Students, Reading and Writing

At every school where I have taught, I’ve been assigned first- or second-year writing courses to teach, and at every one of these schools, someone from another department has expressed dismay at their students’ inability to write and have asked me what in the world we were teaching students. The fact of the matter is that we were (and are) always teaching students the very things that these colleagues from across campus wanted their students to know how to do in their writing. Unfortunately, for a variety of possible reasons, those students were not (and are not) demonstrating in their non-writing courses that they know how to do these things. A couple of years ago on the campus where I now teach, an interdisciplinary committee assessed the final portfolios of a random sample of students in the second of our two-course writing sequence. Their conclusion? The students demonstrated successfully those skills that we want our students to have.

So what happens between the end of that two-course sequence and the start of the rest of those students’ college careers? I don’t profess to know, but if pressed I would offer a hypothesis or two:

  • In many courses that are not focused on writing skills, instructors might not provide detailed enough instructions on their writing assignments to convey to the student what the instructors’ expectations are, and
  • A different issue is whether or not the student understands the course material: a badly written essay may be the result of the student author not understanding the subject rather than not being a capable writer.

The second of these hypothetical explanations brings me to a recent news item from Inside Higher Ed: Dan Berrett describes a presentation by Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson at the recent meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in which they report the early results from their “Citation Project.” Howard and Jamieson’s Citation Project describes itself as “a multi-institution research project responding to educators’ concerns about plagiarism and the teaching of writing.” However, as described by Berret the results presented at CCCC are less about plagiarism and more about comprehension. On the question of how students are incorporating and acknowledging the sources they find through their research, Howard and Jamieson report that the vast majority of the first-year writing student essays studied so far are defined primarily by “patchwriting,” evidence that students are not really understanding or engaging the material they are reading for their essays.

The Citation Project Web site describes different methods writers have for incorporating research as follows:

Writers have four means by which they can incorporate source content into their text: they can quote, summarize, paraphrase, or patchwrite that content. Contemporary educational and media discourse has been focused on whether writers acknowledge their sources when they incorporate material from them. A more profound question is how writers incorporate source material; quotation, summary, paraphrase, and patchwriting are separate discursive moves representing different levels of intellectual engagement with the source. Quotation requires only the ability to copy. Paraphrase requires comprehension of and engagement with a small bit of text, such as a sentence. Summary requires engagement with an extended passage, even the entire text. Patchwriting stands between quotation and paraphrase; it is neither an exact copying nor a complete restatement.

As Berrett puts it, patchwriting is “the copying of the original language with minimal alteration and with synonyms substituting for several original words.”

So are the early results from this project an indication that we have a problem with students plagiarizing? No. We have a problem with students not understanding the material they’re incorporating into their own writing. Plagiarism is certainly an important issue–and it’s a much more nuanced issue than many of us usually admit–but we will not eliminate patchwriting by spending even more class time talking about plagiarism.

Instead, I would argue, we need to ensure in every department on campus that we structure our courses and our assignments such that students learn where and how to find authoritative source material and such that students must demonstrate a solid comprehension in writing of the material they’re writing about. Of course, I would also defer to the opinions of scholars like Howard and Jamieson–scholars who are actually studying the issue in detail–concerning how to remedy the situation.

In other words, if a student in one of your courses is relying too much on patchwriting from weak or inappropriate sources, the problem is not that they didn’t learn what they were supposed to learn in their first-year writing course or courses. Rather, the problem is that the student isn’t learning what they’re supposed to learn in your course.

How about you? If you teach courses that are not focused on writing skills, what do you do to facilitate good student writing? And do you find that students who are good writers are also students who demonstrate a solid understanding of course material through other means such as class discussions, quizzes, exams? Let us hear from you in the comments.

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