Seth Godin: “Those people”

Seth Godin: “Those people”

Today, Seth Godin posted about a situation which I commonly face every day with a slight variation. He tells of a college administrator who has predetermined that her students are only capable of, and destined for, low-paying, manual work. Seriously! Read his account (and response) yourself using the link above.  I TEACH at community colleges, where I witness students being set up to fail by instructors and administrators alike… every… single…day.  I don’t understand.

Actually, Godin explains it well in his books, Linchpin and The Icarus Deception. Check them out if you have some extra time. Hell, check them out even if you DON’T have time. This conversation is that important! Our students’ and society’s futures depend on a shift, and soon!

Why Teach?

I am a writer. That is my primary identity when it comes to my job and my purpose. So why do I teach?

At first, I taught because I didn’t know what the hell to do with a B.A. in English. Of course, the college counselor told me I could go into ANY field- everyone was looking for someone who could communicate well, especially in writing. Yeah… not so much. Besides, I was NOT cut out for corporate America: sit-down-shut-up and follow someone else’s rules all the time and meet the goals set by management. Industrial-age thinking was over for me a LOOOONG time ago. So, what to do? Teach! As long as my students’ test scores improved with my methods, I got to make up my own rules and curriculum and teach my way. It was a beautiful thing. For a while.

But somewhere along the way, the industrialists got ahold of the educational system (again!) Innovation, critical thinking, cooperative learning, striving for more and better results all flew out the proverbial window. Students had to pass tests. Test scores were the only recognized measure of a teacher’s effectiveness and a student’s capacity to learn. I became so disillusioned that I left teaching. For good! At least that’s what I told myself.

But guess what? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t abandon students to believe the crap the industrialist educators were telling them about their writing and themselves. Any student can be a proficient writer, regardless of what their writing placement test says. And they don’t have to know the difference between a past participle and a dangling modifier to write well. Granted, they may not ever be a Hemingway or Stephen King; but they can certainly communicate effectively and become a leader in their chosen industry. And isn’t that what good writing SHOULD be about?

So, back to my original question: why teach? I’m a professional writer, true. But I’m good at teaching; and I feel a responsibility to undo the damage to students’ confidence and motivation done by stupid, ineffective placement tests. It just makes good sense. Besides, every now and then I get a semester like the current one, full of students who inspire ME to write my best too!

Clues to Identifying Exposition Styles

Many styles of expository writing sound the same. Some even have the same, or overlapping, purposes. So how can you tell the difference between them? One of the easiest ways to differentiate the styles is to look for telltale transition words that are specific to a particular style. Check out the most easily identified transitions for the most common styles below.

Illustration: for example, for instance, another, the most/least, for one thing…

Process analysis: first, next, then, after, before, eventually, finally, when, while…

Classification: another kind, first, second, the next category, one type…

Definition: a factor, another factor, defining characteristic, trait…

Comparison: both, neither, similarly, alternately, in contrast, now/then, like/unlike…

Cause and effect: causes, some effects of, as a result, because, as a consequence, consequently, resulting in…

The consistent use of effective transitions will help ensure that YOUR exposition style is recognizable and communication is clear.

Definitions of the Most Common Expository Writing Styles

Academic writing focuses on expository writing styles, meaning writing that explains, sets forth point-by-point, or informs. Although straight-forward narrative is sometimes used, more precise writing styles are sometimes preferred to meet specific purposes. Some of the most common expository styles are listed and detailed below for your reference.

Illustration: writing that uses examples to support a point.

Classification: writing that sorts things into groups or categories.

Cause and effect (causal analysis): writing that explains reasons or results.

Comparison: writing that shows similarities and differences.

Process analysis: writing that explains how things happen or how to do something.

Definition: writing that tells what something means.

Proposal (problem solution): writing that offers a solution or answer to a stated challenge.

Argument: writing that persuades and which, often, uses a combination of the styles listed above to do so.

The 2013 Pandemic Flu!

My apologies for not posting my scheduled Thursday post last week. I am still recovering from the flu which I picked up a little over a week ago. Look for new posts next week on the regularly scheduled days: Monday and Thursday! See you there! 

What Makes Academic Writing Different?

One of the most common comments I hear from my college students is, “I’m not a very good writer; my grammar is really bad.” There are some variation on this, but that’s the general idea. Out of the gate, I have two problems with this statement. First, academic writing is about far more than just grammar; bad grammar alone doesn’t make someone a “bad” writer. Second, there’s really no such thing as a “bad” writer. Writing is a form of communicating. If someone can communicate effectively with others, then they can learn the skills specific to good written communication.

With that clarification made, it’s important to acknowledge that there ARE a few specific characteristics of academic writing that even good communicators and writers find challenging. What are the definitive characteristics of academic writing?

–          Specific, academic purpose

–          Interactivity with collegiate and professional audiences

–          Formal tone

–          Expository writing styles

There are three primary purposes for academic writing: to inform, to persuade, and to facilitate critical thinking. While many other forms of writing also inform and persuade, academic writing places the main focus on critical thinking, often combined with one of the other purposes.

Academic writing is also interactive in the sense that writers contribute to the conversation among academics worldwide, thereby broadening everyone’s education – not just their own. The audience for academic  writers are both fellow students and educators, lifelong learners who collaborate through research and ongoing study. This audience is NOT passive, waiting to be entertained or pacified. Also, writers rely on and interact with outside sources such as articles, research and interviews with established authorities to support and prove their claims. Professional courtesy (and copyright laws!) requires that they give credit to those sources.

