Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Publishing is non-count; Assignments are count

(the following is part of TESOL 2008 presentation called Teaching Writing in Online and Paper Worlds; it was originally at http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw3.html. Some of the links may have been compromised by the restoration and are still being worked on)

As stated earlier, we put everything on the web; we put fluency exercises on a class website; students put serious work on their own weblogs. This sets up a distinction: you give some, you keep some; you try out audience response with some; you hand others in for grades, and display it in your own file. The more they write, the more they get to see what works and what doesn't, what causes more work in the long run, or what gets the teacher's red pen going. Sheer volume, in other words, builds a kind of natural streamlining, where they don't labor as much over sentences; they get to the point faster; they gravitate toward topics that they have something to say about.

In the process of putting things on weblogs and editing, they become familiar with different dashboards, different kinds of weblogs; they make enough links so that it becomes a habit, and, on the last assignment, I can ask them to link the abstract to the paper, for example, or the quantitative report to the data, and they'll know what I mean, and do it. You can see the successful ones on the portfolio showcase, but you can also see unsuccessful ones, that sometimes litter the weblogs like abandoned cars. Fluency is an ongoing process, and some get farther with it than others, even within a short term.

Writing assignments on the web

Academic writing

The web is not full of cause and effect essays, classification essays, or research papers, but I'm not sure why not. Though I myself occasionally fall asleep reading the stack I brought home to grade, I'd read one that I stumbled across on the web, if it looked appealing. That's why I always get my students to format them correctly, link the references, if there are any, and be clear about their purpose. I get them used to the idea of "real audience" being just that- a surfer who enters their site, reads and comments. Because I foresee this possibility, I always think of the best prompts I can, then give them a choice of three; for summaries and summary-responses, I try to give them articles they'll like, but again let them choose. As time goes by I have fewer and fewer qualms about asking them to publish what they write. Almost all writing should be published- and all should be interesting. I wish that more writing were as sincere and tentative as my students' generally is; and a look around at their competition, what is published by native speakers, shows that more writing in general should be looked over and cared for by an editor/teacher before publishing, as well as ours is. I believe in what they have to say, and also believe it shouldn't be consigned to some closet somewhere, waiting for the recycling truck to catch up to it, if they have in fact cared for it, thought about it, written it themselves. Weblogs are forever- or at least until you "delete post"- so, I plant our academic work there, and let the google breeze get caught in it once in a while.

In the lower levels they teach students to use "First," "Second" and "Third" as markers for their essays' body paragraphs (bodies, my students call them, for some reason), and I hate contradicting other teachers, so I don't touch it. After you've read a few thousand of these you begin to have more tolerance for a fresh style that doesn't need them, and you wonder about people who grade TOEFL essays for a living. For students who rarely mark their weblogs, though, as class portfolios, or even put any sign of the class itself on there (I don't require it), maybe these "essay mile-markers" serve a purpose. I often wonder how many people stumble upon these essays, and of those, how many actually read them. Judging by comments alone, maybe not so many, and maybe that's just as well; they are, after all, only class assignments. Sometimes the main point of an essay is, "I wrote this essay because I was required to write an essay." This axiom, which screams from essays with "first," "second" and "third" in them, can now be read as, "I published this essay because I was required to publish it." This sounds bleak and depressing, but actually it isn't; I try to make assignments light enough and interesting enough, that I never have to feel that way; if I do, I'll quit. Publishing has tended to make both academic assignments and the essays that are written for them more interesting. And that's good, too, because the web has enough boring things already.

When you publish work, you must worry about standards- online standards, essay standards, public forum standards, etc. There are many approaches to this (see Online Standards). Mine can be summarized as follows: Having looked around the web, I've decided that classy essays have block paragraphs, separated by spaces; link all references whenever possible; separate titles from text with spaces; and link to a home base from which all writing can be accessed. I require all but the last of my students, and have found no trouble teaching them, except that a good number of people, both students and teachers, are unaccustomed to reading and judging things on the web, and are therefore not really conscious of how different things look when they are put in certain formats.


I have written in the past about weblogging as a separate genre (Leverett 2007). I consider weblogging to be simply linking to and describing an article or a site, then giving one's opinion about it. Ideally we stamp out plagiarism immediately, and hope that the opinion is coherent, supported, and grammatical, but in esl/efl one takes what one can get. At lower levels we work with basic web vocabulary like "site" and "link" and "browser" but higher level students are more likely to know it already, and pretty quick to teach each other. I believe that students need to learn to notice when linking to what they are talking about is clearly beneficial. It is probably the primary advantage of the web; what sets the web apart from other media is the reader's ability to go so quickly to related articles, source articles, or related data-sets, and students should take advantage of these opportunities, yet not overlink, or make tacky appearance errors that result from not understanding the mechanics of linking.

I have used weblogging extensively in high-level class based on the news; students find articles on the web and write about them, and I correct grammar as needed. These orient students to finding news on the web, and choosing what will be most interesting to them. I have to set a minimum number of sentences or else I'll get a totally minimalist approach to the assignment, but in the course of a term they usually open up and give true opinions about subjects. I don't make extensive requirements about paragraph organization, though I usually show how supporting one's opinion after one states it is a safe and standard approach.

Fluency writing

I have come to double the pure amount of writing that my students were expected to do by taking the amount of essays and papers that they were expected to do, and having them do about an equal amount of fluency writing. As time has gone by, I have found fluency writing to be more and more useful; I have had some students comment that this half of the class is far more useful and productive than the other half. In some ways it is, but it is entirely different, and has different purposes.

