Discipline-specific writing TAs: Examples from Art & Design and Urban & Regional Planning

by Andrea R. Olinger

“What is visual analysis?” “What kind of point should I be trying to prove in an art history paper?” “What’s the best way to structure a paper that compares two works of art?”

These are the kinds of questions that students taking introductory Art and Design courses have asked Laura Shea, a PhD student in Art and Design and this past year’s “Writing TA.”

UIUC undergraduate and graduate students have always able to make appointments at the Writers Workshop. But recently, two units in the College of Fine and Applied Arts—Art and Design and Urban and Regional Planning—have found new ways to help their undergraduate students learn discipline-specific writing. These units have funded Teaching Assistants to consult with and develop programs for students across a set of courses (Art and Design) or an entire department (Urban and Regional Planning).

Art and Design: Writing TA

For Art and Design, the Writing TA position was created to support the growing number of international undergraduate students who speak English as an additional language (EAL). According to Alan Mette, Executive Associate Director of the School for Art and Design, 15-20% of undergraduate students are international EAL students, a number that has increased in the department over the past five years but has been rising across campus since 2005.*

In 2013-14, Laura worked with students in introductory Art and Design courses like Art History 112 and Art Foundations 105. She would meet students in the Ricker Library of Architecture and Art, which had the added benefit of introducing students to the library who had not yet visited it. Students typically brought in assignments such as comparison papers, visual analyses, research papers, and artist statements. Most students who came, Laura reported, asked questions specific to writing in the discipline: “How do you cite in an art history paper? What kind of point should I be trying to prove?” Other popular questions, she noted, ranged “anywhere from how to make an outline, to how to write a thesis statement, to the kind of language needed to sound formal and professional enough for the assignment.”

In addition to consulting with individual students, Laura collaborated with TAs in the introductory courses, visiting their sections so they could split up and give groups individualized feedback. According to Alan, the School of Art and Design would like to make this a permanent TA position and is currently searching for a Writing TA for 2014-2015.

Urban and Regional Planning: Planners’ Writing Exchange

A few blocks away, the Department of Urban and Regional Planning operates the “Planners’ Writing Exchange” (PWE). Since 2011, the department has funded a graduate student TA to hold individual consultations with undergraduate and graduate students, lead lunchtime workshops, and maintain the PWE website. In 2013-14 the PWE was staffed by Natalie Prochaska, a graduate student in Urban Planning. Natalie said that students brought in a wide variety of texts, including policy memos, literature reviews, white papers, graduate school application essays, and graphically embedded text made in Adobe Illustrator. Inspired by the Writing Across the Curriculum seminar for TAs that she attended in January 2014, Natalie said that she has stressed “identifying and following an individual writing process.” She explained, “When you talk about the writing process as unique to each individual, and then offer some advice for optimization at different stages within that process, students seem more open to that advice and those tools.”

Natalie’s workshops, around three per semester, ranged from topics like the genre of policy memos to issues of grammar. The majority of students who used the PWE’s services this past year were undergraduates, and Natalie estimated that about 60% were EAL students. The students, she remarked, have been “overwhelmingly positive” about the PWE, and they regularly observed how valuable it was to get feedback from someone in their department—an opportunity the Writers Workshop can’t always offer.

Departmental writing TAs can have an even bigger impact when they have access to in-service training on the teaching and learning of disciplinary writing. Both Laura and Natalie, for instance, participated in Center for Writing Studies’ Writing Across the Curriculum seminars for TAs, and the Center also offered a specialized workshop on supporting EAL writers just for Art and Design TAs. (Click here for some resources from that workshop.)

If you’re thinking about using discipline-specific Writing TAs, try to build in opportunities for them to collaborate with other instructors in the department and to provide feedback to the department, especially to the faculty and committees that shape the curriculum. Because of their location, departmental writing TAs collect lots of information about successful and unsuccessful prompts, the range of writing tasks assigned in courses, and variations in instructor expectations. They can, as a result, be invaluable resources for departments wishing to improve how writing is taught, whether in a single course or across a sequence of courses.

We’re always eager to hear about innovations that instructors and academic units are making to better support students’ writing, so please let us know what you’re doing. We may feature you in the fall!

*As of fall 2013, 15.5% of undergraduate students were classified as “international”; you can view UIUC demographic information here. Since 2006, the Institute for International Education has identified UIUC as enrolling the greatest number of international students of all U.S. public universities.

