them what they needed to cite, that then everything in their paper would get a footnote. They're shocked to realize that they're not there, in their own writings. No voice, no argument exists that they've shaped. Instead, they've merely repeated what they've researched.

And it's not that as writers they need to be original all the time. (Clearly, if you read enough op. ed's, you'll find the same arguments being rehashed on any given hot issue again and again. See Michael Kinsley's "Sympathy for the New York Times: Often plagiarized. Seldom plagiarizing." at, for a more developed explanation of argument and story idea rehashing.) But a writer does need to find their own voice and point of view on an issue. It can be a point of view and argument shared by others, but the writer needs to have confidence in their take, in their articulation. And in writing, one's take is expressed in words and those words need to be one's own. The trick for many writers is knowing when words they write are recalled formulations from words they've read, and when they're new formulations they've made.

Students, I've learned from Hjortshoi, often stumble into plagiarism (or rush head-long into it) because they either cannot find or do not trust the authority of their own voice.

And that often happens because teachers don't do enough to foster that sense of authority in their students. Yes, of course many teachers do all they can to help writers find their voice, and they devise smart assignments, and collect work in increments and do all kinds of things to teach writing well and to help students understand the complexities of plagiarism, and despite doing this, students still plagiarize. But very often, many teachers do not do these things and student writing is cast adrift, separated from the writers who produce it.

Helping writers to find their voices, to be confident enough to use their voices, to move beyond, in first year writing courses, which is what I teach, the information-dump-research paper, the read-and-regurgitate-research paper, is no easy thing. Many students got grades in the past by excising voice and opinion from their own writing. They don't trust that I'll trust their voice.

But I can't think of what else there is to do, but to work in the direction Hjortshoi urges. Helping students find their own voice, their own words, so that they can distinguish better their voices and words from the voices and words of the sources they research, hear, read, and that really, when you think about it, always already surround them, seems to me more and more, the best way to help students understand, really, what plagiarism is all about.

Monday, June 09, 2003

Keyboarding and Penmanship

CNN has a story that asks the question, are keyboards killing cursive penmanship? As one whose own handwriting had atrophied to near illegibility over the years my use of computers to write had increased, I do know keyboards can hinder writing by hand to the extent they displace writing by hand. The hand frequently loses its muscle memory and efficiency for writing cursive and print well.

The CNN story is interesting because it focuses on the use of computers in the third grade of a California school, Horrall Elementary School, where kids reportedly prefer writing on the computer than writing by hand.

"Computers are better," the 9-year-old says, blonde pony tail bobbing behind her. "With typing, you don't have to erase when you make a mistake. You just hit delete, so it's a lot easier."

Such attitudes are worrying to a growing number of parents, educators and historians, who fear that computers are speeding the demise of a uniquely American form of expression. Handwriting experts fear that the wild popularity of e-mail, instant messages and other electronic communication, particularly among kids, could erase cursive within a few decades.

At technology-savvy Horrall Elementary -- where students take keyboard lessons in third grade, precisely when they learn cursive -- Monique's teacher, Ed Boell, is fighting the trend. He refuses to give extra points when students turn in laser-printed homework assignments with fancy computer fonts, and he urges kids to send handwritten letters to parents and friends.

Now I write online a lot, everyday. Almost all writing I do is online, in this blog, in email, in a word processor. But I find myself agreeing with Ed Boell, and I find myself deliberately "fighting the trend." I've been practicing my handwriting lately, trying to get it not just to be readable, but to be something aesthetically pleasing. I want my handwriting to look well-crafted again, something I haven't thought about or cared about in close to 20 years.

Why? I think in part for nostalgia for a skill I've lost. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the student union at the University of Hartford when I was a student there in the late 70's, writing a letter by hand, going slowly, making it neat. And a woman who was on the janitorial staff happened to glance down as she passed, and she stopped, and told me my handwriting was very beautiful. I hadn't thought about that since the day it happened, but it came back to me a few months ago when I was trying to write a quick note to my daughter's teacher and I had to start over more than once because I kept scrawling too poorly (and there was no backspace key to correct a sentence that started out on one train of thought and then jumped track to another midway through).

I also happened to be cleaning out some old boxes and found some old letters that I'd received at different times from my mother. She's been dead for a few years now, but those letters and the care of her handwriting seemed suddenly evocative and important. More so than a uniform font from an email or word processor would have been. There can be a kind of personality quirk extant in the press of ink, the stroke and slope of letter, to one's handwriting that there cannot be with keyboarded words. It's not an issue of voice, and a way with words, but an issue of what the penmanship itself conveys about the person.

And I think that's worth having, the personality of one's penmanship. So I'm practicing my handwriting again, trying to shape and make it something that expresses me.

I also like writing by hand again because it's a change of pace. It changes how I think, and what I have to do to shape and keep a thought. And I like that mental variety in the ways that I think and plan the writing. I think there's value in that. When I teach again, I might experiment with having students do that, do a draft by hand, all the way through, even to the final draft. Just to see what happens.