Spilman Symposium Notes III

The second speaker at the Spilman Symposium was Edward White, professor of English at the University of Arizona. I have one of his books, Assigning, Responding, Evaluating, and it's an excellent guide for, as the title says, assigning, responding to, and evaluating writing. White talked on "Why write?: Teaching writing in an era of over testing."

White said that one student in response to a teaching prompt of "Why write?", stated "They make you write so they can getcha." In other words, because it's so easy to make errors, it's better to avoid the whole thing. For students and others, White says, the aims of writing differ from what most scholars assert to be the purpose of writing. For White, writing has life and reflection. However, teaching our students that writing has purpose is not so easy when the purpose they encounter is one of testing. Thus, he asks,

How do we reconcile demonstrations of technique with the purposes of real writing?

To illustrate the difference between mere technique with purposeful writing, White compared two essays. The first he wrote himself as an example of formulaic writing according to the five-paragraph format. He was motivated to write it after "grading hundreds of AP exams and wondering why so many good writers wrote bad essays."

I don't remember the prompt, but it might have been something like, "What is writing?" Although ostensibly a representation of a fictional student "Ed" writing a 40-minute timed essay, White took several hours to craft this essay whose thesis was, It didn't matter what you wrote as long as you followed the formula and had three points to talk about. You could have three points against or for the existence of God. The side you took wasn't important, but the formula of having three points was. After all, for this student, "The only purpose for writing was to pass a test."

For our discussion, White asked us to consider:

  1. What might you say to Ed?
  2. What grade you might give him?
  3. What you might say to him to change his idea?

I'm not sure what I would say to Ed to change his idea. Much of persuasion has to do with actions. Modeling engagement and reflection is one influence. Crafting assignments that engage students is important, too. Another approach is to relate writing to their interests and future careers. I have a list of quotations from people in different professions that assert that writing is essential to their job. But without experience, many students just nod their heads, but don't take it to heart until they experience the need for writing in their lives.

On #2, I would have given the essay an A due to its craft. In contrast, White would have given it a C at best due to its point of view because it wasn't a point of view that encouraged reflection and engagement. As White mentioned in an email, it would depend on the assignment. He was thinking of a response in a course that had already discussed "educational concepts and the purpose of writing." The assignment certainly makes a difference. In the course context, I'd expect some acknowledgement of its concepts.

Initially, however, I was thinking of something along the lines of an SAT essay sample. But now I'm wondering, suppose the student disagreed with the course teachings based on his previous schooling, thinking, "Yes, they say that writing has this purpose, but all of my teachers have simply presented it as a formula." Or the student may not be interested in this sort of reflection. Perhaps, expecting students to see that "writing has life" is the same as expecting English majors to see that physics has life. Outside of physics and engineering majors, I doubt that many students see that. And vice versa. In her research on engineers, Winsor, professor of English at Iowa State University (citing Bazerman) wrote,

To many technical people, writing seems to be a rather uninteresting act of translating knowledge they have encoded in another form.

That is, for these engineers, they engaged in and reflected on their work; writing was simply a matter of translating what they had already thought into an "uninteresting" form of communication to others.

For an example that shows reflection and engagement, White gave one that had this prompt:

The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he outght to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. --Samuel Clemens

Write an essay that explains what Clemens means by his description of the "best swordsman" and the "ignorant antagonist." Relate Clemen's concept to an area about which you are well informed."

In this essay, the student does an excellent comparison of when Clemens' concept works and when it doesn't. It works, "When revolutionaries break diplomatic rules by engaging in acts of terrorism ...." It doesn't work in chess, because "brilliant innovations in chess have nothing to do with ignorance," and the student gives specific examples of rook pawn openings or using the queen in opening positions.

White, in his book Assigning, Responding, Evaluating, states that this sort of prompt makes different types of conceptual demands on the writer than prompts based on personal experience do. It's more "academic" in that it "demands close and sensitive reading of the passage as the crucial first step" (p. 144). Of course, as he notes, the ability to deal with this sort of prompt depends on the student's background in reading and writing.

This sort of prompt is better than the general question, "What is writing?" For those not much interested in writing, "What is writing?" is unlikely to engage students and likely to end up with formulaic generalizations. In contrast, the Clemens prompt requires dealing with and understanding a text, and it ties into students' own knowledge fields, engaging them by unexpectedly juxtaposing "school learning" with their own interests and presenting a challenging puzzle to resolve. I wonder how a physicist would have responded.

One thing, however, is that I'm not sure whether the Clemens prompt requires more engagement or reflection than what the first student wrote in the context of a 40-minute essay. It's obvious that this student plays chess, and although we can't be sure about his/her background in politics, he seems to know the subject well. In other words, this student is writing on topics, as the prompt required, on which he is "well informed." In such a case, the primary conceptual demand seems to be to find two areas that he knew well that could tie into Clemens' assertion. Once found, the student could then go on automatic writing pilot. Indeed, the student must, because in a 40-minute essay, the time for reflection is insufficient. Thus, this essay is a speed test displaying what writing skills (and knowledge) have already been internalized rather than for showing reflection and engagement.

Although engagement and reflection should be a goal of any course, I don't think it's possible to evaluate engagement and reflection. The source eludes me, but in one particular study I read some time ago, what looked like a lack of engagement in several students' writing was actually a case of writer's block. On a side note, this reminds me of grading students on participation. When a student, I used to ask a question or two in many of my classes--not to participate but because my own speaking would wake me up.

White's question "How do we reconcile demonstrations of technique with the purposes of real writing?" is an essential one for the writing classroom. We may not be able to assess engagement and reflection, but if we believe that writing should have "life and reflection," then we need to design prompts and tasks that accord well with those purposes. As White states in his book,

we must offer the best assignments we can devise in order to stimulate our students creatifvity and convince them to learn what we teach.