Sunday, November 26, 2006

Student writing

I do not teach writing, but I require all of my students to write papers in my classes. In the process, I encounter a range of recurring issues (as all you Lit/English profs out there get to enjoy daily, I'm sure!) I have papers due in two of my classes this week. Today, I received an email from a student in a class where they submitted first drafts. Like many of this student's classmates, s/he used a vast number of direct quotations in the paper. Now, in my field it is NOT standard practice to use direct quotes, unless you are citing a legal document, personal account, or some other special case. I find myself marking student papers with comments like "do not use direct quotes" or "paraphrase". I have also referred them to this site to explain the way I expect sources to be cited. It remains a problem, though. The above mentioned student sent an email today including this:

I don't understand why it's better to paraphrase than it would be to use the direct words out of the sources. I feel that by using the direct quotes from the sources it strengthens your argument.

I responded with:

It is standard in the social sciences and sciences to NOT use direct quotes, the way they are used in the humanities. See this link: (link above). If you are citing a specific law or code, it's OK to use a direct quote, otherwise you should synthesize the information from your sources into your own words.
Good luck, Dr. N.

I wonder if others encounter the same issues? This student is about to graduate and will be teaching high school next fall (not in the humanities, I might add!)! Does anyone else see reason for alarm? Am I wasting my time to require these papers? I often wonder if the only writing the students are doing is in their English courses- most of them cite in MLA format (not appropriate for any of the courses I teach) or use footnotes or other schemes of their own. My U is supposed to have excellent students from the tops of their classes, but I am not impressed with most of the writing I see. Any other rants out there- since many of us will be heading to grading jail soon?

ETA: See the comments below (including my response)- I'm getting some great perspectives from those who teach composition. Thanks, everyone!

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11 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

I'm in grading jail, but I'm not grading :)

As somebody trained in English literature who teaches writing, I think a few things are at the heart of what you're dealing with in your post.

1) Most of the people who teach writing are NOT familiar with writing across all disciplines. People assume that all "english professors" are experts in all styles of writing, but that's just not true. Most people who teach writing get VERY limited training in how to teach it, and I certainly never got any training in teaching writing outside of my own discipline.

2) Most of the people who teach writing do not have the teaching of writing as their primary commitment. Either they are grad students whose primary commitment is their own course of study, they are comp/rhet people whose primary commitment is rhetoric (and not comp), they are literature people whose primary commitment is literary criticism, or they are adjuncts whose primary commitment is to scraping out a living by teaching far too many courses.

3) I don't think that there is necessarily a direct correlation between writing ability and students being at the top of their classes. Writing ability instead (I think) has a direct correlation to the amount of work a student is willing to put into writing within a particular form (a) and to consistent efforts on the part of instructors to provide students both with a process for writing and with a rationale for different writing processes (i.e., not only HOW to cite but also WHY to site; not only that one CAN paraphrase but WHY one should paraphrase certain kinds of information) (b).

I think that it's important that you require these papers because the fact of the matter is that if people in the disciplines DON'T require writing in their disciplines that is appropriate to their disciplines, the students will NEVER learn how to do it. Writing instruction programs are NOT the answer to these sorts of issues with student writing, because the people who teach in writing instruction programs do not come from a variety of disciplines - they come from just two - lit, or comp/rhet.

Ok, now I really should go make myself grade these portfolios my students turned in last monday. I am not at all pleased with the first couple that I've glanced at, which may mean that anything I have to say about writing instruction is bogus, as clearly they are not learning what I want them to learn in my own class :)

Anonymous said...

yes, agreed with Dr. Crazy, who I would like to call an expert on the matter.

glad you are requiring it because it is needed!

k8 said...

As a writing specialist (and, by the way, someone who regularly uses both APA and MLA), I wonder why you associate writing ability with familiarity with discipline specific citation conventions? I would guess that most of us who are comp-rhet specialists focus more on the more universal components of writing - writing in different genres, argumentation, stylistics, etc. - than writing for English(as literature).

