Ungrading online discussions

The fact that we are not graded each week lessens the fear that we might miss a task/quiz/reading and in fact, I think it encourages us to do/read more widely because there is not so much pressure to do perfectly on one assignment. It’s kind of like a buffet (where we have to try everything, but will like some things more than others and can get add’l servings!)

I also tend to like to participate in discussions a lot; sometimes this makes me feel self-conscious because I don’t want people to think I’m contributing so much just for a good grade. But your course isn’t set up that way, so I don’t have to worry about that perception.

participant in an MA TESL course (used with permission)

Two weeks into my ungrading experiment, and things are going quite well. One of the interesting side-effects has been a shift in the way I ask students to engage in online discussions. The go-to method in online teaching is to require a certain number of posts and replies, perhaps with a rubric that differentiates between substantial and superficial responses. But that leads to a checklist attitude, increases stress, and results in very dull discussions. In addition to encouraging minimum effort (what’s the least I have to do to accumulate points?), it also discourages students who actually do want to engage, as seen in the feedback I quoted above. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective, but it makes complete sense.

Continue reading “Ungrading online discussions”

Ungrading the Grads

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about ungrading in the past year. Gmail always tries to autocorrect the word to upgrading, which as my colleague pointed out, is actually quite apt. I happen to have an unusual schedule of 3 very different graduate courses this spring, so I’m going to dive in and ungrade/upgrade the whole lot of them. And blog about it, of course.

Continue reading “Ungrading the Grads”

Books available online

Just a quick note to let you know that many of my books are available in electronic format for online teaching, learning, and study:

Don’t hesitate to contact me if I can help you get access to my materials! Good luck out there.

Keeping our distance: What we did next

In my last post, about a century and a half ago (OK, two and a half weeks), I described how we took the English Language Institute at the University of Delaware online in ten days. Now we’ve finished three weeks of remote instruction, how’s it going?

Not bad.

Which, all in all, is pretty good. Continue reading “Keeping our distance: What we did next”

Going live: What we did and how we did it

As intensive English programs like ours are shifting from face-to-face to remote and online classes around the world, I thought it would be useful (if only for posterity!) to document what we have done at the University of Delaware English Language Institute.

My view is largely of the academic side. There is a whole complex layer of administration and student support going on as well, where my colleagues have moved mountains to recreate advising, tutoring, registrar services, and extracurricular activities for the coronavirus universe. But in terms of teaching and learning, these have been our steps so far, forming a rough timeline of a very rough time. Continue reading “Going live: What we did and how we did it”

Remote ESL/IEP Teaching

They said keep a journal  … yeah, that’s not going to happen, but I am happy to share two documents I created as part of training the English Language Institute faculty to move to remote instruction as our campus rapidly shut down in the last few days due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. I presented these as part of hours of in-person and (later) online workshops and demonstrations spread over 3 slightly hectic days.

We decided to limit our technology to platforms licensed and supported by the University which we felt gave the biggest return on the investment of time without making excessive demands on faculty who are less comfortable with technology. So we’re primarily using Zoom for “live” teaching, and Canvas (our LMS) and GoogleApps for those feeling a bit more adventurous.

These Google Docs are licensed with Creative Commons so you can copy, adapt, and share them. Hope they’re useful to other programs living through these challenging times!

New Language Immersion Experience

I was inspired by Rachael Cayley’s excellent plenary at the Consortium on Graduate Communication’s Summer Institute last year to post more about successful lessons on my blog. So here goes … My annual summer gig for the last 8 years has been to teach a Second Language Acquisition course for Delaware K-12 teachers. Our state has seen a dramatic increase in the number of English learners, who now account for almost 9% of total public school enrollment. However, we have a critical shortage of certified ESL teachers, which we have tried to address in part through the University of Delaware’s Additional Certification in ESL program, which I created and coordinate. Our strategy is to train as many existing teachers as possible in the theory and methods of ESL teaching so that they can not only support ELs directly but also disseminate their expertise in their schools.

Which brings me to last Monday and the first day of the 2019 course in Dover.* Continue reading “New Language Immersion Experience”

Sorry, there are no rules for good writing

There’s something about the phrase good writing that bothers me. Don’t get me wrong, I love good writing, I try to produce good writing, and I really want my students to get better at writing.

But when I see generic lists of tips or, worse, rules for good writing, I always want to ask “writing what?” As I said in Changing Practices in the L2 Writing Classroom: Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: “We don’t just write. We write something to someone for some purpose.” What makes good writing in one situation would be out of place in another. That’s why a lot of Onion and McSweeney’s parodies work so well (this list of “top millennial injuries reported in urgent-care facilities” detours into a rant against the stereotyping of millennials, while using the word existential correctly, unlike some newspapers of record).

