Do Academics Devalue Writing?

I meant to write this blog months ago. It is inspired by observations made while at a conference in the spring with other writing scholars. The devaluing of writing is an issue I think about often as I inch ahead in my own PhD studies and consider, while applying for grants for example, how others will perceive my work. How my discipline perceives my work is especially crucial given that I am in a practice-based discipline not a humanities discipline where, you would think but it is apparently not so, that the value of writing would be more self-evident.

My research area is writing in nursing education.  I have conducted research on writing self-efficacy in first-year nursing students in several projects I started before I became a PhD student. When tackling psycho-educational topics in a discipline that privileges the biomedical perspective, there are those that will brush you off, tell you your topic doesn’t interest them, or look at you strangely and tell you they didn’t realize nurses needed to write. In that environment, it is hard to go up against, for grants or even to get certain journals to take you seriously, scholars who are trying to cure cancer, as the epitomes example.

But someone has to teach the future cancer curers of this academic world how to write and think.

In nursing the problem has looked like such:

  1. Most nursing programs in Canada do not teach writing at all to their students. Or if they do believe their students require writing skills, they require an English Literature course as a prerequisite (as if interpreting literature and writing about it will help them write better research synthesis papers). Or they require students take a basic generic writing course which drills grammar and a style guide. Discipline-specific writing instruction is rare in nursing programs (6% in Canada).  I am grateful to Jo-anne Andre and Roger Graves for the study that has fed me that stat.
  2. Writing ability is not an entry level practice competency for nurses at the national or provincial level in Canada.  I have been through the competency documents for every province (except Quebec) and none of them include writing as a competency. One of them (my own province, gratefully) includes the following statement under the heading of assumptions: “Entry-level registered nurses demonstrate English or French language proficiency (reading, writing, listening and speaking).”
  3. The Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing (CASN) the organization that “establishes and promotes national standards of excellence for nursing education”  has written a National Nursing Education Framework. Writing does not appear in the framework as a priority of nursing education until the Masters level of education. Writing is not mentioned in undergraduate education at all so I’ve been wondering where nursing Masters students are learning to develop such skills as as,
    “The ability to articulate verbally, and in writing, to a wide range of audiences the evidence for nursing decisions, including the credibility and relevance of sources of information,”

    if those skills are not honed in undergraduate education as a component of excellence in nursing education. The hardest writing requirement imbedded in that statement above as an educational priority for Masters education is the writing for a wide range of audiences. Understanding the needs of an audience is the most challenging writing skill of all. You come to understand the needs of an audience, through lots and lots and lots of writing and that writing exposure better come well before the Masters level.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be on faculty in a nursing program that includes in its curriculum one of the rare 6% of discipline-specific writing courses. In fact, I developed that course. Our former chair, now retired, valued writing, but it is likely she included the course because she had a ready-made registered nurse faculty member (meaning me) to step in and develop the course. Our course, in its inception, was truly discipline-specific because it was taught and developed by a registered nurse. But she only made it one credit hour in value which does not represent the workload or the stress levels incurred by some students.

Nevertheless, I’ve still encountered problems from our faculty over the value of writing. For example, we have a parallel policy that students must pass every course in each term before moving on in the program. We weren’t far into our new curriculum (2 terms) when the writing course became a quick exception to that rule and students were were allowed to move to the next term without successfully completing the writing course.

As another example, at some point in our program we had to stop allowing faculty to be too autonomous in their assignment choices and the location of writing assignments needed to be pre-selected and permanent because writing assignments were being dropped from courses without any consultation. Instructors would trial an assignment, quickly realize how much work they were, and the next year it would be gone from their course. They did this stealthily, without telling anyone, and no one found out until it was too late.

I have also discovered how quick instructors are to place blame on the introductory writing course as the cause of students’ perceived lack of writing skills. I can’t even count the number of emails, hallway conversations, and pointed questions at faculty meetings, where I was required to address the generic finger point, “Didn’t they learn this stuff in your course?” As if I was the magic bullet. As if my course was the end of the line for undergraduate students learning how to write.

