Why They Can’t Write

I just wrapped up my second read for the #PhDSkills project, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write. Much like I did for The Writer’s Diet, I want to provide some summary thoughts here to supplement the lengthy Twitter thread.

In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner has written a two-pronged manifesto. On one level his target is a system starved of funds, weighed down by folklore, wracked by misguided fads, and ruined by rounds of reformers without experience. It is a bleak picture, and Warner does not shy away from it. Teachers are expected to work miracles, while being expected to take a vow of poverty and to work with inadequate resources. Meanwhile, student performance has remained roughly constant. There are no easy solutions outside a large-scale re-commitment to education, but Warner articulates how these failures undermine his ability to teach writing at the college level.

In other words, it isn’t their fault.

I found this argument compelling, but, as I tweeted at one point in the thread, I am the choir for Warner’s preaching.

In this post I want to reflect on the second prong, lessons from years in the classroom. At its heart, Warner’s advice consists of key ways to reconsider assignments and assessments to bring them closer in line with what we claim to be teaching.

  1. Avoid teaching writing through a list of rules of dos and donts. Rules only work if the students understand why the rules exist.Deprogram students from thinking about writing as mere word-generation designed to pass superficial examination, encouraging them to think about writings as thinking.
  2. Give students agency over what they write.
  3. Find ways to make writing meaningful. For instance, encourage students to write for an audience that is greater than the professor.
  4. Give students the agency to fail, to learn from failure, and to try again.
  5. Don’t require students to write about topics they do not know about.
  6. Approach assignments as activities and unpack the process students need to go through.
  7. Frame assessment in terms of improvement and the next opportunity, not simply justifying a grade.
  8. Remember: writing is hard and students need opportunities to develop expertise

This advice emerges from the comp classroom and some of the specific tips such as to teach “writing experiences” struck me as most useful in that context. Yet, these underlying lessons are broadly applicable across disciplines and Warner includes an oblique indictment of professors in other fields who lament their students’ inability to write, namely that they, too, bear some of the responsibility.

I teach history at a college level and since entering graduate school I have heard history professors bluntly declare that they don’t teach writing. They explain this position by falling back on the claim that history is too big (true) and that students learn those skills in English classes (stretching the truth, particularly since lit professors could similarly pass the baton). The silo approach to academic disciplines is backward on a number of levels; in this case it sets overworked composition teachers up to take the blame for failing an impossible task.

Since I want to put my words into action, I have my students write as much as I can feasibly give feedback on. The methods I use, however, have changed over time and will continue to change.

I particularly have an issue with the pedagogy of the “bluebook” in-class exam, which I see as a concession to scale. As a TA I probably graded a couple thousand of these exams, which usually consisted of an essay (sometimes with the prompt given in advance) and short answer questions from an ID bank. The students came to class stressed and sleep deprived (few people ever took my advice to get a full night’s sleep before an exam) and then dumped anything and everything they knew onto the page as quickly as possible.

On occasion students wrote brilliant essays in this format. These essays received all the validation of a dozen check marks, a high grade and a “Great job!.” More frequently these exams were objectively a mess as the students tried to prove that they had learned, at least for those fifty minutes, the content of the class.

The truth is that I am not interested in what a student can memorize and write down under those conditions. When I got my own classes I resolved that I would not give bluebook exams unless absolutely necessary and I have kept that resolution.

(I also have a few ideas how to modify bluebook exams when the logistics of a large class overwhelm my principles, but I will cross that bridge when I come to it.)

What I do instead is assign a variety of writing assignments. Some have not worked: a book review proved too challenging because students didn’t have adequate context and I am still tweaking how to best have students write source analyses.

Others have been smashing successes in my opinion. I assign take-home exams where my students write essays on big questions in the field. The assignment guide the students receive gives them several sets of prompts (it changes, but usually a set of two and a set of three prompts) and they are expected to use at least one primary and one secondary source to answer the question. I also add some additional advice: these are big questions of the sort that you could write a comprehensive exam answer in graduate school or a book; you ARE NOT expected to address the entirety of the topic, but need to narrow the focus and make an argument on the topic.

When I return the assignments covered in marks about a week later, I summarize the common problems. Students tried to do too much; there wasn’t a clear argument; that sort of thing. I tell them that the notes focus on how to improve on future assignments because the final is the same format. Then I say that if they are not satisfied with the grade, they have an opportunity to revise the assignment, on the condition that they meet with me.

About 20% of my students take me up on the chance to revise. When they come to my office, I usually skim their papers briefly, hand the exam back, and open with the question “how would you improve this essay?” What follows is a 15-20 minute conference where the students and I reflect on their essays and talk about how to improve the next draft.