So I was rather concerned by a piece that circulated back in January (2019) with Steven Pinker’s “13 rules for writing better.” Oh good. Only 13. Now, to be clear, I have been at times a fan of Pinker: he signed my copy of The Language Instinct when he came to speak at the Cambridge Union in about 1998. He was also the first person I ever saw using a PowerPoint presentation, which looked pretty funny against the ornate wood paneling. I think he was a great writer when he wrote about linguistics, and judging by the number of books he sells, so do many others.

But what Pinker became famous for writing was a very specific genre: the erudite trade-book, the science-for-the masses (or at least first-year undergraduates) volume, the thinking person’s non-fiction. That’s not the same style he uses in his academic journal articles. Why? Because it’s not good writing in a different context. But he still wrote a book in 2014 criticizing academic writing, essentially trying to turn all journal articles into … well The Language Instinct. Rachel Cayley wrote a brilliant critique on her blog in 2015:

Academic writing isn’t laughably bad—it shouldn’t be the butt of a joke. And it isn’t monolithic. An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article. Pinker’s critique often makes it sound as though academic writers simply appear whole cloth without any process of learning the craft.

I agree with Rachel. Writing is never monolithic, and good writing depends on the context, the audience, the purpose, and the genre. That’s what makes it interesting. And hard. Really hard.

But maybe these 13 “simple tips” will dissuade me. Let’s see … here are the tweets with my commentary in italics.

  1. Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it’s awful, why? Definitely, but can we be specific here? If you want to know how to write an academic journal article, you should “reverse-engineer” examples of effective journal articles. If you want to write op-ed columns, analyze op-ed columns. Just don’t assume that by studying one genre, you know how to write another.
  2. Prose is a window onto the world. Let your readers see what you are seeing by using visual, concrete language. Err, OK, Hemingway. But sometimes your topic isn’t visual and concrete; it’s abstract and theoretical. There’s still such a thing as good theoretical writing, and it’s not going to be visual and concrete.
  3. Don’t go meta. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.” No, stop! This is terrible advice for academic writers. Let’s name the beast here: nominalization. Nominalization is good when used correctly. It’s a form of meta-discourse that helps writers guide readers through complex ideas while avoiding lengthy repetition. Do go meta. A lack of meta-discourse results in incoherence in academic genres. (And how do you write up quantitative research without the word “variable”?)
  4. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.” This has nothing to do with verbs. He’s talking about concision. Use the shortest form possible without compromising meaning (BTW, “appear” and “make an appearance” aren’t exactly the same: apparent synonyms never are).
  5. Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Minimize acronyms and technical terms. Use “for example” liberally. Show a draft around, and prepare to learn that what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else. A better way to say this is “know thy audience and write for them.” If you are an expert writing for other experts, then of course you should use shared technical terms. I don’t want a surgeon who asks the operating room nurse for “that long sharp thingy.” There’s nothing wrong with using acronyms and technical terms when they are appropriate for your context and known to your audience (see #6). They save time and allow writers to …
  6. Omit needless words. Ironically, this advice repeats #4 and is therefore, um, “needless.” But of course if you keep giving examples and writing out acronyms even though your audience should know them (#5), you’ll fill the page with needless words.
  7. Avoid clichés like the plague. Sure (h/t George Orwell). But let’s be careful here. The word cliché means a fixed phrase (literally a preset printing plate that would save time for the typesetter), and effective academic writing is full of recurrent phrases that we use to orient the reader and make complex rhetorical moves (e.g., the Manchester Phrase Bank). Don’t throw the baby out with the … you know.
  8. Put old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end. Yes, yes, almost. This is indeed the most common pattern in English prose and is a reliable solution to a perplexing paragraph (see Grammar Choices, unit 8!). However, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes we put new information deliberately at the start of the sentence for emphasis, what linguists call “markedness” (see, a useful technical word).
  9. Save the heaviest for last: A complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence. Or to put it another way, see #8, but yes, English generally likes the weight at the end of the sentence.
  10. Prose must cohere: Readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use “that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless,” or “despite.” Yeah, but don’t overdo it, or you get some pretty odd writing. Incidentally, these transition words are just another type of meta-discourse, which he didn’t like in #3.
  11. Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose. Good advice. I read and re-read this post obsessively because, frankly, it’s a bit scary to criticize Steven Pinker and I wanted to get it right! (Update: I write about this idea more in another post, with bonus music theater content.)
  12. Read it aloud. Maybe — I talk to myself incessantly, and I do like to hear what my writing sounds like in my head. Not great advice, though, if you’re writing in a second language and your writing is better than your speaking. Most prose isn’t written to be read aloud: maybe we need another 13 rules about good style for speaking?
  13. Find the best word, which is not always the fanciest word. Consult a dictionary with usage notes, and a thesaurus. I’m all in favor of dictionaries, but I’m not sure what he means by “fancy” –the “best” word is the one that most precisely creates the meanings (plural) that the author intends. This doesn’t mean the simplest word is always the best. This also contradicts tip 4 — e.g., “facilitate” is “fancier” than “make something easier,” but it’s also letting the verb do the work and is more concise.