Making arguments with equations, figures, and images: Writing in STEM

by Alexandra Cavallaro and Andrea Olinger

“Do problem sets count as writing?”

This was the question we asked Michael Loui, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). His answer: a resounding yes. “It is actually a form of writing,” he said, “with diagrams and equations and all of that.”

Although students in his ECE classes might not be writing whole paragraphs in response to their homework problems, each solution needs to set up a chain of reasoning, to weave together words, symbols, and diagrams to make an argument. The kind of writing we see in problem sets shows up in the many different kinds of writing engineers do, such as technical specifications and documentation. Critically, this kind of writing also gives students opportunities to make their thinking and learning visible—something not possible from automatically graded multiple-choice homework.

One of Michael’s favorite problems, which he created for an introductory engineering exam, asks students to determine the efficiency of the Toyota Prius’s braking system (see part c in the image below). Students have to explain their reasoning—in words and mathematical formulas—because it will reveal whether they understand the problem. It turns out that if students make one mistake on this problem, they’ll get the wrong answer, but if they make two independent mistakes, applying two basic equations without checking the assumptions, they could get the right answer—“not a good thing in the real world,” Michael said. “So that’s why we want them to explain their reasoning.” (For those who are curious, the conceptual mistakes are described at the end of this post.)

An excerpt from Michael Loui’s Toyota Prius problem, where two mistakes might actually generate the right answer.

Writing like an electrical engineer—or a mathematician, or a microbiologist—means seeing equations, diagrams, and models not as auxiliary elements but as key components of the argument. In a co-authored article for PNAS, for example, Associate Professor of Microbiology Cari Vanderpool pointed out that the first figure, a cartoon model, illustrates a hypothesis that ends up being disproven:

In an interview, Cari noted that she had initially worried that this image might give the hypothesis too much emphasis, but she ultimately decided to include it “because people would be set up with some of the basics about how the genes were organized.”

The cartoon depicting Cari and her coauthors’ disproven hypothesis

“Students don’t always realize you need things like this,” Cari said, “but when you’re reading a paper, if you don’t have this, saying all this in words becomes way too cumbersome, and it’s too hard to follow the relevant parts of the tools that are being used. You need some kind of relevant illustration…to easily understand what’s being done in the experiment.” She said that when she reads articles and has to keep track of different conditions, she ends up taking notes and drawing cartoons herself. “So when I write,” she said, “I try to make that easier for the reader and just provide them with that visual cue to different constructs so they don’t have to do their own little cartoons.”

For those of you who teach STEM courses, do your students have opportunities to compose with visuals or argue with equations? Many STEM students, Michael said, see writing as “what their English teachers teach them.” When the practices we have described are seen as forms of composing, persuading, and arguing, how does that change how you teach and how your students approach their work? Let us know in the comments.

A Few Resources on Writing in STEM

*In an email, Michael explained that students can make two conceptual mistakes on part (c) and wind up with the correct answer as follows:

1. Average power equals Vrms times Irms. (rms denotes “root mean square”)
2. The rms value equals the peak (maximum) value divided by the square root of 2.
3. So Pavg = (290/sqrt(2)) x (30/sqrt(2)) = 4350.

Statement #1 is true only in special circumstances, such as when the current is proportional to the voltage. In this problem, the current decreases from 0 to 4 sec, and the voltage is constant. Statement #2 is true only for alternating current, but the electrical system in the problem uses direct current. In other words, students can apply two basic equations without checking the assumptions and produce the correct answer.

Making connections via mental puttering: Lessons from teaching with blogs

WAC@Illinois is pleased to publish this guest post by Lanny Arvan, a former Associate Dean for eLearning in the College of Business and an Associate Professor of Economics.  Lanny is now retired, though he continues to teach and write. He blogs at Lanny on Learning Technology.

Dr. Lanny Arvan

Dr. Lanny Arvan

by Lanny Arvan

When I teach now I have students craft weekly blog posts.  I have done so since I first tried it in fall 2009.  This is writing done in the spirit of slow blogging, informal reflections delivered online and aimed to help the students make personal connections to whatever the topic of study happens to be.  The subject of my post is the making of those connections.  I will discuss the issues in the context of the Economics of Organizations, an upper-level undergraduate course I’ve taught three times, most recently this past fall.

The students make posts according to a prompt I provide, or write on a topic of their own choosing as long as that topic relates to what the class is studying.  While some of the students have prior experience blogging, next to none have such experience in a course setting.  At first they are uncomfortable with blogging for my course, and some students are mildly resistant to it.  It takes three or four posts for most students to find their rhythm.

