Tag Archives: teaching writing

The Answer is 42

Having had the benefit of a nice road trip during which I was able to contemplate the issue I’ve been exploring in the last few posts—the virtues or lack thereof of letting learners figure things out for themselves—I’ve arrived at an unexpected conclusion. The answer to the question of whether this is the ideal pedagogical method, for teaching writing or many other things, is—drum roll—42!

No, seriously, the definitive answer is yes and no. Or, put differently, it depends. Or: on one hand, on the other. Or possibly: sometimes.

A quick recap: I’ve always wanted to learn programming. Told that Python was useful and accessible, I bought a $35 book. Within hours, I was just barely resisting the urge to hurl the book at the stupidly blinking computer screen. The author adopted the “throw them in and they’ll teach themselves to swim (or not)” school at its most extreme. He provided readers with code they were to dutifully copy, producing a simple game called “Find the Wumpus.” I copied, I played, I found the Wumpus. But throughout, I had to puzzle out for myself what different commands meant—for that matter, even how to write and run a command, which was one of the numerous things this author assumed I already knew how to do!

I showed this book to a mathematician friend adept at programming. He told me to go to Louisville and throw it off the Big 4 Bridge. “This is completely wrong. The way to teach programming is to provide short bits of code that illustrate specific commands and functions. Get another book.”

I already had, being a Very Smart Girl. I bought two on my Kindle. I perused the first one. Within just a few screens, I knew what operators were, and what some major ones did. I knew what functions were. (I already pretty much knew what variables were.) I knew the difference between a number and a string! (It’s just a matter of punctuation. If it’s inside quote marks, it’s “text” and it’s a “string,” Ain’t that cool?)

And yet.

I learned how to tell the computer to add 2 and 3 and get 5. I learned how to convert the price of an Apple computer into euros using functions. I learned how many spaces I could insert before a decimal.

No doubt there are people out there who need to do these things. Who want to do them. It was unclear to me why I would want to do them.

Here’s the upshot. The Find-the-Wumpus game, maddening though it was, Continue reading

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Maybe Just a Tiny Bit More Rant. . . .

And some thoughts on what it means for writing.

Last time, I wrote about the tendency of the author of my beginning Python book (computer programming) to leave out what seemed to me simple yet rather foundational instructions for the beginners he was supposedly addressing, my implication being that he failed to understand his readers’ needs, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his text. I wanted to take the experience of trying to follow his directions toward a discussion of why (in my experience) many writers, including writers of fiction, seem to actively resent being asked to explain themselves to readers.

But I have a new gripe after working through Chapter 2. (I suppose I’ll have to take a vow not to collapse into a rant after every chapter! I do plan to buy another book to supplement this one, so if you were thinking of suggesting that. . . .)

In this chapter he gives you lots of steps. He gives you whole programs to copy into your text editor (characteristically without explaining that it’s in the text editor that you’ll find that rather essential “run” command!).

But along with these whole-cloth programs, does he tell you what you just did, why you did it, and how it worked?

You have probably intuited that no, he does not.

Nor does he define terms as consistently as he would have you believe. “Because the player enters a string instead of a number—” Excuse me. I most certainly entered a number. I assume he doesn’t mean we’re doing some version of string theory here.

He implies—actually more than implies—that he’s operating under the theory that readers will learn best by doing and then by figuring out the “grammar” of this language on their own as they go along. I think he’ll eventually tell me some of the stuff I want so much to know. In the Find-the-Wumpus game he has me coding, in “raw­_input(“>”),” what in the world is that little caret for? In “for i in cave_numbers” when you’re setting up caves that the player can see from a given cave, where did that “i” come from? Is it some arbitrary identifier? I could pick “s” or “m” just as easily? Maybe I should try the substitution and see what happens. But why not tell me instead of just dropping an unexplained item into the program for me to copy? Am I really better off figuring such things out on my own? Continue reading

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Writing the Synopsis: Or, What Took Me So Long?

I’ve been away for a few days, and if you’ve been watching the weather reports, you know what I spent much of the day before yesterday dealing with–yes, it’s a four-letter word beginning with “S.”

I’ve also been dealing with an eight-letter word beginning with “S”: “Synopsis.” I’ve never met a writer yet who liked dealing with synopses. I’ve always believed I couldn’t write them–just didn’t get it. I’d tell what I thought was the story I’d told, only to have readers respond, “I’m totally confused.”