Some students come back to conference more than once, but students write significantly improved essays after revision across the board. Even more encouraging is that these experiences carry through to the final so while most students improve from the midterm, the ones who revised their midterms improve more.

I also work in additional ways to help students think, write, and reflect throughout the semester, but this exam format is my favorite. Thinking about the points enumerated from Why They Can’t Write, this assignment fits in the genre of historical essay, but in a class where students are developing the necessary subject knowledge. Further, my emphasis is on writing as thinking, not word-generation. Students receive the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and reflect on their process, and my feedback is on how to improve on their writing for next time.

This is by no means a perfect assignment; I particularly want to find ways to give students more agency, other assignments could scaffold to this one better, and, ultimately, students are still only writing for me. But it is a start.

Why They Can’t Write has given me a lot to chew on as I design my syllabuses for the coming semester. I am particularly giving closer thought to unpacking the assignments as activities where “writing the paper” comes only at the end of the process.

And so this choirboy sings, teaching students to students to write is a project that professors across disciplines need to own (see also: the writing across the curriculum movement) and whether this sentiment appeals to you or you remain a skeptic, you should read Why They Can’t Write.

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#PhDSkills is a collaborative project created by Naomi Rendina and Greg Wiker where graduate students and early-career academics volunteer to read and review on Twitter books on teaching and writing. Why They Can’t Write is my second contribution and I am happy to talk about the book further here or on Twitter. I will be back with another review in early February when I tackle Steven and Victor Cahn’s Polishing Your Prose.

AIA-SCS San Diego: A Reflection

I spent the last weekend at the annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies in San Diego, CA. I composed this post to reflect on my experience at the conference, almost entirely in two airplanes and the San Diego and Denver airports. The bulk of this post follows the jump, since I ran long and I doubt most people reading this are interested in the proceedings of an academic professional society.

For those who are interested: this is a birds-eye reflection rather than a blow-by-blow recap. See my Twitter feed for specific comments about papers.

Continue reading AIA-SCS San Diego: A Reflection

Sourdough or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market

“In every wheel of cheese, there’s revolution, alliance, betrayal…Can you feel it?”

I told him the truth: I could not.

“Nope. You’re honest, I appreciate that. Of course you can’t. I couldn’t, not at first. We’re blind to it. But this is their world, not ours, and their stories are greater.”

Her job working in robotics at a company called General Dexterity in the Bay Area crushes Lois. It pays well by most standards, though less so by San Fransisco standards, but the preternaturally motivated and motivating CEO pushes his employees to finish projects related to the development of robotic arms and the cheerily obsessive corporate culture encourages them to forgo everything but work. Many people sleep in the office. One group, including Lois, takes to the latest fad diet, a grey nutritional paste called Slurry. She nearly burns out.

Then she discovers a small restaurant that delivers her two rejuvenating foods: a spicy soup and sourdough bread to sop it up with. Only two men work at the restaurant where this food is produced, the brothers Beoreg and Chaiman. The brothers are Mazg, a hidden European ethnic group with a proud culinary history (part Jewish, part Roma in structure), and when they are forced to leave San Francisco they deliver a gift to their “Number one eater”: a portion of their sourdough starter, instructions for care, and a promise to write.

Lois earned her title for a reason, ordering the same food multiple times a week. She doesn’t cook, let alone bake, but feels an obligation to the Beoreg who she has spoken to on the phone so many times, so she makes a loaf of bread. It emerges from the oven warm and delicious and with a misshapen face on its crust. So she makes more, selling some and trying out for a spot at one of the area Farmer’s Market. Before long bread-baking takes over her life and Lois finds herself ready to quit General Dexterity and try to make a living making bread, with a trusty robotic arm to help stir the dough. But like Alice entering into wonderland, Lois’ adventures have just begun.

Sourdough is a comic novel that treats three serious issues bluntly but each with a light narrative touch. Two of these appear in recurring scenes.

In the one, Lois attends the “Lois Club”, founded by her grandmother, where every Lois has a distinguishing adjective. Lois is wounded to find out that she is “boring” Lois. Bread baking changes this, giving her a distinguishing characteristic, posing the question which is more fitting: “bread” Lois or “interesting” Lois.

In the other, Lois falls in love with her Beo, the chef who won her heart through her stomach.

The third topic is tension between tradition and innovation. This is the most well-developed theme, a function of its development through the main narrative arc, both in the San Fransisco food scene and the General Dexterity corporate goals.

Sloan talks about bread and food bacteria with loving care and more than one scene features characters waxing poetic about microbiology. Moreover, he makes it clear that while Lois has potential she still knows very little about baking, and the reader is introduced to the topic through her eager and inexperienced eyes.

