December 8, 2008

The Encyclopedia Paper

I've noticed an annoyingly persistent trend in my students' papers. I call it the Encyclopedia Paper. I've observed this phenomenon for three terms now. I want to know more about it, so I can figure out how to make it go away. This is how I think it works:

1. Start with a paper topic.
Let's say, AD/HD.

2. Avoid forming (or conforming) to a thesis.
Just a paper about AD/HD.

3. Brainstorm things that may be related to the topic.
Definition of diagnosis
Effects in school
AD/HD and gender
Criticisms of the diagnosis
AD/HD and age
History of the diagnosis
Brain imaging studies and AD/HD
Psychotherapy or skills training
Side effects of the medication
Effect of diet on AD/HD
Socialization and AD/HD
Parenting styles and AD/HD

4. Write a draft (or several) with no attempt to organize the ideas that you brainstormed.
No need to organize the ideas if you avoided a thesis. They are all relevant to the requested page length.

5. Hand in the assignment, and you're done!

The scary part was when students told me that they've been writing like this for awhile and no one else has commented on their paper's organization. The sad part when when students told me they thought they were good writer (getting A's & B's), but courtesy of the assigned paper and my feedback felt like they aren't good writers at all. Yikes!

So how did an assignment (or my feedback) demoralize students that are good writers and students? My working hypothesis (such a nerd!) is that generally the students were perceiving writing a single thing, at which you are good or bad. This is in contrast to regarding writing as a process of communicating that varies widely depending on your intention, venue, audience, and context. In this case, they were confused by the conventions and expectations of a type of writing that was new to them.

Maybe? I'm just throwing it out there.

December 4, 2008

How I learn to Fear the Ink (Short Version)

In elementary school I knew I didn't have the right handwriting (i.e., that even, gracefully loopy, and legible type of which many of the girls in my class had. Who really dots their i's with tiny hearts?), and I wasn't full of adjectives and adverbs and fancy nouns and verbs. People got check pluses for lots of flowery writing back then.

By middle school, I really got irritated by teachers' habits of ruining perfectly good books by forcing us to write papers on them. (They also made us read many dull books. And gave us opportunities to write about how irritating, dull, or inane the story and/or the characters were. That was my motivation. Passive-aggressive writing got me through a few classes.)

By high school my hatred for writing was firmly established. It was hard to find motivation to do my work. We learned of a new torture device in the English teacher arsenal: MLA format. Some how I passed AP English and did well enough to skip the freshman composition class in college. That seemed to work out in my favor at the time, but thinking back now I'm not so sure about that.

In college, the papers got longer and required more references. (New styles & formats! APA! CBE! Chicago!) I turned in papers for my yearly required writing intensive courses (20+ pages & references) and never got much feedback on the clarity of my ideas or the mechanics of my writing.

However, toward the end of my first year in graduate school, a professor finally and metaphorically kicked my butt. She recommended me for a writing workshop because my "writing obscured my ideas." I was defensive, angry, and genuinely confused. No one told me that before! Surely if it were true, someone might have mentioned it before I got to my 500th year of schooling?!? (Okay, more like 17th grade.)

I was a passive-aggressive ass to the instructor of the writing workshop. "You think we don't know what an outline is??? Or the difference between a subject and a predicate?!? I have to sit through a weekend of this crap!?" ((Sorry G.B.!)) Okay, fine. They caught me. I did my best to let my indignation go. Ate my vegetables. Completed the damn workshop.

Upon Reflection Post Workshop
The thing was I knew how to make an outline and what a verb was, but before the workshop (and qualifying exams) I never used these as part of writing. I treated them all like reference books that never leave the shelf. But here was my problem -- this habit was reinforced by nearly all of my prior classes. (Even many of my favorites.) So, yes, I was/am a lazy and avoidant writer... but now that I am a teacher, and I've a stake in not inadvertently reinforcing these same habits in my students.

Anyway, long after the workshop was over I was thankful. ((Thanks G.R.!!)) I still hate writing (I'm working on love/hate), but I know what I have to do when I need to write -- even though I don't always choose to do it. I know that I need other people to review my writing to catch the gaps and contradictions in my ideas. I know I have to circle around the ideas a couple time as a matter of course. I know the APA Style manual is just to be accepted, not reasoned with.

The weird, important thing is, in the process of learning what I needed to do, I realized that all the work was normal. It was the way writing was supposed to happen, not a just a punishment for being a born and raised as a rotten writer who snuck through school and still couldn't figure out.

What a revelation. My only regret was having it in grad school. Real writers (you know, the grownup, professional kind) write and revise and revise and revise and revise. None of my teachers ever said that was, in part, what made them good (or better). Or maybe they did say that, but we never really practiced it so it didn't stick. My assumption was that good (student) writers were the ones who always had less ink on their papers.

Ink? What Ink?

I can hear my students groan when I say, "Don't fear the ink. The ink is your friend." Maybe it should be, "Don't fear the track changes..." However, I can't say that. I still fear track changes. Sometimes I wake from nightmares about track changes re-engineering my dissertation manuscript the day before the submission deadline.

Back to the ink. Red is the traditional color of editing starting in elementary school. Bad. Stop. Roses. Passionate. Passionately angry? Love. Blood. Stop. Wrong. All things ridiculously Valentines. (Heart shape boxes and stale chocolate.) But on papers or writing, red always meant mistakes and work. Especially when the rules your teacher referred to made no sense. For instance, when do we use commas? And what is a comma splice? (All I know is it would be red.)

So I choose green. Because green is my favorite color. Before I knew it as a modifier of Peace or something co-opted for "environmental" consumerism or green as in backs (...this will no longer be a problem since U.S. currency is changing colors [and declining in worth] as we speak.) I loved green. Just not the fluorescent kind that was popular during the '80s.

Green! As a poetry-hater and lapsed Catholic e e cummings made me happy by saying, "the leaping greenly spirits of trees." (This could also be because I support the use of colors as adverbs.) In summer, green means the wet, cool smell from beneath the trees. (Find a forest and check it out. Wild green air conditioning.) Dappled leaf-drawn green. Kermit is green. Yoda is green. Spinach is green. Envy is green. You supposedly turn green when you're about to throw up. Things not meant to be green: key lime pies. At least not the real ones.

I will try not to torture my students with green as I give them feedback on their papers. I'd hate for them to learn to hate green. That would be mean green.

So I say, "don't fear the ink." Not because I'm using green (rather than school trauma red), but because I feared the ink. I probably still do. Writing is a painful for me. My ideas don't take to writing. They are out of order. Too fast and always changing. Hard to capture, make sit still, and then translate.

(... and written language should be phonetic. Honestly, English is ridiculous. Grammar is a torture device. I don't care about commas. And my attention span shrinks when I am in front of a computer. Still does. I've just acquired a better way of Jedi mind-tricking myself into getting work done.)

Also writing is always on display, public, out of your hands... in a creepy sort of way.

((In this case a blog is some sort of immersion therapy.))