Knowledge Transfer

I was asked to give a workshop last year to a group of grade school teachers on the issue of knowledge transfer. The reason for the workshop was teachers’ perceptions that students moved from grade to grade and subject to subject apparently treating each grade or subject in isolation and not applying the skills and knowledge from one grade or subject to the next.

This issue necessitates redundancy in teaching, and worse, lost chances to build and expand on students’ skills and knowledge across their academic development.

In thinking about this issue as college educators, consider the following two questions:

1) When you meet your students at the beginning of a semester, what expectations do you have about the knowledge the students should bring to your classroom?

2) What expectations do students have about the knowledge they should bring to the classroom?

The answer to the first question might be extensive.

For example, I want my students to know how to make an argument, what constitutes evidence for an argument, why things like labeling and generalizations can be problematic, how to study and take notes, and the list goes on!

The answer to the second question might be “None!”

So you see one of the first things we can do is set clear expectations about knowledge transfer for our students.

The reason a student’s list might be shorter than her teacher’s is that students might expect each new classroom to be a brand new challenge. There is a new instructor to figure out, a new set of concepts to learn, a new style of testing, a new form of classroom discussion. To a student, understandably, each new class and each new instructor might feel entirely new! So, why would they apply knowledge from prior classroom experiences to this one?

That your expectations and your students’ expectations might differ is not inherently a bad thing, but it does call for you as the instructor to make your expectations clear!

Once expectations are better matched, the next step as instructors is to find ways to promote knowledge transfer across classes and disciplines.

Some ideas:

1) Portfolios
Within disciplines, students might develop portfolios that will be carried over from one course level to the next. A second-year calculus (or second-year writing, etc.) teacher could see some of a students’ work from the first-year calculus (or first-year writing, etc.) class. Students and teachers could include goals and feedback to facilitate development rather than re-starting from one course level to the next.

2) Teach-Backs
A component of an advanced course in any discipline could be to teach-back foundational concepts to students in first-year courses in that discipline. This could be done verbally through mini-lessons, or in writing, through summary sheets.

3) Previewing
In your classroom, make a point to elicit prior knowledge, and “preview” subjects as you move through course content.

4) Inter-disciplinary collaboration
Talk to other instructors – in other disciplines!
Perhaps a writing course could team up with a math course to partner students for a project that integrates narrative and mathematical formulation. The possibilities are endless!

Special thanks to the 2015-2016 WAC Fellows at Brooklyn College with whom these ideas were developed!

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Deadlines and Empathy

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
—Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

     This blog post was supposed to go up on Monday. It didn’t. Time, holidays, ennui, other commitments, other deadlines, not knowing what to write, not wanting to write, wanting to write other things, not wanting to think: certainly these are some of the reasons it did not go up. Or rather, these are the reasons why I put off writing the post—but they are not necessarily the reasons why no post went up on Monday. The reason I was able to put off writing until I had something I really wanted to write about (this meta-analysis of deadlines that you are reading, hello and welcome to the post itself!) rests far more on my understanding of the academic community of which I am a part. No post went up on Monday because I knew that the WAC project would not crumble if a post went up a bit late; I knew that the WAC coordinators would generously allow that the ideas are more important than the timestamp, and I knew that the readers would, hopefully, understand. Or not notice. I know very few academics who have not sent in a conference abstract just under the wire, or spent part of a conference in their hotel room furiously editing the paper they are giving the next day, or used their commute to go over the assigned reading on the way to class. I would be skeptical of anyone who claimed they have never sent an email that started with “Sorry this is so late!”

     Deadlines, then, like dinner reservations, have varying levels of flexibility. But somewhere in the liminal space between the deadlines we have and the deadlines we set, a part of the academic community seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Late papers, or never-turned-in papers, or last minute emails with missing attachments; for professors, incompletes and unofficial withdrawals are the end of semester disappointments that seem to come out of nowhere. But what if we approach student deadlines like we do our own—with the expectation of empathy on the other end? At what point do we invite a student to join us in the academy as equals?

