In my last post, I looked at writing rules issued by instructors across the curriculum and the resulting confusion for student writers attempting to understand what good writing actually means—and how much of their previous instruction applies in a new context. The comments on the post highlight how often we must address “conflicting rules” in our classrooms: Aprill Hastings, for example, pointed out that a discussion of rules can be a platform for teaching, leading students to appreciate how “delightfully messy” writing can actually be. Similarly, Jack Solomon noted that looking at rules from other courses can lead to fruitful discussions of conventions and genres, but also (critically) that students must be able to adjust to the expectations of different teachers, each of whom will give a grade. After all, Solomon continued, we “wouldn't want any student to be penalized in a different class for whatever writing guidance” we have given. Finally, Peter Adams admitted (with more than a touch of humor) that it’s possible for the same instructor to give different rules in different semesters or classes.
Yes! I would agree wholeheartedly with all of these comments: I want to help my students develop not just specific writing “rules,” but a flexible approach that will allow them to tackle future writing strategically, transferring, expanding, and adjusting as necessary (applying what DePalma and Ringer have termed “adaptive transfer”).
What I want to do better is facilitate such adaptive transfer, especially with basic and multilingual writers in corequisite courses. My students often want clear directives, models, and templates—and these can be quite helpful. But at the same time, I want to support our students’ engagement in what John Warner calls “the skill that is the writing equivalent of balance when it comes to riding a bicycle” – making choices.
To that end, this summer, I am revisiting my FYC/corequisite assignments, instructions, and related readings. Specifically, I am looking at rules that could be considered “choice-restricting,” and revisiting how I introduce and teach these directives.
Specifically, I am asking myself some questions:
- What is the underlying writing concept or principle this rule addresses? Is it creating a stance/voice, engaging with a reader, grounding discourse in an on-going conversation, adhering to conventions, acknowledging other voices, arranging evidence in support of a claim, or something else? Do I present the directive so that the connection to the underlying concept is clear?
- What questions would I ask when encountering this rule? How can I prompt students to reflect on the rule and ask questions of their own?
- Have I provided linguistic resources—vocabulary or syntactic strategies—that allow students to make choices in relation to this rule?
- Have I encouraged students to reflect on why this particular choice is important for a writer?
As an example, consider my FYC summary assignment, which includes a directive not to use first person pronouns. Students produce an objective summary of a source, showing an understanding of structure and content, without making personal comments. In addition, students include references to the author and “rhetorical strategy verbs” in each sentence of the summary: the author argues, he explains, they suggest, etc.
I can see how my students would view my “summary guidelines” as an example of one instructor’s idiosyncrasies, even while I see them as critical practice in developing stance and managing other voices effectively and accurately. So in my “assignment redesign,” I am framing these differently on my handout, referring explicitly to stance and including other voices as key writing concepts—concepts that they will encounter multiple times in my class.
I am also trying to foster critical thinking about these concepts early in our discussion. So, for example, I might ask students to consider a time when a person needs to do a job without drawing attention to himself or herself in the process. (When I asked that question this past semester, one student quickly responded “being an assassin.”) After brainstorming a list of several such occasions, we turn to writing: are there times in writing when you don’t really want to draw attention to yourself? In other words, are there times when you want to sound more neutral or distant from the content? Why?
Having connected the “no first person” rule to a concept and a purpose, I want to provide linguistic resources. In this case, “signal phrases” or “author tags” (as I mentioned earlier) are one option. In addition, I could show students how to convert “rhetorical” verbs to nouns: “Krashen suggests” could become “Krashen’s suggestion…” I could also teach cleft/inversion structures: “Krashen wants readers to” becomes “what Krashen wants readers to do is…”
Finally, I am adding some reflection questions to the students’ journals and the cover letters accompanying final drafts:
- Where else do you think you might need to take a more objective or neutral stance in writing? What makes that hard to do?
- Where have you seen other writers take a more objective or neutral stance? What can you learn from those writers?
- What concepts or connections might help you understand why a teacher tells you not to write in first person?