Let’s see how well Pinker follows his own advice in a peer-reviewed journal article — a really interesting one, too, from a major journal, Cognition (Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker, 2018).

  • “This fact has influenced many areas of science, including theories about the plasticity of the young brain, the role of neural maturation in learning, and the modularity of linguistic abilities.” Oh boy, we have “meta” words like fact and theories (#3), nominalization instead of verbs (#3, 4), and lots of technical vocabulary (#5). And it’s a good sentence for an academic journal article, with new information and complex phrases at the end (#8, 9).
  • conspicuous grammatical errors” — ooh, fancy (#13). What about “gradually or precipitously“? What’s wrong with “slowly or quickly”? (Answer: they don’t work as well here.)
  • “However, neither the nature nor the causes of this “critical period” for second language acquisition are well understood. ” This sentence is front-loaded (#9), and with good reason: it creates better cohesion and puts marked weight on the authors’ main idea, that these phenomena are not well understood.
  • In the first two paragraphs, there is only one transition word (however): the prose coheres but through more subtle techniques than #10 suggests.
  • Clichés (#7) …. “reaches a floor” (stops falling), “saddled with an accent” (speak with an accent)? The first seems fine, but the second is a clumsy piece of native-speakerism (accents are not burdens).
  • Use visual and concrete language (#2): ” the modularity of linguistic abilities”; ” neural maturation” … these are complex theoretical ideas. Terms like “Type I and Type II errors” are also used without explanation or definition (#5). And rightly so. If you don’t know what they mean, skip ’em or grab a stats textbook. But if you’re reading Cognition, these phrases are very unlikely to cause you difficulties.
  • “Reliability for the critical items was high across the entire dataset (Chronbach’s alpha = 0.86).” –if you read a lot of quantitative research, this might almost sound like a cliché (#7). It’s certainly technical, front-weighted, and abstract. But it’s also a very important sentence for readers who understand and care about reliability statistics. Its omission would certain draw the ire of Reviewer 2.
  • “Use ‘for example’ liberally” (#5) — this paper uses it, er, twice, and for instance (the “fancier”) word another 7 times. The paper is about 11,000 words long, so these two phrases together are used less than once per 1000 words, or 4 pages of typed manuscript. Not very liberal.

I could go on, but you get my point: I don’t think there are any universal rules of good writing. In order to know what makes writing good, you have to know your genre, audience, and purpose; you have to understand the appropriate conventions; and you have to make language choices in the appropriate register. There is definitely terrible academic writing out there, but the Hartshorne et al. paper is well written despite apparently ignoring many of its co-author’s tips and tweets. This is the approach Ann Johns and I take in our forthcoming textbook, Essential Actions for Academic Writing: A Genre-Based Approach (University of Michigan Press, coming Spring 2022).

So, choose your (role) models carefully and do as they do, not as they say they do!

 Update (12/12/21): About once a semester, this post suddenly sees a spike in viewers from the University of Arizona. Hi, Wildcats! I would love a UA student or instructor to comment on my post: tell me why you’re here, and what you think of it.

Moving Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

It’s here! After two years of hard work, our ultimate collection of arguments against the five-paragraph essay hit the physical and digital shelves this week. Changing Practices for the L2 Writing Classroom: Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay (University of Michigan Press) is an edited volume that makes the case for moving away from the five-paragraph essay by suggesting classroom practices that lead to purposeful, meaningful writing instruction from elementary to graduate school.

The book started out as a popular panel at TESOL 2017, but it was a much more complex process than just writing up the papers we presented. We expanded the scope, both in terms of authors and topics, and really focused on the changes we recommend in practice. We wanted to write this book not only for the anti-5PE choir (in which we all sing loudly) but also for teachers and administrators who are hesitant about or resistant to these practices or who sense that the five-paragraph essay is inadequate but aren’t sure what to do instead.

As Ann Johns and I wrote in the conclusion, we don’t expect this one book to be the death knell of the five-paragraph essay. We need new textbooks and teacher handbooks (we’re working on both – watch this space!). But Changing Practices is an important step forwards, and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done here and thankful for the amazing authors who contributed to the volume.

You can read more about the book, including the table of contents on my website, and purchase the book directly from the publisher or as a Kindle ebook.

What do you think? Write a comment or contact me to follow up!

Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay

So, I sat down at my computer just now and thought to myself, “I really should write an essay comparing me and my brother” … no, wait, “comparing watching a DVD with going to the movies”, … or, even better, “comparing large cars to small cars” … said no-one, ever.

Throughout this genre makeover series, I’ve attempted to show how boring and meaningless writing assignments become when rhetorical modes are confused for genres. One way to understand a mode is as a pattern of development. For example, there are writing tasks that call for you to compare stuff, but you rarely do it just for the sake of the comparison: there has to be a purpose to the comparison. That’s where genre comes in. Continue reading “Genre Makeover: The Compare/Contrast Essay”