Thursday, March 18, 2010

Undergraduate Composition

I've been approached by several people about teaching writing to undergraduates. Here are some of my reflections on the importance of instruction in academic composition. I'm sure that much more can be done, especially here in Denmark, to foster better prose at the early stages of academic development.

Technological progress has not changed the fact that academic work is a textual activity. Scholarship is still largely a matter of reading and writing. These activities, however, are embedded in an ongoing conversation and it is safe to say that research and teaching in an academic environment is fundamentally about listening to what others have to say and then finding something to say in turn. Learning an academic discipline, we might say, is all about becoming conversant in a particular of area of human knowledge, much as one hopes to become conversant when learning a second language.

This insight was the basis of Paula McMillen and Eric Hill’s (2005) collaborative effort to teach “research as a conversation” at the University of Oregon. McMillen, a librarian, and Hill, a composition instructor, were spurred to work together by a confluence of interests:

In composition, there has been a longstanding observation that students are having problems evaluating and incorporating sources for their research or, in most cases, are simply not using the library at all. The libraries' goal was to find a strategic place to begin building a foundation of information literacy skills. (McMillen and Hill 2005)

By working together, they were able to complement each other’s efforts. Writing assignments with a specific focus on library research gave students a clear incentive to make use of the library’s resources and learn how to use them effectively. Those resources, in turn, gave the composition teacher a way to help students develop their sense of the academic conversation they were trying to enter.

A few years ago, a research librarian and I began to do this sort of thing at the doctoral level. We work together to introduce PhD students to the challenges of intertextual writing (i.e., writing that relates to other written works). In addition to McMillen and Hill, we are inspired by—or, rather, motivated by—Anne-Wil Harzing’s study (2002) of the diffusion of “the myth of high expatriate failure rates”. Harzing exposes serious referencing errors in her area and wonders whether they are “undermining our scholarship and credibility”. She notes her “sheer amazement and indignation that serious academics seemed to get away with something that students at all levels are warned not to do” (2002: 127). In our course for PhD students, we followed Harzing in presenting twelve referencing guidelines along with examples of how they have been violated in practice. We then instructed the participants in the use of the library's resources and good writing practices to avoid making similar mistakes.

Like I say, I've been asked to think about how to help undergraduate students write better. One of these requests has actually come from the library, so I'm very encouraged about what is going on. Here, again, the idea is to introduce students to the basics of intertextual scholarship: how to find good sources on which to build your own thinking, and how to write effectively and credibly about them. I think it is very important to teach students that academic writing is not expressive; it is not about "getting something out" and onto the page. Rather, it always about something and addressed to someone. That's why it's so important to use the library to frame your writing.

As textbooks, I imagine we will use The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, and Williams 2008) and Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I say (2007). Perhaps also Anne Huff's Writing for Scholarly Publication (SAGE, 1999).

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