Lessons Learned by a First-Time Writing Seminar Teacher

This is final (planned) post reflecting on my experiences this fall teaching a first-year writing seminar on the history and mathematics of cryptography. In this post, I’d like to reflect on what I’ve learned about teaching writing in this context. What follows is a list of observations, each followed by an idea for the next time I teach this course.

Now that I’ve read 15 final papers, I’m starting to get a better big picture of how argumentative papers can (and perhaps should) be constructed. Arguments support a thesis, and evidence supports an argument. I put together a Prezi to map this out:

Here’s an example:

  • Thesis: If you break your enemy’s codes, keep that a secret as long as you can, even after hostilities have ended.
  • Argument: If the Germans hadn’t learned that their codes were broken during WW1, they wouldn’t have developed the more secure Enigma Machine.
  • Evidence: Singh notes that the Germans were “unenthusiastic” about Arthur Scherbius’ proposed Enigma Machine because “they were oblivious to the damage caused by their insecure ciphers during the Great War.” (p. 138)

Next time: Revise the rubric to reflect this distinction between argument and evidence. Also, show the Prezi to students and have them outline a mock paper using this model.

Several students included way too many details about particular examples in their final papers, details that didn’t help them make their arguments. Some may have been just trying to pad their page count, but others seemed to think that sharing all these details was important. They didn’t seem to realize that they needed to share only those descriptive details that help the readers understand and buy their arguments. Next time: Spend some time addressing this issue during class, perhaps by having students practice their summarization skills.

Some students included appropriate amounts of detail, but didn’t make explicit the connections between their examples and anecdotes and their theses. The reader shouldn’t have to work that hard to understand why a particular story is included in the paper. Next time: Focus on this, too, at some point, perhaps by having students revise a mock paper in which these connections are not made explicit.

The student feedback on the course supports the idea of more learning activities focused on various aspects of the writing process. For instance, here’s a comment on the course feedback survey:

“One thing I would suggest is adding a few short writing assignments throughout the year that can help the student see what they need to work on the most and help improve their writing skills. These can serve as ways to adjust the student to college writing without necessarily killing their grade on a major essay right off the bat.”

And here’s another comment:

“I would have liked to have a greater amount of emphasis placed on writing, as it is first and foremost a writing seminar. The peer editing in class was helpful, but I would have also liked to have some discussions of grammar and general writing mechanics as well.”

Next time: More class time spent on writing instruction. Now that I’ve taught the course once, I have more concrete ideas about activities that would be beneficial to students.

The students seemed to have different expectations regarding the nature of an argumentative paper. Clarifying the structure of such a paper (as described above) will help, but the paper assignment itself is a bit artificial, particularly in contrast with the earlier, expository paper assignment. For that assignment, students had an authentic audience: each other and the open Web since the papers were posted on the course blog. Next time: Retool the final assignment so that it’s a bit more authentic. Perhaps show students students some argumentative articles in magazines like Wired or Scientific American and have them write their papers as if they were magazine articles (but with explicit references and citations).

I let students use whichever citation style (MLA, APA, and so on) they wished, telling them that they needed to be internally consistent in their papers with whatever style they selected. I did this because I don’t think any one style is particularly better than another, and I didn’t want to force students to learn a new style if they already had one mastered. However, as it turned out, very few students in the course had any style mastered! Many students had problems using their selected styles correctly. For instance, I saw many Internet citations that lacked authors. While I know authors of websites are sometimes hard to identify, almost every Internet citation can be given an appropriate author if you look hard enough. Next time: Bite the bullet and have students use the same citation style. I’m thinking APA, since that’s the one I used for my book and know best. Sticking to one citation style would mean that I could become more of an expert with that style myself and, more importantly, get better at teaching it to my students.

Finally, I was advised by a colleague in the math department here that even if I have students write about things other than pure mathematics (which is definitely the case in this course), I should still have them write like mathematicians. How do mathematicians write? They are typically very precise in their use of ideas and arguments, and I’m glad to help my students learn to be more precise in their writing.

However, mathematicians are also typically very concise, providing the minimal amount of information to state their case but no more. Since mathematics is so cumulative, anytime one writes a mathematics research paper, one has to decide how much to explain about one’s work. Do you explain your ideas from first principles that you can be sure all of your readers know? Or do you assume your reader has some greater knowledge of your domain that you can leverage to avoid having to spell out in detail every step in your argument? Most mathematicians go with the latter approach, making many math papers, at least in my opinion, very difficult to read. Conciseness is prioritized over clarity, and I’m hesitant to teach my students to make that same choice.

So here’s my question for you: Should I teach my students next time to write like mathematicians, even if I think most mathematicians are poor communicators? Or am I off-base in my assessment of how mathematicians write?

Image: “Writing Sample: Lamy Vista,” Churl Han, Flickr (CC)

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