So it shocked me to be at a writing scholars’ conference (CASDW) and find out that the nursing experience wasn’t unique at all. That even in the writing studies discipline faculty were plagued with pointed fingers and statements of devaluing. Faculty calling writing a “soft skill.” The blaming of some unknown entity before these students arrived at their doorstep for their poor writing as if each individual course assignment didn’t require new learning, new writing supports, no matter the level these students were at. We seem to want students to be sitting in our classrooms fully formed when it comes to writing. And the industries we feed want students coming out with better writing (and communication) skills but they don’t want to lengthen programs to help students develop these skills.

When I wrote the tweet I posted above, many of those who contributed to the conversation thought I meant students were the ones devaluing writing but I was talking about faculty primarily. Many defined students’ devaluing of writing by them not caring about the grammar in their assignments. But grammar is not the only thing that makes bad writing. And what makes for bad grammar can be highly subjective and disciplinary too. What bothers me as a grader will be different from what bothers you. I, for example, could not care less about detecting split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, but I’m going to be all over bad uses of semi-colons. I’m much more interested in ideas, clarity, creativity, cohesiveness.

Reading qualitative studies asking students about what they think of the feedback they get on their writing enlightened me to student frustrations. The thing students hate the most is when their graders fail to see what they are trying to say in order to simply nit-pick at sentence by sentence grammatical structure. You want students to pay attention to grammar, tell them to read their papers out loud to themselves. Give them time in class to do it. More writing will improve students grammar but students quickly become disengaged in their writing if they feel their ideas are being ignored.

If students devalue writing it is because we model that to devalue it is acceptable. We model it by doing some of the things I’ve described above.  Allowing them to progress in a program without passing a required writing credit is like saying, well, you can get by without it. I’ve heard faculty talking to students about how much they hate writing too and avoid it. I’ve heard them validating student beliefs that nurses don’t need to know how to write to look after a patient. Faculty make these comments without any consideration for the nature of thinking that goes into writing that will benefit student thinking at the bedside.

In my experience, the faculty complaining loudest about the dire condition of student writing are the ones that seem to devalue writing the most. Many of these faculty have no intention of being a part of the solution. Many don’t recognize that in order for good writing to be handed in, supports must be in place and the educator assigning the writing must be a part of that support system. Bad writing in your course is not someone else’s problem. It is your problem. Writing experts have known for years that drilling grammar does not fix that problem, so demanding that writing scholars come in and fix the issue by offering a 2 hour workshop on the basics of grammar, will not fix the bad writing your assignment produces. You’ll be lucky if any of the students show up. Deficit pedagogy, where we tell students what NOT to do over and over again, does nothing to teach them what they should do.

In  my mind, getting good writing out of our students requires three simple things:

  1. Writing a meaningful assignment and allowing student choice.
  2. Providing in-classroom supports for our own assignments.
  3. Allowing students to say something that is their own and represents their identity in the work.

Developing writing identity may be the key to helping students value writing. Students resent writing that demands they leave themselves out of the analysis. I don’t blame them. I resent writing like that as well. But so many disciplines continue to devalue writing, even at the professional academic level, that shows any shred of humanity.  They label that kind of writing as biased writing, lacking objectivity. I conducted a poll shortly after tweeting the devaluing thread, asking academics and researchers if they would call themselves “a writer”

If you remove the folks that were just spying, 56% said yes, 30% said no, and 14% said not sure. So just under half of the academics/researchers and Phd students who responded would not identify as a writer. In the comments below, some said they they felt writing was a necessary evil of the job. It was a task, not an identity.  Some felt it was not their primary identity (teaching was). But yet writing is what we do. Writing is what makes our research travel. Writing is what gets us degrees, promotions, grants, recognition, publications, and advances our careers. How can we not identify as writers?

