Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 2 of 2)

To review, I am teaching Academic Writing this semester. I want to motivate learning using forces other than grades. Here is my plan.

On the first day of class, I’ll say: Don’t take this class unless there is some piece of writing you want to do. This class will be all about me helping you write whatever you want. Most of the students will want help writing a personal statement for graduate school applications. I’ll tell them there needs to be something else they want to write. Without that the class will be a waste of time.

For the first class — the course meets for 1.5 hours once/week — I’ll talk about writing a personal statement.

After that, the general plan will be:

1. I meet with students after class (in the same place) for however long they want, maybe 5-20 minutes. They choose the duration. During these meetings, they show me what they’ve written. I read it and tell them how they can improve it.

2. During the next class, each student who met with me will give a talk lasting the same length of time as our meeting. For example, if we met for 5 minutes, the talk will last 5 minutes. The talk will  be about what I said. After each talk I’ll give feedback.

3. In addition, students who meet with me will add my advice to a shared document (e.g., Google Docs).

4. Each week, one student will be assigned to spend a certain length of time (30 minutes) improving the shared document. For example, making it clearer or better organized. The next class they will give a brief talk saying what they did. Again, I will give feedback.

This accomplishes several things: 1. Customization. Each student can write whatever they want. 2. Doing. They actually write “real” material (in contrast to writing assignments). What they choose to write will probably be stuff like a paper for another class but at least it isn’t a writing assignment. 3. Telling. They will tell other students what they have learned.

Attractive elements of the plan for me include the fact that I never lecture and never grade. I never need to guess what the students need help with. I learn what they need help with by looking at what they’ve written. Even though there are no grades or teacher-imposed deadlines, I give lots of feedback — it really is challenging. Attractive elements of the plan for students are that there is flexibility, they can write whatever they want, they never have to take notes (yet there is a written record to refer to), and they are pushed to understand the material in a non-competitive way.

If a student doesn’t pay attention in class — the presentations when other students tell what I told them — he risks having me make the same comment on his writing I made earlier on someone else’s. Then he would have to tell other students that I made that same comment. The other students wouldn’t like that; it wastes their time. So there is pressure to pay attention. If you miss it during class, you can study the shared document.

More English is not my students’ native language, although they are quite good at it. I think that they are more likely to understand another student say X (in English) than when I say X (in English) because the student’s English will be closer to their English ability. I might use words they don’t know. This is a problem in America, too (professor knows a lot more than his or her students) but it is especially clear here. My point is that this is a good feature of having students give class presentations about what I told them, rather than me telling the class directly, which might seem better. If a presenter makes a mistake, I will fix it.

 

3 Responses to “Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Mark Says:

    Seth, This is really awesome. I hope it works out and can’t wait to hear how it works out.

    Seth: Thanks, Mark. I really have no idea what will happen.

  2. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Just curious if the administration at Tsinghua University gives you freedom to teach your classes in whatever way you see fit, and how that level of freedom compares to American universities.

    Seth: so far so good at Tsinghua…At Berkeley, professors complained that I gave students too much freedom.

  3. Dragan Says:

    That sounds great. I’d enjoy taking your class. Two thoughts I had reading this…

    1. This sounds like a difficult course to teach well. (Much more difficult than a straight-up lecture/assignment class.)

    2. “If a student doesn’t pay attention in class — the presentations when other students tell what I told them — he risks having me make the same comment on his writing I made earlier on someone else’s. Then he would have to tell other students that I made that same comment. The other students wouldn’t like that; it wastes their time. So there is pressure to pay attention.”

    Consider it a hunch, but this will happen. Probably more than once. And it’s probably not a bad thing, either. If it happens, it probably means that you’re dealing with something that’s difficult for your students. In that case, it won’t be wasting everyone’s time!

    Anyway, I look forward to hearing about how the course plays out.