What Makes Writing Good?

The whole point of the unessay project, as I understand it, is to further develop and understand tools that enhance good writing. The unessay is one such tool. My early research has been dedicated to the dissection of the unessay: what principles underlie its composition? how does it fit into current theories on teaching writing? And how and why is it an effective tool? Much of this research is centered around the theories of meta cognition and scaffolding. The unessay requires that its user consider every aspect of the writing process (metacognition): form, argumentation, style, topic etc., It also attempts to bridge the gap between the formal essay and free-writing, by giving the writer complete control, allowing them to utilise the skills they already have in a form they are comfortable with. The end goal is always the formal essay, but the achievement of that goal is through the slow addition of knowledge to a student’s pre-existing knowledge (scaffolding). It sounds almost painfully obvious that learning is simply the expanding framework of an existing body of knowledge, but the formal essay often disregards this concept. A student is given a framework, and it is assumed she already understands how to utilize it. I think what many teachers find–myself included during my brief stint in the education program–is that many students do not understand the form, nor do they feel particularly inclined to utilise it.

With a decent framework through which to understand the unessay, and its place in the contemporary teaching of writing, I shifted the focus of my research, broadening it slightly, to try and answer what I feel is the most significant question when assessing any writing tool: what makes good writing? If we can compile a series of attributes that constitute good writing then surely we can come up with a tool which fosters those skills. Read the rest of this entry »

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A demonstration for my friend Bill Ramp.
Daniel Paul 0’Donnell
Department of English
University of Lethbridge
Lethbridge AB T1J  2X5
CANADA+1 403 393 2539

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Unessay and Standardized Testing

In studying the origins of the five-paragraph essay, I stumbled across an article called “Teaching Writing in the Shadow of Standardized Writing Assessment: An Exploratory Study”, by Hunter Brimi. His article begins to dissect the relationship between standardized testing and the writing skills of students. He suggest that the standard format of a five-paragraph essay originated as a marking rubric for the markers of the state-wide tests, to determine the success of the essays written by the students (Brimi 53) And while it appears to have originated as a general standard to assess writing and argumentation skills, it quickly evolved into being the method by which writing and argumentation were taught (Brimi 54). As is typical with standardized testing, teachers begin to teach the material from the test directly to ensure that their students are successful, as well as to make sure they remain free from the trouble that may ensue if their students’ grades fall too far below the line standard set by the tests (Brimi 55). Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching Grammar

As a supplement to the unessay, Dan asked me to take a quick look at whether or not teaching the formal rules of grammar has any use; Does it improve a student’s writing?

The short answer is an unequivocal no. In the article “Responses to Error: Sentence-Level Error and the Teacher of Basic Writing” Foltz-Gray argues, through a series of studies spanning several decades, that teaching grammar has no positive impact on student writing, and in may cases is detrimental. Below are a few of the studies. Read the rest of this entry »

The unessay: A contructivist approach to developing student writing (formalisation and dissemination)

This is the original application for the Unessay Grant.

Project Overview

The goal of this project is to formalise and further develop work that Michael Ullyot of the University of Calgary, graduate student Heather Hobma, writing centre tutor Virgil Grandfield, and I have been carrying out on an innovative approach to teaching undergraduate writing: the Unessay.

The unessay is based on the premise that students do not understand formal essays the same way their teachers do: as a powerful and flexible means of exploring intellectual problems. Instead they see them in much the same light figure skaters see “compulsory figures”: as an artificial set piece designed primarily to test their ability to meet arbitrary rules. Read the rest of this entry »

The Unessay and Metacognition

In order to understand what the unessay attempts to do for writers one must understand the underlying philosophies that govern it. In my preliminary research for this project I attempted to dissect the unessay, revealing its structures, and then relating those structures to the larger theories of teaching writing. Read the rest of this entry »

Introduction to Unessay Research

There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction. Read the rest of this entry »

Oops: Somehow my blog is now capturing every twit…

Oops: Somehow my blog is now capturing every twit I make. Like a fool in amber #livetesting

New: Professor teach thyself http://t.co/w5LqcvlOv…

New: Professor teach thyself is.gd/mtNDmz #dpod

Professor teach thyself

(An unpublished piece from 2006 for CBC Radio Commentary)

Last fall, for the first time since I started working in the University, I signed up to take an undergraduate course.