     My late work policy when I teach is as follows: all major assignments must be turned in to pass the class, but late work will not receive credit. This is a firm policy, to which I’ve made very few exceptions. However, included on my syllabus and reiterated in every assignment page and student conference is my policy on extensions—I will always grant an extension, with no reason (and certainly no ‘official note’) necessary, as long as the student asks for it before the assignment is due. I’m transparent with students about the hard deadlines at stake: when grades are due, when I expect to finish grading, when my other classes are turning things in. Most extensions are a process where I push the student to take slightly more time than they ask for, but where they understand the consequences of the new timeline they have undertaken, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ timeline I have built into the assignment due date. How can I ask students to behave with the scholarly rigor that I expect—and require—of them if I do not also extend the humanity and understanding that the scholarly community extends to me? How can I expect students to understand that I am human (and not a grading or knowledge machine) if I do not understand the same of them? How can I prepare them for a world in which staying up all night to hit a deadline will probably be less important than turning in work that satisfies them, and that means something?

     I hate to use the “now, more than ever” phrase—but now, more than ever, we must foster a sense of kinship and commonality in the university. We must use our curriculum to teach more than theorems or grammar. Empathy and humanity are not radical ideas, but they can be (and have been) used in radical ways, to re-shape the world and the people inhabiting it. As we prepare our syllabi for next semester, or remind students of their final assignments, consider how small acts can change the shape of the academy, expanding its borders and ensuring that it remains a space where everyone is someone.

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Writing Vs. Penmanship

At a recent holiday gathering I overheard a group of people from an older generation than myself lamenting about the decline of writing in the younger generations. The complaint went something like this:

“When I was in school we were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. Kids these days aren’t even able to write. The schools are too focused on the common core that they don’t teach script anymore! Can you believe it! Too many of these kids are not able to read cursive script!”

Yes. It is true that penmanship has taken a backseat to other concepts within the common core requirements and student handwriting has suffered as a result. There have been numerous times that I have received handwritten assignments back from students and had to spend time deciphering the squiggles to make sense of their papers. However, hearing this complaint raised a series of questions for me.  What is the purpose of teaching penmanship in the 21st century? In a world that is increasingly moving away from handwritten communications, in what way does penmanship serve our students?

As instructors we must be very careful not to conflate penmanship with writing. One of our main ideas in the Writing Across the Curriculum program is that writing is more about the exploration, organization, and expression of IDEAS. We divide the evaluation of writing into higher order and lower order concerns. Higher order concerns consist of a strong thesis statement, development of a strong argument using valid evidence, and the clear and concise organization of thought that carries the reader through the argument; meanwhile, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and the like make up lower order concerns when it come to writing across the curriculum. Lower order concerns need to be addressed but it is more important to foster the student’s development as a critical thinker than as a grammar machine. I argue that penmanship, in our increasingly digital world, is an even lower-level concern.

We are now living in uncertain times where digital literacy– the ability to navigate the digital world and question the validity of the “facts” presented there– is more important than ever. We have a responsibility to teach our students how to think critically about the worlds, both real and virtual, in which they live. As handwritten communication is evermore replaced by the digital, we must push beyond a mere nostalgic impulse to teach penmanship and prepare our students for the times that lie ahead.

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The “Problem” of English Language Learners at City Tech: Strategies to Include All of Your Students in the Conversation

It is no secret that City Tech has a large population of students who are English Language Learners, as the questions and concerns from faculty members at WAC workshops and in meetings constantly remind us. Here are some strategies I’ve found help, as someone who has not been directly trained to work with this specific student population:

