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Global Perspectives on Writing

I.

It’s Saturday, the sky is blue (sort of), and I’ve turned down a brunch invitation to write to you, the students of NYU Shanghai. I write because I’m troubled by persistent misunderstandings about aspects of our core curriculum, misunderstandings I’ve seen expressed in these pages and heard elsewhere on campus. More so, I’m distressed by the potential implications of those misunderstandings—implications that speak to the character of our community and to the heart of our university’s mission.

Let me start by introducing the part of the curriculum I represent—the writing program—and telling you what we’re about.  First, let me tell you what a college writing program is not. What it’s not is simple: it’s not a reform school for bad style, an ER for sick sentences, a factory producing perfect punctuation. It’s not a grammar workshop, where you spend hours drilling, quizzing, and diagramming. It is simply not these things.

Does this mean we don’t care about sentences? Does this mean we don’t care about grammar? Of course not. We love sentences, we labor over them, we coax them into existence, and we obsess over their structural integrity.   We prize electric sentences, supple sentences, sentences that turn on razor-sharp wit, sentences that swerve into unexpected places, sentences that reverberate in the body, cause an intake of breath, a skipped beat of the heart. We care about correctness, too, because your authority and credibility as writers depend on grammatical fluency and attention to style. You should know how much we care about your sentences based on the number of sentence-level marks we make on your pages.

But the point here is that a writing program, a writing class, is not only focused on sentences.  A “writing” class at a liberal arts university is actually a critical thinking, reading, argumentation, rhetorical analysis, interpretation, research, source evaluation, and text incorporation class. It’s a class about structure, organization, and coherence.  It’s a class about ideas—because we’ve got to write about something, we’ve got to engage in some debate (GPS and GPC are set up on this model—we think, debate, and write in response to a set of “big” ideas in a discipline or set of disciplines).  And it’s a class about poetry, art making, reflection, self-discovery, and voice. Your voice.

We are also a resistance movement, resisting simplistic arguments—what Joseph Harris, in his book Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts, calls the “in or out, hot or not, on the bus or off of it…all-or-nothing mode” of argumentation. We resist, too, the writing habits you develop when you “write to the test,” habits which block thinking and which lock you into a calcified formal structure, one that limits complexity, creativity, and experimentation. We resist what Paulo Freire calls “the banking concept of education,” in which knowledge is “deposited” into your minds; rather we set up classes which require you to interpret, make meaning, make connections, and critically assess arguments on your own terms. We resist the pace of the 24-hour media machine, which devalues the time necessary to craft something of merit. We resist those forms of writing that are rooted in anger, self-righteousness, and willful blindness—the diatribe, the rant, the flame, the tirade.  We promote “commodiousness,” the word rhetorician Jim Corder uses to describe writing which makes space for others.

The form of writing we teach—a form which invites complexity, encourages creativity, demands revision, and allows for civility—is the essay. The writing program at NYU Washington Square, in which I taught for eight years, offers a constellation of courses that center around a sun, a course called “Writing the Essay.”  Study away students in the audience will surely groan upon reading the name—it’s a controversial class, a difficult class (you earn that A), a class whose full force often becomes apparent only later, when one has perspective (I have many former students who have revised their opinion—in junior year, senior year, after graduation—about what the course gave them).  Some students make fun of the course name, highlighting the definite article “the” as a sign of the course’s perceived pretension or unrealistic expectations (who can write the one, the only, the essay?)  But what its name really signifies is that the course teaches a genre of writing—the essay.

This is also true for the writing workshop sections at NYU Shanghai, which teach the academic essay as well as what I might call a “public intellectual” essay—a long-form argument essay written for a smart, but not solely academic, audience. In teaching an essay genre, a writing class might then also be viewed as a performance class, because we are teaching you how to perform the moves of an academic essay.  And like any performance, the moves required are manifold and interwoven. Like any good performance, individual moves and phrases of movement and whole symphonic orchestrations of movement need to be practiced and performed again and again. We have to take you, via multiple approaches and multiple attempts, through the recursive moves of reading, analysis, conceptualization, connection, contextualization, articulation, construction, revision, reconstruction, refinement, and—finally, finally—humble submission of your carefully crafted intellectual product to an audience for their consideration.  When we, your teachers, assess that submission, we are assessing your whole performance of a complex set of interrelated moves.

II.