If such a large proportion of those teaching and assigning writing to students cannot identify as writers then we have an identity crisis in academia. The problem of devaluing writing may stem from this identity crisis. I learned this week that writing studies scholars have challenges even being recognized as a relevant discipline. If we don’t write as academics, if we don’t value writing ourselves, if we don’t want to teach writing or help our students value writing, what is it that we do again?

Let’s Chat about our English as a Second Language (ESL) Students and Writing

Warning:  I’m about to climb up on top of a giant soap box. Maybe you’ll climb up with me, or maybe you won’t. But I would like to hear your experiences with what I am about to talk about if you are willing to share.

Disclosure: In Canada we have two official languages, French and English, but I am fluent in only one (I’ll let you guess which one). I have also always said that I was gifted enough talent in one language to make me forever incompetent in all other languages. I have tried to learn French but it is a struggle. My kids are in French Emersion for school and beyond about grade 3, I lost my ability to help with homework because I can’t read the instructions.  I have tried to visualize myself going to a foreign country and having to learn in a language that was not second nature for me. I have great admiration for anyone who can speak fluently in more than just English. I expect it is a great sign of intelligence. These are my biases. But I have to assess student writing ability nearly daily in my work and I’ve put a lot of thought in how I should address the writing problems of all students.

ESL students, EAL student, L2 students, whatever we are calling them these days are NOT worse writers than our domestic students. It almost feels like a big sigh of relief to get that out.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately since I started my series of research studies looking at writing self-efficacy in nursing students. The body of literature on writing ability in undergraduate students focuses mostly on generic undergraduate groups, or L2 specific groups, and it is rare for researchers to separate out their ESL students from their domestic students and make a comparison. I’m not sure if the lack of comparative studies is because researchers think the comparison is unnecessary or if it is because there may be an inherent assumption that ESL students are worse writers than our domestic students so no one bothers to actually test and see if it is true. In the writing self-efficacy research literature I’ve only come across one study (Williams & Takaku, 2011) that overtly compares these groups.

Certainly in my own teaching experiences I’ve witnessed a number of things that I find disturbing. These experiences span my entire career, and not just my teaching career but also my student life and have been witnessed at more than one institution; many instructors believe that ESL students in English language programs have poor language skills.

I’ve never considered myself an ESL instruction expert and I once considered this a deficit in my ability to teach writing. So one year, after I’d been teaching academic writing to nursing students for about 6 or 7 years, I attended a workshop geared toward understanding the needs of ESL students, in particular with regards to issues of plagiarism.  It was a wonderful workshop. I learned a lot and we had some great discussions as a group. It changed my perspective on how plagiarism should be viewed.

But I also walked away from that workshop wondering why it was labeled specific to ESL students. Everything that was discussed, I had also seen with our Canadian born students.

So in my studies, I decided to ask the question. Do self-identified ESL students have lower writing grades, lower writing self-efficacy and higher anxiety than non-ESL students? Here is what I’ve found so far, bearing in mind this is the experience of one educational institution, a college in a prairie province in Canada that has, up to this point, admitted nursing students with a minimum 60% average and tests students for language ability prior to admission for a minimum standard (Degrees of Reading Power score of 75 minimum).

And yes, I have ethical approval for this work.

Here is a table from the first set of data, that I’ve clipped from my notes about my findings. Comparisons were made between ESL and Not ESL students for paper grade for the first year course (Paper %), final writing course grade (Final %), Writing self-efficacy at three time points (WSES), an APA and grammar knowledge test (APA/G), and state and trait anxiety . The findings were so unremarkable that I didn’t even fill in all the slots on the table:

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Two years later I did a follow-up study with the same group. Yesterday I ran these results. The sample sizes are smaller and the means more variable as a result, but the results are again showing no difference between ESL and non ESL students on the following measures:  Paper grades for year 1, 2, 3, three clinical practice scores, GPA, the Degrees of reading power admission score, writing self-efficacy measures using two different measures, my own — which will be published in the spring — and the Post Secondary Writerly Self-Efficacy Scale, and anxiety using a visual analog scale.

