Reading Student Writing

I’ve read three essays on how to read and correct student writing. The most helpful, in terms of learning how to teach: Rather than “correct” mistakes, diagnose mistakes. Read for the meaning of the essay, and give feedback based on that meaning. Ask the question, what is the author’s intent?

“I read your college application essay. First of all, college has two L’s.”

Bartholomae, The Study of Error. In this essay Bartholomae suggests student error should be diagnosed. For example, a student writes “I had accummate ten dementic and had to…” If a teacher tells the student they’ve misspelled “accumulate” and “demerit” and goes on to teach the proper spelling through repetitive exercises, they’ve only treated the surface level misspelling and failed to get to the root of the problem, especially if they’ve noticed a lot of other spelling errors in the student’s paper. What would be best would be to have the student read the paper out loud and work from there. This particular student, John, the reads the above sentence, “I had accumulated ten demerits and had to…” So what’s really going on here? John has read the current sentence, as it’s written with the misspellings, the correct way because to him the coding on the page has the correct meaning. Rather than considering the sounds of the letters, he’s considered the shape of the words he’d memorized. To him dementic makes the word demerit. To help the student learn the error, a teacher needs to diagnose the problem, and from there teach the student how to edit on their own.

Pal Kei Matsude, Reading an ESL Writer’s Text. In this essay, I learned how to read ESL writers. Primarily, avoid reading ESL essay as deficient because it doesn’t comply to the norms of English. What’s most important when reading these essays: If I see many errors on the sentence level (such as “dementic” or “childrens”), I should figure out the meaning the writer was going for and work from there, instead of dismissing the writing as unsuccessful and uneducated. Often teachers will want this writer to assimilate to English. Tell them what they’ve done is wrong and they need to fix it this way. But that assimilation practice can make the ESL writer consider their native language as inferior, and so they are inferior. Another option is accommodation, where a teacher helps the student learn the proper discourse patterns without forcing them to lose the their linguistic differences. And then there is the separatist approach, where ESL writing is read “generously” and multicultural writing is better appreciated on its own grounds. For me, After reading this essay, I think it’s important to consider any essay in terms of its meaning, and I worry a separatist approach will not delve into the problems of the essay’s communication. Even if the multicultural aspects are appreciated, the student still needs to revise–it would be wrong to assume every error was because of a language problem, because perhaps the essay still wouldn’t have driven home its purpose–That’s why it’s important to listen to the writer and understand where they are coming from, to see if the writing and their goals are linking up, no matter which language they speak.

Nancy Sommers, Responding to Student Writing. In this essay, Sommers goes through possible pitfalls teachers might fall into when commenting on student papers. Often, teachers will edit sentence level issues, such as word choice and commas, and then make broad points about why the entire essay needs to be revised (so then those sentences will likely not be the same sentence in the end anyway). Overall, the types of comments teachers make appropriate the student essay: Rather than students writing for their own intent, they write for the teacher (Whatever the teacher wants the student to do they’ll do). However, often the comments are contradictory. How can I fix this comma and also do more research? Moreover, the comments aren’t specific enough. “Think about your audience more” doesn’t really help a student to revise an essay. It would be better for a teacher to make specific comments about the text, address the logic of the essays crucial points, and ultimately force the student back into the “chaos” of the essay, to get into the fray of the paragraphs and really rewrite for their intent.


Dissensus and Consensus

I want to discuss dissensus. Trimbur brings up how consensus will, at its best, orchestrate dissensus in the classroom. Create an environment of multiple voices. In a writing classroom, rather than there being some single mind, some Cartesian model of existence, we get many voices from different power structures and different values, coming together to converse–a real conversation of conflict and struggle.

What was most interesting to me in reading the Trimbur and Bruffee was their use of philosophy and philosophers, which helped me understand their work more easily. As someone from a philosophy major, collaboration was the name of the game. Every class was based in discussion. It’s strange–nine people can read the same text and form nine different opinions about it based on our previous biases and value structures. In the end we come away understanding the dialogue, the work itself and our interpretation of it, better, even through the disagreements.

I can especially see where Dewey comes into play with Trimbur. Collaboration and pragmatism in the classroom is crucial in understanding how we can learn–grow and change. Rather than entering an established law and way of thinking, entering the classroom to learn the single-mind, digest it and regurgitate it, the classroom is always changing, as the conversation is always changing, as there is dissensus–useful conflict–and consensus–a certain coming to terms. To put it in perspective, before Dewey much of philosophy was bent on the established order. From Descartes to Kant to Hume to Spinoza, all came into the conversation from the basis of metaphysics–what was in the air, the question of ultimate experience, itself in terms of religion, ideals, the universe versus the self. And Dewey argues they all were really going back to the church in certain respects. The established order of biblical order. For Dewey, he wanted philosophy to ground itself into the practical. How can we use our reasoning capability to consider what a a specific thing, like the classroom, should function. Rather than asking, “What is education?” Dewey asked, “How should we teach the given class, the given students, the given society?”

What language do I speak?

A translingual approach entails respecting multilingual writing, not making foreign languages “secondary,” and ultimately a classroom where difference is respected. Makes sense to me. From what I’ve read on the subject from Trimbur, Lu, Anzaldua, and others, a translingual approach has much to do with the self: students who speak English as a second, or third, language might tend to find their home language less viable academically–Less important. It disadvantages them. While they should be rewarded for speaking multiple languages, instead their identity seems banished from the classroom.

