Wednesday, May 04, 2005

On Writing, Teaching Writing, and Measuring Improvement in Writing

Today's Chronicle features an article, quite predictable actually, about the National Council of Teachers of English critique of the new writing part of the SAT. The critique goes in two parts: (1) in spite of what the College Board says this test won't measure the student's ability to write and (2) English teachers will teach to the test and have students practice formulaic writing that will be to the detriment of their general education on writing. I haven't seen the SAT but writing to a purpose in a timed situation without a lot of forethought is certainly problematic. (Allowing forethought in such a situation would invite plagiarism, but let's leave that observation as it is not the purpose of this piece.)

The Chronicle piece provides a link to the NCTE site. And from there one can find their Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing. These are a list of "principles," each followed by some articulation of why the principle makes sense and how it might be implemented. Most of these I agree with and endorse. I want to take issue of a sort with the very first one, or at least part of it; writing can be taught. There is a phrase missing at the end of this short sentence. The full sentence would be something like this. Writing can be taught in a class devoted to the learning of writing. This is where I'd like to begin my departure.

I'll start with my own formal education on writing. I believe I had very little of it. I didn't take English in college. This probably was more by accident than plan. When I started at MIT not surprisingly I had a full slate of math and science course and that allowed room for one "humanities course" which in my case was really more social science. I really don't remember much about it other than that we read The Organization Man. In the first semester of my sophomore year, I took a course on Plato and Aristotle (without having taken the pre-requisite) and that was it for humanities. Then I transferred to Cornell, but I had bypassed their first year experience. I had a slew of emotional issues I had to work through and while I continued to be a Math major I toned that down. I took a lot of political science (which I liked) and philosophy (some of which was opaque to me but I kept taking it anyway). Writing was part of these courses, they all had a term paper requirement of some sort and/or take home exams. If I did well on those it was because I nailed the idea. If I did poorly, it was because my idea was off track. I recall a question on a Philosophy of Law test; is punishment necessary for the Law? I gave an economic analysis (this was before I had taken any economics) but afterwards I understood that what was needed to address this question was an analysis of the role of conscience. The point was that there was some amount of writing but it was always in the background as a conduit of the ideas. I have no recollection of the writing being critiqued in itself. If anything, I was told I write well.

But I think that praise was earlier, in high school. There, of course, I did take English. I think those classes were uneven, more so than the Math classes which were usually good. (One reason was that a few of the English teachers were draft dodgers and I believe had not yet made a strong personal commitment to teaching.) We did read some interesting things in English and I know in 10th grade there was a specific period where we were given instruction about public speaking. The teaching to the test fears, I believe, are legitimate. My 9th grade teacher, who ran our College Placement office, drilled us on vocabulary words, something I didn't take to very well. But I believe he also had us write fairly regularly. I recall having done several one page hand written essays. I don't recall what I wrote about or getting any instruction on improving the writing. But I do remember on the back of one of them he wrote that I should try for the school Literary Magazine. (I didn't do that, in retrospect to my regret.) The point here is that this was 9th grade. My ideas about writing had already been substantially formed at that point.

To my recollection there was nothing you would call writing in Math or Science and only rarely was there writing in Social Studies. These classes did have homework and reading (mostly of the textbook variety) but they were about ideas, not about writing. So writing was over here, in English, and ideas were over there, in Math and Science and Social Studies. (This is not completely fair to English, which had its share of ideas. But somehow you had to "get it" in English and here I'm talking particularly about poetry which I know was opaque for me as was much of the symbolism in the fiction we read. In most of the Math and Science, on the other hand I either got it on my own or my teachers, and I had a couple of good ones who taught me in several classes, made a point of explaining things when I got stuck. Biology was the one science course, perhaps because it related more to direct observation than to theory and I never could figure out how to look into a microscope and see what I was supposed to see, where I didn't get it either or I felt it was rote learning, which did not appeal to me.) The thought that writing is a thing in itself and it is other than ideas is disturbing. So where I have my biggest issue with what NCTE says is how writing is taught and if it would not be better to let it be taught en passant in the teaching of ideas.

