Chapter One


One thing nearly everyone asked for in the textbook revision is an introductory chapter that sets up what academic writing is and why anyone would bother to do it.

What do you tell your students about that? Do you have them read anything? Can you point us to resources you've found helpful in explaining how college writing differs from high school writing (or differs from writing in other contexts students might already be familiar with)?


This is the material used by my old advisor in his textbook. While you probably cannot use it directly, I think it provides some model for one approach to answering this question. Parts of it come from Wayne Booth. It's at least one way to differentiate "writing an assignment" and "writing an argument in an academic context." How close is it to your vision, CW?


There is a story told of a student who had had only limited success writing papers in college. The student spent much time researching and writing his papers, and his professors frequently praised his diligence in their comments. But the grades he received seemed never to equal the time the student spent working on the papers.

Typically, his returned papers would have on them a comment like the following: "You've obviously done a lot of work here, John, and the paper does present a good deal of information in a clear style. Unfortunately, you do not make clear what the purpose or significance of the information is. Grade: C+."

One day in the third quarter of a year-long course in which John had produced two such C+ papers, it happened that John disagreed with something the professor had said in class. A point the professor made was inconsistent with something in a book John was reading for another class. The point was debatable, but John found what the book said more plausible than what the professor had said.

After class, John walked into the professor's office and began to argue the book's point. "Hold on, John," the professor said. "Why don't you write up your objections to what I said in a brief paper. I'll have a look at what you produce and then we'll discuss your theory and mine."

John went home and wrote the paper that night. He summarized each point the professor made in class and countered it with evidence from the book and with his own reasoning. In about three hours he had finished the paper. He turned it in the next day.

On the following day, the professor returned the paper to him with this comment: "This is an excellent paper, much better than anything you have produced for me in the past. Try to write as you do here on the formal papers you write for this and other classes. Grade: A."

Of course John was pleased. But he was also surprised and puzzled. How could this paper that he had spent only three hours writing be so much better than other papers he had spent weeks working on?

The moral here is not that you should spend three hours rather than three weeks researching and writing your papers. Nor is it that you must disagree or argue in order to produce a good paper. The point is that when writers have a clear sense of what they want to accomplish (their purpose), why they want to accomplish it (the rationale or justification of the piece), and who they think will benefit from reading their paper (their audience), writing is easier and the results better.

In John's case, in his successful, quickly-written paper to his professor, he knew he wanted to persuade his professor to his thesis by countering each of the points the professor made in class with evidence he gathered from a book he was reading.

He knew his paper was needed and justified because the professor either didn't know or didn't accept the explanation he was advancing. And he knew exactly who his audience was—his professor, not merely and generally Professor X, but Professor X who had some knowledge but lacked and needed this information and who would accept it only if it were presented with reasoned arguments and evidence.

Perhaps you have not experienced a situation exactly like John's. But if you have written many papers, you have probably observed that sometimes papers seem to "write themselves," while at other times nothing you do is able "to get the creative juices flowing." Knowing what you are trying to do, why it is needed or significant, and what your reader expects has a great deal to do with whether a writer does or does not become "inspired."

Understanding the importance of purpose (what the paper is trying to do), rationale (why the paper is needed), and audience to producing good papers does not, however, help you actually to produce them in particular papers. How does a writer find a meaningful purpose and rationale for a paper or construct an image of a reader who needs the information the writer wants to provide?

I'm afraid that many students would miss the moral of the story and, instead, think, "Yes, I work best under pressure, too, which is why I don't start my assignments until the night before they're due."

As for the audience for the papers, in 1120 I tell my students they need to decide who should want to read their paper or who needs to read the paper. For example, if it's a paper on education, is it for students? parents? administrators? teachers? more than one of those groups? It's not for the teacher, unless, of course, the teacher happens to be a member of the intended audience.