I faced the need to confront the demon synopsis because I’m trying to get my out-of-print suspense novels up as e-books, and I need covers. I had some ideas of my own, but my excellent and candid volunteer critics (or should I say “impressed” critics in the sense that sailors off merchant ships were once impressed into the British navy) generally agreed that I should solicit ideas from actual designers. At my university, we have students who do superb work. But could I ask students to read two fairly hefty novels between class assignments? Uh, no, not if I want to get the books up any time soon. Hence, synopses.

My first efforts were on a par with my earlier efforts. A masochistic colleague whose opinion I value actually volunteered to read the books and write the things for me. I spared him: read two hefty books between grading assignments in four (yes, four!) writing classes?!!! So he read the synopses I produced. I reproduce here the bare bones of this experience, because it was a eureka experience. For the first time, I was like, “Oh!” It’s what can happen when you have a truly good reader who is willing to tell you the truth and you are ready to listen–a crucial component, but I was desperate. They always want a synopsis. Who wants two pages to be the death of a three-hundred-page gem?

Here is the heart of what my colleague Tom O’Neal wrote for me:

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Digression Again: Struggling with Writing

I’ve been researching how people learn to write and what can stand in their way. My interest in this topic stems, first, from my own experiences as a college writing teacher (with a PhD in “composition studies”), and second, a book project I’m working on for college students facing their first college writing class, whether as recent high-school graduates or returning adults.

A lot of research indicates that, as with many other cognitive functions, early experiences matter. This seems to be particularly true for writing. After all, writing is not “natural.” No one is “hard-wired” to do it, as we all seem to be for speech. Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene explains current theory suggesting that our brains must redirect neural pathways “designed” for other functions into the unnatural and unevolved task of connecting visual images with the sounds that then translate into the words we’re familiar with. The earlier we recognize that these visual stimuli are important components of our environments and have meaning, the more likely this process will occur when our brains are most plastic, most ready to manage this redirection. Intuitively it makes sense that people who had the richest literacy experiences from the earliest ages will have the most time to hone this use of their brains.

It’s also clear that writing makes huge demands on our cognitive resources. I’m reading research that indicates that even such tasks as typing, when they’re not largely automatic, steal working memory and cognitive energy from the higher-order processes that go into more complex writing tasks. And when we’re dealing with multiple tasks with high cognitive load, like accessing new, complex material, something has to give.

So my conundrum: Do I tell potential readers of my book on college writing that if they missed out in those early years, they’re doomed?

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Digression: What is “College Writing”?

In the course of a project I’ve been working on, a book for people about to take their first college writing course, I’ve been doing some reading to locate the personal experiences I’m drawing on in the continuing conversation among college writing professionals about what a college writing course or major ought to be and do. One source I’ve found usefully provocative is What is “College-Level” Writing?, edited by Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg, both community college professors. High-school and college teachers, students and administrators have contributed.

No Definition for College Writing?

I wonder how surprised most readers would be to learn that the collection begins with the premise that there’s no agreed-upon definition for “college-level” writing. Contributors do seem to resist the idea that writing is de facto “college level” because it is written in college. But many also resist the idea that there should be some set of specific criteria that student writers have to meet if their writing is to be acceptable college work. The perceived danger is that locking college writing to “standards” will drive it the same way “standards” have driven high-school writing: toward shallow and reductive formulas that privilege being able to follow a set of steps over thoughtful analysis of a topic. (George Hillocks’ The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, is a lucid exploration of the effects of various rubrics and standards on how teachers teach and how students write.) The writers in this volume tend to agree that college writing should be more flexible, more responsive to the different writing situations students in college will encounter.

So What Is College Writing. . . . ?

And this view of the difference between college and high-school writing points to a consistent thread of consensus among the contributors (and among my colleagues, with whom I shared many discussions of our program and the kinds of writing it was producing). What made me want to insert this post into my narrative of my own struggles was an essay close to the end of the book. By Chris Kearns, then an assistant dean of student services at the University of Minnesota, this essay advocates for what I would consider an absolutely essential component of successful college writing, Kearns writes:

[C]ollege writing proper begins whenever an undergraduate takes the first consequential step from self to other on the grounds of care for one’s audience. This is best done by opening oneself to the fact that meaning does not belong to the writer; it unfolds in the shared space of acknowledgment between the reader and the writer. (350)

This is remarkably in tune with my favorite quotation about writing that I’ve published in these posts at least twice, the quote from the reading historian Alberto Manguel that “[a]ll writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” This idea, Kearns points out, runs counter to the romanticized view that the self-regarding individual is the font of expressive genius. Kearns contends, rightly I think, that we cannot imagine this unfolding of meaning between reader and writer as a linear process of following steps or using the right toolset, and, moreover, it is difficult to explain as a concrete process, which is a possible reason so many college students find that magic something that their college teachers “are looking for” so amorphous and elusive.

