F Words of Effective Academic Writing

Are there any tricks for getting straight As on written assignments in college/university in the US? I think there are. I share some below.

Of course, not all academic writing will demand these features (and indeed, they may sound more like they come from journalism than general academic writing), but these are expected commonly enough in academic writing that you can treat them as general guidelines for most courses and contexts in college and university. In most of my classes, where I teach general to specific and advanced academic writing skills, I encourage students to implement these strategies and features as well as they can. [Edit: I’ve added #1 to a previous list of 7]

1. Fleshing Out Your Ideas

Many students say they are “good writers” or “bad writers” on the basis of their ability to produce grammatically corrected and properly edited prose. As I discuss in another post (titled “Bad Writers are Welcome“), both groups often don’t realize that good writing cannot be defined outside of what the context and purpose are, and even who the writer and audience are, with particular instances of writing. So, for instance, a letter written by a fourth grader urging the US President to “make a playground near my school” will not be “effective” if you take out identifying information and tell the recipient that the letter was written by a school Principal! So, no, there is no good writing per se, and if you’ve considered yourself a “good writer” on the basis of your grammatical and editing skills, you may be in for a B or C (if not worse)–unless, first, you “flesh out” your idea for the assignment.

Fleshing out the idea–or clearly thinking through what you want to say, developing the outline, and generally understanding how you want to organize and connect your ideas–may involve extensive research (especially if you’re writing a research-based assignment). You may only need to read the assignment carefully and/or talk to the teacher in order to develop the idea off the top of your head (though this type of assignments are rare in college). To learn (more about) what you want to write, you may need to go out in the world, work in the lab, do general research online, and/or have to read and develop your ideas by reviewing available scholarship on the topic. You may be the type of writer who writes and rewrites outlines as you develop your idea, write a preliminary draft or drafts (which you may not save or use), or write about what you plan to write before you start writing. Whatever you approach you (have to) take, you must “flesh out” your idea.

Imagine that you have an apple orchard a few miles away from your house, and one weekend, you’ve invited your friend to go apple picking. You think about this idea before you take your friend to the orchard, right? You won’t simply find yourself and your friend in the orchard when you wake up one day! You will talk about it, probably have details about how you want to make the experience enjoyable for your friend–or at least you will develop that idea in your mind (if not in interaction with your guest) before you implement the idea.

2. Framing Your Paper (and your paragraphs)

Many students seem to have learned to write “creatively” in high school, so they try to convey their ideas in subtle, indirect, and complex ways. That style (which they may have picked up from reading works of fiction) is often engaging to read, but writing in college also demands that they follow conventions of different genres in different disciplines.  Continue reading

Pragmatics of Global Citizenship

Undergraduate Education and the “Pragmatics” of Global Citizenship—or, What I Look Forward to Learning at the Annual Meeting

Reblogged post, written for the Association of American Colleges and Universities blog on Jan 25, 2012

Shyam Sharma, University of Louisville

When I look at the description of events in the schedule of the AAC&U Annual Meeting this year, images of my undergraduate students cross my mind. I begin to think about what use my students from the English 101 class in fall 2007 (my first semester of teaching college writing) made of the “critical thinking skills” that I taught after they left my classroom. I wonder if my students from the advanced writing course that focused on global citizenship last year continued to “pause to look at two more perspectives” before beginning to argue and defend their own positions. The events in the schedule represent big and often abstract ideas emerging from the experience and wisdom of scholars who are intellectual leaders in higher education. But when browsing the themes and descriptions in the schedule, my mind turns toward the students from the past and students I will teach in years to come. Has my teaching helped them become productive citizens in their communities and work? How much am I helping them become the digital and global citizens that they need to be today? What else do I need to do in order to shoulder the responsibilities of an effective educator of the twenty-first century—and what does it mean to be an effective teacher today in light of the changes, challenges, and opportunities that are created or complicated by the forces of economic crises around the world, advancements in information technologies, and the growing interdependence of knowledge (and other) markets around the world? I will be seeking answers to these questions in the many exciting discussions that I look forward to attending at the AAC&U Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.
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I Wish it Was Just the Dentist

No, it is not just the dentist. Just too many people seem to define “writing”–even after I specify it as the teaching/learning of basic to advanced academic writing in the university–in ways that make me sad.

As she was about to start her work on my teeth last week, my dentist, a wonderful professional who works at a service provider two blocks away from where I live, asked me where I work.

“Stony Brook University.”

“Oh, you are a teacher? What do you teach?” Continue reading

Technomagicology

Technology doesn’t make people mindless. What makes them lose their senses is their obsession with whatever is “new” or “advanced,” their simplistic claims and thinking about it, their disregard of (the complexity of) related issues in life and society.

