My 1020 class just wrapped up project three, the definition essay. This past week I rolled out the final project, an evaluation/proposal essay that is designed to explore the future of work. With the outside temperature hovering close to 80 degrees and climate change in the air, I decided to push the metaphor of the new season and announced that we’d be moving away from our discussion of ethos, logos, pathos, and enthymemes to focus on revision and issues of style. I know many of my students are a bit burned out on creating claim trees for the arguments they’ve been reading so I was hopeful that the change in focus would give us a fresh start as we move into the last third of the semester.
We’re starting with the concept of clarity. I like clarity because many students use it in their first-day questionnaires as they describe things they’d like to improve. I also like clarity because it provides a concrete way of talking about the importance of topic sentences and their role in crafting effective paragraphs. When I talk about clarity in the specific context of effective paragraphs, I usually draw something on the board like this:
In this heuristic, which I sometimes draw as a branched tree, each S represents a sentence in a paragraph. The underlined S is the topic sentence that controls or focuses every other sentence in the paragraph. Big S’s are sentences that expand on the idea expressed in the topic sentence; little S’s provide specific examples or more particular supporting ideas. After I explain the basic idea, I usually pass out an excerpt of a paper from one of last semester’s essays. I then ask students to underline the topic sentences of each paragraph and to then look at each sentence in each paragraph and to mark them with a large, medium, or small S. We then talk about what people came up with and where we see problems, such as sentences without any apparent connection to the topic sentence, and then we brainstorm ways to revise the problem paragraphs to make them clearer. Once that’s done, I ask students to pull out a hard copy of one of their own essays and we go through the same steps. Sometimes I’ll ask students to work in pairs but depending on what else we’re doing that day, I’ll also facilitate this activity in small or large groups.
Based on feedback I’ve received from previous classes, my sense is that students usually like this activity and others like it. In fact, I often find myself wishing I had more time for activities like this. When I did it this past week, however, the activity bombed and I think I know why. Because my course is on a M-W-F schedule, time flies (for me anyway). So when I did this activity this week and saw that I was running a little short on time, I decided not to hand out the writing excerpt from last semester and instead moved right from the concept to students’ practice with their own papers. Bad idea.
Here’s what went wrong. First, students need practice with writing that is not their own so they can feel the kind of conceptual disconnects we’re talking about. Developing writers often have trouble seeing these kinds of disconnects in their own papers so practicing with the writing of other students sets writers up to apply the same concepts to their own writing. By short-circuiting that process because of a lack of time, I made it difficult for students to move from the concept to its application.
The second problem is related to the first and comes from the fact that I didn’t provide time for the class to discuss the results of their practice before moving on to their own papers. My experience is that 1020 students are extremely reticent to critique their own work in front of others, even in small groups, but they can be quite vocal when talking about writing from another class or semester. I think this kind of discussion is critical to creating co-constructed understandings of concepts like clarity that students can then apply to their own writing. By skipping that part of the activity, I set them up for failure.
So here are a couple of suggestions that I keep having to learn the hard way. One, it’s a good idea to keep notes about how much time particular activities take to complete. Things don’t always go as planned of course, but if your memory is anything like mine you’ll appreciate a reminder that activity X usually takes 25 minutes. Suggestion number two, consider experimenting with the approach I’ve described here:
1. Introduce a concept like clarity, coherence, or enthymeme
2. Provide opportunities for individual practice with a text and then debrief in group(s)
3. Provide opportunities for individual practice with students’ own writing
5. Rinse and repeat as needed
Thomas Trimble is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department. He is also a recent Ph.D. graduate of the department, whose dissertation “Rhetorical Outcomes: A Genre Analysis of Student Service-Learning Writing” used genre theory to theorize writing assessment issues in service-learning courses. Thomas is currently teaching ENG 1020, and has taught ENG 1010 and ENG 3010 previously.