  1. Refrain from passing the ball; assuming others are somehow more trained or qualified to help than yourself; and giving insensitive recommendations. Often, and understandably, instructors feel powerless to help students struggling to learn the English language. It’s easy to refuse to grade a paper; recommend the writing center where, more often than not, tutors are just as unequipped to help these students as instructors are; or make recommendations based on harmful assumptions, for example: “start speaking to your friends in English to practice.” It’s incredibly hard to navigate worlds in which you do not speak the language fluently, and it’s often not a matter of working harder or only speaking the language you want to improve in—many students don’t have the luxury of only speaking English, as they are often translators for family members or in intimate relationships with people who don’t speak English. To ask students to suffer and isolate themselves in order to get a better grade on a formal assignment disrespects this experience and suggests that they aren’t working hard enough, when often they are working much harder than native speakers to succeed.
  1. Create a rubric from which you can grade their writing assignments honestly and fairly alongside their classmates, that gives them every opportunity to succeed. Holding English language learners to different standards than their classmates, in the long run, doesn’t help students strive to become better writers, nor does it improve their confidence. Instead, these allowances suggest English language learners are incapable of doing good work, which is not just a dangerous assumption to have—it’s simply untrue. These students are smart enough to know a pity grade when they see one and while receiving a B that should’ve been a low C might provide a temporary sense of relief, it does nothing to help students improve. Here is an example of a rubric I use for papers that incorporates grammatical and stylistic concerns, but does not warrant an F by these standards alone. If students are grasping content; articulating ideas that you can understand, despite patterns of error; and organizing these ideas in ways that make sense, then they should have their ideas responded to and engaged with, and allowed the opportunity to continue to practice their writing without fear of of failure.
  1. Assign a variety of writing assignments that allow students to be part of a conversation. It is not surprising that many students are not motivated to continue to practice joining academic conversations when they are perceived as a problem or burden as opposed to part of the conversation. In my classes, I make sure there are many low stakes writing assignments that are not graded on punctuation, grammar, or spelling, and that the ideas articulated in these assignments are taken and responded to seriously (here is a link to example syllabi descriptions for readings quizzes and blog posts). Whether it’s a brief reading quiz that asks students to articulate memorable moments, questions they had, or key concepts (here’s an example), or weekly blogs and responses to their peers’ blog posts that offer a space to have discussion about the course materials outside of class (some prompts), the more students feel comfortable conversing with each other and their instructor, the more their writing will improve.
  1. Remind students that many native speakers also struggle to get through reading and writing assignments. I remember one case in which a husband of a student of mine, who was a native speaker unlike his wife, e-mailed me concerned about the difficulty of the reading—suggesting that it had no place in an introductory level class because even he could not understand it with “multiple degrees.” (Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams). I did not respond, of course, but this incident is just one example of the general assumption that many English language learners have—that grasping course content is easy for native speakers. Keep in mind that many students who are learning English sit and read with dictionaries in hand, often unlike native speakers who encounter many words they don’t know but have the confidence to assume the reading is “too hard” or continue to skim until they get the gist. I make sure to articulate to all of my students, but especially to my English language learners, that they do not have to look up every word they don’t know, to wait until words repeat consistently or they are completely lost to go back and translate, and that it’s OK to read a summary before and to contextualize and then attempt to read through the text.
  1. Remind students that there are no quick fixes, and appreciate that assignments do often take them longer to complete with less return on their time and effort. Often high achieving students who have put intense time and effort into their work will come to me after receiving the grade on their first draft or paper in tears. I let them know that, while I ethically cannot grade them using different standards from their peers, I acknowledge and appreciate the hard work they put into the course and assignment and that the next draft and assignment will be better for it. I do not promise them that going to the writing center; working harder next time; or any other quick fix will guarantee an A on an assignment. I do design my courses, however, to allow them to succeed while practicing and, consequently, create the space for all of my students to be an integral part of the class and conversation. A C- on a formal assignment does not ruin their chances of an A in the course, should they complete all of the low stakes writing assignments—assignments built into the course that allow them—as any student—to converse without judgement. These kind of spaces, ultimately, are what allow for any writer to improve.
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Why We Grade

At a recent WAC meeting, we watched this video of students relating their feelings about receiving graded papers back from instructors. The general theme among the students was that getting comments (often somewhat inscrutable negative ones like “Bad” or “No”) scribbled in red ink all over their papers feels demoralizing.