In addition I ran a chi square examine ESL and year in nursing program. You see, in the follow up study, all these students were supposed to be in third year but many of them had fallen out of synch. I thought it might be worthwhile assessing if there was a difference in progression between self-identified ESL and non ESL students.

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The numbers are small so view with caution and the second year ESL count violates the assumption of at least 5 observations per category, but it appears that there is no difference in proportions of ESL and non-ESL students who fail to progress on schedule within the program (X2 = .253, p = .71).

Do ESL students struggle with writing and language? Yes they do, but so do all the other students as well. Williams and Takaku (2011) had a similar finding — in fact, they found that over time and with help seeking as a mediator, ESL students would out perform the domestic students. Domestic born students, in qualitative research, also acknowledge difficulties understanding academic and research language. I hear complaints about difficulties with language every day in my classroom from students of all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, ages, and voices.

So what does this mean for how we approach students and writing in groups of mixed ESL and Canadian born students:

  1. Many students struggle with writing. The elements of writing they struggle with and the reasons for their perceived struggle may be slightly different but they struggle, and many also approach writing anxiously and question their ability to write — some more than others, but it has nothing to do with first or second language status.
  2. Having an accent and a foreign name does not mean one is a poor writer or that that individual has low writing self-efficacy. Not having an accent and having a North American name does not mean one will write well.
  3. Treat each student who asks for help as an individual and address their individual needs and concerns.
  4. Be conscious of unfounded assumptions or biases about any particular student for any reason.

In our program before admission, every student completes a language test and has to meet a minimum standard. It is OK to acknowledge that you have trouble understanding a student’s accent. I have a colleague who is researching internationally educated nurses and those nurses acknowledge they have trouble with accents as well. It is not OK to hear an accent and assume that is a signal for a weak student and a weak writer.

Oh, and if you ever need to give an example of when statistically non-significant findings are important…..

 

 

Let’s Chill Out About Plagiarism: Yes, I Just Said That.

How do you decide what is a serious enough offence to call plagiarism? Where do you draw that line?

The day Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the Republican National Convention was one of the best days of the summer, and I say that, as a Canadian, watching the whole American election circus from afar.  It was a good day because the world was talking about plagiarism and where you draw the line — something I have to think about nearly every day as an academic. They were talking about what defines plagiarism, in particular, but more importantly they were talking about how plagiarism is about the context in which it is committed.  I spent my time on social media that day rubbing my hands together with glee.

My title to this blog is not in any way to suggest that plagiarism is not to be taken seriously. I have seen plagiarism in action. I’ve had students hand in annotated bibliographies that are word for word from the abstracts of the published articles.  I’ve seen students submit identical or nearly identical assignments. I’ve known of a student who stole another student’s work, unbeknownst to the student victim, by copying their paper from a computer when s/he left the lab to use the bathroom. I’ve marked countless papers with vast amounts of uncited information. I had two sisters hand in a paper on the same topic with the same reference list with identical errors, identical headings with different writing under each paragraph, but the citations in basically the same order. The latter was likely a case of inappropriate collaboration — or one sister wrote both papers — I will likely never know what went down there but it wasn’t honest writing.

This recent Chronicle of Higher Education article also concerns me. While I have no doubt that there are people making big money off student cheating, I refuse to believe that every student is doing it (otherwise these businesses could never submit an assignment on time, they’d be so busy). Maybe I’m naive. But for students who are hiring others to create custom assignments for them based on a course’s assignment guidelines, it would be nearly impossible, short of a confession, to catch it. I’m not going to waste time hunting these students down.  In a practice based profession, I’m hoping they’ll manage to fail themselves out in other ways.  A now retired colleague mentor of mine used to always say: Do we want spend our time educating, or policing?

