Sunday, February 17, 2008

Haswell, Take Two

Is the way we are "holistically" grading student essays flawed? Do students possess better writing skills as juniors than they do as freshman? According to a group of eager young teachers that scored an assortment of essays, the answer to the ladder question is no, they don't. This may be due to the fact that the teachers were following a very systematic framework for scoring the essays. Nothing was left up to interpretation. And though, as Haswell points out, the teachers might be seen as wholly objective, there is also the flip side of the coin. "If we take objectivity to refer to qualities in the object itself, independent of human subjectivity or judgment" than no, they were not acting objectively (41). Haswell would argue that the teachers have fallen into following an "English-teacher vision." They are no longer looking within themselves for answers, but instead are guided by the standards of the "English-teacher vision." By interpreting the interpretation, one thing is clear, the papers written by the upper classman were not recognized as better than those of the freshman because the teachers were not scoring based on developmental advancement.
Haswell believes that there are obvious improvements in students writing by the time they reach their junior year. The improvements in their writing, however, are for the most part overlooked by the teachers. Many teachers believe in the legend of deterioration. If students are not forced to do any writing in their classes, all the skills they picked up in their freshman comp courses will go out the window. Unfortunately, people have misinterpreted what Kitzhaber discovered. He points out that "the "increasing carelessness" of the students occurs only "when permitted to" and the main "therapy" called for is to "put steady pressure" on the student throughout the four undergraduate years by installing "disciplined practice in writing in courses other than freshman English" (154) or, as we would say today, across the curriculum" (48). It's not so much a matter of students losing their ability to write as it is their losing their momentum due to a lack of structure on the part of teachers. As is said in so many schools across the country, teaching writing should not be left up to the English teachers, and the English teacher alone. Students need all the practice they can get.
Once Haswell walks us through his writing experiment in chapter three, we begin to understand the real life implications of writing. By comparing employees writing with student writing, we are able to see clearly the differences. Thankfully, the employees writing samples score higher than those of the students. This means that students, once out of college, continue to mature and develop and improve their writing skills. What's interesting is that the style of writing of the employees is different. They use the first person "I" a lot more and they take a more linear approach to addressing the prompt. The conclusion paragraph that so many of us teachers drill into our students is no longer being used once out of school. Could this be because it is one of the more difficult paragraphs to write in an essay?
Haswell alleviates some of our worries that students are not improving as they mature. But as he mentions in chapter three, how are we to know if the improvement is due to maturation or learning? We aren't. I think it's fair to say it's a little of both. What will be interesting is to see where his argument takes us next - the teacher. What is our role in all of this and how do we make sure what we are teaching is helping them succeed as writers?


David said...

I am so grateful that you and Michael are here. Marty too refers to teaching experience, which I would like to know more about.

The "legend of deterioration" and the "English Teacher Version of the World" are immediately recognizable situations to me. Perhaps because they are, in an important way, "genres." Perhaps then Bawarshi's text will help us understand Haswell.

Karol said...

You ask what are our roles in this. Yesterday, Marianne told me that it is the copia they produce in comp class and the indispensable, invaluable process of revision they practice there that allows them to become better writers. I guess what we provide are opportunities, incentives and an array of tools like pre-writing, revision and reflection.
As for deterioration, I never thought about it this way until Haswell, but in some of my most amazing papers, the ones I have THOUGHT the hardest on and generated what I considered to be profoud insights, are the very ones with ridiculous errors. Does this mean I don't know better? No, it means I was using my energy making deeper connections. Deterioration is a myth indeed. What sort of damage will REACTIONS to the myth do to students/writers? *sigh*

Chris Hall said...

Maturation and learning are definitely part of the Miltonian "two-handed engine" at work in the classroom, and the interpretation of their place in teaching practices is equally uncertain as the interpretations of this phrase from Lycidas.

Now that I have cleared my throat of my U.G. English-majorly pretentious babble, just let me say that it's interesting indeed to read your and Mike's posts about all this theory, as you look back on years of practical experience.

Good to know I'm thinking along the same lines as you two!

I likey the bloggy.