This prompted a vigorous debate within our WAC team: Do students just want to be coddled? Or should we heed these pleas for kinder and more constructive feedback?

As instructors, we want our students to improve the quality of the work they turn in to us. How can they learn to improve if we don’t show them where they are failing? This drives the spilling of much red ink. But as our discussion unfolded, we realized that the underlying debate about how much marking and “correcting” is appropriate had to do with differences in the kind of work that students are turning in. Before we even begin to grade, we need to ask ourselves why we are grading. Yes, to help students improve. But to improve at what?

If you teach math, some of what you’re grading might be proofs; getting the details of a proof right might be the very thing you want students to learn, so marking up all the details that are incorrect might be the appropriate way to grade that sort of assignment. The same goes for subjects like introductory foreign language instruction, in which the learning objectives are about grammar and proper word usage.

If the overarching goal of the assignment isn’t about the details, however, a different kind of grading might be more appropriate. I teach political science. I would like for my students to be able to write using polished prose. I used to take that goal to mean that I should mark up all of their grammatical and stylistic errors in order to help them identify and avoid them in the future. But I’m not actually teaching them grammar or style in my class; of greater concern to me – and what I spend most of my course trying to work on with them – is that they learn to engage deeply and thoughtfully with readings and concepts, and to formulate informed arguments about them. So now that’s what I mostly grade for – deep, thoughtful engagement and informed arguments. And my feedback tends to come not in the form of marks all over the page, but an acknowledgment at the end of what they did well and two to three concrete suggestions for improvement.

That doesn’t mean I ignore mechanical errors altogether. But filling a paper with red marks does have a tendency to overwhelm rather than to inspire, so I try to pick out just one or two recurring issues the student seems to have (semi-colon usage, for example) and demonstrate and/or explain how to fix them.

Of course, this “minimal marking” approach is not just a way to help students get more out of my grading – it’s a way to help me be a more efficient (and less frustrated) grader. For more discussion about grading strategies, come to the next WAC workshop for faculty and staff on Tuesday, November 15 at 1pm in Midway 205 – or if you can’t make it, check back in afterwards to our Open Lab page for the Powerpoint slides and handouts, which will be posted under “Workshops.”



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Is Clear Writing Always Good Writing?

From struggling with final papers as an undergraduate to drafting my dissertation, I have striven for clarity in my academic prose. I felt badgered by my teachers when they told me to work on clarity in my papers. Slowly I learned to use simple language to explain my arguments. I learned to stop relying on a thesaurus when writing and that, in fact, it is really true that big words do not amount to big ideas. I would have to take the long way to the latter by actually thinking through my argument, rather than dressing up my writing as if I had. My sentences became tight and succinct, like little rockets of meaning that will take off, with every aspect of their composition mechanically gathering the force of exactly what I meant to say. As an instructor, I dutifully underline passages of my students’ papers and write ‘clarity?’ in the margins. Sometimes I am even so brazen to write the same thing in the margins of the library books I borrow. (Forgive me.)


But is clarity necessarily a virtue of academic prose? And what do we really mean by it? While writing that comes across as deliberately evasive and pedantic is – clearly(?) – meritless, wordiness, embellishment, and extended metaphor has dropped out of academic writing conventions. And I am unconvinced that this has been a boon to our profession. Some good ideas are vague, such that their written form will invariably reflect the vagueness; the prose about it will be difficult. Additionally, prose that is not expansive – does not make room for metaphor and a bit of meandering – does not strike me as effective. In fact, it strikes me as dull and manly. It’s as if all academics are trying to impress Hemingway’s ghost. A reader requires about a decade to build an analytic toolkit for reading for ‘information retention’ and ‘probity of argument.’ Let’s be honest: it takes an enormous exertion of will to learn to read academic prose, where only argument and evidence matter, where concepts are introduced, challenged, sharpened. A strange intellectual culture for sharing ideas. For thinking thoughts by first blunting them.