Over 10 years ago when I was a junior faculty member, a couple of more senior instructors decided to become marking zealots. They began pulling students’ sources as they graded and searching for every point the student made in citation and low and behold they found many situations where students had copied word for word from sources.  Should I be marking this way too? I wondered at the time.  I could never bring myself to do it. It felt wrong, to me, to grade papers with this kind of mindset.  It felt like viewing students as guilty until proven innocent. It felt like a witch hunt.

My preference for identifying plagiarism was, and still is, to rely on the subtle signs: poor awkward writing and grammar in this paragraph, high level language in the next always sets my alarm bells off. But there are others too: font type or font size changes, hovering a cursor over the text and seeing web links, misuse of pronouns, change in verb tense, change in person voice from third to second, and the more obvious, finding another student’s name mistakenly left unedited somewhere in the document. I frequently, when grading, pull sentences out of papers and drop them into Google just to be sure. I’ve never used Turn It In. I believe there is a fee to a program to access it and in these times of fiscal restraint, my department has just said no.

Uncited material that should have been cited is the most common type of “plagiarism” I see. About 10 years ago, we, meaning a sub committee in my department, set rules about when we would call it plagiarism — 4 or more incidences of a missing citation would be considered plagiarism.  We would make the student take their paper back and add the citations. They would get a form filled out and placed in their file.

I’ve since had instructors, who weren’t around at the time we made the decision, say to me. Students will purposely leave three uncited sections in their paper because they know they can get away with it.  What!? Wouldn’t it be easier to put the citation? It is way too much work to be that deliberate in your purposeful non-citing.  Students who haven’t cited, really, haven’t thought much about it at all.

I would sit with these students, often facing their tears and soggy Kleenexes, in my office and point out the error of their ways and they would stare at me blankly not really sure what I was asking them to do when I asked them to fix their citation. I don’t think I took that from anyone, some of them would say in many varied ways, I just wrote that because I know it.  I heard it in class. 

And my thinking started to change. Most, if not all uncited work I saw in undergraduate student papers had nothing to do with intentionally or maliciously trying to steal the work of someone else to, I dunno, try and look smart? Most of it was as a result of poor research or not understanding the value in finding a source to support their rationale or argument they were presenting. I stopped asking them to go back and fill in their missing citations because most of them didn’t have a citation to fill in.

And besides, what is an “uncited section?” A sentence? A paragraph? What if they just put the citation at the end of the paragraph? Does that mean that everything earlier in the paragraph is uncited? Or did the one citation intend to cover the whole paragraph (insufficiently)? Now I just tell them it isn’t sufficiently cited and I move on.

And I started teaching my graders in first year to notice the signs of writing that was just a student rambling off the top of their head as if they were expert enough to make the point. Often those paragraphs were full of simplistic thinking, grand sweeping claims, and non specific statements:

Alcohol is a big part of our society. For young adults alcohol can be a big struggle when it is being introduced into their lives. It is very common for people to turn to heavy drinking, also known as binge drinking when trying to destress and have fun [sic].

This paragraph was the first 3 sentences of an introductory paragraph written by a first year student. There is so much wrong with it. It’s vague — how many people in society? What people? Who says there is a connection between binge drinking and de-stressing? And where are the citations to support the accuracy of these claims? The comment in the image to this blog, is what I had typed on this student’s paper.

Is this plagiarism? No. This is a student writing what she knows about binge drinking off the top of her head, maybe as a summary of what she read or from her own personal experiences with it.  Her following paragraph(s), detailed and cited many of the points made here. So my feedback to her was to delete the whole first paragraph. It wasn’t plagiarism. It was poorly written and redundant. A waste of words in a 3-page paper.

