Small Sentences, Big Ideas: Paying Attention to Certainty and Doubt

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Daniel LibertzToday's featured Bedford New Scholar is Daniel Libertz‌, who is pursuing his PhD in English with a concentration in composition and rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh and expects to finish in 2019. He teaches Writing for the Public, and he will be serving as Composition Program Assistant in 2018-2019. He has also taught Seminar in Composition at Pitt, a reading course at the United States Military Academy, composition at Howard County Community College, and English courses at the high school level. His research interests include quantitative rhetoric, public rhetoric, social media writing and algorithms, and writing program administration.

Toward the end of his book Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition, James Slevin presents a letter responding to a former student who has become a teacher. Maggie asks Slevin a question he has been asked many times: “What should she do to prepare her students for writing in college?” (246).

Slevin says he never felt he gave a satisfactory answer to this sort of question. It is a complex question that, I assume, all of us continually think about throughout our teaching lives. After all, implicit in this question is how the writing in college is “different” from writing in high school—and for that matter, how writing in college is different from writing anywhere else. One of the more difficult, slippery concepts we all have to confront as writing teachers in higher education is figuring out what we mean by “academic” writing. What is it? How do we teach it? Should we teach it? Do we do enough to acknowledge the inherent value judgments and political nature of the way we teach academic language or address its close ties to whiteness?

These are big, difficult questions, but what I like about Slevin’s response to Maggie is that it focuses on academic writing as intellectual work, something that can occur in any genre, under any conventions, or in any language. Slevin writes that what matters is evidence. By evidence, Slevin does not mean having a thesis or using direct quotations. It is not about accumulating material. It is about what is done with material, and what is “done” depends on language. For Slevin, “the excitement of the academic life—of academic writing broadly conceived—is in the making of stuff (data, events, passages from a text, the work of other writers) into evidence” (246). Language is the tool that turns “stuff” into evidence—what Ann Berthoff calls (channeling I.A. Richards) a “speculative instrument” for making meaning out of, well, “stuff.”

I agree with Slevin that if there is anything that makes writing in the academy somehow different from writing in other places (though, not exclusively different as there is writing in many places that does what Slevin advocates for) it is how we use evidence to make knowledge through “supporting, testing, and complicating” our ideas (252).To put this idea into classroom practice at a very practical level, I like to have my students think about this at the level of the sentence. One way I do so is by asking them to find two sentences in any text that they have read for another class that they feel is certain and uncertain, respectively. I like the idea of having them look at texts outside our own classroom so that they see, explicitly, that academic writing very much resides outside of their composition class (and, hopefully, such a move helps to transfer this idea about writing to their other classes). Students can choose any text from another class—a textbook, a journal article, a blog post—if the sentences they choose convey certainty or uncertainty for them.

During the next class, we talk about the reasons students selected their sentences, and we put them up on the board. Several items typically come up: word choice (e.g., obviously, really, probably, very, possibly), sentence type (e.g., short, simple sentence vs. longer, meandering sentences), syntax (e.g., position of a qualifying dependent clause), etc.

We usually focus on the rhetorical aspects of such moves at first: why does a short, punchy sentence “sound” certain (e.g., multiple clauses may undercut the strength of a direct statement)? Why do words like “really” and “very,” sometimes, ironically, make the sentence sound less certain? Do qualifying clauses ever make a sentence, counterintuitively, sound more certain by building the writer’s credibility as well-read? Ken Hyland, for instance, notes that the use of hedges and boosters have a range of effects in acade...: to show conviction, to show solidarity with an audience of peers, to differentiate between opinion and data-based knowledge, to express deference for peers.

As much as these moves are matters of persuasion, it is difficult to untangle them from matters of making knowledge. For Slevin, this would mean that we can and should look to such moments in our sentences to ask ourselves what we know and what we are trying to know—that is, how we are making sense of our “stuff,” of our evidence. Does the use of “really” or a sentence with three dependent clauses tip us off to anything we are struggling with knowing as a writer? Sometimes the use of the word “very” or “obviously” is used for stylistic emphasis. Sometimes a sentence with a series of qualifying dependent clauses adds necessary context to a complicated topic. Sometimes, too, these moments at the sentence level are a “tell” that more work is needed for a writer to turn stuff into evidence, in Slevin’s sense.

During the remaining time in class, I ask students to make these considerations while looking back at an in-progress piece of writing to find one sentence that they feel shows certainty or uncertainty. I then ask them to spend some time thinking about how those sentences might represent a larger pattern of thought in their draft.

Finally, I ask students to rewrite that sentence to make it more or less certain, followed by partner discussion about how it does or does not fit into the ecology of their larger paper.

By the end of the lesson, my hope is that students—via a notion of certainty—begin to see how the ways they choose words and arrange sentences can have an impact on the way they are makers of knowledge.

To view Dan’s activity, visit Writing with Certainty in the Disciplines: Sentence Confidence. To learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board, visit the the Bedford New Scholars tab on the Macmillan English Community.

About the Author
This is the shared account for the Bedford New Scholars TA Advisory Board.