When I read academic prose, I cast a long askance look at anecdotes, adverbs, and adjectives and wonder to myself, what was the author thinking? Telling me the mode that an action happened!? How is that relevant? Under my accusatory gaze the words ‘quite,’ ‘saccharine’ & ‘undoubtedly’ tremble on the page, as if I really were accusing them of corrupting the minds of the youth, little Socrateses made out of bits of grammar. I am unconvinced that as academics we have a sound basis for why they should be excluded from our writing conventions. Saccharine is beautiful word. And I want to know exactly the way an action happened. Sometimes brave authors write a brief justification for their use of metaphor and anecdotes and beautiful words in the introductions to their books. Teaching Rae Langton’s Sexual Solipsism this semester in my Feminist Philosophy class, I was impressed by her unapologetic command of a literary style in expounding her philosophy of love. There are outliers.


Yet, I have learned not to let language breathe on the page. In its fecund plurality, complete with run-on sentences and points that aren’t really points and modifiers that add texture to a sentence without clarifying a concept or making an argument. I want to let language be difficult, cumbersome. There. The cold white light of an academic understanding often appears as a desiccating light, burning up what it cannot take in.


One might object: clarity is a virtue of academic prose because if you can’t find the right word to carry your thought outside yourself, think of another way of saying it. But who thinks like that? Who waits for the ‘right’ word, all the while holding one’s pen or waiting for the wrinkle in one’s thoughts to smooth out? Often at such moments we just abandon the difficult thought. I’ve done this on so many occasions, thinking to myself, “well, it’s nothing – a bad idea.” It had hardly crossed my mind that the conventions of writing I was trained in have made me impatient with my own thoughts. Language will always be difficult; thinking through writing or speaking words even more so. But how can we make that difficulty count too, incorporating it into the process and presentation of ‘rigor’, ‘argument’ and ‘evidence’?


I’ve always believed that there is a joy in struggling with a difficult thought and that the unclear prose it generates is a kind of knowledge. But I do not share that with my academic colleagues and friends. I have squirrelled that away under ‘poetry’ and ‘journaling’. As a philosopher, I dutifully follow the blunting conventions of our profession.


Sometimes lack of clarity even lends itself to exactly what we mean to say. This weekend I was talking to a friend and asked him whether another one of his friends had a crush on him. Not being a native English speaker, he said, “No, it was transferred and put away.” Frustrated at not having found the right word, he reached for his phone to look it up in the dictionary. I then said, “Oh, you mean ‘sublimated.’” “Yes!,” he responds.


But his long way of describing his thought – and my grasping what he meant in his vagueness – suddenly made us feel closer; we enjoyed that moment of recognition, as we groped for words that approximate our thoughts in the intimate space shared by friends who understand each other, clearly. And I thought to myself, I have a much better sense of what happened to a crush that is ‘transferred and put away’ than one that is ‘sublimated.’

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The Worst Case of Plagiarism

At a recent faculty workshop on Avoiding Plagiarism, Alicia Andrezejewski and Carrie DiMatteo led the participants into a seemingly straightforward, but surprisingly thought-provoking free-write exercise. The prompt read:

Write about the worst case of plagiarism that you have encountered in your own classroom, or heard about from another instructor in your discipline. Make sure to think about the assignment the students were responding to.

In this post, I’d like to revisit this prompt.

For me, the worst instance of plagiarism by one of my students was not simply an instance in which the student copy-pasted entire excerpts of text and presented them as his/her own. Rather, the worst case of plagiarism I’ve ever encountered involved a difficult situation in which copy-pasted experts were embedded within an otherwise original essay that demonstrated the student was engaging with course material in an independent way. That is, this student was treating the course material in a scholarly way, but was not articulating the concepts with which he was wrestling in a way that demonstrated he understood them on his own. The dilemma I faced was how to reward his engagement when it was buttressed by academic dishonesty…

My approach to Writing Across the Curriculum privileges writing as a tool for learning. I care more about my students learning, than I do about academic writing proprieties. Learning is a process aimed toward independent critical thinking that involves wrestling with complex ideas in new and challenging ways. In the end, I was more concerned with my student’s engagement with the material than I was with his unoriginal definition of (well-known) concepts—here I’d like to remind that plagiarism is oftentimes more an indicator of lack of self-confidence when participating in academic discourse than anything else. Thus, I plan to work with the student to re-write those portions of his exam that are not his own so as to cultivate his ability to appropriately paraphrase authors when he engages with course material.

