April 29, 2006

On writing tics and mental kits

I've written before on writing tics, such as the horde of whereases that used to appear in my student writing. (I wonder how many of them knew that the conjunctive whereas is a contronym, a fact that caused a few problems in their essays.) Tics are easy problems to solve: you point them out, and a writer either pays attention to the advice or doesn't, but it's easily digestible information.

More on the jump...


What's much harder is giving advice when the internal organization of a paragraph is wonky. Some ideas that occasionally flit through my head in reading essays (and, no, I don't use any in comments on papers):

  • No, that idea doesn't flow naturally from the prior one, and please don't expect me to be telepathic (because you don't really want me to know what you were doing over the weekend instead of reading the book).
  • Next time you get a volume discount on ideas, please keep some to yourself instead of offering all of them to me in a single paragraph.
  • You cherry-picked that quotation and plopped it down where it had no relevance just to cite course material—and didn't expect me to notice?

Unfortunately, while I assign plenty of writing (too much, if you ask my students) and provide as much feedback as I can, given my other commitments, I can really do no more than provide a reader's perspective: this makes sense, this doesn't, I think section A belongs after section B, and so forth. For some students, that's enormously useful, but I'm guessing that those students usually have the necessary skills and either forgot them or were lazy didn't leave themselves enough time.

But suppose you've never learned how to organize ideas clearly. Where do you go to learn that skill? I learned them years ago in a summer speech camp. High school speech events, especially extemporaneous speaking and team debating, require extraordinary organizing and prioritizing skills, and I had explicit instruction in both macro-level organizing (how to outline a 7-minute speech in the first minute of your 30 minutes of preparation) and also micro-oganizing—explaining a single argument in 15 seconds. I was never as fast on my feet as my debate partner for two years, Jeffrey Sklansky (also a social historian), nor as verbally quick as my siblings. So those skills didn't turn me into a champion extemp/impromptu speaker (which my two brothers and the eventual-Professor-Sklansky were at various levels) or a great debater (I was rather dragged along by my partner when unanticipated situations came up). But they were enormously helpful in writing.

But I'm at my wit's end when I need to provide suggestions to students. I can go through a paragraph with a student and point out the crazy jumps in topics, and I can swiftly show how I would reorganize it, but that doesn't really help the student become flexible in organizing paragraphs and see multiple ways of leading the reader by the nose. That's not always part of a student's academic equipment, and I'm not sure I have the supplies that students need. Ideas?

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Posted in Teaching on April 29, 2006 7:25 PM |