When I was an undergraduate, I was all about English. And not just English–American. A standard for me was to say I spoke American, to scoff at the idea I spoke English. I was, without a doubt, one of those students who saw the foreign language requirement at school to be unnecessary and annoying (Probably because my older brother, Dan, spoke Spanish fluently and went to college for it, and so I distanced myself from that type of study as much as humanly possible; perhaps from a fear of not excelling as well as he did–but this isn’t a psychoanalytical post).

At the same time, I very much relate to the idea that “virtually all students who are monolingual in the sense that they speak only English are nonetheless multilingual in the varieties of English they use and in their ability to adapt English to their needs and desires.”  Because in the end, because of my fast way of speaking, my addiction to old-fashioned comedies and every musician this side of the solar system, I have arrived at my own jumbled language. Particularly in the way I communicate with my friends. Other than a select few, no one else has a clue what I mean by “GG,” “It’s niara,” “oomama,” “Oh my Lantan… Although I don’t think that’s particularly what they were referring to in their paper. Also, coming from a Jewish upbringing, I use boychik, oy gavolt, and have a particular inflection to my accent… Coming from a childcare background, my exclamations have been replaced by poopyhead, fudge, Timbuktu, and I avoid phrases like I hate, I can’t… When something is completed well, I’ll say coo coo cachoo; having been raised with Dan, I’ll say mi madre, instead of my mom, and vamanos when I want things to get a move on…
Do these things belong in Academic writing? The point is, I think, that no one on the planet really speaks one language. Depending on the situation, whether I’m with my friends from elementary school, my college friends, my family, or talking to a strange, I’ll use a different language to serve the situation. And to say my own language isn’t as valuable as Standard English, would be an attack on me personally; just like to say Spanish or French isn’t as valuable is disrespectful.

To Discourse or to Talk?

Elbow’s essay,  “Reflections on Academic Discourse: How it Relates to Freshmen and Colleagues,” and Bartholomae’s essay, “Inventing the University,” at first appear to come at college writing from opposite sides of the field. For Bartholomae, the college class ought to teach academic discourse in the mode of communication that universities give students access to. Students must appropriate the language of the subject to better suit their writing, to learn the audience and manipulate them “or accommodate her motives to her reader’s expectations.” Whereas Elbow argues that writing classes should teach nonacademic writing, and by adopting a specific, high level discourse a writer is detaching from the audience. College is short and life is long. Plus,different subjects, such as history and psychoanalysis, use different types of jargon and modes of communication. So in that way, B and E are juxtaposed. However, Bartholomae is often referring to being an “insider,” which I think can fall in line with metacognition. According to Elbow, if students always use ordinary language, their own thinking about a discourse will come much easier, and they will be more frank, rather than trying to dazzle with unnecessary academic riffraff. Bartholomae wants students to be able to see any discourse, recognize it, and adapt to it, so that they can write well and communicate their ideas. So there is something similar in that idea of playing multiple roles through what we know.

The readings for me raise a few questions:

A first-year writing class ought to prepare a student for the subject they ultimately choose to major in, so why even teach it in a separate department? By that I mean, perhaps a student who knows they want to be a psychology major should have their first-year writing class with the psychology department. It may be true what Elbow says about life being long and college being short, but if a student’s profession is completely based on their major (e.g. psychology) isn’t that discourse and jargon something they will take with them throughout life? And by that I mean, is there really a “college” language? Aren’t academic journals separated by their subject matter? Engineering, American history, 19th century Russian literature? Perhaps then the first-year writing program should aim at helping students decide where they want to be within all the possible choices of discourse and how to quickly adapt to the vast assortment of them; and it should help them come to terms with this new thing in their life: college, scholarly articles, being an adult, being a member of politics and the world–which I think Emerson’s first-year writing program does.

Beyond Cognition, From Silence to Words

Trimbur’s “Beyond Cognition” reminded me of my philosophy days. Lu’s essay, “From Silence to Words” reminded me of a memoir. Trimbur’s essay used multiple authors to prove a point; Lu used her own life and one guy’s epigraph on communal discourse to come to terms with her childhood and draw from it the positives. Lu starts her essay with the death of her mother, whereas Trimbur opens his essay with a problem, the inner/outer metaphor.

When I was a philosophy major, we often did what Trimbur did. We discussed philosophers, their theories and arguments, all for the sake of a final conclusion. Trimbur seems to have done that here. His mode was, in my opinion, argumentative. Despite how strong he made the argument of the inner/outer metaphor, he knew he was going switch gears. The metaphor itself reminded me of Kant’s phenomenal vs. noumenal plains of existence. I do see his point at the end about Bakhtin, about how much of our language derives from outside sources, various voices.

I don’t think they reached similar conclusions, though. I don’t exactly mean that. Maybe I misread one of their pieces. Lu’s essay had everything to do with dichotomy and homogeneity; Trimbur’s essay seemed to have to do with where we begin to write and egocentrism. They both would agree that the voices from the outside pervade our inner language. For Lu, the voices of school and home fought each other for greater territory. For Trimbur, the voices from the outside completely create our inner language, or so it would seem. Maybe I’m just not getting it, though. Also, Lu’s conclusion about communal discourse seemed to have more to do with opposing viewpoints, whereas Trimbur’s seemed to have to do with the creation of viewpoints in general and where to begin when writing.