The economics in my course has aspects students find novel.  Most other economic courses study markets, where goods and services are allocated according to prices.  Students are quite familiar with that approach to analysis from their prior study of economics.  But within an organization, many goods and services are allocated by other means; prices are often absent.  Using the university as an example, the course registration process is a non-price allocation mechanism by which students get assigned to courses.  Students have relevant prior experience in considering such mechanisms.  For example, last fall many students reported there were waiting lists in high-enrollment offerings on campus, as well as in upper-level courses taken for some minors.   To the extent that this was essentially the same situation in prior semesters as well, the natural economic issue is to explain what seems like persistent excess demand, where in a market setting excess demand is at most a transient phenomenon.  More generally, the blog writing is a way to bring that relevant student experience out into the open and have the students better understand whatever the theoretical economic issues are by making those seem real and less abstract.

After the first several weeks, students become comfortable identifying experiences they’ve had that fit the prompt, which has elements of the theoretical issue at hand.  Let me call this matching of personal experience to theory the making of a direct connection, to foreshadow the idea of making possible indirect connections, which I will discuss below.  Students become reasonably proficient at making direct connections, but the vast majority doesn’t even attempt to make indirect connections.  I am trying to decipher why.

Students get two types of feedback on their posts. One type is comments from me and from their classmates.  I have learned over time to react to what the students say rather than to try to steer them toward some pre-specified conclusion I have in mind as dictated by the subject matter.  My goal with the comments is to encourage more depth or breadth in thinking by suggesting possible indirect connections that might follow from what students have already said.  Many students indicated appreciation for these comments, as it helped them to see implications of their own thinking that they hadn’t already considered.

It is also true that I would sometimes not understand what students were driving at in their posts.  Then I would indicate my confusion in my comments.  Most of my students implicitly assume that because something makes sense to them it will automatically make sense to me as a reader, although I am ignorant of the circumstances they describe.  So by reading the comments and responding to them, the student might very well learn the need to provide sufficient context in making an argument, an important byproduct from this approach with blogging.

The other sort of feedback comes from our ensemble class sessions, where discussion of the subject matter follows the blog posts and comments, and where I make a point of bringing specific ideas brought up by students in their posts into the class discussion, having their specifics match the more general points to be made.  In this way the students can see how their contributions matter to the class as a whole and how their views become a piece of the larger picture.

If we conceive of this as a looping process, where the blog posts, comments, and class discussion from last week feed into this week’s topic and set of activities, then in a virtuous cycle students would show evidence of growth in their blogging over time.  Their posts would become more complex, with a greater number of connections to relevant ideas, some of those indirect connections.  In other words, in addition to tying the theory to their experience, students would also connect to earlier topics via their own prior posts or the prior posts of their classmates, to readings or experiences from outside the class setting but that are nonetheless relevant, or they would push in greater depth on the topic at hand.

Whereas the making of direct connections may be more or less immediate, the making of indirect connections takes time, particularly in a subject area where the writer is more novice than expert.  Elsewhere I’ve called this process mental puttering.

I find I do this a lot while writing my own blog posts.  There is some spark of intuition for how to proceed at first.  That works for a while.  Then, if luck is on my side, something else is discovered that was not evident at first and that changes the direction to follow.  However, if I’m unlucky, I might get stuck before reaching a good conclusion and then have to devote substantial effort to find a way to get unstuck.  This process iterates until a full-enough picture emerges where I feel comfortable in writing my post.  I don’t want to give the impression that the mental puttering happens only in the pre-writing.  It occurs while composing and editing, too.

I have the habit for mental puttering and enjoy it–well, not the getting stuck part. I am bothered by being stuck. Whatever bothers me then becomes my entire focus. But most students don’t have the habit.  Many only start to compose their posts near the deadline.  This precludes the possibility of mental puttering.  Yet even students who get their posts done in a timely manner don’t seem to embrace mental puttering as we get further into the semester.

Here are a couple of guesses as to why.  The first is a chicken and egg problem.  Having little to no prior experience that mental puttering can be productive, there is scant reason to engage in it.  The second results via conditioning from other coursework about doing assignments well.  The prompt is taken as a complete tasking rather than merely as the launch point for a fuller investigation.

It seems to me that getting students to engage in mental puttering should be what we’re about.  How do we get that done?