-Albert de la Tierra

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The Challenges of Online Writing Instruction

The increasing of online courses has brought to attention the need for a reassessment of both teaching practices and course designing, which, in order to be effective, need to be adapted to the specificity of an online environment. Such a challenge is even more crucial for composition classes since their pedagogy has always stressed the central importance of the communicative aspects and of the work done in the classroom. In order to tackle that issue, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) created a committee with the task to come up with a series of guidelines that could help both instructors and institutions in the effort to develop efficient online courses.

The committee came up with fifteen Online Writing Instruction (OWI) principles that sum up all the different aspects and problems concerning the switch from a face-to-face environment to a virtual one.
Here are those that I find the most compelling:

OWI Principle 2: An online writing course should focus on writing and not on technology orientation or teaching students how to use learning and other technologies.
In my experience using online platforms for language classes, I have always found myself receiving several emails from students asking for help with technical problems. This is a big waste of time for the instructors and for the students as well, who should, instead, be only focused on writing. It is fundamental that the institution offering the course assures that students (and instructor) with no technological competence can be able to learn and accomplish as much as any other student.


OWI Principle 3: Appropriate composition teaching/learning strategies should be developed for the unique features of the online instructional environment.
It is obvious that moving to an online setting requires an effort to develop a coherent and functional pedagogy. Instructors should not simply adapt their didactics to the online setting, but they must rethink and reshape their teaching strategies toward a new approach based on the opportunities and benefits provided by the new environment.


OWI Principle 10: Students should be prepared by the institution and their teachers for the unique technological and pedagogical components of OWI.
This is inherently linked to OWI principle 2 and, even though it can seem self-evident, it is worthed to spend few words on it.
A common mistake among institutions is to think that general technology training can allow students to fully participate and success in an online writing course. Such a presumption does not take into consideration the fact that, in order to get the most out of an online course, students should be familiar with its specific components, and they should also be able to know in advance what kind of commitment it requires. For this reason, each course should offer a preliminary training session, conducted by both lab technicians and instructors, where students can get familiar with the tools indispensable to accomplish.


OWI Principle 11: Online writing teachers and their institutions should develop personalized and interpersonal online communities to foster student success.
Collaboration with fellow students is a very important component in composition courses, and its motivational value should be preserved in online classes as well. The sense of community must, therefore, be recreated following different routes. To this aim, it is essential that, first of all, the institutions create an environment where online instructors are able to communicate to each other and re-create their own community. Within this community, instructors can later collaborate to design a series of community-creating activities for students.


If you are interested in the other principles and in the overall discussion around them, see the following link:

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Generating Hypotheses Across the Disciplines

Take a chance to think: In your discipline, what sort of writing do you do? What do you make hypotheses about?

We all know that students of the scientific method are instructed to generate hypotheses and perform tests of those hypotheses through experiments. But, across the disciplines, we all generate hypotheses in our writing! If your discipline involves writing that includes beliefs or attempts at explanation, then this blog post is for you. A brilliant psychologist, Bill McGuire, came up with a list of 49 heuristics for how to generate better, more nuanced hypotheses. I will briefly describe my 7 favorites with the goal of helping you find at least one you can use in your own or your students’ writing, no matter your discipline.

Source: McGuire, W. J. (1997). Creative hypothesis generating in psychology: Some useful heuristics. Annual Review of Psychology, 48, 1-30.

1. Introspective Self-Analysis
The fun here is analyzing your own behavior. Ask students to free-write about their past experiences. If you are trying to explain something that has not actually happened to you, then you can role-play or do a thought experiment by imagining how you would act in that situation.