Kearns points out that this process requires writers to inhabit three consciousnesses: that of writer, reader, and a third “critical reader” who experiences both perspectives and engages with the tensioned interplay between them. Kearns calls this process “recursive,” by which I interpret him to mean that one begins with an idea or a point, which then blooms in the space in which it is offered, is molded by the critical reader, and then returns, changed. This process repeats as long as a piece of writing is still attached to us intellectually and emotionally, even if it has left our hands.

This is about college writing, but I think it is about all writing that means to do more than sit in a drawer. Readers are the most surprising people. They never give you back what you think you gave them. And when you get back their gift, you–even if you resist–are what has changed.

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Paying for It: Story I

For “book doctor” services, I mean.

I apologize for this long post. This story turned out to take a long time to tell. I apologize as well for what may be my most carping posts, as I have disastrous encounters to report. So you may want to wait for a sunnier discussion. On the other hand, yet again, you may find my mistakes instructive—even though they do tend to fall into the category of “what was she thinking?” if I do say so myself.

At least in each case I wasn’t out more money than I could afford at the time. And I did go into each with the attitude that the money was all I really had to lose.

The first episode occurred when King of the Roses was in its pre-agent, pre-St. Martin’s state: stacks of boxes of typed-upon sheets, not quite as imposing as the purported five feet of manuscript that constituted the original draft of Gone with the Wind, but nothing you could tote in a shopping bag, either. I was very young (excuse).

I met this man at the conference my local university regularly hosted (now defunct, sadly—it was a wonderful conference). I don’t recall exactly how we made contact; I must have approached him after his session. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid, but it would have been less than $500. Of him, I can say this: he was conscientious. He did what he said he’d do, in a timely manner. He read the whole book and regularly sent me sections festooned with comments. Recently, in the process of dumping piles upon piles of old rough drafts, I came across the pages he had edited. I set them in the “save even though you know better” stack, to look back at one day. Did anything he told me help me? Possibly. Good advice, in whatever form, is worth reviewing. It’s so hard to come by.

The bait was his assurance that, once we had chiseled the book into shape, he would put me in touch with the New York editors with whom he had professional relationships. Who wouldn’t spend $500 on that?

What rises to the top, probably flushed out by the memories of what finally happened, are not deep, global insights that would eventually make that book publishable; no, they were idiosyncrasies that left me about where I’d started, still wondering whether my ambitious plot (yeah, they’re all ambitious, more’s the pity) was working and what to do if it wasn’t.

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Okay, So What Did I Learn about NOT Writing a Failed Novel?

I’ve already written about some of the things I learned: Listen to your characters. Assume that you’ll be the one bailing when the ship starts to sink. Be in a position to pull out (e.g., have a day job) if there’s no hope: you gain nothing by having a bad book to your name. Use the resources available to you if you’re lucky enough to have some: for example, if dangerous channels need to be navigated, let your agents steer; that’s what you’re paying them for. Give editors the benefit of the doubt (just as you should your writing teachers: writing—and figuring out what to tell people about their writing—is HARD).

But here are Nos. 1, 2, and 3:

  1. Get feedback
  2. Get feedback
  3. Get feedback

Of course, that lesson learned begs several questions.

  • Where can you get this magical feedback?
  • Can feedback really make your book work?
  • What is good feedback? How can you recognize it?
  • Should you be a slave to feedback (after all, it is your book)?

One thing at a time.

How to get feedback? I’m offering my experiences, interested in hearing from others. Maybe you’ve been where I have, maybe you’ve been somewhere better. I haven’t yet participated in online groups; when I do (soon), I’ll report on that.

In the meantime, I’ve previously written about face-to-face writing groups, their virtues and limitations—especially for a novelist. It helps to speculate as well that a writing group can get too large. Yesterday ten people instead of the usual six or seven showed up for our regular three-hour session. People voluntarily cut their submissions in half, but we barely had time to nibble around the edges of what we wanted to say. But most cities have multiple writing groups, each with a different culture. I’ll never be without one again.

You can ask your colleagues to read for you: people whose expertise you recognize and whose views you respect—and who like the kind of writing you do and actually read in that genre. Beware: it’s terrifying. Continue reading

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