Writing about Writing in the Community College: Student Texts

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I have been writing about implementing a writing-about-writing (WAW) approach to first-year composition in a community college. In the last post, Writing about Writing in the Community College: Workshop Assignments, I described a sequence of “workshop assignments” designed to encourage careful reading and synthesis of sources. I’d like to share two examples of workshop texts written by my students (with their permission).

The following unedited paragraph was composed by a student from West Africa.  For the assignment, I asked students to craft a definition of academic discourse—or to argue whether or not it is really a “thing” that we can define.

We can state that academic discourse is not just “a thing,” it is “many things.” Even if Downs and Wardle say that there isn’t an universal academic discourse, this doesn’t mean that there is no academic discourse. I think, there is many academic discourses. Each discourse is represented by a discipline, which has specific rules. For example, biologists will name each living organisms with two words, whose the first represent the genus of that organism, and the second the specie. However, those academic discourse share some common principles; For example, abstract, introduction, conclusion are some common concepts in all those disciplines, and basically have the same meaning; Work cited list is also a common concept between them, but with some differences depending on which type (APA, MLA etc) each discipline is using. Students in their daily routine have to experience those writing rules which sometimes look similar, but must of the time, students have to remind theirself in which discipline they are writing, and adjust their brain to follow the particular rule of that discipline; In the end, as K. R. think in her Workshop, student’s papers have to meet certain standard to be accepted by their teachers (Workshop 2, paragraph 2). I think, those standards which teachers are expecting their students to meet are what define each academic discourse.

I suspect a few fellow teachers might be looking for a red pen to correct the obvious language issues that this student faces. However, I am more interested here in what he accomplishes in this one paragraph: he makes a claim about academic discourse, connects that claim to the article by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, provides an example from his own experience in the sciences, and finally draws a conclusion that incorporates a comment from his classmate (K.R.). He is building skills that will carry into his next major assignment—the construction of a literature review for his research project on West African pidgins.

Another student, also with a non-English background, at first accepted the common view of an academic discourse which underlies all college reading and writing assignments. She assumed that students who are in college must be using this basic “academic discourse” in order to function with any measure of success. The following unedited paragraph is expansion and revision of her original piece:

Previously, I explained that in my opinion academic discourse is this unique knowledge that students take from college, like learning to read critically, understand complex concepts and incorporating these ideas in their own writing. But after reading the article, “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentence” by Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue, I look at academic discourse differently. The findings from their research are showing that students are using mostly patchwriting, paraphrasing, summarizing, and one ‘good’ sentence to build their papers rather than understanding the whole concept of their source (188). In other words, their findings are setting up a counter argument with what I said previously, about academic discourse. Moreover, according to Dr. Howard’s data, students are not only using most of their information from sources, but they are using most of their information from the first pages, which is showing that student don’t read their sources, and therefor they don’t get the whole concept their source. Overall, I think that Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue findings are showing that most of the students are not interested in their reading and writing classes, and they learn how to be crafty in order to pass their classes not to learn something that they can use later in life.

Again, if we look past the language issues, we see the student’s critical thinking: she revisited her original conclusion by considering an additional article (along with some data from a PowerPoint which Rebecca Moore Howard shared at a workshop at my college a few years ago). The cynicism implied in her conclusion here is probably not warranted, but I suspect her position will be refined further as she continues to read and conduct her own research for the class project. 

These pieces are not polished or perfect, but they suggest an authentic engagement in conversations about writing. The paragraphs illustrate key points from Downs and Wardle’s seminal article on writing about writing, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Intro...: students in a WAW course may “produce imperfect work,” given the time constraints of the course (575). But at the same time, these students’ close reading abilities, confidence, awareness of writing contexts, and understanding of the conversational nature of academic research have increased, similar to the benefits highlighted by Downs and Wardle (572-573).

I am looking forward to their independent research projects.

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About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.