About the Unessay
The “Unessay” is a constructivist approach to teaching the academic essay. Its main premise is that traditional approaches to teaching writing are not effective with contemporary students because they are focussed on getting students to internalise (relatively artificial) formal criteria rather than helping develop as researchers and communicators–or as Emma Dering argues in her blog postings below, because they teach “the theme” rather than “the essay.”

The “Unessay” addresses this problem by borrowing from the techniques of the Digital Humanities, particularly the “Unconference” and the “Hermeneutics of Screwing Around.” Instead of emphasing form over content, the unessay encourages students to experiment with free form writing in the form of exercises and blogs. Instructors then mark what is promising in the students’ writing rather than what they get formally wrong. The technique then gradually introduced more the formal aspects of the “undergraduate essay,” treating these, however, primarily as an element of genre rather than an essential feature of good writing. Students are encouraged to push at the boundaries of the form they are taught, producing work that is true both to their own interests and the demands of the writing situation.

The blogs collected under this rubric explore different aspects of the Unessay and its context in the contemporary undergraduate curriculum. They have been written by students Emma Dering and Matt Gall, and University of Lethbridge Professor Daniel Paul O’Donnell. Additional work referred to in these blogs has been done by University of Calgary professor Michael Ullyot. The project bibliography can be found here: https://www.zotero.org/groups/unessay.

Soup to nuts: A recent piece of my writing that technology allows you to follow from idea to completion.

I was discussing writing and editing with a student the other day, and somehow the question of how I worked came up. As it turns out, I have a very recent example where you can pretty much follow the entire process from start to finish.

In showing all my work like this, I’m not making any claims about the quality of my own writing or the efficacy of my method. It is just the case that in this case, modern technology allows me to show the entire process I happened to use in writing a specific piece that people can read in its final form. For some students, I suspect that’s useful.

If you are interested, here are the relevant links to my recent Globe and Mail Op-Ed on “preferred pronouns” and the entire history of its drafting (because I wrote it in Google Docs, you can follow the whole history from start to finish). If you want to follow the revision history, you can find it under “File>See revision history” or by using alt-ctl-shift-h.

Read the rest of this entry »

Well Done, Dan and Michael.

An interesting discussion of form is encapsulated by the article “An Apology for Form; Or, Who Took the Form out of the Process?” by Richard M. Coe.

The article’s first premise is that form and content cannot exist without the other, which gives us an interesting consideration for our research. He says that content is created out of form, by to some degree dictating what will be written.  Coe says, “[f]orm in its emptiness, is heuristic, for it guides structured speech. Faced with the emptiness of a form, a human being seeks matter to fill it” (19). Here, he directly addresses the five paragraph essay. He states that the reason students write three body paragraphs – not two or four – is because the form dictates that there are three empty spaces to fill. Therefore, the writer invents until he has three points to discuss. And then he stops.

Luckily, it’s not all cynicism. The author applauds people like Dan and Michael who are creating new forms to fill in the gaps. He says, “as rhetoricians, we should explicitly invent forms to meet new needs” (21). He also suggests that “a new form often must be created in order to express a radically new idea – and that knowing a form with which an idea can be articulated improves the likelihood of thinking that idea” (25).  That is an interesting point to address why students are always coming up with same, rather dull and unoriginal ideas.

He ends by restating the importance of creating new forms in order to invent new ideas. So well done Dan and Michael, in creating an avenue for students to express themselves in previously unknown (or at least long-forgotten) ways. Coe applauds you.

 

http://0-www.jstor.org.darius.uleth.ca/stable/377786?seq=13

Coe, Richard M. “An Apology for Form; Or, Who Took the Form Out of the Process?” College English 49.1 (1987): 13–28. JSTOR. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.

An early rubric

For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been a big fan of rubric grading. I got the bug after reading a column by my colleague Robert Runte in our faculty association newsletter. Over the years, I’ve developed a variety of different rubrics, several of which have been adopted and adapted by my own colleagues (see here and here). Read the rest of this entry »


On the dangers of thinking you are indispensible: English professors’ edition

Apparently in 1917 people had a different view of the centrality of English professors…

When we consider our educational position, we teachers of English composition are in a fair way to become conceited. In view of certain featuresof our daily experiencethe dangerof becoming conceited may not seem imminent. But the outstanding feature of our position among pedagogues surely spells danger in that very direction. The practically universal assumption that our work is educationally indispensable is truly ominous (William Hawley Davis. 1917. “The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status.” The English Journal 6 (5) (May 1): 285–294. doi:10.2307/801590).


