Writing/learning

Writing for Learning has some interesting points. (Of course it ought to. It’s by Peter Elbow, big name important rhetorician.)

1. In class writing. I have some of this that I don’t count as my 18 pieces of writing required for my course. They write to answer questions, to show that they get it, to tell me what they are doing.

2. Journal writing. In 1990 I required 5 journal writings. In this semester’s syllabus I have 11. Some are responsive, to a reading. One is “tell me what you think is going on” with the research paper.

3. Think pieces. I think that some of these, at least, are in my journal writing. I know I don’t require any other than those.

4. Essays that count. I have four of those. I used to have seven in the semester. (Like last spring.) But then I didn’t have the journal writing.

5. Term papers. Now Elbow doesn’t like these. He calls them “terminal.” He says they’re not picked up, because they’re at the end of the course and the students don’t learn from them. I have a couple of things that I do to avoid this. First of all, the research papers aren’t the last paper in the class. They’re due at least before Thanksgiving. (This semester the first is due next week.) Second, I let the students rewrite them, fixing the problems in each. Then I grade the rewrite and give them the average of the two grades. I carefully explain to them that the better the first paper is the better the average. … This usually motivates them.

Of course, it motivates the students who stay in the class. This last week, the second week of preparing for the paper, I had 35 of 65 students in class. Does this mean they are dropping? A lot of them probably are. Of course some of them haven’t done any of the work yet. Some people would say that I should do the research paper later, when they have more grades and are more committed to the class through their time investment. (That’s certainly the way I have usually done it.) But, then again, if they’re going to drop anyway, maybe I should have it earlier so I have to do less grading?

6. Portfolios. I’m not sure how I would grade these, but I like the idea.

Students usually get much more out of a course when they are asked to go through all their writing and other projects and make a portfolio out of the best and most interesting pieces. (I always ask for a few selections from private or journal writing, some think pieces, and some essays. I want a range of types. I always ask for an “interesting failure.”) The most important part of the portfolio is an essay that introduces, explores, and explains the pieces in the portfolio and talks about what the student has learned from these pieces of work. This self-reflexive writing provides a kind of meta- discourse that leads to new understanding and enriches fragile, incipient insights.

If I don’t have this in the syllabus, how would I include it? Could I make it a substantial extra credit project? Or could I let them do it to replace a low grade? Or maybe I can change one of the later journal assignments to this? I’ll have to think about it. Yes. I could have it in place of Journal 11. But I like the idea of Journal 11. Maybe I could give them a choice? Or maybe I could skip one of the other journals? No, I think the others are necessary.

Hmm. That’s probably why I came up with them as assignments.

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