So how is this a response to the GPC debate in these pages, and to debates about writing, language, and the core curriculum in other forums at the university?  I see in these debates a deep misunderstanding about writing classes and writing intensive content courses—really about any course in which writing assignments are a significant portion of the grade.  Thus, as a way of beginning, I wanted to clarify what academic writing—and the teaching and evaluation of academic writing—is all about. Let me now address some of the specific debates taking place in our community.

We (the leadership, the faculty, the curriculum designers, the writing program) have been accused of being unfair, “discriminatory,” of setting up a “welfare state” for certain groups of students, of lowering standards, of being un-American. These accusations rest on a series of false assumptions I’d like to examine now:

1)   that native English speakers or highly-fluent non-native speakers are inherently better writers of essays (and inherently better writers, period);

2)   that you know more about the teaching of academic writing than we do;

3)   and that our criteria for assessment are different than an American university’s criteria for assessment; that we’ve set up a special system here which privileges certain groups over others.

I’ll start with the third assumption and, in the course of my discussion, I’ll take up the other two as well.  I taught in NY’s writing program for eight years and can assure you that the criteria for assessment there —that is, the criteria for assessing students’ ability to orchestrate and perform a series of complex reading, critical thinking, organizational, and writing moves—are no different from ours. We have faculty on staff from other universities—Cornell, Michigan, etc.—who will attest to similar criteria in writing courses (and other courses which ask for writing assignments) at their former institutions.

Let’s think about what these criteria for assessment look like, concretely:

  •      A paper which develops a focused, clearly-motivated inquiry, closely analyzes and builds its thinking from a well-selected set of sources, reaches a debatable, complex thesis claim, and persuades us of that claim through a carefully structured, clearly articulated essay will receive—even if its sentences exhibit regular, but non-disruptive grammatical mistakes—a higher assessment than a paper whose grammatically correct but bland sentences form a less complex, less well-analyzed, less structurally-coherent essay.
  •      A paper which does everything mentioned in the first example, and is also deftly wrought, with attention to the nuance of language, to the power of sentence structures, to the persuasive impact of image and sound—this essay will receive a very high assessment.
  •      A paper whose sentences are so muddled that the thinking is not clear and the writer’s purpose cannot be understood without significant reader-labor will receive a low assessment [and muddled, unclear sentences are just as common among native English speakers as they are among non-native speakers—it just might be that the roots of the incoherence are different. This is why we do spend some time talking about grammar, style, and structure with all of you].
  •      A paper which does not address significant aspects of the prompt will receive a low assessment, regardless of how well or poorly it performs any of the other academic essay criteria mentioned above.

Let’s look at the first comparison above in a “real world,” non-classroom context.  If I’m an editor and I receive two submissions—the first example and the second example—which one will I select for publication?  The answer should be obvious: I will select the first one, because the writer has something of value to say, something to contribute, and we easily can work on the sentence-level issues together. The second submission requires much more work for me, the editor, to tackle.  I have to ask the writer to re-conceive of her whole project and approach, which will require a significant amount of time and revision.

So it’s important to me that you have a clear understanding of how we assess you—and how you would be similarly assessed at other universities—because it’s from this understanding that you will improve as essay writers. But what I really want to address are the implications of the assumptions some of you have made about writing assessment at this university. These implications are deeply distressing to me, as they should be to anyone in our community.

When you write in these pages, or say in my office, or say in other faculty members’ offices, or say in your formal and informal debates…

  •      How can my nationality-X roommate’s paper have gotten a higher grade than mine?
  •      What’s the point of peer editing when my nationality X peer workshop partner can’t fix my sentences?
  •      The university has different grading standards for group X than for group Y.
  •      The university has diminished its level of scholarship to accommodate certain students.
  •      This university has different standards than an American university.

…what you are saying is: a whole group of my classmates is inferior to me; their minds aren’t as capable as my mind; no amount of diligence or hard work will ever cause them to reach even my base level of ability; they offer little of intellectual value to me; their inferiority leads to lower standards for everyone. If you take these implications one-step further, you are saying a whole group of students is inferior to you not just in the GPC context, but in any course which requires the writing of essays—every humanities and social science course, and many science courses. You are saying, essentially, that a whole group of students is inferior to you in a majority of the work you will do together at this university.

