Thursday, December 10, 2015

Academic Writing Is for the Birds?

"It’s tempting to just give up, and I usually do. But it’s also tempting at times not to, so here I go." (Duncan Richter)

As I've had occasion to say a few times before, one of the advantages of blogging is that it opens the possibility that Thomas Presskorn will read something you've written and think out loud about it. Recently, it gave him the chance to point me in the direction of Duncan Richter, whose blogging I haven't been aware of. His taste in music notwithstanding, he's written a brilliant post in somewhat back-handed defense of the humanities, very much in a key I resonate with. (I think I managed to justify that otherwise gratuitous jab at Belle and Sebastian at the end of that sentence, didn't I?)

Richter brings together two troubling trends in (indeed, indside) higher education, under the rubric of "making meaning" as an alternative to, I guess, actually knowing things. My own view, of course, is that higher education should make us more knowledgeable. It should not just imbue our students with greater knowledge of the world in which they live, and the history that shapes our lives, but also make us better able to know things going forward, giving us greater mastery over ourselves and, therefore, making us more bearable to our fellow humans.

The first example that Richter has found is from a recent column in Inside Higher Ed by Barbara Fister, a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College. (I'm the resident writing consultant at the Copenhagen Business School Libary, and work very closely with librarians, so this connection is highly fortuitous.) The crucial paragraph reads as follows:

From a librarian’s perspective, I'm wondering how can we address a situation where the basic epistemological foundations of our practice are up for debate. For academic librarians, the new Framework for Information Literacy has a strong emphasis on context and on making meaning rather than finding and evaluating it in finished form. It’s not so much “here’s how to do it right” as “if you have a critical understanding of how these social systems operate, you’re better positioned to participate and raise questions.” I’m still a bit skeptical that librarians can effect this shift in perspective – it has to be built into students’ coursework – but it invites us to model a more critical and big-picture understanding, from the fifty-minute one-shot instruction session on up.

I'm not going to hold Fister accountable for the entire ACRL information literacy framework, but I will, it seems, have to engage with it as closely as I've been been engaging with the "post-process" tradition in composition studies. It looks as though we're going to need to make specific efforts to bring about a shift back from "if you have a critical understanding of how these social systems operate, you’re better positioned to participate and raise questions" to, simply, "here’s how to do it right". It's not that it isn't important to understand social systems critically or to participate by raising questions. It's just that getting some basic things "right" is, in fact, foundational.

I've long been arguing that our "basic epistemological foundations" are not discovered by theoretical debate but by practical engagement. There's a craft to scholarship and the state of our foundations depends on the state of the craft. The only way to learn a craft, in turn, is "by doing". And this does actually mean "doing it right", in the sense of working towards an ideal, held to a standard that allows others to judge that you've done it wrong, which is the essential experience of learning.

And this brings us to the second reading that would have driven Richter "drink and despair" if it hadn't occurred to him just to go out and look at birds. This is another article in Inside Higher Ed that presents "findings" to show that it's the quality of a writing assignment, not the amount that that matters. As Thomas pointed out in the comment, Richter's summary of this result is rather apt: "the report provides weak evidence that the bleeding obvious is indeed true." I think this is the sort of issue Andrew Gelman sorts under the importance of considering your "priors". But Richter makes an important point about how far the field of composition studies has moved us away from a grounded, common-sense understanding of what writing is, and what turning the problem of writing into an "empirical" question has done to our literary sensibilities.

This became clear to me a few months ago, when I was reading Freddie deBoer's critique of the empirical standards of composition studies. He mentioned some weaknesses of Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift, which I had been confidently invoking in my writing seminars and lectures as proof positive that writing makes students smarter and group work makes them stupid. "Science proves it," I would say, if always with a little ironic wink. But it turns out that Arum and Roksa's evidence is being used to justify a number of rather dubious conclusions. This has forced Arum to say things like, "It is hard for me to imagine that any thoughtful educator believes that increasing the quantity of assigned writing is the most effective pedagogical approach to improving the quality of student writing," which apparently needed saying.

As I wrote in my reply to Thomas's comment, there may actually be a good explanation for the caricature of the Arum and Roksa result that "more writing" correlates with improved thinking, though not one that a ghost need come from the grave to tell us about. If we want to know why, statistically, teaching programs that assign a lot of group work generally make students dumber and those that assign a lot of writing make them smarter, we have to recognize that that it's generally easier to "craft" a smart writing task than to craft a smart group task. At the extremes: if you tell the students in one cohort to just "write about this week's reading" and the students in another cohort to just "talk in groups about this week's reading", then the students who've been given the most thoughtless writing task imaginable will get more out of it than those who've been given the most thoughtless group task imaginable. If you add to this "just grading" the result, i.e., giving them a grade for their performance (of "just writing" or "just talking"), it seems obvious that the grade for writing will be more informative and foster better learning.*

I think we who work in the academic writing racket need to take seriously observations like Richter's: "A field in which this makes waves is not one in which I want to work." Ouch! In any case, there's lots to think about here. Before the birds return from the south in earnest.

*Update (11/12/15): It occurs to me that this could be tested experimentally (although I'm not sure it would pass IRB). Give a cohort the CLA at the beginning of the school year and at the end. Give them the same readings and the same lectures (ideally, let them attend all the same lectures). But split them (randomly) into two sections for the purposes of class work and grading. The first section is split into groups that are told to meet weekly to discuss the course content. Every week, they submit 30 minutes of recorded conversation in the group (their choice of when to start the recording). The second group is to work individually, submitting one paragraph of prose every week that is "relevant" to their readings or lectures. Now, at the start of each week the students are given a grade on the past week's work. Here's the kicker: the grade is assigned randomly, albeit "on a curve" (to give a normal distribution of As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs). That is, there is no "intelligence" either in the assignment or the grading. The students are completely on their own to make sense of both and get out of it what they can. My hypothesis is that the students who are writing will still outperform the students working in groups on the year-end CLA. And also on any actually graded final exam.

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