(How) do you talk about writing with students?

by Andrea R. Olinger and Alexandra Cavallaro

How often do you talk to your students about your own writing processes, writing habits, and the different kinds of writing you do?

It may seem obvious, but talking about your own work as a writer—and about how particular types of writing they’re producing may be similar to what you read and write—can help students better understand the value and workings of writing in your field and, perhaps, develop more complex processes of their own.

A number of U.S. university writing programs have interviewed faculty members about these sorts of topics and posted their videos online. Some interviews cover what (usually undergraduate) students should know about writing in a particular major; others explore the different processes, practices, and audiences of a particular professor. We’ve described a few of them below and also listed videos by discipline.

You could play one of these videos for your students or use them as jumping off points for your own conversations. Consider the following questions to get you started:

  • What are your writing processes for different tasks? (When and where do you work? How do you block out time? What kinds of responses do you seek out as you write? How many drafts do you typically write? How do you revise? When and how do you edit?)
  • How do you work with others? (Do you collaborate with different people at different stages? What roles do different people play? What sorts of challenges have you encountered?)
  • How do you adjust your writing for different audiences and genres (e.g., for different granting agencies, different journals, or different kinds of talks)?
  • How do you use sources? (How do you organize your research and references? What system do you use to keep track of quotes and paraphrases in your notes? How do you make sure your own voice comes through amid all the sources in your writing? When and why do you use quotes vs. paraphrases?)

A Few Noteworthy Video Series
The University of California, Davis’s Scientists Discuss Writing features interviews with six scientists in fields ranging from food science to physics. The scientists discuss topics like how they write research articles, grants, and pieces for wider audiences. A few pieces of each person’s writing are also available.

  • Don’t miss: In the Grant Writing section, physiologist Helen Raybould states that she enjoys grant writing because it makes her think about what she’d like to find out five or ten years down the line. To help graduate students figure this out, she asks her magic wand question: “if you were granted three wishes, what are the three questions that, if you knew the answer to, would really change the way you thought about this system?”

Iowa State University’s Professional Connection interviews thirteen engineering professionals about how they communicate at work. The (approximately) five-minute videos cover topics from interviews to email to teamwork.

  • Don’t miss: In The Resume: Part 2, Emily Kinser, Competitive Analysis Engineer for IBM, describes the importance of incorporating job ad language into a resume so that the resume will be retrieved in hiring managers’ keyword searches.

The University of Richmond’s Writing in the Disciplines site incorporates interviews with professors in a variety of fields (from accounting to film studies to psychology) into webpages for undergraduates in different disciplines. (These webpages often include descriptions of common genres, advice from professors, and examples of student work with instructors’ comments).

  • Don’t miss: English literature professor Elizabeth Outka suggests ways to develop a research paper: start with close reading before moving to secondary materials. “If you start with all the critics,” she says, “sometimes…you can feel like there is no room for your particular voice.”

Stanford University’s Writing Matters: Faculty Edition features short interviews with ten STEM faculty members reflecting on the importance of writing in their fields. They describe the role writing plays in the production of scientific knowledge, while also critically reflecting on the importance of revision, writing for different audiences, and the role of narrative in crafting and communicating scientific arguments.

  • Don’t miss: In 2010, Stanford also produced a series called “How I Write” that contains detailed interviews with writers in a variety of fields (from English, Drama, and History to Materials Science, Human Biology, and Behavioral Science) reflecting on “the nuts and bolts, pleasures and pains, of all types of writing.” The writers offer in-depth reflections on their writing processes. Although most of the videos are no longer working, the transcripts offer a rich record of the discussions.

Videos by Discipline



“Controlling our own destiny”: Making team projects work in Computer Engineering I

by Andrea R. Olinger

What do you get when you take 235 sophomore computer engineers, remove two of their exams from the curriculum, and replace them with a pair of collaborative projects? The usual gripes from students about unfair labor distribution and, for some students, limited learning? Or raves about enriching teamwork experience and deeper understanding?

For the past two years, researchers at Illinois have explored this question, seeking to increase students’ intrinsic motivation in required engineering courses without creating more work for instructors. (See the project website here.) Geoffrey Herman, the project lead, explained that education reform efforts typically focus on students’ “cognitive outcomes”:  “Did they learn X amount more? Do they not have these misconceptions? Did they learn X skill?” But, he declared, “motivation plays a huge role in cognition. If you simply motivate students more, they’re going to learn more.”

