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Feedback is always very welcome...
Before the Forest, the Trees:
A Small-Mistake-Elimination Exercise for Building Writing Awareness
Teaching writing poses at least two pedagogical challenges: getting students to pay attention to detail, and getting students to take writing as a project more seriously. These are not one and the same, as we well know from the use of spell-checking programs. Furthermore, overbearing attention to small mistakes by a teacher carries the danger of distraction: swaths of red ink around spelling and grammar flaws appear superficial and hypocritical when the stated aim is Good Writing in a much deeper sense.
However, it is possible to move both these agendas forward at once. I have found an exercise that attacks the disease of small mistakes while emphasizing the real reasons that one should care about and take pride in one's writing. I call the exercise Small-Mistake Threshold By Consensus. As I've done it, it has four steps, the final three of which are to be carried out in the same session:
This 'technique' in fact consists of nothing more than presenting the problem properly. In particular, I have found the exercise to be more effective when the second part above combines some or all of the following points, which I phrase below more or less as I have spoken them to my students:
Despite the sly and disingenuous feel to a couple of the comments, this exercise works, I think for two reasons. First, attention to detail is no longer just boring, time-consuming busywork, but truly integral to the writing process a vital part of successful communication. Second, the students are shown that they have their own standards to live up to.
Since the idea may still seem a bit far-fetched, let me address several concerns and give some detail:
The goal is not just to reduce the number of small mistakes, but to induce students to improve their writing by living up to their own standard. By allowing students both to participate in the process and to hear their peers' opinions, the process of writing suddenly seems closer to home. The impetus to write better then comes not just from a brainy, distant prof or snooty grad student, but from themselves.
(I would like to credit my father, a long-time college professor, for suggestions and insights that led to the development of this exercise.)
Josh Skov's submission (one of the winners, in fact) for the U. C. Berkeley Teaching Effectiveness Prize.
Feedback is always very welcome...
Yes, if you and I are talking to each other and understand each other, it doesn't matter whether we're using "proper English" or not.
But if you are writing an article that I and hundreds of other people are going to read, or if we're co-workers who have never met and you have to send me a message about something important, then we shouldn't have to waste time establishing a common understanding of terms and grammar before getting to the content of your message. We need to have a standard that all of us know about in advance. So if you're going to be communicating in the English-speaking academic and business world, you should know and use the standard forms of English used in that world.
Yes, these rules are arbitrary; the definition of "kilogram" is also pretty arbitrary, but it's a good thing we all agree on how much a kilogram weighs. Yes, knowing these rules is trivial compared with knowing, say, advanced economic theory; that's why people should know them before they graduate from high school. The people who teach writing to graduate students are making a last-ditch attempt to make up for failure in the rest of the educational system.
In my work as a technical writer, I have to read the white papers that programmers write to summarize new features of my company's products. When smart people who can't write have to communicate in print, the results aren't pretty.
Contributed by Seth Gordon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on September 30, 1999
I have been thinking about Skov's piece on writing for a few months now. I am a fellow graduate student of Josh's and perhaps it is out of envy that his work is so admired that I constantly come back to thinking about this piece. However, I still can't shake the nightmare of what it would be like to have Mr. Skov as my writing tutor in an upper level, say, eocnomics course.
Consider yourself a member of this hypothetical class.You are studying the impact of immigration on American wgaes. You are asked to write a short comment on one of Williamson's papers. In the hypothetical paper it turns out you have more than a few spelling errors but you have come up with a better method of estimating the impact of immigrants on domestic wages.
Now Mr. Skov would have spent the greater protion of a half hour grading your paper and making comments. You would be correcting the paper which would take nearly half an hour or more. The total time spent on correcting errors in spelling and "grammar" being an hour or more.
Linguist Robin Lakoff argues forcefully that as long as we understand each other the words that come out do not matter. Another linguist Suzanne Fleischman argues that "today's grammatical mistakes are tomorrow's grammar." Now if these specialists are to be believed, one, two or three spelling errors should not in the long run make any difference while the correction of them would come at substantial short run cost.
In sum knowing you made an error may be important but I would argue strongly that teaching writing should be much more concentrated on more substantive issues such as logical coherence and clarity.
About how to teach that...well I guess I should create a piece for next year's writing contest.
Contributed by Chris Meisssner (email@example.com) on September 11, 1999.
of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
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