I agree with Jill: too much rests on the following sentences in the story:
"The moral here is not that you should spend three hours rather than three weeks researching and writing your papers. Nor is it that you must disagree or argue in order to produce a good paper."
It would best be revised to reframe the story to explain that the real process of writing that paper included the reading of the other sources, from the other class, over weeks, and the attending notetaking, and so on. As it is now, the story has obvious flaws that should be reconsidered. Despite these flaws requiring teacher intervention , I find the key parts of the story (crafting an argument in light of a moment of disagreement, utilizing sources to craft that argument, intent on persuading an academic audience of one perspective on that moment of disagreement) valuable.

I find this conversation enlightening as I learn more about 1120. I hadn't really imagined that students could write a paper for students, parents, or education professionals in first-year writing; rather, I was working with an old-fashioned "academic discourse" model, imported from other places (healthy helpings of Bartholomae and Graff, mostly). FYC at UMD is new terrain for me, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn.

What I've done in the past is have students read the "Introduction" section from Anthony Weston's text--the book's title is eluding me at present. It's a short read and it does two things that I try to emphasize throughout the semester: 1) it defines basic argumentation (differentiating it from verbal sparring)and puts argumentation forward as a means of inquiry and 2) it then encourages students to articulate the evidence that ultimately lead them to their conclusion about an issue, to an audience. I try to connect this short snippet to the reading comprehension unit, and encourage students to see a text as an argument that is actively attempting to persuade them to think a certain way about an issue. Again, not sure if this completely works, but I like to think it's a starting point.

A very abbreviated set of suggestions on why write better:
(includes all academic writing)

--Writing improves your understanding of a problem.

--You can change the presentation of your idea to fit different audiences. Old standby example tell your friends and parents about your party last night without telling lies.

--You learn by writing.

--You can influence more people if you writer well and publish it.

--You will need to write for many classes. Well, it could happen and does at some universities.

-- I have met with dozens of corporate executives who will be happy to tell you that writing is the key to success in business and industry.

--Writing well can get you money to go to college.

-- Writing well will help you to get into med school.

--You can make money writing -- professional writing, journalism, public relations, even fiction (Stephen King).

--You look smart if you write well.

--You can change people if you write well. Note most TV is written.

-- You can prevent embarrassment.

Conveying knowledge is power!

Ask "Why do you want to learn?"

I do not have a special day to answer the question of why. All the things in my list above and more will come up during the semester when they fit. For example, when discussing the proposal project it makes sense to talk about how many jobs depend on writing proposals -- scientists, engineers, business execs, marketing, authors, etc. CA guides students to actually evaluate published materials and thus clarify their ideas and learn critical thinking which makes you look smart. I don't think many people actually strive to look dumb.

Similar to Rachel, I also use an excerpt from the Weston's /A Rulebook for Arguments/. I generally get a good reaction from it. I spend a lot of the semester discussing how academic writing is part of a conversation and the tools that they will need to be a part of it. I also use portions of /They Say, I Say/ to emphasize this point.

The idea of inviting students to participate in the conversations occurring in academic communities is an important but tricky one, it seems to me. I sense that some sort of invitation is needed, but it's hard to know what will get through to students who are mostly first-years. Interestingly, even in my graduate-level critical theory class, Dr. Brier reminded us that we should be approaching our papers as a way to join the conversation surrounding our chosen texts. I was glad to have this reminder (actually, it was really a new perspective for me, though something that immediately made sense).

What I want my WRIT 1120 students to grasp is that they are welcome to participate in the larger academic community and they should think of themselves as doing that, even as first-years, but that it takes time to establish yourself in such a community and there are conventions that you have at least know about, though eventually you might not have to follow them. That last phrase might be too much for most of them. Still, I think it's a message the university should be giving them at some point, if not conveying all along the way, and WRIT 1120 seems like a decent place to plant a seed.

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Catherine published on July 25, 2011 12:52 PM.

Lit review? was the previous entry in this blog.

chicken or egg? is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.



Powered by Movable Type 4.31-en