Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Student writing assignments for the internet age

Half a century ago my freshman writing teacher at Willamette University was Paul G. Trueblood,  a leading expert on Lord Byron.  I did not appreciate him at the time.  I thought he wasted immense amounts of class time,  telling stories about conducting class out on the lawn when someone turned on the underground sprinkler system and the like.  But when I look back at my development as a writer I realize that his class may have been the most important one I took at Willamette.

Trueblood had us all write major term papers which had to be based entirely on an Everyman’s Library edition of Abraham Lincoln’s Speeches and Letters.  Although the book had an index of sorts,  each of us had to make our own index of passages relevant to the topic on which we were writing.  I still have the book and the index I made. 

The assignment forced us to organize a large but manageable body of information into categories conducive to writing a coherent analysis.  And since we were all working with the same collection of documents,  Professor Trueblood could verify that we had done the work ourselves.

Thanks to this assignment, books accumulated during my 36 years of teaching at Adrian College and 14 years since retiring have indexes that I scrawled inside the covers on topics I was researching. 

Only one other experience contributed as much to my development as a writer.  In 1970-71  I spent a sabbatical year as a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School.  The Liberal Arts Fellows in Law program was designed for college teachers whose classes involved law but who did not want to become lawyers.  There were five of us---two political scientists,  one philosopher, one business professor, and one historian---and we sat in on selected classes,  met as a group, and had plenty of time for independent reading and research. 

I happened to read a book which I considered to be an extremely well-done presentation of a perverse thesis.  After taking 60 pages of notes and comments,  I volunteered to review it for the American Political Science Review.  The editor accepted my offer and told me to limit my review to 1,000 words. 

My first draft, after  I had polished it, turned out to be nearly 2,000 words!  (I had to count them by hand since we did not have computer editors and word counters in 1971.)  My review was tightly reasoned and there wasn’t anything in it that I thought could be left out.  But I went through it with a tally sheet striking out unnecessary words here and there,  replacing five words with two when possible, eliminating sentences that didn’t pull their own weight, occasionally finding whole paragraphs that were not critical to my discussion. 

Finally,  my tally sheet indicated that it  was down to 1,012 words.  Figuring the APSR editor would not count the words by hand,  I sent it in.  My wife,  a more experienced writer, thought it was the best thing I had ever written.  The APSR, whose editors were famous for giving all manuscripts the works,  didn’t change one comma.

My experiences at Willamette and Harvard contributed to my ability to organize and write a highly unorthodox college textbook,  Thinking About Politics:  American Government in Associational Perspective,  published by D. Van Nostrand in 1981.  They also helped me try to improve the writing of my political science and pre-law students, which I considered a very important part of my work. 

By the time I took early retirement in 2000 the Internet and World Wide Web had come along,  complicating the teaching of writing because it made plagiarism so easy.  Students could copy essays on virtually every subject and then just mess with them enough to avoid getting caught if their professor checked using search engines.  Lazier students didn’t bother to do even this, and of course we made them wish they had.  I presume that today’s students know how to cover their tracks better.

More recent developments on the Internet offer new opportunities for college and high school teachers to give students the kind of experience I had at Willamette while minimizing the danger that students will turn in someone else’s writing.  Many newspapers now allow on-line comments about articles, editorials, and op-ed columns, and some of them weed out the most off-the-wall comments.   Some articles in the New York Times,  for example,  get several hundred comments even after editorial scrutiny. 

The comments for a particular article could function as the equivalent of the book of Lincoln’s speeches and letters that were the basis for the term papers Professor Trueblood had us write.  Students could be assigned to read the same published article and then examine all the comments,  sort them into categories,  and write individual analyses and evaluations of the patterns they find in the comments. 

Teachers who really want to pile it on could grade the papers turned in,  then return the papers with instructions to cut the number of words in half without eliminating any of the key points or supporting arguments made in the original paper.  This second assignment,  graded separately,  could replicate my highly educational experience writing the book review for the American Political Science Review.  And it would drive the students mad! 

But maybe 50 years later the students would realize they had really learned something important in the process.   

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