On mechanical writing pedagogy

Robots are Grading Your Papers! [link to article]

by Marc Bosquet, commentary from The Chronicle’s Brainstorm Blog, April 18, 2012.

The gist of his argument: mechanical grading is made possible by mechanical pedagogy; the core element of academic writing (literature review, an argument in relation to the critical conversation) isn’t being taught because–at least in larger universities–students are being taught writing by contingent faculty who themselves haven’t been taught:

Like most of the students I’ve seen in two decades of teaching at every level including doctoral study, they have no flipping idea of the purpose of academic and professional writing, which is generally to make a modest original contribution to a long-running, complicated conversation.

To that end, the indispensable core attribute of academic writing is the review of relevant scholarly literature embedded within it. An actual academic writer’s original contribution might be analytical (an original reading of a tapestry or poem). Or it might be the acquisition or sorting of data (interviews, coding text generated in social media, counting mutations in an insect population).  It might be a combination of both. In all of these cases, however, an actual academic writer includes at least a representative survey of the existing literature on the question.

So why don’t we teach that relationship to scholarly discourse, the kind represented by the skill of summary in Howard’s research? Why don’t we teach students to compose a representative review of scholarship on a question? On the sound basis of a lit review, we could then facilitate an attempt at a modest original contribution to a question, whether it was gathering data or offering new insight….

The fact is, I rarely run into students at the B.A. or M.A. level who have been taught the relationship to source material represented by compiling a representative literature review. Few even recognize the term. When I do run into one, they have most commonly not been taught this relationship in a writing class, but in a small class in an academic discipline led by a practicing researcher who took the trouble to teach field conventions to her students.

I think we do teach this relationship to scholarly discourse in our small liberal arts college setting, particularly where the teachers are also the scholars. We can do more; we can learn more about what students are lacking, what they are doing when they hear or think “sources” (the sort of quote-farming Bosquet mentions).

Actually, I think Joseph Harris (author of Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts), is precisely someone to help us think through this. He will be visiting Washington College for faculty workshops in August. Stay tuned.


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