Myths and MethodsCxC Summer Institute, Louisiana State UniversityPatrick Bahls, UNC Asheville
Sound familiar?“I got into mathematics [physics,engineering, computer science,etc.] so I don’t have to write!”
MythsWriting has no place in content-heavy quantitativedisciplines.Teaching writing takes too much time away fromdisciplinary content.Folks outside of English have no business teachingwriting in the first place!
Myths, debunkedPractitioners of every discipline must learn tocommunicate effectively in a manner appropriate totheir discipline.Writing can be made into an integral component ofany course, no matter how content-heavy.No one is more well-qualified than disciplinarypractitioners to help novices learn how best to learn ina particular field.
Outcomes for writingExercise. Take 2 minutes to write, nonstop, about thekinds of ways in which you use writing in your work.Now take 2 more minutes to write, nonstop, about thelearning goals your students may meet throughwriting.
Writing and critical thinkingAs you may notice in the writing you’ve just done,writing helps to foster creative and critical thinking.Various kinds of writing give us the means to inquire,apply, reflect, and communicate…all of which are stepsin a critical thinking process.
Writing-to-learnMuch writing done for purposes other thancommunication can be classified as “writing-to-learn.”Such writing is done not in order to conduct a“transaction” but rather to help the writer togenerate, discover, invent, organize, rearrange, develop, elaborate, connect, interrogate, and otherwiseinvestigate ideas.
Reflective writing andmetacognitionCertain kinds of writing can serve metacognitive goals.Reflective writing helps students address affectivelearning goals (sense of agency, self-authorship, membership incommunity, confidence, etc.)“Writing about writing” helps students developawareness of audience, purpose, tone, and otherrhetorical aspects of effective writing.
MethodsMuch writing-to-learn can be termed “low-stakes”writing; it is not beholden to extrinsic valuations andis performed without external consequence.Some writing is more elaborated and adheres to amore well-developed process.No writing process is universally applicable; there is no“one-size-fits-all” approach to writing.
Low-stakes writingLow-stakes writing is just that: writing done for itsown sake, with little consequence(grades, assessment, or even feedback).Freed from external pressures, writing becomesludic, playful, and fun, exploratory.
Example 1: freewritingThe purpose of freewriting (introduced in the 1970s byPeter Elbow) is to shut down the writer’s “internaleditor.”In writing quickly and without regard forspelling, grammar, etc., ideas are made to flow morefreely.Later the writer can return to ideas generated throughfreewriting, in order to connect them and flesh themout more fully.
Example 2: dialoguesIn writing dialogues (or multilogues) the writer adoptsmultiple voices, that of an expert and that of a novice.As the purpose of a dialogue is to encourage intuitiveunderstanding, writers should be coaches away fromsounding too clinical or “textbookish.”Writers should also be wary of writing monologuesrather than dialogues.
Example 3: microgenresEffective writing often calls for clarity and conciseness,properties exemplified by the writing done in manysocial media spheres.Asking students to write Twitter tweets, SMS texts,Facebook status updates, and even internet memeswith disciplinary content encourages development ofthese attributes.
Learning to writeWriting is not a monolithic process, and it can often bebroken into identifiable stages whose recognition canhelp both writers and instructors of writing: pre-writing outlining and organizing drafting, reviewing, and revising
PrewritingThis stage involves the generation, discovery, andinvention of ideas, and the development of initialconnections between them.Here many of the low-stakes activities discussed abovecan play a role.
Organizing and outliningOnce the writer’s gotten her ideas out in the open, thetime comes to put them in some sort of order.Various tools and techniques (outlines, annotatedbibliographies, metacognitive organizationalstrategies, etc.) can help create the neededconnections before “polished” writing takes place.
Drafting, reviewing and revising“Real” writing can then begin, assisted by regularopportunities for feedback and review.The nature of feedback can vary, incorporating writtencomments, comments in conference, peer review, etc.The timing of feedback is important: the best feedbackis formative and not summative, occurring in-processand not at the process’s end.
Responding to writingResponding to writing need not be an arduous task.Various methods makes giving feedback both effectiveand efficient.Happily, composition scholars suggest that feedbackneed not (and often should not) attend to grammar,spelling, etc.
Feedback methodsHow might you respond to students’ writing? Put the pen down! Mark minimally. Respond as an honest reader. Use rubrics, as appropriate. Model good revision. Respond multimodally (in writing and in conferences).
Peer reviewWhen well-organized, peer review can be more thanjust a means of giving students more feedback on theirwriting.Peer review opportunities encourage student agencyand authority.Peer review can also lighten the teacher’sworkload, freeing her from having to read every draftof every assignment.
Revision versus editingCare should be taken to distinguish between revisionand editing.The latter involves more substantive modification andthe former involves more superficial adjustments.Generally, editing should take place as late in theprocess as possible.
No “one-size-fits-all”As indicated before, everyone will have a differentwriting process.In fact, reflecting on one’s writing process is aneffective exercise.Ask your students to “draw” their writing process: theresults might surprise and enlighten you!
Example 1: Newton v. LeibnizAll students in a calculus course work together to stagea civil trial between Isaac Newton and GottfriedLeibniz, inventors of calculus.The students’ written work includes• legal briefs (from Newton’s and Leibniz’s attorneys)• letters of support (from the mathematicians’colleagues)• newspaper articles (from reporters covering the trial)• personal reflections on the project (from all students)
Example 2: Bad Science FictionStudents watch several sci-fi films (Star Wars, JurassicPark, etc.) demonstrating flawed scientific principles.Each student then “corrects” these flaws, roughlyrewriting the movie’s screenplay appropriately.The student then writes a letter (in lay language) to thefilm’s director, acting as scientific adviser.This project and the previous one provide the studentswith clear purpose, audience, and scaffolding to helpcomplete the project.
Example 3: Grant ProposalsStudents are presented with some issue facing thelocal community (e.g., insufficient math literacy)They are then asked to write a grant proposalsuggesting an intervention program that can be put inplace for no more than a given cost.The exercise can be made more authentic if actualcommunity partners are involved and if monies (e.g.,from curricular development funds) are available tofinance grants deemed successful.
Wrap-upThese activities and assignments demonstrate writing’sappropriateness, even in quantitative classrooms.Writing should not be an afterthought to disciplinarycontent; it should instead be an integral part.Writing instruction need not be difficult or time-consuming…it can even be fun!No one better knows how to integrate writing effectively thanthe instructor in a particular discipline.
Resources Bahls, P. (2012). Student writing in the quantitative disciplines: Aguide for college faculty. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Bean, J. (2012). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide tointegrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in theclassroom, 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. New York: OxfordUniversity Press. Gottschalk, K. & and Hjortshoj, K. (2004). The elements ofteaching writing: A resource for instructors in all disciplines.Boston: Befored/St. Martin’s. Peterson, A. (1996). The writer’s workout book: 113 stretchestoward better prose. Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.