I once dealt with a suspected case of plagiarism where the student had copied one paragraph of her paper from a website. Her paper was about urinary incontinence and the one paragraph, maybe in the 50 to 100-word range, turned out to be a paragraph from a website about fecal incontinence. She didn’t copy the paragraph word for word. She did make some inconsequential changes so there is no doubt that what she left unchanged was somewhat deliberate, or at the very least, lazy.  On top of it all, she put an incorrect citation. The citation she put was not the website she copied from. She also had a couple other spots in her paper where she had used or poorly paraphrased 5 or 6 words in a row from one of her sources. Her grader had even highlighted spots where she had used two words in a row from a source.  The vast majority of her paper, however, was paraphrased. The intent to paraphrase was clear in every spot but this one place. From reading her work, my sense was simply that she didn’t give a damn about the assignment or the quality of what she was handing in. Maybe she spent a couple hours writing the paper and submitted it as it was. Maybe she wrote it at at 4 a.m.

Not academic misconduct, I told my team leader and the instructor.  Arguments ensued.  The one paragraph, the one from the fecal incontinence website: Bad. Stupid. Dumbass even.  The student deserved to be hauled in and given a good slap on the wrist. Certainly a reduced grade was in order.  She didn’t deserve to have academic misconduct stamped for life on her transcript.

To be honest, if I hadn’t been cued to check. I doubt I would have caught that case of plagiarism to give her that slap on the wrist. I’m not sure, and I’ve wondered since, if that matters. The paper was very poorly written and not cohesive. It was a difficult read. A poor grade would have been the outcome anyway. I’m not sure that the instructors, in this case, would have found that paragraph either except that conditions made them check. The instructors had found one incidence of plagiarism in one student and decided to go back and check the entire class, as if one case meant a giant conspiracy to pull the wool over their eyes, to take them as fools, was underway.

Here is the crux: if you go looking for something. You will find it. You may even begin to redefine it, to prove yourself right. To solidify your case. In order to indict someone, no stumble, no matter how minor, can be left unmentioned. Finding one sentence that is 90% copied from a source suddenly then means that every time the student uses the same terminology as an original source, even medical terminology which shouldn’t be changed, you will mark it as plagiarism. Suddenly, one word, two words, three words in a row, can count as plagiarism — if you have declared it should be so and if it justifies your anger over that one sentence. You may even feel a little giddy while doing this because you’ve caught them. Now you can solidify your case that plagiarism is rampant among students and the student with the one sentence or the one paragraph is now a villain. Call yourself a hero now, maybe.

But I call it witch hunting. Policing. Confirmation bias.

I found this sentence in one of my student’s papers last year: how powerful losing weight can be. Six words in a row from the original. Common words, common idea. I highlighted it in the student’s paper and left it. The rest of her paragraph was well paraphrased. Put that phrase into google with quotes around it and the student’s source pops up as the first item along with 2 other media sources that picked up the article. Not plagiarism.

This scenario, which came under discussion on Twitter the other day, however, is very much plagiarism.

Melania Trump likely used less words of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech than my fecal incontinence student used in that one paragraph. Did Melania Trump plagiarize? The bulk of her speech was “her own” or written by hired speech writers, so at the very least original in wording, if not original thinking. You bet your buckets she plagiarized.  Melania’s words were being delivered to millions with the intention of influencing them. She stole the words (and one can argue, the values) of another woman making a speech in the same context 8 years earlier and those words had helped Michelle Obama’s husband get elected as President of the United States, something Melania, perhaps, also desires for her husband.

My student wrote her paper for an audience of one in a learning environment. Her teacher. Context is everything.

There are so many reasons why a student may paraphrase poorly or not cite.  Is it really helping the student with this occasional mishap or bouts of lazy writing to crucify them with the label of academic misconduct?  Or would talking to them and understanding why it happened help you understand their writing fears and their feelings of low self-efficacy and the fact that they are just trying to survive a gruelling nursing program? Maybe what you have instead is a teachable moment? I’m a great believer that finding ways to look students in the eye while they’re in their paper preparation phase is the best plagiarism prevention of all. Some “plagiarism” is just bad writing that needs to be corrected. We need to be sure we know the difference.

 

 

 

The Writing Empathy Exercise

It was a bit of a rough year to say the least in my department when it came to issues of student academic writing.  There were whole classes that revolted about assignments and many grade appeals. I, the so-called writing expert (are any of us really “expert” at this?) felt I was being called in to put out fires about every two weeks. Problem solving these issues consumed my entire third term and sometimes my restful sleep.

