academic writing-by-number?

I gave a short presentation on assessment at the 7th Biennial Conference on University Education in Natural Resources on Saturday. I don’t usually get the chance to attend specific discipline-focused conferences like this, even those about the scholarship of teaching and learning, and if UENR hadn’t been hosted by the OSU Colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Forestry, I never would have attended this one either. I took advantage of my registration to see some sessions and now I just wish I had cleared out my Friday earlier so that I could have seen more.

One of the first sessions I saw came out of Northern Arizona. Tom Kolb described the development and implementation of a sophomore-level, discipline-specific class on Writing in Forestry. The whole presentation was interesting, but I just want to focus on this one piece that I think ties in well with the academic article template I linked to last week, as well as to some of the work we’re doing here at OSU in beginning composition.

The TA’s that NAU’s school of forestry hires to work as writing consultants usually come from the English Department’s applied linguistics program.  These students have the experience writing about data, particularly quantitative analyses, in a way that works well for teaching forestry students how to write in that discipline.  But as a bonus, they can also bring their research into play.  He presented data gathered by an NAU writing consultant TA, using corpus linguistics — a systematic way of analyzing large bodies of text (corpora).  In this case, they looked at the body of text produced by the students in this 200-level writing class, and the body of text produced by professional scholars and researchers in forestry (by looking at articles published in a selection of forestry journals).

The two pieces of data that he presented were – a comparison of the students’ and the researchers’ use of verbs, and a comparison of the students’ and the researchers’ use of linking adverbials (terms like also, then, therefore, i.e. or e.g.).  Initially, when I heard about the research method, I was thinking about keyword selection and how difficult it can be for novice writers to predict the kinds of terms that scholars will use in their writing — and the problems that creates for the novices’ keyword searches.

But the language uses he was looking at were more structural, and the results were fascinating — with verbs, for example, both the novices and the professionals used the same two verbs the most:  “find” and “show.”  But the professionals supplemented those two verbs with a big list of additional terms.  The novices, on the other hand, used “find” and “show” almost exclusively.  Similarly, with linking adverbials – the novices picked up on the most commonly used terms, but did not use most of the terms professionals used much at all.  This I think could be really instructive for students — as a very non-threatening way to show them how writing for different audiences (scholarly/popular and disciplinary audiences) is different.  At NAU they do share the data, and the students ask for copies of the pros’ lists, so they can incorporate those terms in their own writing.

While I’m sure we’ve all read papers where word choice seems to be thesaurus-driven, and not too effective – I do think that it’s helpful to remember that when we’re asking first-year students to write scholarly papers, we’re asking them to write in a genre they have very little experience with — they don’t know how scholarly writing is supposed to sound, because they haven’t had to read it before.  These kinds of tools – the template from last week and the list from this one – can be a way into those conversations I think.  And a way in that says to the students — “you can do this too.”

You can find Dr. Kolb’s full paper here (opens in Word).

At OSU, the Writing Program uses a textbook by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein called They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  This text takes a template-based approach – working on the assumption that if students can see how scholars get from point A to point B to point C, they can focus their time figuring out how to fill in those blanks.  And the blanks require them to really figure out some things about their topic, and about the sources that they use.   Templates look a bit like academic Mad Libs:

What __________ really means by this is ______________.

Having just argued that __________, let us turn our attention to _______________.

My colleague Kate asked if the NAU assignments made students better readers of research articles – which I thought was a great question.  And it gets at the reason I’m thinking a lot of these approaches that seem overly  prescriptive  at first might be really valuable for a lot of our students.  It’s one thing to prescribe content, but when it comes to form — the format of a lot of academic writing, from the citations to the headings to the titles, is prescribed.  For all of us.  Spelling out the how and the why of that format can not only help a student think about their own ideas in a new way (is there a difference if I use “show” or “suggest”) but can also give them some insight into why the articles we’re asking them to use are written the way they are, so they can read them more strategically, and more effectively.

One thought on “academic writing-by-number?

  1. Thanks for sharing this inter-disciplinary perspective. This is particularly helpful for our English TA’s to see how/why they can prepare their WR 121 students for success in other disciplines. Kolb’s paper will also be a great learning tool. I’m definitely sharing this with our WIC program.

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