I was beginning a sabbatical and I thought a first-year class in some other discipline might make for a nice hobby alongside my regular research. Most of my undergraduate students take four or five courses a semester and manage to hold down jobs. With the study skills developed over a lifetime in Academia, I thought I would have no problem fitting in a single course alongside my paid work.
The semester began all right. I had a little trouble getting into class—it turns out enrolment for non-majors starts at 5 am and is over by 5:10. And the textbooks were expensive: mine ended up costing almost $200 by the time I left the store. But I soon started enjoying myself. My high school math came back quickly, and I aced the early problem sets. I was so pleased with my progress, in fact, that I ended up showing my first lab report to our University president when I ran into him in the hall one day after class.

The course was good for me professionally as well. As an undergraduate the first time round, I was pretty focussed. I majored in medieval English and took ancient languages to meet my breadth requirement. The last course I took with a lab was probably over 20 years ago in high school. It was good to watch somebody trained in a different discipline teach an introductory course. The basic pedagogical problems turned out to be for the most quite similar to those I face, and it was good to see what did and did not work from a students’ perspective.

The thing that most impressed me, however, was how hard today’s undergraduates work. As the semester went on, I found it very hard to keep up my grades while working full time. I have a renewed respect for my students who are able to balance the competing demands of three or more courses and work at one or two part-times jobs. With the mid-term looming and professional deadlines closing in, their professor ended up having to choose between work and school: I dropped Physics 1000 by the beginning of November.

Over the next couple of weeks, undergraduates begin the new semester at universities across Canada. Here’s a salute to their hard work—from a professor, and (for now) college drop-out.


New: More Research Money Needed For Social Science…

New: More Research Money Needed For Social Science & Humanities. is.gd/NFliDX #dpod

More Research Money Needed For Social Science & Humanities.

CBC Commentary: Air date 15/3/2004

Listen to today’s Commentary


Did you know that most researchers at universities are in the Humanities and Social Sciences? Dan O’Donnell is an English professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. On Commentary he says many of these researchers are being overlooked for grants.

Dan O’Donnell:

Recently, Prime Minister Paul Martin called for an increase in funding for scientific research. This is great news. After years of falling behind our competitors, Canadians are now putting real money into the natural and health sciences.

But natural and health scientists are not Canada’s only research community. More than half the faculty in our universities and colleges work in the social sciences and the humanities. These are our historians, our English professors, our linguists, our anthropologists. They are the people who study the world’s languages, cultures, and social organization.

They are also very poorly funded. Six out of ten researchers in Canadian universities work in the social sciences and the humanities. But these disciplines get less than 15 per cent of the $1.7 billion Ottawa spends each year on university-level research.

They also lack prestige. Of the more than one thousand Canada research chairs appointed by the federal government since 2000, less than one third have gone to scholars in the humanities and the social sciences.

Now it is easy to see why a pragmatic government might kid itself into dismissing this work. Research in the social sciences and humanities can seem far removed from our daily lives. Studies of Beowulf or of the suppression of homosexuality in children’s novels seem like frills when money is tight and the books need to be balanced.

But this is a mistake. The social sciences and humanities study the things that really matter to us. They are what we talk about. Recent debates about the historical definition of marriage, about the line between child pornography and legitimate artistic expression, or even about whether European hockey players are really less macho than their Canadian counterparts all involve questions studied by humanities and social science researchers.

More importantly, these researchers were studying these questions long before the rest of us discovered they were interesting or that they affected our daily lives. Ten years ago a professor of mine at Yale, the late John Boswell, was laughed at in newspapers across North America for writing a book about of the history of gay marriage. Nobody’s laughing any more.

