Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Quiz, What do people do when they write? June 16, 2008

This is the fifty-fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This third of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my response to a quiz on an assigned reading on “What do people do when they write?” I can’t find the essay/handout that we were responding to, but I think that some of the thoughts that I put down regarding mechanics/surface vs. content/depth are interesting.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

16 June 2008

“What do people do when they write?” Quiz

1)  What can you say about the kinds of responses from students in the two groups?  Are the first group of responses for each grade level different than the second group–what are the differences or similarities for each group in each grade level?

The responses from students in the first group of each grade level are typically about thought, expression, and explanation, and the second group responses of each grade level are about practices and methodology.  Linking these responses back to the class, the first groups are aligned with function, and the second groups are aligned with form.

In the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade responses, the first group overwhelming uses the following key words and phrases:  think, open their minds, and share…thoughts.  Also, they write for a purpose such as to relax, avoid boredom, or to communicate with friends and relatives.  The second group’s responses focus on practical matters and the mechanics of writing.  For example, these students talk about holding the pencil, sitting down to write, making letters, moving the hand and pencil, and wasting ink and pencil lead.

Again, the responses of the first group of ninth graders are generally about expression.  They “tell about things,” “get stuff across,” and “express their thoughts.”  The responses from the second group are, like the second group of third to fifth graders, about the physicality of writing.  For example, they “just write stuff down,” “hold a pencil and move their hands,” and “put the point of the pencil to the paper and start making words and letters.”  There are exceptions in both groups that could be interpreted as belonging to the other group if the groups are divided based on function and form.

The college freshmen groups are also split along lines of function and form.  The first group is largely about conveying, explaining, translating thoughts into words, and revealing thoughts, ideas, and emotions.  The second group of college freshmen is more closely aligned to the first than the other two grade levels, because there are some responses about expression and communication.  However, the majority of the responses concern mechanics (e.g., “usage and grammar”) and writing methods (e.g., “First you pick your topic, then you make sure you have enough information.  Then you rewrite and check the spelling and copy it down” and “They express their overall views on a given topic and later draw conclusions in a patterned coherent fashion”).  Also, there’s a response that describes the act of writing.


2)  Do you see any similarities across grade levels for each of the groups?  Are there certain characteristics for either group one or two responses?  What are those characteristics?

In general, the responses of the first group of each grade level are about the function of writing–i.e., communication and the expression of ideas, and those of the second group of each grade level are about the form of writing–i.e., the act of writing and methods of writing.


3)  Considering your answers to the first two questions, what variable (consideration, category, quality) did the researchers use to separate the different groups of responses within each grade level?

Considering our readings of the past week, and the writing concept that “form follows function,” it seems that the responses are grouped based on writing ability.  The first group in each grade level has stronger writers, and the second group respondents are weaker writers.  The stronger writers understand the function of writing, because they’ve internalized that through their acquisition of writing.  The weaker writers respond by describing the literal action of writing or process of using the plug-and-chug method of writing an essay in high school.  They are thinking about the surface level of writing rather than what lies underneath as did the first group respondents.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Pedagogy, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.


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