Geoffrey’s research team has spent considerable time reworking engineering courses around self-determination theory, which asserts that motivation arises from a person’s needs for purpose, autonomy, relatedness, and competence. For Computer Engineering I (ECE 290), in which students learn how to build computer hardware, groups of four or five students work on circuit design problems that they invent themselves.

In addition to providing students with teamwork experience they don’t get in earlier engineering courses, the instructors hope to offer “more choice and more autonomy in a required course in which typically students have no choice,” explained Michael Loui, who is co-teaching the course with John Stratton. “Why,” Michael asked, “should we be delaying the good stuff” until students’ junior and senior years?

Instructor John Stratton, far left, consulting with four of five members of Team “Five-Sided Die.”

Instructor John Stratton, far left, consulting with four of five members of Team “Five-Sided Die.”

Geoffrey, Michael, John, and the research team have a number of tricks for making the projects successful:

  • Instructor-assigned groups of mixed ability levels. Students are assigned to groups partly based on their ability levels, ensuring there is a range in each group. (They use the CATME team-maker tool to do so.) Because of this assignment, Michael estimated that “the quality of the projects should be roughly similar, so any variance in grades will be due to the individual component, which is as it should be.”
  • Individual accountability. Students’ grades comprise not just scores on the team portfolio and final project report but also peer ratings and an individual score—involving individual contributions to team deliverables and self-evaluations and reflections.
  • Ongoing feedback. Teams decide on their tasks and timeline but have mandatory weekly consultation sessions with an instructor or TA, who provides feedback along the way. Although students attend two lectures and one discussion section in addition to this consultation, the sessions have another purpose: students who wish to earn points can present their answers to one of the week’s homework problems—and get instant feedback from the instructor or TA. The consultation sessions, as a result, are more integral to students’ success in the course, not simply another thing to do.
  • Training in project management and collaboration. Students receive guidance in project management and teamwork. As the “Learning Team Guidelines” on the course website explain, groups must select a project manager, develop a team charter and revise it after the first project, and maintain a task schedule. (They are also encouraged to choose a team name that reflects their common interests or expresses a collective personality.) The guidelines also address effective meetings and collaborative writing, drawing partly on Joanna Wolfe’s book Team Writing in suggesting a “layered” approach over a “divide and conquer” one.
  • Learning linked to individuals’ goals. Students are asked to reflect on their personal goals for the course and connect them to the projects. A written reflection assigned at the start of the course, for instance, asks students to describe the professional skills they hope to acquire by working in a team, the computer engineering topics outside of ECE 290 that they hope to learn, how these skills and topics relate to their career goals, and what experiences and skills they can contribute to their team. Two further reflections, one after each project, ask students to review their initial reflection (and self- and peer-evaluations) and think about what new skills they developed and topics they learned. Also, when groups divvy up tasks, they are encouraged to do so based on who is most motivated to learn a particular skill, not who has the greatest knowledge of it. (The latter person can be a mentor.)

At their second consultation with instructor John Stratton, team “Five-Sided Die” was both nervous and excited for what lay ahead. Most hadn’t worked in teams quite like this before. Junior Tae Yeon Kwon explained that he felt more motivated by this kind of structure because “you’re not working alone. Other people are going to count on you.” Trevor Freberg, also a junior and the group’s project manager, declared that with projects, “we kind of control our own destiny.” As opposed to when you cram for an exam, “we know what we’re going to get, we know what we have to do.”

If history is any indication, team “Five-Sided Die” will emerge successful—and not just extrinsically so. In previous semesters of this reengineered curriculum, Geoffrey reported that students felt excited to be part of a “supportive network of people” who cared about their learning and from whom they could draw inspiration and energy. And many “went from wanting to get the easy A to taking on some pretty ambitious projects and trying to do some things to really challenge themselves.”

In two months, what will team “Five-Sided Die” have created and become? We’ll check back with them and the instructors at the end of the semester.

(Left to right) Instructor John Stratton, junior Trevor Freberg, and junior Wei-You Chen.

(Left to right) Instructor John Stratton, junior Trevor Freberg, and junior Wei-You Chen.

Do you “ding” students for errors?

by Andrea R. Olinger

If you ding, don’t, or are still debating your policy, check out Anne Curzan’s recent column for The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Lingua Franca blog. A linguist at the University of Michigan, Curzan notes that a significant number of her students report having points deducted for grammatical errors, and she talks about why this policy, while well intentioned, is problematic.

First, there’s little agreement over what constitutes an error (e.g., hopefully instead of it is hoped that? use of third person plural pronouns when the referent is traditionally seen as singular, as in Everyone is entitled to their own opinion?).

