Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thoughts about College Writing... not just Coursera

My own classes have started (it's the pre-start, I guess you could call it - classes start officially August 20, but I'm glad for people to get a head start, so about half the students are working on stuff already this week, which is great)… so, that means a lot less time for this Coursera class, including less time to blog about it. But something came up in a couple of different conversations I was having with people today, and it seemed important to note it here. While I can see a lot of problems with the Coursera course (both this specific course, and also the specific model), I don't want people to assume that I am implying that the same problems do not beset regular college courses: when it comes to finding ways to teach writing, everybody is struggling! Writing is surely one of the most important skills that someone can learn in school… and it is also one of the hardest skills to teach. In general, colleges don't do a very good job with it at all.

Sure, college students write papers - but does their writing improve as a result? Or are they just writing in order to write, to get the assignment done, to get the grade? Do they feel confident in their writing? I would suggest that the widespread problems with plagiarism in college writing (and they are, indeed, widespread) are mostly a reflection of how alienated students are from their own writing, how unconfident they are in their own writing, as well as being bored and/or confused.

So, just very quickly, here are some of the things that I would like to see happening in ANY college writing course - not just in something offered by Coursera. How many college courses that require some kind of written work from the students include all of these features? Precious few, I am afraid. I would be curious to hear what features others would add to this list, based on either your good or bad experiences in learning to write and/or in teaching writing.

* PERSISTENT WRITING. Don't let everything go into the trash can! Every course can yield a writing portfolio or mini-portfolio, whatever you want to call it - just so long as it does not all go into the trash can, real or virtual. It would be so easy for our writing to appear to us in the Coursera course in something more like a portfolio. Even better if people are encouraged to at least consider exploring a theme or themes in more than one essay, for a sense of continuity and building connections.

* REVISION… AND MORE REVISION. No piece of writing is ever good the first time around, much less great! Writing, all writing, wants to be revised, and then revised again - preferably over a period of some time to allow for self-reflection, feedback from others, etc. The complete lack of revision in the Coursera course is very discouraging. At a minimum, I would suggest that people be required to revise their essay each week - or maybe just pick five essays to revise out of the ten, for example, and put the revised essays in a course portfolio.

* REAL AUDIENCES. Getting real feedback from real readers (NB: plural!) is essential. To make that work, you also need to learn how to give good feedback in return. Being good both at getting feedback and at giving feedback are skills that every writer needs - and like any kind of skill, these skills can (and must) be taught, with "feedback on the feedback" to help people as they acquire and master those skills. I would say Coursera definitely needs to help people in giving better feedback, and "feedback on the feedback" in an important part of how that could happen.

* STYLES GALORE, CONTENT GALORE. There are so many styles of writing, and there is something to be learned from the process of trying a variety of different styles - and along the way discovering just what styles of writing work best for you. So too with content. The breadth of content that is relevant to any given college class is very extensive; helping students explore that breadth of possibility and make good personal connections, choosing topics they really care about, is one of my very favorite things to do. We could do with a wider range of writing style options in the Coursera course, and I think we could also do with a different way of presenting the writing prompt each week - open-ended is good, but completely directionless is, for many students, not so good.

* MULTIMEDIA WRITING. Combining writing with images, for example, which is so easy to do when writing for the web, adds a new dimension to the finished product. Working with audio and with video can also be thought-provoking and energizing! I feel so image-deprived everywhere at the Coursera course website, truth be told.

This doesn't have to be something to be ashamed about - it's important to figure out if you have some actual writing skills deficits and work on them until you have acquired those missing skills. That might mean spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, word choice and idiom, etc. Accurately identifying skills deficits and being committed to remediating them is an essential part of becoming a writer.

What do others think? What elements of a good writing strategy have I left out here? I'm so much "inside" this in my own classes that I am probably leaving out something hugely important. But even with this short list of elements which I consider really essential, I think it shows just why I am not especially satisfied with the writing dimension of the Coursera course, and what enormous work remains to make writing work in a MOOC like this one... and in any college course with writing assignments!

Is it worth all that work to get it right? ABSOLUTELY.


  1. My first love is fiction. I write to entertain myself, and I work in several collaborative universes with friends. Also, I do it to appease the voices that live in my head. While there are vague hopes at *maybe* publishing something one day, we mostly write for ourselves.

    Every time I go back and reread an old piece of work, I find errors to correct. I find things that need to be fixed and revised. I make edits accordingly. I have an ongoing series written with a dear friend that's been completely rewritten from the ground up at least five times now. We stopped counting when we passed a million words. And you know what? I love it. It gives me an outlet to exercise my creativity. I don't mind the edits and revisions. It's just an excuse to dive back in and create something even *better* this time.

  2. I know just what you mean, Zannah! Someday I want to try writing fiction (truth be told: I want to write a Star Trek novel! or a Doctor Who novel!)... but even for non-fiction projects, like the things I write, the whole process of creating, revising, GROWING the project is such a pleasure. For me, it happens in the back-and-forth between blog and book. I have lots of projects I explore in blogs, and then if a blog grows and grows, I make it into a book.. and then I go back to the blog and rework all the blog content, so that it becomes kind of like the third version of the project... and meanwhile another book is growing. So much fun! It's that sense of fun and discovery that makes writing such a great thing - but so many students live in fear of the dreaded "red pen" for example! Argh!