2. Retrospective Comparison
There is nothing new under the sun! When attempting to solve a problem, consider analogies or other problems already solved, such as an opposite problem with a reciprocal solution. For example, try to explain why people resist taking drugs that are good for them, but cannot stop taking drugs that are bad for them?

4. Sustained, Deliberate Observation
Analyze case studies or engage in participant observation. If you are considering ethics or the nature of love, get out there and observe it in the world!

5. Simple Conversions of a Banal Proposition
This is my favorite! Step 1: Take an obvious hypothesis and stand it on its head. For example, if you assume that a more likable source will be more persuasive, consider when a less-liked source will be more persuasive? Step 2: Take an obvious hypothesis and reverse the direction. For example, if you assume watching TV violence leads to increased aggression, consider how increased aggression might lead to increased watching of TV violence? Step 3: Push a reasonable hypothesis to an implausible extreme. For example, although it is reasonable to assume that eye contact increases liking, what would happen if eye contact were pushed to the extreme?

6. Multiplying Insights by Conceptual Division
This one is helpful across the disciplines. Consider changing the language or labels you are using, such as by using synonyms or acknowledging distinctions between similar terms. This can serve as a great early, low-stakes writing activity.

7. Jolting One’s Conceptualizing Out of Its Usual Ruts
This is especially useful when one’s thoughts are constrained, as they often are with assumptions. Try reversing the focus of your attention, shifting from the nature of the cause to that of the effect, from costs to benefits, or try a new thinking style or seeing something from a different perspective.

Thanks to Bill McGuire for these and his other useful heuristics. Now, go out there and generate some neat, new hypotheses about the world!

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Why I Read What You Write

I have been thinking lately about something that one of our Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinators, Professor Marianna Bonanome, said in our WAC Faculty Workshop on designing effective writing assignments. As she shared an assignment that asks students to use low-stakes writing as they perform a mathematical experiment, she explained that one of the benefits of this sort of assignment is that it “brings a life to the material.” There is a tendency, I think, to disregard the ‘life’ in academic writing—we tell our students, as we were told ourselves, to take the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ out of their writing, to formalize it, to make it abstract, to make it scholarly. In the WAC program, we emphasize ‘low-stakes’ informal writing assignments as a way to build up to a larger, formal writing assignment, like a final research paper. But how do we help students make the leap from informal to formal, from low-stakes to high-stakes, from life-writing to academic-writing? Is there a way to “bring life” into the formal writing assignment?

In attempting to answer this question, I am reminded of Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write.” For Didion, writing is “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind” (1). Didion’s writing is about the relationship between the writer and the reader—the act of writing links the two together. How, then, does this act get reflected or refracted in the writer/reader relationship between the student and the professor? How can we define the terms of “why you write” and “why I read” in our classrooms in a way that makes writing real rather than abstract, ‘real life’ and not just homework?

We ask students to write for more than just a grade—they write to learn new material, to gain confidence in their professional field, to practice persuasive rhetorical techniques, to share information, to do the myriad things that we believe writing can do. But the figure of the professor as a reader usually remains indistinct. At best, we tell our students about our personal bugbears and expectations of grammar. At worst, we hide behind a generic ‘reader,’ assuming the role of impartial judge. But what if instead of students writing for their professor, they are given the guise of a concrete audience—a figure in their profession, a colleague or scholarly peer, the readership of a journal, or some other real-life person that turns the abstract act of turning a paper into the abyss of the professor’s inbox into that “act of saying I”? Sometimes the conventions of our field mean that we must ask our students to erase the “I” from their final product—but we can fill this void by bringing life back to the material in the form of our readership. As we think about the kind of formal writing we expect from our students, we can use the expectations of an audience not only to guide students in the style of their writing, but also to give them the tools to apply their education to their career.


For more ideas and research about writing for an audience, see John Bean’s Engaging Ideas chapter 3, “Helping Writers Think Rhetorically”

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