Second, she argues, “much of what gets called ‘grammatical error’ is not error, linguistically speaking, and it’s not always about grammar per se.” Falling into this category are the use of other dialects of English, “stylistic infelicities” like lack of parallel structure, and evidence of language change (e.g., on accident is replacing by accident among younger speakers).

At the end, Curzan describes how she does address language and punctuation in students’ writing. She doesn’t ignore them; in fact, she declares that “[i]t is my job to notice them and alert students to their presence, as they hone their mastery of standard edited English.” But she doesn’t “ding.” Her strategies include circling or underlining, not crossing out; making notes in the margin about other language choices the student could make at that particular point; requiring students’ to revise or respond to written comments about the language; and grading for content instead of language.

Curzan’s arguments gel with what we discuss in our WAC workshop on Working with ESL Student Writers (see, for instance, our handout on Working with Error). As Curzan implies, these strategies can be used with all students, not just ESL writers.

What are your thoughts on Curzan’s position? Have you yourself been, er, dinged by an instructor when you were a student? Let us know in the comments.

Fall course tune-up: Advice for instructors from “Writing for Children”

by Andrea R. Olinger

It’s midway through summer, and many of you are probably thinking about how to retool the courses you’ll be teaching in the fall. For this post, I spoke to Janice Harrington, a poet, children’s book author, and professor of creative writing, about how she’s revamping Creative Writing 202, “Writing for Children,” for when she teaches it this fall for the third time. The changes she’s made to her readings and writing activities—and the thinking that inspired those changes—are an excellent illustration of WAC approaches and of how teaching, like writing, can benefit from ongoing revision.

“Writing for Children” asks students to read essays on the craft of fiction, analyze short stories by published children’s writers, produce formal critiques of other students’ writing, and write and revise two stories—one short, one long—for children. Janice found, however, that students tended to write about teenagers instead of about the course’s target audience, 8-to-12-year-old children.

Writing for children is a “large continent,” Janice said, but since her students “are more familiar with the behaviors and lives of teenagers,” they tended to gravitate to teenage characters. The challenge, for Janice, was how to get her students to remember what it’s like to be an 8-12-year-old kid and to craft richly developed characters who are that age. (She joked that she couldn’t just send them to the library to research child development.) Here is her new approach:

  • Different model texts: While Janice really liked the stories in the old reader, which featured teens, it was difficult for students to “abstract” principles of good writing to stories with younger characters. To connect the reading even more directly to the students’ would-be audience, she’s compiled a new reader with stories featuring characters who are 8-12 years old.
  • Textbook adjustments: Last semester, Janice introduced students to characterization, dialogue, plot, and point of view through a general handbook on fiction writing. For this coming semester, she will use Mary Kole’s Writing Irresistible Kidlit, which addresses writing for the middle grade reader, and she’ll supplement it with a few chapters from the general handbook. With these changes, students will have access to a “broader range of information” about writing for children and fiction writing in general.
  • Additional pre-writing activities: As a pre-writing assignment for the long story, Janice had students write a character study of one of their protagonists. She’s keeping this assignment in the fall, but adding a twist: first, students will produce a description of themselves when they were in fifth grade and then undertake the character study. This change seems like an ingenious way to help students see the world from a kid’s perspective.

Since Janice is trying to streamline her course as much as possible, she’s also debating whether to evaluate their stories primarily on one component, characterization (instead of characterization and plot and dialogue and…). It doesn’t matter if they can do those other things, she remarked, “until they can write a character that’s believable and credible.”

For those of you who are thinking about what to revise in your own courses, it might be useful to focus on an aspect of students’ written products that you’d most like to see improved—for instance, discussion sections or situating their argument in the introduction. Then, consider these questions:

  • Do you have models of the writing you’d like students to produce? If you do, are they good examples of the aspect you’re targeting?
  • Do you give students opportunities to discuss how this aspect functions in the model text? (For a bit more on models, see our WAC seminar handout Shaping Student Writing.)
  • Can you add low-stakes activities to help students practice this one aspect before they are graded on it?
  • Can you give students feedback (whether graded or ungraded) on how they execute this particular aspect? For a lab report, for example, the instructor could comment on the methods and materials section one week and on data tables the next. See our WAC seminar handout Response to Writing: Contexts and Strategies for some ideas.

We’d love to know how your course revisions are going—send us an email or post a comment below.