More recently, a colleague of mine at the University of Lethbridge, Inge Genee, began a project looking at the influence government funding has on the survival of immigrant and aboriginal languages. And the source of her idea? previous research she did on the way scribes combine Latin with other European languages in medieval Irish manuscripts.

The point is that you can’t tell where the next big idea will come from. Research in the humanities and the social sciences forms what you might call a strategic knowledge reserve for our national debates.

We’re going to discuss these questions anyway. We may as well do it properly.

For Commentary, I’m Dan O’Donnell in Lethbridge.


New: Humanities, not science, key to new web front…

New: Humanities, not science, key to new web frontier is.gd/EwIBce #dpod

Humanities, not science, key to new web frontier

Originally Published: Edmonton Journal, 21 July 2010: A.15

A local high school asks you to speak to a graduating class about careers in the new digital economy. What would you urge them to study?

Computer science? Engineering? Philosophy? Classics? Celtic studies? You might be surprised at how useful those last three could prove to be.

Engineers and computer scientists are not the only ones who have played important roles in building our new digital economy; students of the humanities and social sciences have played an equally significant role.

Just ask Larry Sanger, the cofounder of Wikipedia, who earned his PhD in philosophy, or Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, who initially applied to Harvard University to study classics or Michael Everson, who did doctoral research in Celtic studies before becoming a lead developer of Unicode, the technology used to transmit the different alphabets on the web.

What makes the new digital economy so exciting and so different from what came before is the emphasis it places on problems humanists and social scientists have always studied: organization and communication; finding the balance between the group and the individual; and producing, disseminating and sharing cultural work.

The Internet is no longer primarily an engineering problem. Its basic technological building blocks have been in place for 20 years. What is new is how this technology is being used. Time magazine nominated “the PC” as its machine of the year way back in 1983. In 2006, its person of the year was “You,” the person who contributes to social networking sites such as Facebook and helped build Wikipedia into history’s largest encyclopedia in less than a decade.

The significant thing about the new digital economy is not its technology, but its applications. Wikipedia reinvented a new way of writing reference works on the basis of relatively simple pre-existing technology. Services such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are revolutionary because they helped create the blogosphere, a social phenomenon in which ordinary people are able to organize themselves and share their opinions in ways never before possible.

The humanities and social sciences are important to the new digital economy not simply because they help people think about technology in new ways. They are also directly responsible for some of the fundamental protocols that allow this technology to function.

By far the most important of these is XML, or eXtensible Markup Language. XML is a computer language that allows webpages to reuse data from different sources and to reformat themselves for display on different devices. If you have ever posted a video to YouTube, written on a friend’s wall in Facebook or checked the weather or your stock portfolio online, you have used an application that depends on XML for its core operations. Even the fact that you can choose to read this newspaper online, on your smartphone or in print is a result of the adoption of XML in the newspaper industry.

XML owes much of this success to the work of humanities and social science researchers.

C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen, the lead designer of XML, has a PhD in comparative literature. Before starting work on XML, he was lead editor at the Text Encoding Initiative, a consortium of universities, libraries, dictionaries and other scholarly organizations that developed a similar earlier language for exchanging data, such as dictionary entries, bibliographies and ancient texts. In fact, one of the biggest users of this earlier language was the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, a pioneering project that was also the first completely computerized dictionary.

Making Canada a digital nation will require challenging the assumption that the digital age is purely a question of science and engineering. In the digital age, technology is a powerful enabler. Our ability to connect virtually using digital technologies, to access information and knowledge and to use digital content in every aspect of our lives will determine our success as a digital nation.

The next “killer app” is probably sitting right now on the computer screen of a student in the humanities and social sciences.

Daniel Paul O’Donnell is a professor of English at the University of Lethbridge. He is also co-president of the Society for Digital Humanities and a vice-president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Credit: Daniel Paul O’Donnell; Freelance





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