If you ever need an argument on why it is harmful to focus on mechanics in student writing…

From George Hillocks 2005, “At Last: The Focus on Form Vs. Content in Teaching Writing,” Research in the Teaching of English 40 (2) (November 1): 238–248. doi:10.2307/40171704.

Hillocks-2005-AtLastTheFocusonFormvs.ContentinTeaching

Based on a review of “500 quasi-experimental studies of writing instruction between 1963 and 1983” concentrating on those with strong research design.

 


Timeline of the History of the Five-Paragraph Essay

16th Century France – de Montaigne develops what we call the essay, a group of works defined by critical thinking and their attempt at questioning.

16-18th Century Britain (Extends to 19th Century America)  – Theme Writing – A type of writing giving explicit instructions for the formulation of an argument on a specific theme with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

1870-1920 – Current Traditionalism – A period of study that was characterized by a favouring of rules and regulation, especially in teaching methods, and resulting in increasingly standardized methods of assessment, often using versions of the five paragraph essay.

20th Century Germany – Essays are used as a tool to grade students on their understanding of a topic, in a form similar to what we would term short research papers.

Mid 20th Century – Standardized testing emerges across the Western world as an easily regulated method of assessment. Rather than teaching the skills that the tests measure, instructors begin a shift towards teaching students how to write from the standardized formula on the test.

Mid 20th Century to Present Day – Five Paragraph Essays have virtually replaced the open form of Montaigne’s origin. They are taught as the base on which to build an argument throughout a student’s school years, a process which most often carries over to secondary education. They have moved from being an assessment of knowledge to an assessment of writing.


The Ideas Create Themselves

I began this week’s rather broad  search under the blanket of the question “How to we teach students to have good ideas?” This is not a very straightforward question, or answer, for that matter. Upon embarking on my search, I discovered this interesting fact: there is a lot of information on teaching creativity. However, there is almost none on teaching innovation or critical thinking. Is this a distinction, or a synonym? Does it matter? It is a subtle nuance, but I believe it represents the distinctions of our society and what it values.

Teaching innovation to students usually comes packaged in the outfit of the sciences. What does this suggest? That innovation is only valued in the practical and practicable arenas of the science world? But does this type of innovation help students write essays? We need them to be able to disassemble something, and rather than build something new, they need to be able to figure out a way to creatively tell you how it was built.

There seems to be a generally accepted theory that states that every child has within himself the ability to generate good ideas, and these ideas will naturally come forth if given the proper outlet, which, fittingly, is exactly what the Unessay suggests. Strategies for promoting creativity in students generally focuses on an open output formula, where the results are not specified and discussion and assignments are student driven. This would suggest that good ideas are generated from the individual, and it is within every students’ power to come up with them.

But, as most instructors have probably noticed,  just because an idea is creative, that does not mean it is necessarily a good one. Are creativity and critical thinking the same thing? I think probably not.

But the consensus seems to be that if you give students the reins to discuss and question, they will figure out which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. The simple act of discussion and engaging with the material lets a student know whether a topic is worth exploring or if it will be easily exhausted. But as the Unessay proves, students fare far better when given the chance to question and examine.

The most poignant truth I discovered when researching was simply this: we learn by imitation. We seem to believe that students come up with brilliant ideas from within themselves. But they must have learned what questions to ask and where to go for inspiration somewhere.  As one theorist suggests, “when allowed to do what we want to do, we are most likely to revert to whatever we previously found enjoyable and/or successful”.

So what is the solution here? If we learn by imitation, yet students can also to a certain extent create innovation from within themselves, I think the answer is that we need to give them something good to imitate, that they can run with. The Unessay does that by allowing students to explore the areas that interest them while channelling the results and discussion  into a scholarly format. If instructors could find a way to be more transparent about their own idea-generating process, and put more emphasis on teaching students how to tell good ideas from bad ones, and then let students run with it, I think the seeds of critical thinking would easily be born.