Do we know what we mean when we call it plagiarism?

by Andrea R. Olinger

Poor notetaking. Trouble paraphrasing. The misconception that if you paraphrase, you don’t have to cite your source. These practices, sometimes called unintentional plagiarism, have long been afflicting students and instructors. Novice students, surely, fall easily into this trap, but no expert writer worth his or her salt should be unintentionally plagiarizing. Right?

The evidence from research over the last decade or so, however, is not so orthodox. It’s hard to know if you’re accidentally plagiarizing, after all, if the experts disagree on what it looks like. Building on the findings of Miguel Roig (2001), Wendy Sutherland-Smith (2005) and others, applied linguists Diane Pecorari and Philip Shaw (2012) showed that the faculty members they interviewed “had diverse and conflicting views on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate intertextuality [a term that refers to the use of language and ideas from other texts]; and that they…were different in terms of the sorts of factors which they weighed up in coming to their judgments” (p. 152).

One example they discussed in their article is the following sentence, taken from the master’s thesis of a biology student whose second language is English:

  • Reed (1999) reported that 50% of the mint cultures in National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) under slow growth conditions were lost due to the fungal or bacterial contamination.

Now, compare it with the relevant excerpt from Reed (1999). Language that appears in the student’s paraphrase is in bold:

  • Some clonal crops are kept in slow-growth storage as in vitro cultures for germplasm conservation (Ashmore, 1997; Engelmann, 1991; Withers, 1991; Withers et al., 1990). Previously, mint cultures held at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) were stored at 4 °C in darkness in 13 mm x 100 mm glass tubes on MS (Murashige and Skoog, 1962) medium. Under these storage conditions, 50% of the cultures were lost to fungal or bacterial contamination (Reed, unpublished data).

This pair of extracts was one of several that Pecorari and Shaw showed to eight university faculty in the natural sciences, engineering, and medicine. Pecorari and Shaw asked them whether the example was appropriate and if it would be considered plagiarism. Comparing the student’s text with the source text, you can see the student repeated a few nouns (mint cultures, the NCGR) and adjectives (slow-growth) that are key to the technical material—a practice that most readers would find acceptable. Also, an in-text citation (Reed, 1999) is present, although the student does not indicate that the Reed 1999 piece cites unpublished data. So far, so good. But what about the last sentence? It’s lifted essentially word for word.

Six faculty members said that this source use was acceptable and not considered plagiarism—one argued that it was acceptable because “only very short extracts of sentences and not full sentences” were identical (p. 154). The seventh said that it was not acceptable but that she wouldn’t count it as plagiarism (although how she reconciled these two the article does not make clear). The eighth was on the fence about whether it was acceptable (but didn’t think it was plagiarism) (Pecorari & Shaw, 2012, p. 153). This kind of word-for-word borrowing, without quotation marks, of longer stretches of language (especially beyond 4-5 words) is what most composition handbooks and our own academic integrity regulations would consider textbook plagiarism.

The issue, it seems, is one of quantity: how long can a borrowed string of language be before it’s considered inappropriate? Faculty members raised a variety of reasons for what Pecorari and Shaw call “legitimate intertextuality.” Some content is in the public domain, as are some strings of language. Sometimes, content can only be expressed in a few ways. And some repetition may be acceptable in, for example, a methods section. However, the faculty members did not agree on “the boundaries of the information [that does not need a reference] or on the length or type of strings that fall into this category” (p. 155).

What we’re left with, then, is a mess. And this is just one small, relatively inconsequential example of disagreement. Given the damage that plagiarism accusations can cause, I’d second Pecorari’s (2012) view that this “lack of consensus” is “dangerous” (p. 3). And although I’d argue that finding consensus in these fuzzy areas is, frankly, hopeless, we can strive to be as transparent as possible with students about our own beliefs and practices, including in those gray areas. To this end, we should share with our students accurate and well-grounded answers to these two questions: How do we deal with common knowledge and common language in our own work? And how do we read theirs?

Scholarship Cited
Pecorari, D. (2012, June). Textual plagiarism: How should it be regarded? ORI Newsletter, 20(3), 3, 10. Retrieved from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity, http://ori.hhs.gov/images/ddblock/june_vol20_no3.pdf

Pecorari, D., & Shaw, P. (2012). Types of intertextuality and faculty attitudes. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21(2), 149-164.

Roig, M. (2001). Plagiarism and paraphrasing criteria of college and university professors. Ethics and Behavior, 11, 307–323.

