Can a student know a topic really well and yet write about it poorly? As an instructor who wants to improve student writing, can one critique the student ideas and restrict attention to that, never digging down to play the role of copy editor to show students what a polished piece of written work should be like? In this post, I will try to address these two questions.
I spent the first fifteen years or so of my professional life interacting professionally with fellow economists and my taste in writing certainly was influenced by that. Probably the biggest influence came from various co-authoring experiences. The experience that stands out in my mind the most is when I wrote two papers with Jan Brueckner. Jan is a senior colleague, now at Cal Irvine, and in the early 80s we used to read each other's papers, a practice that was not all that common in the department. I was the theory guy and he the applied guy, so he would come into my office looking for a way to model some situation and we'd talk about it for a while and then maybe come up with something. Or sometimes I'd be wandering the halls stuck on something I was working on and walk past Jan's office to see if he was in. If his door was open, then I'd be the one to initiate the conversation.
I can't really recall, but I believe that is how we got started on the papers about Adjustable Rate Mortgages as Insurance Contracts. We fought like crazy over that first paper. We argued about the model and when that got worked through we argued about the writing up of the paper. Jan was concerned mostly, at least it seemed that way to me, with producing a slick presentation. He wanted one idea to flow into the next. Everything seemed to be about connection; the sentences had to tie together and likewise for the paragraphs. I didn't see much value in that. I was much more concerned about making sure the interpretation of the model was correct. It didn't bother me that there might be a jump shift in ideas going from one paragraph to the next.
My biggest immediate lesson was that I shouldn't continue to co-author with Jan - it was just too much of a strain. (We did write one more shorter paper together, but that was it.) It was not until ten years afterwards or so where some of the things Jan had been saying began to sink in. By that point I had gone through the Writing Across the Curriculum workshop and some of the themes about good writing seemed more generic. The reader shouldn't do more work than necessary; it's the writer who should have done all the heavy lifting in the re-writing process so as to make things easy for the reader.
In economics, particularly the academic version where there is a formal model, the author is entitled to expect the reader to work through the model. I suppose that is where I went astray. I assumed that if the reader is working through the model, then the reader can work through the prose. But it doesn't mean that at all. The author still has the obligation to make the work readable. Jan's desire for slickness was right. I just didn't see it then.
For the last 10 years or so, in my administrative role in learning technology, I've interacted with a wide variety of folks who have differed in their abilities to write and where my role, frequently, would be to make the writing better while trying hard to keep the ideas intact. In essence this was one of my primary tasks when I first started with SCALE in 1996 via my work on the SCALE evaluation. I suspended discussion on what the evaluators might study in order to make sure that in their write ups of what they did study it would make sense to those in the ALN community. (See http://www.business.uiuc.edu/~l-arvan/SCALEevalf97/Intro-JALN-Efficiency.doc. The SCALE evaluation documents themselves are no longer online, but the linked document does make mention of them. ) I continue to do this type of job today, certainly on internal documents intended for my boss or his boss, but also for documents for my EdTech unit’s Showcase.
The last time I taught, spring 2004, I made a point of interacting with my students in the same way I interact with my line of reports. We have a dialog at our one on one meetings and much of that is aimed at uncovering meaning, albeit in a practical rather than philosophical manner. I tried that dialogic approach with my CHP class. They liked it very much. I think there is much to commend it.
On the writing, I tried again to mimic what I do in my work. My reports write something. Then we have an email thread on what they’ve written. Sometimes I will revise their piece. Sometimes they do that. We talk about it in our one on ones. We use all modes to critique and improve the writing.
Finally I’m in a position to address the questions I posed at the beginning of this post. As a faculty member only, I would have said that no, if you can’t write well, then you don’t know the subject you are writing about. But I’ve had the experience, multiple times actually, where one of my staff give a clear and cogent explanation aloud, only to find what they have written is bland and not descriptive. Further, I’ve found that in that situation the person can’t critique their own writing. It reads fine to them. This is disturbing. And it is vexing from the teacher’s point of view. What should the teacher do?
If you the teacher care about the writing then I do think the first approach is a written critique on the ideas and that can be via email or as a response to a post in a bulletin board when the student’s writing appears there. And, indeed, in this way the critique can happen as dialog and be quite natural. So on this, the technology is very good.
There are then two possibilities. The first is that as the writing is revised and morphs to something that the student and instructor both find more pleasing it reaches a level which they both are comfortable with. It would be much easier as an instructor if this were the only case. Then coaching students to write better would be a largely pleasant activity. But there is a second possibility and it is clearly the less happy one. The student may respond yet the writing may appear mired in muck. It doesn’t read well and has a constipated, overworked feel to it. The student is trying. The problem is not that the student is shirking. But we’re not getting there. Now what?
The answer, I’m afraid, is that the instructor has to model good writing for the student and that means doing the rewrite, or at least part of the rewrite, on behalf of the student. Personally, I hate doing this and it seems possible that even after this the student won’t understand how to get from here to there. So I certainly don’t offer this up with an unconditional guarantee. But it seems a necessary next step to keep the student from concluding that the writing is “good enough.”
I find that editing other people’s writing in this way is extremely unpleasant. And they are apt to take it as a personal attack, a rerun of Lanny versus Jan. So apart from the poor writing the instructor likely has to deal with the emotional baggage that goes with it. Neither are fun taken individually. Together, who wants to confront this?
But for the student to learn, is there an alternative?