Saturday, September 19, 2015

Writing is Assessment (A Practice of Selection and Omission)

Before I begin my post this week, let me emphasize a change to this blog. It is no longer associated with the University of Washington Tacoma or its writing program. This blog was intended to be my personal academic blog, so I've tried to make clear on it now that it and all its opinions are mine as a private academic citizen, and do not necessarily reflect my administrative position as the director of the writing program at UWT. 

John McPhee
Now to what I've been thinking about . . .


Recently, I've found John McPhee's wonderful series of New Yorker articles on writing, called "The Writing Life." The latest is called, "Omission: Choosing what to Leave Out." I'm ashamed to say I just found this series, in which he's already written seven articles dating back to 2011. I'd like to respond to it, as it I think it offers writing teachers of all stripes something worth considering. The essay, as its title suggests, is about -- well, I'll let McPhee explain, since he says it better. From the heart of the essay, he says: 
Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
And further down, taking another swipe at the “theory of omission,” which he attributes to Hemingway:
Or, in the words of the literary critic Harold Bloom, writing on Shakespeare: “Increasingly in his work, what he leaves out becomes much more important than what he puts in, and so he takes literature beyond its limits.”
It is the ideas of selection and omission that I find useful here. In portfolio theory, selection provides students with an authentic moment of reflection on their drafts, writing processes, and/or practices that are demonstrated in the portfolio. Without the opportunity to select pieces to go into the portfolio from the semester's work, a student doesn't have a rich opportunity to reflect on and self-assess her own work, or make any real decisions about what's good or bad in her writing and why. It's the selecting of some writing over others, the leaving out of things, the omission of some work and inclusion of other work, that allows reflection as a writing practice itself to be useful to students when learning to write, or learning about themselves as readers and writers, which is part of learning read and write. 

But this bit of portfolio theory isn't what I find worth writing teachers' time from McPhee's essay. What is worthwhile here is how he equates writing (and the reading of one's own writing as one writes) with self-assessment, with judgment and reflection. He doesn't say this exactly, but I read it in his words, in the way he describes selection, and in the idea of omission as a theory that guides writers. In order to select words and ideas, sentences and paragraphs, one must define the practice of writing as a constant flow of assessment, the assessment of words as they come, the assessment of ideas as they get laid out on the page or computer screen. While he doesn't offer any theory or practice for how to conduct such a flow of constant assessment as one writes, as teachers we might consider how to get students to first recognize their own constant flow of assessment as writing, then work with it, play with it, and use it to understand their own drafts and themselves as writers. 

For example, I can envision a typical writing assignment that asks students to do some reading and writing, then they stop and read their drafts again, maybe in class. In this reading, they are recalling what judgments they were making about each sentence or paragraph, each word or decision, perhaps the smallest unit of meaning they can recall making decisions on. So a writer might pause after the first paragraph of a draft and ask: 


  • What did I select these details or sentences for the first paragraph? What did I include in the first paragraph? 
  • Why did I select these things for the first paragraph? Why did I think they went first? 
  • What did I purposefully or unknowingly omit? What didn't I include? 
  • Why did I omit or ignore this other stuff? Why did I think it didn't belong there? 
These questions surely would be tough for some writers, but I think doing this kind of reflective assignment on drafts and then discussing what students found with each other, would be helpful. And doing it regularly might get many students to become more mindful, more conscious of their writerly decisions when they are drafting and revising.

And it's the mindfulness that I am after in this activity, since it's really a reflective activity that can help students become more mindful of their selections and omissions, of their constant flow of assessment as writing. If they can be more mindful as they draft, as they write, then they'll have more flexible tools for addressing a wider variety of rhetorical situations. And perhaps what I personally find helpful about asking students to pay attention to what they select and omit is that it reveals very clearly to students how their writing as a practice can also be understood as an assessment practice. Writing is assessment. 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

New Year, New Syllabus, New Pedagogical Focus ...