A little side story. Not too long ago I read Robert Cramer's biography of Babe Ruth. Cramer cites Ty Cobb on how Ruth learned his swing. Since Ruth started as a pitcher, nobody coached him on his hitting. He therefore learned to hit in an uninhibited way. Since "small ball" was the approach to baseball at that time, if Ruth had started as an outfielder he would through coaching have been forced to learn a more compact swing and would have never become the prodigious home run hitter and savior of baseball. I'll get to the relevance of this story in a bit.

Now I want to jump shift. In spring of 1996 I took a week long workshop on Writing Across the Curriculum and it was a kind of spiritual bonding, both with some of the other faculty attendees and the presenters as well as with the ideas we were exposed to. At the time I was getting ready to move into SCALE as a faculty fellow and so I was full of ideas on how to teach online. What I heard at the WAC workshop resonated with me deeply. If there was a guiding philosophy for teaching online, this was it. I have several colleagues, also earlier adopters in the use of learning technology, who feel the same way. Ironically, I never taught a WAC course. But I've used what I learned at the workshop in my own teaching and it certainly helps me in framing the issues when I think about teaching.

There is an oversight committee for Center for Writing studies which I've served on and there have been return workshops and events. I participated in some of those over the years and the best part of them that I can recall is our discussion of our own writing. A colleague who teaches Italian, is widely regarded as an excellent instructor, and who was a student here before becoming a faculty member so could comment on how writing was taught said that she struggled for a long time as a writer. She found it a painful activity and this really hurt her. It took a discovery that writing was part of developing ideas, something she could do, that changed her perspective. I on the other hand don't remember ever feeling that writing was painful (particular writing tasks, yes, but writing as a whole, no). I didn't have the training my colleague had and in that respect I was untutored like Ruth. I learned to find my own voice on my own. Consequently, there may be much in my style that is unorthodox. But generating prose is not a problem.

I struggle with whether my own experience should guide my view about good teaching. But I am convinced that writing in English class and not elsewhere is perncious. People need to engage in ideas and one part of that engagement is writing about those ideas. That needs to happen throughout the program of study, any program of study.

This is already a long piece but let me turn to the measurement of writing. A big issue is pre-writing and the role it plays. It is extremely important and it takes as long as it takes. It is comparatively easy to compose the draft when the pre-writing has happened, almost impossible if it has not. While I started today's essay almost immediately after reading the Chronicle article, some of the ideas here I've been pre-writing for months, perhaps longer than that. Certainly they have been percolating. In a timed environment with a prescribed subject, the student writer who has been thinking about the ideas beforehand and who has come to some conclusion is at a huge advantage over the student who is coming new to the subject. So if timed tests are measuring anything, they are measuring prior thought on the topic.

If one disciplines oneself and writes periodically, as I've done with this blog, there will be days when the essay is comparatively dull and unimaginative, because the pre-writing is incomplete or that particular idea should have been tossed into the waste basket but time doesn't allow that. So to judge writing at all, one needs to observe quite a few samples. Then one can get an overall sense as well as whether there is any growth in the skill of the writer. This, however, doesn't match what the College Board has implemented. So on this part I agree with NCTE.

But if one took these writing portfolios seriously, how does one make comparisons across students? Who is the good writer? Who is less good? As with anything we measure in college, I think I can answer that comparing one extreme to another. I don't need NCTE to separate the really good writer from the very poor writer. But I need help on how to measure gradations in between. This student shows a little bit more maturity than that one because.... I think there is some disingenuity here because there is much more overtly said about how not to measure writing (the way the College Board proposes) than on how to measure it. I understand that there are subjective elements in evaluating writing. But it can't be entirely idiosyncratic. If you and I are reading two pieces of writing how do we come to agree that one is better than the other? That needs to be answered.

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