Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 4

For those regular readers of my blog who expect a daily post, let me offer my apologies, as I've not met that standard the last couple of weeks. First I was on family vacation though I did bring my laptop. Then I took an unplanned trip because my mom was in the hospital. (She'd back in her condo now.) The lesson is that anytime anyplace does not mean every time every place and the barriers to communication, which clearly exist, are most definitely not technological. I'm back in CU now and how to resume the regular pattern of posting.

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Peer Mentor/Teachers and Writing and Editing

Immature writers, and mostly I mean first year students but the thought probably applies to many throughout their undergraduate career, frequently have a problem generating prose when asked to do so in a formal setting (producing a draft for a term paper). They play games like adding filler text, adjusting margins and font, and unfortunately knowingly plagiarizing all are part of the paper they write. I'll return to why they do this in a bit, but note here that in an informal setting, instant messaging and email, these same students are writing all the time. So the issue is almost certainly with the formality of the task, not the writing per se.
Many more mature writers, and I believe this is the case for many I have met since entering the learning technology field, have something of the reverse problem. They take what I would call a CYA (cover your derriere, an acronym I learned from hearing John Poindexter testify during the Iran-Contra hearings) strategy in their writing. That is, the writing proves they've done the requisite research. It conveys thoroughness of purpose, in some cases in an overwhelming way. Frequently, however, what it misses is a sense of the reader. The bulk of the writing is daunting - rendering it inaccessible to many who want lighter fare. The writing needs a heavy dose of editing with a good pruning knife. But what should be cut? The readership is diverse, right? Better to leave everything in because somebody will want that particular information.

My sense of the freshmen writing problem is that that is stems from lack of prior work - the students haven't done the requisite research in advance of the writing task and they haven't done the pre-writing necessary to talk about how to assemble that research into a coherent discussion, identifying the themes and the arguments that will provide the direction for writing the paper. In many cases the term paper is "outside" the other course work that they are doing so the procrastination follows naturally.

One of the ideas of the inward based service learning is to keep students engaged and accountable via the group meetings. When it comes time for a project that requires research, the group's internal mechanisms should have already been firmly established and the project work should be a continuation of what they have already been doing. If the group has already been doing some writing to facilitate its own work, for example, via keeping minutes of the meetings, and if the work itself has had some writing aspect all along, the larger project should be less daunting. The group through its structure should ensure that the research gets done in advance of the writing and then it should be able to talk through the issues that are necessary for a pre-writing activity. My sense is that this will go a long way to alleviating the first problem with student writing.

If by the junior year the issue of generating prose has largely been addressed and most students are competent at that, then the second problem must be addressed. This, I think, is harder as editing requires a strong sense of taste and a sympathy for the reader that may be hard to develop. But the motivation to develop this would seem clear as in the private sector the ability to write a good memo, clear and cogent, one that captures the attention of top management, obviously is a skill that can be tied in a straightforward way to career advancement.

Of course, this may not be the biggest need in the students' writing as perceived by the instructor of that junior level course, who mostly will be concerned about teaching that subject. So I don't believe that the second issue can be addressed unless this becomes a strategic goal of the curriculum as a whole. My sense is that serendipity alone will not get us there.

Indeed, one of the larger benefits in moving to the inward based service learning approach is that faculty will have to reconsider what are the major learning goals for the undergraduates and undoubtedly some of that will focus on student writing. My own bias here is that the primary goal should be to learn to write for intelligent non-experts (engineers writing for business types, English majors writing for scientists, etc.). Apart from the two issues I've identified above, the major problem is that education makes the students insiders into their field of study while a substantial part of what is needed is to make them generalists, especially in how they communicate.

So what we hope to achieve is some recognition of these goals at the curricular level and then a structuring of the peer mentor/teacher activities to help turn those goals into outcomes.


zeevveez said...

Dear Lanny,

I see that you are really into education matters. So am I. I try to help reduce third world illiteracy. also I invented a software to make the internet more accessible for senior citizens, and students with learning difficulties.I thought maybe you'd like to try my software for CITES.

Lanny Arvan said...


Why don't you leave a url for your software so I and other readers of the blog can take a look.