The tone of academic writing is more formal than other forms of communication. A formal tone is established through word choice, sentence structure, and proper grammar. This is often the easiest characteristic to recognize, and the most difficult to master.

Finally, academic writing uses expository writing styles. These styles have specific rules and structure which makes them useful for learning about a variety of topics. Some of the most common expository styles include: comparative, evaluative, speculative, analytical, and persuasive.

Future posts will address the characteristics of academic writing more fully. But this is a good start. Did I forget any characteristics of academic writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know!

What All Will You Find on This Blog?

While the main focus of this blog is topics and issues related to academic writing, there is far more to life than school. I could no more write exclusively about academia than I could eat only vegetables – and I like vegetables! Variety is not only “the spice of life,” but critical to a well-rounded education as well.

So, in order to keep you (and myself!) from getting bored, I will periodically post about my “other” favorite writing and writers. I LOVE historical fiction and writing about the places where history and story intersect. I spent some painful useful time working in corporate America developing an aversion to badly written business documents, so I will periodically address the finer points of business writing for the benefit of readers currently caught in that setting.

And of course, I want to address YOUR needs and questions too. What problems or issues to YOU encounter in your daily writing tasks? If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find it… out there somewhere! So ask away…

Why This Blog?

My hope for this blog is that it will provide an alternative for students, to prevent them from becoming trapped in the remedial course treadmill. Academic writing is a specific type of writing with precise rules. But contrary to most professors’ beliefs, it is NOT that difficult to master.

This blog will provide tips for better academic writing and information about tutorials and programs that are available for students learning academic writing. Ultimately, Strong Minds Publishing hopes to provide viable alternatives for students.

In response to the “remedial education” trend which is funding so many college programs at students’ expense, Strong Minds Publishing is in the process of developing a multi-media Academic Writing Prep program online. The course is designed to provide students with an understanding of the basic skills of academic writing and practice with the types of activities typically included on placement tests. The primary goal of the Academic Writing Prep program is to prepare students to place in English 101 the first time they take a placement test.

While the cost of the program is comparable to the cost of a college course, it is self-paced and can be completed in much less time than a 16-18 week semester. It can save students from being forced to take 2 or 3 extra semester-length courses, thus saving time and money in the long run.

Watch for details regarding this course on this blog over the next few months. The projected launch date is April 2, 2013! Stay tuned!

Position paper on College-mandated Remedial Writing Courses

Remedial writing classes in college. Are they really necessary? For a few students – maybe. For over 70% of the college student population? Certainly not! Yet at the community colleges where I teach, roughly 74% of the student population is placed in remedial composition courses based on students’ scores on the “placement test.” At one school, the placement test does not even require writing samples from students. How then, are writing skills assessed? I have no idea!
But 3 out of every 4 students are required to take between 1 and 3 remedial writing prerequisite courses BEFORE they are “allowed” to enroll in English 101: Freshman Composition. While most of these courses do NOT provide any credit towards a student’s degree or GPA, they cost the same “per unit” fee as credit courses. And they extend students’ educational program by 1 or 2 semesters, increasing the likelihood of students getting discouraged. Giving up. Dropping out.
Quite simply, I believe that remedial writing courses at community colleges are a scam designed to increase funding and make money for the college, at the students’ expense. The college receives more government funding for remedial courses, and students pay the same to take them even though they receive no credit towards transfer or graduation for them.
One school where I teach is offering 20 sections of remedial composition and 15 sections of English 101. The other school (which has online courses and 3 physical campuses) is offering 69 sections of remedial composition and 48 sections of English 101. It’s not difficult to follow the money with these numbers.
I understand the community college students come from a variety of circumstances which may have left them under-prepared for success in college. And while I DO believe that offering support to such students is needed, I DON’T believe that it should take 2 or 3 (or more!) semester-length courses to provide that support. And additional help and support should never be mandated. Colleges owe it to students to provide the resources but to allow students to make the best choices to reach their goals – not the college’s graduation or transfer goals. After all, if students are paying for their education, it’s up the them to get what they pay for: courses necessary to reach their goals and dreams.

Historical Fiction: Fact or Stereotype?

One of the things that makes historical research the most difficult is the unreliability and bias that is inherent in any source. As a writer, I strive to be historically accurate. When it comes to details like what tools were made out of, or what kind of hat was worn, or even the weather in a particular place on a particular date, the informaiton is often well-documented and readily available.

I find it much more difficult- subjective, even- to determine accuracy when it comes to questions of cultural and societal norms. While factual data is recorded in great detail, emotional and psychological data is often biased or entirely speculative, at best.

For instance, I’m currently researching a Native American tale which occurred locally, but over 100 years ago. There are two distinctly different versions of this story, each with a dozen or more variables influencing both the outcome of the story and people’s perceptions about what “really” happened. I wish to re-tell the story in a YA novel, from the perspective of the 16-year-old girl- a viewpoint which has never been examined.

In existing accounts, the young girl’s love interest is portrayed as both a suicidal/homicidal, drunken, Native, rapist/kidnapper AND as a displaced, homeless, hard-working, responsible victim of white racism. How much of the historical record is biased and based on stereotyping and media sensationalism? What part of the historical record is accurate and true? Can any of it be really true, or is truth subjective, dependent on the storyteller?

For my story, I’ve decided that human desires and motivations are the most consistent factors that I have to work with. I will stay true to what makes the most sense emotionally and research to get factual evidence accurate, and tell the best damned story I can.

How much do you depend on historical novelists to be accurate regarding time, places, people, societal norms, etc.? How much impact do you think historical accuracy has on a fictional story? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, and I look forward to hearing from you.

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