Thinking and Writing Dinner Meeting: Friday, 26 October, 2007

In attendance: Phyllis Benay (Interdisciplinary Studies), Mark Long, Jack Hitchner, Daryl LeDuc, Steve Kessler, Tracy Mendham, Tracy Botting, George Russell, Beth Stickney, Heather Gigliello, Vesta Hornbeck, (English), Helen Frink (Modern Languages) Nick Germana and Graham Warder (History), Allyson Mount (Philosophy); Kristen Porter-Utley (Biology)

We again met in the Harry Davis Room in the Arts Center to share our experiences with the thinking and writing course. Mark had posed a key question for participants to consider before the meeting:

What do you do when you encounter a simple claim in a student essay?

In our discussion of the opportunities (and difficulties) of raising the level of challenge for students in the Thinking and Writing course we also shared feedback excercises and handouts

The Simple Claim

Before our discussion focused on strategies for moving the thinking of our students from the simple to the complex, we talked about the emergence of the simple claim. We shared our reasons for celebrating (or, as one participant put it, “weeping for joy”) when a simple claim emerges in the writing project. At the same time, the topic-drive essay with a descriptive thesis (characterized by some as a “data dump”) appears for many students a necessary step in the writing process–or in the words of Sommers and Saltz, not a flaw but a symptom of  “a novice working on an expert’s assignment.”

The Complex Claim

As we shared our experiences there seemed to emerge a general consensus that we should not expect a complex claim early in the course. Even the best writers will need to learn and consider more fully the subject matter of the course before they begin to analyze the subject matter. The only way through, it seems, is through. It may be, in fact, that one of the powerful insights of this course is that we allows students to experience what Sommers and Saltz call the necessary stage of being a novice–the experience of “writing into expertise.”

We have many strategies for challenging students to move from the simple to the complex. Phyllis shared her handout and her strategy of asking students to use the same feedback form on their own writing that she will use when reading their work. (This way, she explained, one can see whether they believe their claim is complex or not.) Graham talked about the use of why questions. Jack brought the conversation back to the question he poses to students, “What do you care about?” Daryl shared his method of establishing peer writing groups in each section of the class who work together during the semester. Heather adopted Jan Youga’s peer review letter. And George shared his handout on paraphrasing.

Our discussion touched on teaching argument. With more controverisal topics, students come to the subject matter with preconceptions and a tendency to understand issues in black and white terms.

With Helen’s prompting, we also returned to the question of reading and writing, and the relationship between the common readings in the course and the individual projects. Mark and Kristen talked about their use of readings (in this case, essays about the  natural and cultural history of plants by Michael Pollan) to model sentences that express complexity. This example brought us back to an earlier comment by Nick about the problems students have with sentence-level clarity. This problem may be linked to the move from the simple to the complex. Does the movement to a more complex claim result in clotted if not confused grammar? Will student writing in this process get worse before it gets better? There appeared some agreement that student writing must become the primary text in the course–that their reading, as one participant put it, would become their own writing.

Strategies for Effective Feedback

We viewed the18-minute film by Harvard’s Nancy Sommers, Across the Drafts: Students and Teachers Talk about Feedback and then discussed Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz’s essay, “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” Many of the faculty in attendance expressed a sense of affirmation in seeing many of the strategies they are already using. We considered the relationship between the changes we might see in student writing and, as Sommers and Saltz put it, the “changes within the writers themselves.” Their conclusion that academic writing might best be understood as “a slow process, infintely varied, with movement backward and forward , starts and stops, with losses each time a new method or discipline is attempted” is consistent with our fledgling writers this semester anyway.

How do our students experience writing? How do we learn to teach from the very real possibility that genuinely significant changes in how students think about writing may not correspond to visible changes on the writing these students produce?

Library Sessions

We discussed the sessions with the library faculty and there was a general agreement that they are working very well with our courses. We affirmed how important it is to meet indovidually with library faculty over the summer or early in the fall to discuss specifics.

However there is a serious problem for first year students: many of them are having library orientation sessions in more than one course. In fact, a few students have had library sessions in all of their courses. How can we reduce the perception of redundancy expressed by many of our students? Mark will follow up with Kirsti, the ISPC and the deans.

Our final meeting of the semester will be on Friday 16 November. Mark promised information about the protocols for submitting all of the final essays for the purposes of assessing the Integrative Studies Program. He also asked the group to send along ideas for our continuing discussion. Thank you forwarding your thoughts about the final dinner meeting.

I look forward to continuing our conversation. Please be in touch if you have any questions.

My best wishes,


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