Learning by Example


In all the small group discussions last semester, Writ 1120 instructors asked for change when it comes to the samples in the book. There was consensus, for example, that the Y2K samples are dated.

But there was not consensus about how or even whether we should present sample papers in the book.

Samples or Not?

One instructor recently expressed the fear that if we put sample papers in the book, students will give them to their friends at other schools who will use them to plagiarize. This instructor also raised the concern that students "copy" sample papers, just replacing their topic and keywords for the ones in the sample paper, so they should not be allowed to take samples home but should only look at them in class.

Real Student Papers?

Another instructor recently raised the concern that students would be unhappy if they agreed to the use of their papers in the textbook, and then the text criticized the papers. Perhaps we would be better off inventing samples, rather than using students' papers, if we put them in the book at all.

How to Present Samples

Some instructors (and students) have requested that the book include both good samples and bad. I'm not sure we agree on what that would mean.

Some instructors have suggested that some of the sample papers in the book be annotated and some not. The ones without annotation could be used in class; students could be asked to respond to them and determine for themselves whether the paper effectively met the assignment's requirements.

One suggestion that came up in the meetings was that there be no samples in the book's chapters, but that there be an appendix made up of a series of papers that instructors could choose to use or not use.

Another suggestion was that there be an electronic database of samples that instructors could choose and use as they liked. The book could then have samples or not. One concern raised about the database approach was how we'd choose what to put in it. If it included papers that demonstrated common pitfalls, for example, new, inexperienced instructors might unwittingly present these as "good" papers.

Your Thoughts

Please weigh in. What does your ideal textbook do with samples? Where do the samples come from?


My ideal textbook would provide excerpts from multiple drafts from the papers we assign in WRIT 1120. For example, it would be helpful to show students a weak CSC paragraph on the controversial nature of a chosen topic in a Research Proposal, and then a revised version with improved unity, coherence, and development. A few complete samples would be essential for students to see how a full paper develops a thesis and achieves unity.

I was the one who expressed concern about asking a student for his/her permission to publish his/her draft only to use it as a bad example (especially if the student felt proud of the work and flattered by the request). In class I distribute samples from previous students (from whom I have asked permission) with open-ended questions for analysis, and students will often debate about the quality of a paper or the best way to revise it. I think this dialogue allows students to discover how they define "quality" and then attach it to certain attributes in the samples. I don't think they would get much out of this activity if I were to tell them "this is good," and "this is bad." I do weigh in when their critique falls outside of my own criteria, but this happens rarely.

Connected to this, I am not worried about students plagiarizing from the book. It would be easy to catch in our own classes, and if the book gets into the hands of a student from another institution so be it: there are a million ways to plagiarize in this day and age. We contribute to the vast sources that students can access dishonestly just by assigning papers and grades. I think that our method of requiring multiple drafts, comparing paraphrases to sources, and having constant dialogue with students about the progression of a thesis is our best defense against plagiarism.

Finally, I think that we could write our own samples to avoid the problems associated with permissions and potential hurt feelings, but it adds another kind of creative demand on our editor, Catherine.

Learning by imitation (imitatio, http://rhetoric.byu.edu/pedagogy/Imitation.htm) is an essential form of pedagogy, and if we are to eliminate it as a form of pedagogy, we should have good reasons.

No curriculum can account for every form of pedagogy, and no textbook can support every pedagogy. Inevitably, something gets left out: genre theory is left out in favor of expressionism; classical discussions of invention are left our in favor of frewwriting. The most fun part of our field is reading the Elbow-Bartholomae or Bartholomae-North debates that remind us of the plurality of our field.

That said, to eliminate a form of pedagogy because it might be or enable plagiarism seems a fundamental error, one that places concern for policing students ahead of meeting a diversity of student learning styles.

"Real" student examples, in my book, should be modified so that the original student cannot recognize their paper as their own. They should be included in the book itself, as anything online becomes, in the minds of students, "optional." (I orderd an $8 copy of an essay freely available online because experience tells me that if a student has not paid for it, they are less likely to read it.) The examples should be keyed to show the diversity of assignments, the diversity of developmental paths by which students may progress through the assignments, and and the diversity of measures for "quality."

What do you think?

These are all good points, David. I think you are right that students would be less likely to read samples that are online than in the text that they have purchased. Printing them in the book will also ensure that students bring them to class for annotation and discussion (not as likely if they have to print them from a database).

I think we should provide some samples with annotations and some without. This will give instructors greater flexibility to use them in multiple ways.

Speaking of flexibility, though I'm inclined to agree that samples in the book are more beneficial than not, I think the online repository idea is also a good one, especially for "bad" essays. If the online repository is accessible only to instructors, then we can choose which samples to run off copies of (for in-class activities like Avesa's) or otherwise distribute; it's an extra step on the instructor end but it increases the odds of selected samples actually being read.

Students are more likely to mistake a "bad" essay for a "good" one if it's in the textbook (regardless of whether the instructor, and/or the text, warns them). When that happens, it necessitates all sorts of cumbersome un-learning. My feeling, then, is that the book should contain no truly unsatisfactory samples.