Fluency writing is done in a limited time; students are given a choice of prompts and asked to write ten sentences on one of them, in a limited period of time, usually about twenty minutes. The rules are clear: they will publish the writing; their grammar will be corrected but is not an issue; they are not graded on organization or even content; they are encouraged to write about what is interesting to them and make it interesting for their readers. The first draft, done on paper, is double-spaced and indented, and sets up a pattern for the rest of the class; all writing is done double-spaced and indented on paper first, and eventually published, online, in online format. Thus they are producing a large volume of writing, both on paper and online, and getting into the habit of putting paper writing in one format, and online writing in another.

In fluency writing I explore different kinds of writing that the class essays don't necessarily cover: comparison, cause-effect, opinion, classification, etc. This is partly because I believe that these need to be touched regularly, as opposed to once per term or once per curriculum, and partly because each kind of writing involves grammar that they may or may not be ready to master at any given time in their development. Usually I allow them to relax by making no grammatical demands whatsoever; I just try to make sure that I have time to line-edit what they write, and I make sure that in any given assignment they have actually done it right in front of my eyes. This has had a number of effects that have carried directly over to the essay part of the class.

First is that I am far more intimately aware of their grammatical ability, and far more easily able to spot it when they are getting help from outside sources, for example on their essays. As a writing teacher I've had to come to terms with the fact that many of my students have spouses, partners or friends with better English than theirs, and are therefore tempted every night to get help, advice or even ghost-writing services from the people in their lives. Needless to say I consider it unfair to grade an essay done with considerable outside input, side by side with an essay done entirely alone, but I can arrange class time so that as much writing as possible is done directly in it; thus, what is done outside of it will be that more readily apparent.

Second, talking about organization of writing is much easier when students are in the habit of writing every day, than when they are sitting in class, pondering their upcoming assignment, without having written anything at all yet. I find that the fluency writing sets up a pattern that is useful for other writing: students are confident of their own ability; they are used to producing writing in class; they are aware that a change in style of their writing will be noticed immediately; they are used to publishing what they write and expect everything they write to be seen by everyone, starting with their own classmates. Organization in writing is culture-specific and does not need to be demanded of them unless there is a specific purpose for it, but it's actually easier to make that demand, and have that purpose, if they are free to ignore it at other times.

Third, as the class weblog becomes a kind of class newsletter, students become critical visitors to each other's work. They are forced to visit it regularly in order to put their own paragraphs on it- but because their classmates' paragraphs are short, and interesting, and, having thought about the assignments themselves, they know the subject- they often read their classmates' work. They are each other's best customers. Audience becomes real for them, because they know that they themselves are audience. Classmates' writing is at level, appropriate to their experience, grammatical and easy to read; it is written by people who have much in common with them. They see lines of argument, styles, new grammatical forms, and expressions that they are not exposed to otherwise. They get in the habit of being in a written discourse community. They become more comfortable breaking text into paragraphs, organizing it naturally, and following conventions of the community. Watching this, I've come to notice that awareness of audience is actually measurable, in the sense that some will go through the motions for a while without developing it; others, however, get in the habit of noticing community conventions, and conforming, unless there is a reason not to.

Eliciting comments and developing a participatory impulse

Vance Stevens (2008) said: "thinking of blogs in terms of unidirectional information flow misses the point considerably...A good blog will invite comments." I have found that it's difficult to get students to just jump in and make them, without simply assigning it, and even then students have a hard time just jumping in and using the comment function. I've been wrestling with ways of making the comments board, which hides beneath each post, more of an integral part of each class, in the same way I'd like chat and e-mail to be standard devices that we use for many kinds of communication. I feel that I've done this successfully with weblogs, but not with comments, e-mail, or chat (1).

I've been looking around at weblogs recently and found examples of a flourishing comment culture. One weblog I saw had 612 genuine comments; my wife said that she'd seen one with over 6000 (2). People are actively discussing ideas, although a good amount of it is encouraged by what one person, in one of these comments, called "pimping one's own blog." How does it happen that people gravitate toward topics that catch their fancy, and get started in this "read-write," participatory experience? I ask because obviously I'd like to set up one of my own, yet I find my students treating our own weblogs gingerly, as if they are ours but not theirs, as if their every word will be judged and graded. We started publishing in topic weblogs recently (3), hoping they would start up on this, thinking maybe that this culture would gravitate over to our weblogs, but it hasn't yet. Virtually the only comments I've elicited, from them, have been the ones I've required, or rewarded, and to me that's not the same- though it has potential.

1. You would think that, if students have been part of a participatory, multidirectional communication community in the past, and are encouraged to continue that habit, and comment freely on each other's weblogs, they would have no qualms about doing so. Not so. To them the weblogs are class territory, the teacher's domain, and a minefield of intercultural misinterpretation, where they sense judgement and reprisal, and it paralyzes them. Safety is an issue, and it becomes more so when encouraging them to chat, or, I imagine, when using Twitter. In some cases, it's not that they've never done it before. It's more that they've never done it within the presumed boundaries and expectations of a teacher-student relationship.

2. This was a post entitled St. Patrick's Day, at a weblog known as "Stuff white People Like"; it was a parody, but this was lost on some commenters, and it had clearly struck a nerve.

3. See the CESL Food, Music and Carbondale weblogs.


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