It's now September and many of us in higher education have already started our semesters, or will begin our quarters near the end of the month. Here at the University of Washington Tacoma, we start our Autumn quarter on September 30. So many of us have been planning our courses, and writing or revising our syllabi (or syllabuses, depending on your feelings about Latin and English's migration of Latin plural endings). This has got me thinking about what makes for good learning, for productive learning, for meaningful and compassionate learning in writing classrooms, or classrooms with significant writing in them. My answer may not be as obvious as you may think.
The new "W" on campus at UWT. 

I've directed several university-level writing programs over the last ten years, from First-year writing  to Writing Across the Curriculum to Early Start programs. What I've seen in student populations are at least three common issues that I believe many college students continually face as writers. I'll offer them here as three questions that a teacher might ask herself as she builds or considers her up-coming course (writing or W course):

  • How do I encourage confidence in my students as writers?
  • How can students become motivated to write and revise in meaningful ways, ways I think are good for them? 
  • How can I help students become engaged and interested in the writing they do for our class? 
So the goals above might be shorted to ones about confidence, motivation, and engagement. These seem like personal traits that are outside the realm of teachers and our curricula, although I know there's plenty of scripted curricula for K-12 classrooms out there that say they offer these kinds of things. These are non-cognitive traits in people that are very illusive and even hard to measure (if we were so inclined), but more important, most schools, departments, and programs just aren't looking to explicitly develop such non-cognitive traits in their students -- although they might hope to see them occur. They care, for good reason, about the cognitive ones, those traits like mastering a particular dominant version of English, or a set of theories, or knowledge of a particular canon of literature, or certain skills and outcomes. These cognitive traits are easier to measure, and the things focused on in outcomes assessments. Do you want to know if your students can summarize and analyze a text or set of texts? Easy, ask them to do it, give them instruction on it, offer some models and feedback on drafts, then collect final versions of those drafts (or portfolios) and read them specifically for how well they summarize and analyze texts. But will students see the value in such work? Will they be able to transfer those practices to their future needs and contexts in creative, meaningful, and ethical ways? Or will they simply do what they are asked to do -- if they are good (at being) students -- and take their grades and move on?

Non-Cognitives Are Associated with Success
There are lots of  issues with assessing cognitive traits that make it problematic, but that's for another day. For now, my point is that in writing classrooms, cognitive skills are easier to measure, usually asked for by programs and schools (usually because accreditation agencies ask for such evidence of learning), but do not necessarily provide for the non-cognitive dimensions needed in learning, such as confidence, motivation, and engagement, things teachers usually worry most about and things that lead more explicitly to success. Success? Yes, success. Much research has shown that it is actually the non-cognitive dimensions around learning in college that are correlated to and casually linked to success in the workplace, whether one defines that success by achievement in a job or higher salaries. The same literature cannot offer any correlations or causal links between any cognitive skills and job achievement. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (authors of the seminal book, Schooling in Capitalist America, 1976) in a 2002 article in Sociology of Education provide a good summary of some of this research on non-cognitive traits and success in work and jobs after college.

While Bowles and Gintis in their review of the studies conducted on schooling's effect in the labor market do not show correlations between schooling and the development of non-cognitive traits in people, I argue we might begin doing this work in writing classrooms. Why? Because the research also shows more benefits for non-cognitive dimensions in students, not just in their future jobs but in cognitive outcomes measured in schools. And the literacy/writing classroom is the perfect place for such non-cognitive development. Other research shows this connection too. In fact, another summary of decades of research on non-cognitive traits in education, done by a British team, reveals several important findings. One finding pertinent here is this: "Children's perception of their ability, their expectations of future success, and the extent to which they value an activity influence their motivation and persistence leading to improved academic outcomes, especially for low-attaining pupils" (Gutman & Schoon, 2013, p. 2). They are referencing several non-cognitive traits in the literature, and while they are focusing on children (K-12), I do not think when a person reaches 18, her brain magically changes in the ways it functions non-cognitively.