  3. That 'remedial writing' is necessary in any writing class. You've done your work, got comments, and now you just have to implement the advices and rewrite your work.
    I agree that edits and revisions aren't so friendly sometimes. There is a story I never able to finis because I always stop halfway to rewrite it from scratch. Abandoning your works sometimes helps; I look back at them after I forget what I wrote, then I can find errors I missed initially.

    As for persistent writing, I'm guilty for throwing some works I consider 'mediocre' or 'not good enough' several times...

  4. Hi Lisa, I guess I did not explain myself clearly - I am not talking about the writing people do for themselves (someone motivated enough to write for themselves is in great shape, because they are setting their own agenda - that's the goal exactly!); I am talking about course design here. I think it's wrong to build a course which anticipates that everything the students write will be thrown into the trash can. That tells the students that the only purpose of their writing is to get the grade, which I think is a big part of why people have such a negative attitude about writing for school.

  5. I'm writing this on my ipad, so please grin and bear it through the typos. Blogger and the ipad browser don't always play nice.

    It's been over 20 years since I've been in a classroom where writing is supposed to be taught, but if memory serves me right it was never truly taught. Somehow it was a skill we were either supposed to develop by osmosis or it was supposed to have been taught by someone else. I don't believe anyone ever taught writing so to speak in my college years. Studying an inflected language taught me much about grammar, but that was more a desirable side effect. Certainly in middle school and high school, we were subjected to the rules on no I, no contractions, no one sentence paragraphs and the like, and my personal favorite of failure for a run on sentence. (Great wayntomencourage short, choppy sentences.) I can recall two activities of some use and help during many years of formal schooling: rewriting the simple story of The Ant and the Grasshopper in different voices and one or two sessions of group editing. The writing of fiction was actively discourage, and when I chose later in life to write fiction for pleasure I had to visit the Owl for help with the most basic grammar.

    I do feel that actually reading may provide the greatest benefit as far as writing skills. Here writing is modeled, and the attentive student can find examples of formal, informal, scientific, academic, or whatever writing.

  6. Brave lady to compose on the iPad - I can't do it, although my husband writes long and detailed emails on his iPhone for crying out loud. How do people do that? I need my keyboard! :-)

    Anyway, you made my day with the Ant and the Grasshopper: rewriting Aesop's fables is the very first assignment that happens in my class to get students into a creative writing mode! I really do believe that writing can be taught, but you have to get people's creative juices engaged to make that happen... just speaking for myself as both a student and a teacher, telling a story is far more likely to get those juices engaged than writing an analytical essay.

  7. Ah, that made sense:)
    I do hope people have their essay in their own machines so they at least have copies of their essays. That way, even if the online ones are to be deleted, we still have them safe in our portfolios.

    I envy you. Here in my country they stopped integrating 'writing' from the curricula since I started junior high. As the result, we're taught grammar, rules, styles, but with NO outlet to show our understanding. It's sort of crazy. That's worse than writing just for grades.

    1. Lisa, we have the same problem here with writing in schools: everything has to be graded by standardized, multiple-choice tests. As a result, people graduate high school and even graduate college with poor writing skills - despite the fact that they are doing just what they are expected to do for all those years of school. It's a huge problem - I see Coursera as a great opportunity to help with that, but I think they need to be better prepared for the fact that students, a lot of them, really do need help with their writing.

    2. Don't you think it's ironic that they taught us how to calculate the amount of molecules needed to start chemical reaction, derivatives of functions, or even seconds elapsed from one collision to another over the years but they never check our ability in the basic of all communication skills? I love science, but hey, bad writing will get you (almost) nowhere. Some companies will outright reject you once they stumble upon stupid drammar errors in your application.

    3. Exactly, Lisa! That's why I feel good about emphasizing writing in my classes, even though many of my students come from the engineering school, or are science majors, etc. Writing skills and online communication skills are important for everybody!

  8. I like the idea of a portfolio! I am also taking the ScFi course at Coursera, and I feel that it lacks this feeling of a work well done ;) After I get some feedback I would like to revise and correct my essay, and then I'd like to have them all in one place to see how I have improved (if I have ;))

    1. Exactly, Arenel - getting feedback from multiple people is a valuable experience for any writer, and not very common. I think we should exploit that for all the value we can get out of it! :-)

  9. Hello,
    I'm late to this and also frustrated with how writing has not been taught at my uni in Australia even though I was told I would be taught to write essays it does appear that that is meant to be by some strange secret osmosis process!
    I was wondering if you had any suggestions/exercices for learning to improve sentence structure? We don't learn sentence diagramming over here, though I am trying to teach myself, it is daunting!
    I'm just following along with the Fantasy course as I'm overloaded with my current uni session but your essays have great clarity.

    1. Hi Amber, I'm not sure why this commment took so long to show up! My apologies for not having replied - for sentence structure, a really good technique is just to look at authors that you really like, any kind of writing, and try to analyze what the writer is doing, the very specific things they are doing, and figure out why you like it. If you can find some techniques in other people's writing that you like, you can then imitate that... kind of like learning how to dance by watching very carefully how others dance! :-)



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