The situations that arose created a lot of negativity from instructors and students alike. And the truth was that all these issues could have been prevented with the right discussions occurring at the right times.  So in order to build some capacity in instructors both seasoned and novice, and to encourage some degree of consistency in our department, I was asked to create a workshop about writing assignments across the curriculum.  One thing I sensed in the many meetings I attended was there was a degree of amnesia about what it was like to learn to write as a student.  I saw the workshop I was asked to do as an opportunity to take my colleagues back in time to when they were new nursing students and having to write for the first time in our discipline.

I also had a myth busting agenda.  In the midst of trouble shooting student revolts and appeals, I’d had far too many conversations with both students and my colleagues this term that indicated a very narrow view of citation and paraphrasing was floating around and it was affecting how students were being graded and the advice they were getting from other instructors.  I sensed there was a pervasive belief that every sentence a student wrote needed to be cited, and that if a citation was present, the teacher should be able to go back into the original article and find the exact point or fact associated with that citation.

The problem was that we as academic writers cite the work we borrow for many more reasons than straight-up paraphrasing. More problematic was that expecting every sentence in a student’s paper to be a paraphrased version of words written by someone else limited the students’ ability to argue, be creative, or have any semblance of coherent thought they could claim as their own.

Thus I created the empathy exercise. This exercise was not unlike the exercises I often gave my first year students in their introductory writing course: I chose three passages from three different sources and told my colleagues to write a short paragraph using the three sources and to be sure to cite those sources using correct APA format.

I needed to pull them out of their comfort zone but not too far out of their comfort zone. The three passages were not about nursing, they were about being a woman and riding a bike. I confirmed that all of them had at one time in their lives ridden a bike. I wanted there to be some personal experience they could draw from when they wrote their own paragraph. I made sure that the sources contained some unfamiliar “cultural” terminology about bike riding, and that at least one of the sources described riding in a peloton (like the Tour de France riders) — something I was sure that none of my colleagues had experienced. (Note: the linked passages are to the three sources I gave the group.)

So the group wrote their paragraphs and we put them aside until later.  I had a whole morning’s worth of writing instruction lessons to give before I made them scrutinize their own work, hoping that the information I was about to provide them would make them better equipped to examine their own writing with an open mind. I was looking for a paradigm shift in writing that day — one where there was more of a focus on critical thinking than on grammar, and a bit more flexibility with students being allowed to have a voice and be an expert about what they had researched.

When we were done for the day I posted the following slide and asked them to mentally check off how many of these situations were present in their own paragraphs.

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I didn’t make any one stand up and read what they wrote nor did I make anyone declare their short comings.  I saw the exercise as a time for reflection on their own paraphrasing methods. If they were allowed to extemporize, build paragraphs inspired by the original text but not exactly paraphrased from the original text, or occasionally use the exact words in the form of terminology or other critical or unmodifiable  information, then students should be allowed to write that way as well.

I saw a few lights turn on in the room that day. I recognize that it is a difficult learning curve to be grading and also be able to diagnose the intention of a student’s citation without the student present to explain.  I told my colleagues my motives were to enhance their empathy in the student experience. I wanted to remind them of what it was like to be learning the language of a profession, so I had given them a topic to which they had some vague lay person knowledge and then immersed them in the lingo of those who live and breath the experience of cycling on a daily basis. There is some discussion in the literature that when we grade student writing in the disciplines, that we are expecting a fluency in the discourse of that discipline before we’ve taught them the discourse of a discipline.

But what I really wanted them to understand was that citation of sources was more than just ensuring that everything written was easily locatable in the source cited. That to paraphrase well, you have to be well read, experienced, and insert a bit of yourself into the mix.

“So, in other words, what you are saying, is you want us to lighten up,” one of my colleagues, clearly on to me, said to the group.

Yes. Yes, I do.