Thursday, June 09, 2005

More on the Writing in Quantitative Disciplines

I'm still processing a lot of information, so I haven't worked out exactly what my thoughts are, but wanted to get them down. And since we're transitioning from one blogging software to another at work, this is doubling as my "work" blogging.

Today was the technology day, the day we paraded a bunch of different technology options in front of them and talked about how they might use it to give better feedback on student writing. We had everything from Acrobat to Word to DyKnow to Blackboard. I did the Blackboard part, which I didn't really like doing (which probably showed) because I really think that Blackboard is a good administrative tool and a bad pedagogical tool. Fortunately, we have a plug in for Blackboard that creates a wiki and blog-like areas, so I focused on those.

I actually like the wiki area because it's much easier to use than regular wikis. There's no additional code or markup to remember. It's very easy to figure out how to use and it has lots of possibilities. You can upload files and and images and generally create a pretty decent-looking web site. You can even get to the html underneath and do some fine-tuning. You could also do things like highlight and change text color and you could track changes by looking at the page history. So you could see a project evolve over time. It was hot and I was tired and they were tired, so I didn't quite enthuse enough about some of these possibilities.

I was thinking about some of the responses I've gotten to the previous post and about some of what I think I'm hearing about writing from the participants. This formal structure thing is *huge* and unfortunately, it's something that's mostly foreign to humanities, even writing folks. It's not that writing in the humanities doesn't have a structure; it does. But that structure is not explicit. For example, a lit paper may lay out a kind of lit review or methodology section by reviewing the previous research on the topic at hand. But this is done in a a kind of narrative fashion and there's no heading that says "Literature Review" as there often is in quantitatively-oriented papers.

When I was studying composition and rhetoric more formally, we would call the formal structure of a science/social science paper an artifact or an indicator of the discourse community. Students would struggle with figuring out what the structure was and how to write so as to appear part of the community. So what I was thinking was that the structure, since it is so formalized, is easy to master. It's the more subtle aspects of that discourse community that are difficult to master. And so what we were trying to do was to find ways to encourage that mastery among students without having to invest an enormous amount of time.

There were two things that seemed key. One was writing a good assignment and making sure that within that assignment, your expectations were clear. This does not mean creating a 5-page treatise on what to do and not do, but creating a simple, clear description of the task.

Another key was letting go. And this was the doozy for a lot of people. The key to mastering writing (at least one of them) is practice. Give the students an opportunity to practice a lot. This means letting them participate in discussions and review each other's work with the professor merely checking in once in a while to make sure things are going in the right direction. There were a few people who expressed concern about this because they were going to lose control of the situation. What if they do something wrong? But they don't need to discuss things with each other in writing because they can do that in person. What this boils down to is, what if they don't need me anymore?

When I worked at a greeting card company years ago, we had a card with an unfortunately close typesetting. The card read, at first glance, "LET GO GOON!" It became our motto for those stubborn folks who can't seem to let go of something; they're gnawing at a bone. It really read, of course, "LET GO GO ON!" And that's what I want to say sometimes. If you let go of x and let the students really work on it (with guidance from you once in a while but not your controlling presence), then you can go on to y or z. And the students will know x a lot better than you might think.