Friday, December 21, 2012

What Is Writing?: Part 1

Special thanks to Josette LeBlanc and her fabulous blog post, "Feedback in the Hallway," that inspired this series of posts on writing.

Most of us think of writing as a how, a series of skills which we teach our students to employ as a tool to express themselves in other situations.  I want to disillusion you.  Writing is not a how.  Writing, as we practice it and evaluate it in the West, is a what.

"What?!" you ask, both incredulous at my statement as well as repeating my assertion with an air of shock.  "What what is it?"

Writing, I tell you, is a measure of one's comprehension of a subject as judged by the readers of that writing.

How do I know reading is a measure of comprehension and not a skill when clearly we have courses and books, and indeed entire lives, thrown into the process of writing?

Why, my dear friend, you have just hit on the crux of the matter, the cause of all of the frustration surrounding this issue of writing!

I know because of the rubrics, both those stated explicitly as well as those implied.

Let's begin with those explicitly stated.  Most of us teach toward a test.  Two of the most common tests to teach toward are the SAT and/or the TOEFL (but it doesn't really matter which test you teach toward, the rubrics form a fair continuum of skills headed toward academic writing, which I will get into another time), so let's examine their rubrics (SAT Writing Rubric and TOEFL Writing Rubric) and how we know that the writing is actually judged as a measure of comprehension and not a skill. 

  1. Both rubrics immediately list point development as the very first criteria for scoring.  The SAT chooses the words "a point of view on the issue," "outstanding critical thinking," and "examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position."  While they do include some how factors ("develops," "demonstrates," "using"), the emphasis is on the point and the logic behind it.  Similarly, the TOEFL immediately seizes upon the selection and correlation of "important information" and "relevant information."  The primary focus of scoring is clearly on content, not on style.
  2. The second point of both rubrics is organization, primarily order. Once again, organization is not so much a writing skill as it is a strategy of sorting information.  A measure of information sorting is a measure of content first and style second.
  3. The TOEFL rubric largely skips questions of language variety and artful usage, but the SAT rubric's us of adjectives to describe diction ("varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary" or "appropriate vocabulary" on the high end of diction and "inappropriate word choice" and "very limited vocabulary or incorrect word choice" on the lower end) and syntax ("meaningful variety in sentence structure") are telling.  Artistry must serve content.  The service to the content is what is being scored, not the artistry.
  4. The final portion of both rubrics is directed at grammatical errors.  Although both rubrics specify that high scoring essays should be nearly free from errors, the degree of error on low scoring essays demonstrates that it is not the error in and of itself that is the issue but the error's role in obscuring meaning that makes the error so grievous.  The SAT rubric specifies these errors as, "pervasive errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics that persistently interfere with meaning." The TOEFL, which naturally serves a testing audience of lower general ability, responds in more depth, noting errors that "persistently interfere with meaning at key junctures, or that would likely obscure understanding of key ideas for a reader not already familiar with the reading and the lecture" or responses in which "[t]he language level of the response is so low that it is difficult to derive meaning."
Very simply, the writing sections of both tests serve to measure a student's ability to comprehend and to respond with ideas.  It is not simply to write.

"But that's just academic writing," you might protest.

Hmmm... Okay.  Let's consider other forms of writing.  When is the last time you read a news story that wasn't first and foremost about facts (and spin on them, true, but facts primarily)?  When is the last time you continued reading a book in which you stridently didn't either agree or identify with the protagonist?  When did you last read an editorial that was beautifully written but somehow skipped the comment on an event?  There are indeed various styles and convention which we employ in writing to express our beliefs, but all of these beliefs are the main focus of the writing.  In the end, the writing is about the content.

"So what?" you might ask.  "We all have to write about something."

Aha!  But this something is exactly the point.  We keep teaching our students that they are scored on how they write about something, not on what they write about.  Unfortunately, psychologists have very, very, very clearly proven (although we all like to ignore it) that we as human beings are not objective in evaluating evidence.  We are not.  Period.  End of story.  The list of resources is too long to even list the ways in which this subjectivity is true.  In fact, our history of subjectivity is why we have developed entire fields of study, like statistics, and types of law, like the rules of evidence.

Instead of going into enormous detail about this evidence (this is a blog, not an academic journal), I will just note that some of the principles that I find most at work in my personal experiences with scoring objectivity are relations between belief and confirmation bias, correlations of in-group mentality as a reason to abandon further inquiry or entertain further consideration, different strategies of conclusion-drawing, and non-statistical confounding factors.  Why do these matter?  Because in order for a writer to be successful, she must recognize the operations of these subjective beliefs in order to capitalize or counter them.

The fact that we are approaching writing as a how rather than a what puts our students (and ourselves) at a distinct disadvantage.  First, this belief puts the emphasis unduly on the craft of writing rather on the skills of rhetoric which emphasize recognizing the qualities of one's audience.  And focusing on the audience is what will determine what types of belief and bias the writer is likely to face.  Knowing these predilections beforehand drastically increases the writer's capacity to challenge assumptions, address what the audience believes to be relevant concerns, and introduce enough evidence to make a dent in previously held notions (the old adage about needing to work twice as hard to be considered half as good holds psychological water).

This is the first post in a series of posts regarding unacknowledged aspects of writing, the ways that they are manifested, and how they can inform our teaching.  While I have not yet determined the order in which I will address these issues, future posts in this series will address how reading comprehension questions can and should inform our writing methods, how the various disciplines' differing grammatical rules and valuing of evidence reveal strongly different underlying ideologies (and what those mean to students), how writing rubrics work as a continuum, three unacknowledged truths about writing and some strategies to harness those truths for successful communication, and a discipline by discipline application of those strategies to show how they would work in practice (for writers) and in a classroom (for teachers).

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