Technological magic thinking is no better than other types of magic thinking — like fancy new religions, denial of science, or absurdly exaggerated health benefits of exotic fruits. This type of thinking makes people forget, for instance, to do any research on the subject, to test the tool being touted, or the fact that human people have for very long time used highly “advanced” technologies like pencil and paper.

Technomagicology makes people not use basic critical thinking; more insidiously, it makes them consider individuals and societies not using their kind of technology to be “behind” or even “backward”; it makes them forget their trade and focus on the tools. Think about a farmer who loves to get on his tractor trailer and go on the highway, or an artist who produces more self-serving discourse about her art than art itself.

To give you a concrete example that I recently came across, it makes them make arguments (about a “Universal Translator”) as in the story below.

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Context as Lens — [Republica Repost]

 To communicate effectively in an increasingly globalized world, we must understand others through the lens of “context” rather than “culture.”

“I am a Chinese citizen but I don’t have very high expectation of this place,” said a young man, as I joined a line outside the Chinese Consulate in New York City last Friday. Many people in line—most of whom were there to apply for a visa, like me—seemed tense, with some vocally complaining. “I hate this,” said another, without specifying what it was that he hated. The line was moving forward fairly quickly and the weather was pleasant. Continue reading

On “Good Writers” — [Republica Repost]

The belief that you need to be a “good writer” to write effectively is a myth that has insalubrious consequences

In place of a society where “writers” were a few creative and educated people who did all the writing for the rest of us, we now have a society where everyone constantly writes. And yet, many myths about writers and writing prevail. The first of those myths is that good writing requires good writers. As someone who pursued two post-graduate degrees in “writing studies,” let me share the bad news: Good writers are a myth. Good news: You don’t need to be a “good writer” to write well.

In the same way “literacy” means much more than being able to read printed words, “writing” has far transcended the mere act of translating ideas into words and sentences on the page (or screen). Within a vast range of means, modes, and functions that it encompasses, writing now includes the personal, social and professional act of using script to get things done. The other older meaning of writing, creative expression, like the more mechanical form, has also become marginal in the big picture. That is, most of us have to write “effectively” for given contexts and purposes, instead of generally “well.”

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Redefining Education — [Republica Repost]

For millions of people around the world – or perhaps several billions — education means understanding and/or memorizing ideas in different subjects and demonstrating that knowledge or memory on paper. From school systems all over South Asia to stringent testing regimes in China and South Korea to increasingly standardized testing methods that characterize more areas and levels of education in the Western world, formal education is still not aligned well with needs and uses of knowledge outside school. Perhaps the most striking case in this regard, you guessed it, is our own country Nepal. However, instead of rehashing this old, rather tired theme about traditional education, let me describe what kind of education learners need in order to thrive in the knowledge economy. Continue reading

Putting Everything On the Line?

Reposting (for access) Part I of a series of blog posts by Chris Petty and me from RhetComp@StonyBrook–

 Part I
Part IV…

Putting Everything On the Line? Optimizing the Affordances, Minding the Pitfalls

Shyam Sharma and Christopher Petty

Especially after the advent of web 2.0 applications, the landscape of teaching writing is drastically changing. In many ways, writing teachers greatly benefit by moving into web-based, increasingly shared, and peer-involved practices especially at the post-secondary levels. New developments in technological applications are allowing highly effective pedagogical practices to develop. However, technocratic arguments founded on the positive affordances of new technologies can also be taken too far.

In this context, we wanted to write a brief series of blog posts that will describe and discuss some of the educational/pedagogical benefits and also pitfalls of using web applications and shared spaces for providing instructor feedback to students’ writing, for engaging them in peer review, and for promoting collaboration in college writing courses. These discussions will go along with somewhat corresponding videos (which will be included in a separate section in the Writing@StonyBrook portfolio) that demonstrate how to effectively use collaborative and interactive spaces and tools such as wikis, cloud-based documents, blogs, and portfolios. Continue reading

Gentle, Semester-ward — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Oct 18, 2016

The semester system was first implemented in Nepal about four decades ago, but it discontinued after a few years during a political upheaval. This time, there are indications of effective implementation, but there are also reasons to worry again, one of which I explore here. We risk spilling old wines from new bottles (or, to stretch the metaphor, failing to get new bottles) if we rock the boat too much.

Changing from annual to semester system, or vice versa, will only improve education to the extent that we improve practice and culture of teaching/learning. During a seven week stay in Nepal last summer, I was inspired by new trends in colleges and universities of all kinds—as I learned from many and extremely productive conversations with top level officials in Tribhuvan University and Mid-Western University, colleagues in professional organizations, and scholars running various private colleges.

Read full article in The Republica — or

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