Despite these virtues and legitimately funny episodes, though, his treatment of Lois’ sourdough starter left me cold. This is not an ordinary starter, but a magical one that requires almost no effort to produce the most wonderful bread provided only that the baker feeds and serenades it. The peculiar traits of this starter are fundamental to the plot, meaning that it transcends a simple sense of wonder at this thing that Lois wrought (and that she did not actually work for). Instead, it provokes envy in other bakers whose own starters do not measure up, ironically undermining the otherwise loving portrait of baking bread.

Overall, I appreciated the sentiment that baking bread makes a person inherently interesting as someone who bakes bread and I understand both the catharsis and the mania that comes with baking bread. Sourdough was not among my favorite reads of the year, but it is a light, clever novel that filled a different niche than my usual fare.

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I am currently making my way through American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I am riveted so far, though I somewhat mistrust its tendency to psychoanalyze Oppenheimer as a young man.

The Dark Forest

“For the majority of people, what they love exists only in the imagination. The object of their love is not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination. The person in reality is just a template for their dream lover. Eventually, they find out the differences between their dream lover and the template. If they can get used to those differences, then they can be together. If not, they split up.”

Make time for civilization, for civilization won’t make time.

The sequel to the Hugo-winning novel The Three-Body Problem picks up where the first book left off, with the world in a crisis era. A fleet from Tri-Solaris, a technologically advanced civilization cultivating the earth for colonization, is on its way…and will arrive in a little over four hundred years. How will the human race respond to this crisis when the enemy is capable of reading and hearing everything, has put a cap on the advance of science, and no nation yet has so much as a single space ship?

The central plot of The Dark Forest is humanity’s preparation for the all-but inevitable doomsday battle.

Humanity gambles its fate on reckless plan. If the Tri-Solarians know everything said or written, then the only hope for survival is to appoint saviors empowered to come up with plans in the security of their minds. The UN appoints four men Wallfacers, named after the practice of meditation, and empowers them to appropriate resources to defend the human race––with bureaucratic oversight, of course.

Three Wallfacers are obvious choices: Frederick Tyler, a former US Defense Secretary, Manuel Rey Diaz, the president of Venezuela who defeated a US invasion, and Bill Hines, a renowned diplomat and pathbreaking neurosurgeon. For each of these the Earth-Trisolaris Organization appoints someone a “Wallbreaker,” designed to foil their efforts. But the fourth Wallspeakers is a curiosity, a failed Chinese professor named Luo Ji whose main contribution to the world outside a string of disastrously fleeting sexual liaisons is to have been an early adopter (and earlier abandoner) of “Cosmic Sociology” in a conversation with the astro-physicist Ye Wenjie.

Nobody quite understands why the UN appointed Luo Ji (least of all Luo Ji, who tries to reject the appointment), but the Tri-Solarans see him as a threat and determine to kill him before the plan he doesn’t know he is concocting foils their invasion.

Everyone else prepares, pioneering innovations to space travel and hibernation so that people can see their plans to fruition. In the years that pass, humanity survives “The Great Rift” that threatened to destroy humanity prematurely, and makes great strides in military technology, but overconfidence breeds complacency and the greatest threats are the ones they don’t know about.

The Dark Forest is not a character-driven novel in the traditional sense. As such, Cixin Liu’s characters in this series feel somewhat impersonal, though this may also stem from cultural differences. Here, at least the story engine is the tension between individual agency, the solipsistic desire for personal pleasure, and the bureaucratic structures that mitigate both––for good and for ill. The individual is the only hope for society, but the overriding impulse for most people is to take their own pleasure. Luo Ji is one protagonist, the unlikely hero and a vehicle for exploring the best and worst of human nature, his principal antagonist is humanity, which, in turn is also a protagonist faced by a combination of Tri-Solaris and itself.

Like its predecessor, The Dark Forest blends styles to explore broad philosophical questions. This installment, however, is best described as a blend of two science fiction types: the doomsday confrontation of an Orson Scott Card and the broad, galaxy-spanning scope of an Isaac Asimov or Olaf Stapledon. The combination resulted in long periods of philosophical meditation punctuated by moments of frenetic action.

I struggled a bit with remembering the characters who carried over from the first book, but that is a function of my being a native English speaker, but this was my only complication in a novel that I burned through.

Non-linear in chronology and epic in scope and fusing Chinese worldview with a philosophy that is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about human nature, I loved The Dark Forest and am looking forward to see how the series concludes.

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I recently also finished reading Sourdough, a comic novel about a young woman who discovers bread and love, and so abandons her lucrative, soul-sucking job in tech, and will be writing about it in the next couple of days. I just started American Prometheus, a Pulitizer prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer that I picked up on a recent trip to New Mexico.