Sutherland-Smith, W. (2005). Pandora’s box: Academic perceptions of student plagiarism in writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4, 83–95.

Other Resource Cited
Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices

Who are our ESL writers?

by Andrea R. Olinger and Yu-Kyung Kang

English as a Second Language (ESL) students, both resident and international, have always been present on our campus. However, the past five years have seen a steep increase in our international student population, rising to 19% of the student body in 2011-12. (UIUC is, as a result, the U.S. public university with the largest number of international students.) This change in classroom demographics has gotten many folks interested in learning more about these students, whose writing may look different from that of “native speakers.” In this blog entry, we wanted to talk a little about who ESL students are and how you can support them in class. (See also our annotated resource list for instructors working with ESL writers in their classes.)

Like all labels (e.g., multilingual, non-native speaker, English language learner), the term ESL contains certain assumptions about students. We employ it here because it’s widely used to describe students of diverse linguistic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. At the same time, it identifies English as a student’s second language (instead of, say, a third), it can carry a stigma, and it tends to blot out the complexity of a student’s language and literacy experiences.

Wan Shun Eva Lam, for instance, illustrated the depth and breadth of an “ESL” student’s competence in several language varieties when she followed Kaiyee, a high school junior who migrated from China to the U.S. when she was 15. In communicating online with family and friends in different countries, Kaiyee marshaled, to varying extents, “standard American English, hip-hop English, the Shanghainese dialect that she used in her family, Cantonese and Mandarin that predominated in her immigrant community, and both Mandarin and Shanghainese that connected her to people and events in China, particularly her hometown Shanghai” (p. 393).

Every ESL student has experiences like Kaiyee’s. If part of your first-day-of-class routine involves asking students to submit answers to a few questions about themselves, you could add a few like these to help you get a better sense of the backgrounds of all your students. (And if you have a chance to meet one-on-one and talk, even better.)

In fact, like your ESL students, we all command a unique blend of partial, ever-changing language varieties—dialects, registers, genres, styles. Linguistic anthropologist Jan Blommaert prefers to view everyone’s language competence as “truncated repertoires” because, he states, “We never know ‘all’ of a language, we always know specific bits and pieces of it. This counts for our ‘mother tongue’ as well as for the languages we pick up in the course of a lifetime, and this is perfectly normal” (p. 23).

Think about all the different repertoires you have little or great proficiency in (e.g., French conversation? computer programming languages? certain translations of the Bible?  journal articles in a certain field?). Just because you are fluent in “English,” for example, does not mean that you can easily write a literature review on a topic in abnormal psychology, say, or design and present a poster at an ecology conference without study, practice, feedback, and other kinds of support.

The idea that one can “master” writing, or English, in a single course or in a discrete period of time, is what Mike Rose has called the “myth of transience”: the idea that “if we can just do x or y, the problem will be solved” (p. 355).  And the idea that all of “writing,” or all of “English,” can be mastered is tricky, too. It is better to think of language and literacy acquisition as lifelong, “embedded in content and tied to specific contexts” (Zamel & Spack, 2006, p. 147). This goes for everyone—not just ESL students.

Writing-across-the-curriculum approaches aim to help all students develop the disciplinary “bits and pieces” of their repertoires and participate more deeply in general. “When students are given multiple, meaningful opportunities to write (not just to read) as a way to learn within their courses,” write Zamel and Spack, “they can engage actively with the material they are studying, make sense of their texts, generate ideas and interpretations, make connections, experiment with unfamiliar language and literacy practices, and construct new knowledge” (p. 138). For all writers, and especially for ESL writers, this rich blend of active learning and writing is the way to grow.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lam, W. S. E. (2009). Multiliteracies on Instant Messaging in negotiating local, translocal, and transnational affiliations: A case of an adolescent immigrant. Reading Research Quarterly, 44, 377-397.

Rose, M. (1985). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. College English, 47, 341-59.

Zamel, V., & Spack, R. (2006). Teaching multilingual learners across the curriculum: Beyond the ESOL classroom and back again. Journal of Basic Writing, 25, 126-152.

Introducing WAC@Illinois

Welcome to WAC@Illinois, a monthly blog series from the Center for Writing Studies, where we explore topics that may be of interest to anyone who works with students and their writing. We see this blog as a place to converse about the teaching and learning of writing across campus, discuss cutting-edge research on writing in the disciplines, and provide guidance and resources. Please send us your comments, questions, and suggestions for future posts.