I try to teach/push paraphrasing. Really, excessive use of quotations isn't as prevalent in the Humanities as you might suspect. And I try to teach students how to recognize the conventions of different disciplines by teaching them different ways to read discipline-specific texts. We do need more Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) programs, though. Part of the issue is, as mentioned above, that most students learn citation from English teachers (in middle school, high school, and beyond), and most of these teachers/professors specialize in literature. And this can be great - I love my literature colleagues and many of them are very good writing teachers - but they don't have the same training in the teaching of writing as composition & rhetoric specialists.

I guess my question for you would be: How are you teaching these papers? Are you spending time teaching students how to write for your area of specialization? Or have you assigned that somewhat amorphous creature, the 'research paper'?

Addy N. said...

Hi k8: Thanks for the comment! Just to clarify- I don't equate good writing with discipline-specific knowledge. I do, however, equate it with being able to read articles and books and be able to synthesize the information into a cohesive paper. I do assign research papers and do not provide specific instruction on how to write, so maybe I'm asking for trouble! My assignments are very long and detailed and the students complete the work in parts (I got some great ideas and training on how to write good paper assignments in a faculty workshop on "improving student writing in content courses"). I appreciate your efforts to teach writing across disciplines and agree that we need more of that. I also know that learning to write is a life-long process. I don't expect my students to write like faculty, but I hope to expand their horizons and get them to explore topics beyond what we cover in class. One other note- most of my students in these courses are non-majors, so my course(s) may be their only exposure to my discipline. Thanks again for your thoughts!

Dr. Crazy & JustMe: Thanks for your feedback, too! I know a lost of bloggers I read are in English departments, so it's interesting to hear things from your point of view- including the people teaching the comp courses. I don't envy that teaching! Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that all our dire warnings about plagiarism scare students into feeling that quoting is safer than paraphrasing.

k8 said...

I didn't think so, but I hear people say such things and mean it. The same goes for grammar - there are some who see the misplacement of one comma as 'proof' that a student writes poorly, while missing some of the larger issues the student is grappling with.

If this isn't the home discipline for these students, they could be having writing problems because they are working with unfamiliar material. Some research has indicated that when people are struggling with unfamiliar content/disciplinary knowledge, some of their writing skills actually regress. They come back when the writer is more familiar/comfortable with the discipline and its conventions. I see this in the writing center when I am working with a student on a reoccuring basis on papers for different courses. I can see a marked difference in writing quality depending on whether it is a paper for a course in (or related to) the major or a new area of inquiry. And of course, I've seen the discomfort (ok, let's call it what it is - pain) some students who aren't humanities majors feel when they are trying to write a close reading paper for a literature course. Working outside of their comfort zone is difficult, but a necessary part of learning, I think.

Arbitrista (formerly Publius) said...

I must confess that I come from a somewhat different perspective. In political science and philosophy, I find extensive quotations very common. In part it's because a lot of the analysis is exegetical. It's also the case that if you're making an argument, it's useful to have the exact statement another made right in front of you.

Just my two cents.

Addy N. said...

Hey publius- I can totally see your point of view. In my discipline, most writing is based on scientific research, so it isn't necessary to use direct quotes very often (just ask that Hussy of yours!) ;)

Arbitrista (formerly Publius) said...

Yeah, there's definitely not much science in what I do. Something which Brazen points out to me all the time!

Bardiac said...

This is a really interesting post. I actually talked about the rhetorical choices in different fields in my writing class today because of reading this.

To be honest, I never much thought about teaching students that different fields really think about quoting vs paraphrasing differently. I just sort of assumed they'd pick it up. So maybe the key is for all of us to actually talk about what our expectations are and why in our classes?

Addy N. said...

Hi Bardiac- That's really cool that my blog is influencing classes in other states! I love it! I have also gotten great feedback and ideas from other bloggers (i.e., an assignment for this semester) and I really love this virtual interaction. Today, when I thought "hmmm... what will I do with my classes next semester when I travel?" I just did a post on it to get ideas! Thanks for the comment- I also have realized that I just assume students will figure out how I want them to write, instead of me actually explaining. I think I will revise my assignments next time to cover students who have not written in my discipline.