Naturally, this discussion might lead some of you to ask why we separate into two Writing Workshops for GPS.  Isn’t this separation a sign of some difference in ability? I could write a whole essay on this topic alone—and I invite anyone interested to talk with me about it further—but I will say something brief here.  When we assess your writing and proficiency before freshman year, we evaluate several factors, including language proficiency and proficiency in/exposure to modes of western academic writing.  There are real differences in these proficiencies when you arrive. We place you in separate sections so that we can design differences in emphasis to meet your particular learning needs at that moment in time.  (This method of placement, by the way, is not unique to us; NY has different sections, based on these proficiency levels, in first-year writing classes).  But differences in proficiency do not equal differences in intellect, creativity, risk-taking, potential, or diligence. And the philosophy is not that students stay confined to these placements forever and ever—it’s the exact opposite. Our goal is to work toward integration, and some students move from Writing 1 to Writing 2 during spring semester, freshmen year; all students are integrated by GPC.

Based on my own classes and from talking to other GPC teachers, it’s clear to me that this method works. The students receiving the highest assessments in GPC writing assignments are from a mix of national, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. Their ability to achieve these high assessments is rooted in a host of individualized factors—understanding of essay writing moves; engagement in the ideas of the course; willingness to take risks and try different approaches; willingness to seek, listen to, and respond to feedback; time devoted to the writing process. One thing is clear to me, and I say it firmly here: in these classes, passport does not predict performance.

III.

When I was a sophomore in college, I got my first C on a paper. It was not the end of the world as I knew it. I’m fine. I’m happy. I’m successful.  In fact, this C was the beginning of that success—the beginning of a new kind of understanding, a new approach to thinking and analysis, a new approach to my writing process.  Of course, when I received the “C,” I wasn’t as grateful to the professor as I am now. I was shocked. And more than a little angry. And defensive. I, Amy Becker, got a “C” on a paper?  Impossible. My whole identity was wrapped up in “good student,” “A student,” “good writer,” even the arrogant “better writer” than others.

Some of my classmates, who received similar marks, went to the Dean and complained: this couldn’t be right; fix it; something was wrong with this guy.  Several of us went to talk to the professor; I ended up talking with him in office hours every week for the rest of the semester. Those exchanges were transformative. I began to see how I’d just been skimming surfaces my whole life, how—because I’m adept enough on the page—I’d gotten away for a long time without really thinking. I began to see that what I was producing was not yet worthy of an intellectually rigorous, professional audience. I learned for the first time the real value of revision.  I became aware of my warped self-perception, my own lack of humility. I realized I had something to learn.

The feedback you receive from your teachers should be an impetus for self-reflection: What can’t I yet see? What have I not yet figured out? What should I try differently?  So what blocks this move to self-reflection? From my talks with you, and with your counterparts in New York, the primary factor seems to be deep grade anxiety. The “B,” which means “very good,” causes tears. The “C,” which means “adequate, but needs improvement,” is apocalyptic. I sympathize with you—I was once you and I get it. You have identities as “good students,” some of you have crazy pressures from parents, and you have GPA-dependent graduate and professional goals.  But this grade anxiety causes some of you not to look inward in reflection, but rather to look outward for a solution that does not require you to change. You blame your teachers, the course structure, and the curriculum. And you make—and perhaps believe in—invidious comparisons which demean and devalue the minds of your fellow classmates.

By persisting in these beliefs about an unfair system being at the root of the evaluations you receive from us, you are blocking yourselves from your own improvement as writers and thinkers, you are blocking yourselves from meaningful relationships with your faculty, and—most lamentably—you are blocking yourselves from meaningful intellectual and personal relationships with your peers.  You are erecting the very barriers so many people in this community are working hard to break.

I’m not eating brunch on this semi-blue-sky Saturday because I care enough about our community to want to put myself in the way of those barriers before they become permanent fixtures. I write because I want us to focus on the unique aspects of our university—the opportunities for intercultural engagement, for expanding worldviews, for a globalized educational experience—that will distinguish you when you graduate.

I also write because I believe in you.  You knock my socks off every day—in class and in your papers and in the things you’re doing to build our university. We—all the faculty—are working night and day because we believe in your abilities and potential, because we believe in your hearts and minds.  When we give you honest feedback about your work, it’s because we want to help you reach all the goals you’ve set for yourselves, as well as reach the standards we’ve set for your education. So come talk to us—about those standards, about your goals, about the feedback you received, about how we can help you. If we come to it with open minds and a willingness to listen, the space you and I create in this kind of conversation is a transformative space—for the both of us.


This article was written by Amy Becker. Send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

2 Comments on this Post

  1. Einat Palkovich

    Another perfect response stunningly written

    Reply

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