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Friday, March 12, 2010

Teaching writing

There was an article in Inside Higher Ed last week about the difficulty of teaching writing. Rob Weir offers some useful advice about using visualization to help students organize their thoughts and structure their papers. He concludes with this caveat:
These models are strictly for students who struggle with organization. Every one of them is something that college students should have learned in high school. The models won’t add the magic that differentiates sparkling from pedestrian prose. They will not turn your students into Marlowe or even Sarah Vowell. Nor will they cure syntax errors, grammar, shallow thinking, or lack of command of the subject. What they can do is provide students with methods of imposing order upon randomness.
Unfortunately for me (from this particular perspective), the students in my writing class all seem to have a decent grasp of basic organization already. The reason this is unfortunate for me is that since they are solid on basic organization, I have to figure out how to help them improve the more nebulous aspects of their writing. Again, to quote Weir:
Teaching writing is hard on many levels, not the least of which is the gnawing suspicion that it's impossible. There are techniques instructors can share and exercises that sharpen student skills, but what is it exactly that makes one student’s writing sparkle while another’s lies pallid on the page? Answering that is akin to resolving the nature-versus-nurture argument by assigning precise percentages to each.
The writing class I teach focuses on writing like economists, so I focus on a) writing with and about data, and b) staying as much in the realm of positive analysis as possible. Getting students to write concisely, without the (often normative) rhetoric that they are used to throwing into other papers, tends to be the biggest challenge. I constantly struggle to figure out how to explain to them that such writing doesn't have to uninteresting. The only way I really know how to show them is by example, which translates into spending hours marking up their papers with suggestions for different ways to phrase things. But since I only do this on their final papers, I wonder how many of them really look at those suggestions or think about how to take those suggestions and incorporate them into the next paper.

I'm not really sure what my point is here except that teaching writing is hard...

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