HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
Plagiarism seems like a clear-cut crime: if the words of another author appear in one’s writing without appropriate attribution, that writer has “stolen” those words. U.S. higher education institutions take the offense seriously: minor cases often result in probation, suspension, or expulsion. This black-and-white perspective toward plagiarism, however, does not effectively identify, prevent, or resolve writing issues.
Graduate students frequently get the chance to meet one-on-one with their professors. Yet at the undergraduate level, especially during the first year, students rarely get that chance, unless they take the initiative to come to office hours or schedule a meeting.
This is unfortunate. I teach first-year writing, and at least once every semester, I meet one-on-one with each of my students, usually to review a draft of their first paper. My students love these conferences, partly because they offer a chance for personal contact with their instructor, and partly because the conferences provide them with uniquely meaningful feedback.
Faculty know that holding student writing conferences will overwhelm them, or at least that is what they’ve heard from colleagues. They’ve even heard such advice from those who never conference with students to provide individualized attention and feedback on their writing.
Perhaps the most disheartening is that conferencing faculty need to take on new and enervating roles as scheduler, negotiator, and time manager. And yes, reader—let’s not forget all those papers conferencing professors “have to read” before students arrive at their office doors!
When I hear the words “writing community,” my mind conjures up an elementary school classroom. I picture the warm, fuzzy second grade teacher wearing a warm, fuzzy sweater, handing out stickers and cookies as the students prepare for an authors’ tea. At this special event, parents will make the appropriate cooing sounds as their small children enthusiastically share their writing within the classroom.
Every October, members of the Canadian Forces College’s National Security Program—a master of public administration program for senior military personnel and senior public service professionals—have the opportunity (and privilege) to travel to Ottawa to meet with high-level policy practitioners. The intent of the trip is to allow our students to compare what their in-class readings have taught them about governance and executive leadership with what actually happens in the national capital on a daily basis.
Most students in my developmental writing classes claim they “hate” writing. It’s a familiar refrain. But, it is less about “hate” and more about a lack of preparation in the subject area. They do not have sufficient experience with the writing process in order to understand what to do. It is not until they gain this experience and realize for themselves what is wrong and what is right with their own work will their writing improve. This personal realization has to happen. It is key to neutralizing their fear and boosting their confidence.
I mostly teach basic technical writing, and I face the same problem that confronts many of us who teach writing. It’s hard enough getting students to do the assignments, and almost impossible to get them to do a first draft. But writing takes practice, and if you require students to practice, that leads to an inevitable mountain of papers to grade. At my college, the trend is toward bigger classes and fewer course hours in English. This makes giving students the chance to practice all the more important, and providing the necessary feedback all the more challenging. I’d like to share a couple of solutions I’ve devised that help me deal with both these problems.
Breathes there a professor of any subject with soul so dead who never to himself hath said, “Today’s undergraduates are hopeless at research!” (apologies to Sir Walter Scott). It is easy to blame high schools or freshman English classes, but that doesn’t fix our problem. As a frustrated educator of future teachers (Clouse) and a 20-year veteran of teaching college writing and research (Nelson), we obviously sympathize and often feel blamed. We have found that a better approach is an interdisciplinary effort that gives students ample opportunities to practice and develop their writing and research skills. The cumulative effect of this approach not only benefits faculty, but our students seem to appreciate and feel less intimidated working within this method as well.
One of the ongoing challenges for my composition students is the task of narrowing a broad, generalized topic into a more particular, focused topic for a short research essay. To help them develop this skill, I now prescribe a broad topic for everyone to use in the first research essay. Over several class sessions, we work collaboratively to explore the general topic, identify more particular subtopics, and develop research strategies to investigate these subtopics as possible subject matter.