So perhaps a "best of both worlds" approach would be to put the "good-to-decent" samples in the textbook (at least some with annotations) and make the substandard samples accessible to instructors on a voluntary basis. This still would leave open the question of agreeing on essay quality, but we'd have a mechanism for the process after that.

I am in agreement with everything mentioned above. I think it is especially useful to have samples of mini-arguments (in the context of a larger conversation) students can analyze that illustrate how writers work a text to suit an audience and purpose. I like the idea of having a few topics that get reworked with each assignment. I also like the "repository" idea where we can post and pull fresh samples as needed. It would also be nice to have an appendix with essays that illustrate different approaches to arguing the same topic. Overall, I think the worst thing we could do is to only provide a single sample to illustrate a particular type of essay. Several good samples, each illustrating a particular strength might work well.

I also wonder about providing some sample papers from different disciplines. I try to stress to students that academic papers for other classes in their college tenure will likely require a different stance and approach. Do we cover discussions about audience, purpose, and writing in the disciplines? Looking at, for example, genetic testing from different disciplines would produce vastly different papers. I realize this may be beyond the scope of our text; however, I try to stress it and believe it is worth discussing. Unfortunately, I know my students are focused on our rubrics and that I end up "telling" rather than "showing" students how their research and writing style needs to be adapted for varying audiences/purposes.

Finally, I totally agree that plagiarism should not be a significant deterrent for using good samples.

I'm in agreement with Avesa's first full comment above.

I like the idea of offering several excerpt samples within a chapter (one CSC, for example) and then offering 1 or more full sample(s) at the close of the chapter that is/are annotated. These annotated models could become increasingly annotated, if you will, from chapter to chapter, as the students are accumulating various skills, so that by the time the student reaches the research paper model, the annotations could be quite detailed, pointing out effective use of quotation, effective paraphrasing, types of support, metacommentary (analysis), MLA, attribution, transitions, addressing the opposition, etc.

That way, we create a sense of continuity for the students visible in the models.

*I just thought of this now... that it could be cool to have a progression of 1 student from start to finish to illustrate the "building" that we all try to emphasize throughout the semester.

I also like Avesa's idea to show before/after excerpts.

I think the models themselves should be fairly exemplary. In fact, the more exemplary the model, the harder it is to replicate it, if that makes sense... because an exemplary model is usually very specific. If the model is exemplary, the student can mimic the sophisticated moves instead of the content. It's the more overly general, bland, and not-very-persuasive models that are easy to copy, with sentences like "although the article is very short, it's still very useful to my research." I'm referring (loosely), without looking at it, to one of the Critical Analysis models in the current textbook.

Lastly, I think it would be cool to show some samples from "real" articles, etc. that use the CSAC structure, so as to avoid the following: (1) students seeing this structure as only relevant to Writ 1120; and (2) students thinking that the structure is always offered in a neat and tidy 1 paragraph format. If students can see it in a "real" context rather than only in a streamlined, perhaps over-simplified student paper, it may help them to see the potential for using the CSAC beyond 1120, beyond academia. These kinds of samples should be engaging and interesting to the students, on topics that matter to the student audience.

I would argue, too, that there should be some samples that show students taking risks. Maybe this is too risky, uh-hum. But I'm a fan of showing students that academic writing can be engaging and still rigorous... and I find that if students believe this, they are more likely to also engage with their topics and write effectively.

Enjoying this conversation!

This is a remarkably collegial discussion.

So let me ask a procedural question: proper legal permission for genuine student examples is not likely on the revision timetable given us (and by "us," I mean mostly poor Catherine) this year. Graduated students are notoriously difficult to find, and in any one semester, we may not see the diversity we'd like to demonstrate in the book in the samples we can collect. If I am correct about that claim (Catherine, can you help?), two options follow:

Do we jury rig some fakish examples to complete the revision of the textbook on timeline?


Do we plan, for example, a limited number of examples in the 2012 edition with intent to add more in (say) the 2014 edition?

Am I inventing a problem that does not exist, and so inventing useless solutions, Catherine?

Catherine: If you are leaning toward creating your own examples, does this mean that we should not go to the trouble asking students if we can use their papers?

If we do use student samples, I appreciate Brandy's rationale behind using exemplary papers. I also like her idea of pulling samples from professional writers to show how they use the strategies we teach in WRIT 1120.

Catherine: Let me know what I can do to help with creating/gathering samples. The temptation, is to find very good samples from real students and then tweak them, but is this unethical? I'd hate to see us write our own samples, as it might take away from that "student voice" quality, if that makes sense. And it creates a lot of extra work for you. Tweaking already existing models seems more do-able, but I'm entirely naive about the rights/wrongs or "how to" of doing this. That said, I could see writing some of our own shorter samples, perhaps of 1 CSAC OR a sample of integrating quotations effectively, etc.

Is there any good literature out there that discusses these issues in textbook creation? I wonder if all the samples we see in various textbooks are un-touched or if they've been tweaked by the editors/authors. I wonder what the level of student involvement/permission was in these cases.

Again, I'd like to help you gather samples, etc. And I cn do whatever it takes to get permission from previous students, etc.

Let me know how it goes.

Woot for the awesome level of collegiality on this blog!

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This page contains a single entry by Catherine published on November 26, 2011 1:31 PM.

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