Gutman & Schoon identify several non-cognitives studied in the literature that match up quite closely to those three goals I started with. The non-cognitives are these:

  • self-perception
  • motivation
  • perseverance 
  • self-control
  • metacognitive strategies
  • social competencies 
  • resilience and coping
  • creativity
The point I'm making is that when we rethink or revise our writing courses or assignments this fall, one thing to consider is how might we focus students' attention on their non-cognitive traits, perhaps first to notice them, and then to cultivate new or better ones so that they get more from our courses and the writing experiences we've designed for them. How can we do this work with students? Allow me to offer a few ideas.

Ways to Focus on Non-Cognitive Development 
Consider placing a heavier focus and attention on labor and work in the class, in assignment instructions, and in how such assignments are counted or graded (if you grade each assignment). I'm not just suggesting that you create new writing assignment guidelines that ask students to pay attention to the process of drafting or revising, but to consider ways to include moments where students stop and pay attention to the labor or work they are currently doing, how they are doing it, and how they feel about that work at that moment. In my classes, I do this paying attention in two ways. Each week, my students tweet their labor with a course hashtag, and I ask them in class at least once a week to look at those tweets and reflect upon what they notice about their own labor identified in the tweets and the labor of their colleagues in class. I also ask them to keep a labor log, in which they keep track of stats on their labor each week. Anytime they do labor for the class, they record that session of labor in the log (a G'doc), with date, time, duration, short description, and a quick engagement rating (on a scale of 1-5). We use these labor logs to reflect at midpoint and final. It's another way to pause just for a few seconds and pay attention to our labor and some key things about it.
Most surveys of employers show the same kinds of non-cognitive traits/skills wanted
in college graduates. 

Paying attention to one's labor is a way to pay attention to several non-cognitive dimensions like engagement and perseverance through another non-cognitive, metacognition (all that reflecting). Ultimately, seeing how we engage and persevere can increase students' motivation simply by noticing the work they have done and the manner in which they've done it. When we can see clearly what and how we're doing things, like reading and writing (and perhaps are prompted to consider the ways we engage and persevere in that work), I think engagement and interest go up, which means writers get better at writing. I think it also means that writers look at failure in writing very differently, but a discussion of failure is another post.

If the teacher has a contemplative practice, such as meditation or mindful breathing, engaging in contemplative practices regularly in class might also increase students' abilities to pay attention to what their doing as they do it and slow down to notice what and how they're learning. I use mindful breathing, and a simple search online can bring up many resources, most notably by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Heath Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. There are lots of others, but I agree with Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush in their very good book, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education (2013), that a teacher should establish a contemplative practice first before trying to use one in a classroom with students.

A teacher might also consider finding ways to NOT grade on quality. If you know me, and my research, then you know this is a hot button for me, so I won't rehash that research. I will say that there are easy and better ways to calculate a final course grade without the need for grading students' writing during the semester, such as labor-based grading contracts. You can see some of my research, which I've mentioned in other posts, if you visit my academia.edu profile page. There you'll find my scholarship on this matter, which you may download. You can also see Alfie Kohn's good piece that argues against grading and why it does the opposite of what we think it does (i.e. motivation, provide direction to students, etc.).

A Final Note on Non-Cognitives and Success Through College
In closing, let me offer one more reason to focus on non-cognitives in writing courses. Last year, Gallup and Purdue University did a study of college graduates and their success in life generally. They were interested to know if where a student went to school (e.g. an elite private school vs. a public university) affected his success and feelings of success in life after college. They asked what factors in a school contributed to a student's later success. What they found out was that where someone went to school didn't matter a bit. What mattered were these things:

  • I had at least one professor who made me excited about learning (engagement through exercising social connections and competencies)
  • I worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete (persistence)
  • I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom (creativity and metacognitive)
  • I was extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending college (self-perception and social competencies)
  • I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams (social competencies and motivation)
  • My professors cared about me as a person (social competencies, motivation, copingself-perception)

I bolded in parentheses the non-cognitive traits exercised in each comment from students. To me, this study gives further evidence that what we should be encouraging, and finding ways to assess, are non-cognitives. They offer much for students' learning.