 

Works Consulted

http://people.goshen.edu/~marvinpb/arted/tc.html

Gary, William L. “Letting Students Teach Themselves.” Community College Week 15.7 (2002): 4. Web.
McLester, Susan. “Student Gamecraft.” Technology & Learning 26.4 (2005): 20–24. Web.

 


The History of the Form Revisited

I mentioned in a previous post an article which attributed the origins of the five-paragraph essay to the early 20th century in Germany. Unfortunately, this snippet was the only glimmer of knowledge I could acquire for some time. After searching vainly for weeks for more about the history of the form, I was today finally gratified when I stumbled across an article called “The Five Paragraph Essay: Its Evolution and Roots in Theme-Writing”, by Matthew J. Nunes.

This article traces the commonly perceived origins of the form,  describing its basis in the realm of current-traditionalism, which had its day between 1870-1920. While the article is actually questioning the origins of the form in this period, it does concede the solid placement of the form within the period which I think is worth describing here. Read the rest of this entry »


The Importance of Student Motivation

I’ve gone in several different directions with my research for the unessay project, because as a writing tool I think its results are significant and varied. I’ve looked at the general principles that underlie it–scaffolding and metacognition; I’ve tried to understand what qualifies as good writing, and whether or not the unessay promotes that; and I’ve looked at how the unessay might fit into an increasingly mechanized educational system, where machines are marking papers. The main thing I’ve found is that the rules constituting the unessay promote good writing. Dan and Michael have both expressed the uncanny differences between the essays they mark and the unessays they mark.  Student writing, when liberated from the stringent way essays are taught, becomes something completely different. The ideas are better, they flow better, and they can help the student build a foundation upon which he/she can come at the essay with more flexibility. The whole basis of education is to provide a space for students to push existing skills to their limits, with the intention of having those skills overlap with new skills, and so on and so forth. Read the rest of this entry »


Unfortunately, Planning and Structure do not Equate to Comprehension and Creativity

In the realm of our Unessay research, researchers cannot seem to agree on a few questions. What is the best way to teach students to write with vibrancy? Is it to give free reins and let them run with anything? Or is what is needed a more central focus on the tools needed to write effectively, like grammar, syntax, and other stylistic concerns? And where does argumentation fit in? Where will students learn to think critically and insightfully about the issues they are presented with, rather than just forming unoriginal, albeit well supported, formulaic essays?

These were my questions as I begin to search for the ways in which other researchers, apart from Dan and our Unessay crew, have approached the issue of teaching essay writing to students. Many approaches mirrored that of Dan and Michael’s, in that they favoured a more analysis-centred approach, leaning more towards giving students the opportunities to think and to question. Form and structure typically take less of a focus, and the emphasis in instruction is placed on critical thinking and questioning. Read the rest of this entry »


A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays”

A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays”

 I’ve become quite interested in the idea of machines grading papers ever since I read the New York Times Article Dan posted in the group library: “New test for Computers: Grading Essays at the College level.” For now I am just going to concern myself with the article in my title, but I am working on a much larger piece which combines several scholarly articles as well as a few editorials, on an educational issue that I feel will become increasingly relevant as technology expands: grading machines. Read the rest of this entry »


From Reading to Writing: Why the Essay isn’t Working

Academic literature is rife with conflicting reports on the nature of the five paragraph essay. Discourses from composition professors, high school teachers, and disgruntled students cover the pages of journals and blogs, offering up heavy-handed insights about the benefits and tyrannies of the typical five paragraph format. Many praise the formulaic model that allows for expansion and embellishment, while others disparage it as the ultimate indignity in stifling any creative impulses a student may have had. So what then, is to be the consensus?

I wanted to examine the origins of the form, and hopefully tie it to its modern instructional methods. Most associate the origins of the essay with the 16th century author Montaigne, who provided the name for the genre when he described his literary experiments as essai, the French verb meaning loosely “to try” (Atwan 110). Montaigne classified his works by no other category, but simply by their common attempt to engage critical thought and the processes of questioning and answering. Yet, the deviation from this original and idealized model in students’ writing today is startlingly clear. But that is something we already knew, as the whole goal of this project is to try to examine from where this disparity originates. Read the rest of this entry »


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 »


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 »


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