Information Sheet # 43
April 25, 1990
WRITING ABOUT HOMER, VIRGIL, AND DANTE
[The following interview with Ed Burke occurred in July, 1989. The conversation began with a fascinating discussion of our different gardening techniques but eventually turned to a consideration of appropriate measures for pruning students' prose. --Bob Marrs]
Bob: What are you teaching this fall?
Ed: World Lit I, Core Course, Basic Latin, and then I have some students in second semester Greek, and I have an upper-level Latin student doing an independent study. So, in terms of courses with writing, there's World Lit and the Core Course.
Bob: World Lit is always a writing emphasis course, isn't it? What kinds of writing do you assign in that course?
Ed: I teach the entire course around The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and The Inferno. Those are the three key texts--Greek, Roman, and Medieval. Then around these I cluster other texts: e.g. some Greek tragedies, some Roman texts, maybe some comedies, and some medieval sagas or romances. As for the students' writing, they have three, 3-5 page papers, one for each of the periods, Greek, Roman, and Medieval. The papers are "text specific." I require that they take up a text that they haven't read in class, or deal with a text that we've dealt with in class, but write on an issue that we haven't explored in detail.
What I don't want is a regurgitation of the things that we've done in class. The idea here is that the paper will be an extension of things we've done in class. The nature of the assignment is a reflection of the audiences that I get. I tend to get mixed audiences, as in my history courses, or the Humanities Program courses. The students come from all sorts of disciplines.
Since these are not upper-level courses, my concerns are not really with research techniques. I'm not overly concerned with proper documentation, the kinds of things that I would be concerned with in upper-level courses. My principal concern is that they design the paper in terms of an argumentative essay, responding to the text that they select by developing a position or point-of-view. It's up to them what the point-of-view will be. They then need to present a series of arguments in support of the point-of-view, and finally they should draw a conclusion.
The form is the same for all three papers: a thesis, arguments to support it, and then a conclusion. So they repeat the exercise. I'm looking for the ability to argue clearly--to fashion a reasonable and coherent point of view, and then to argue the case effectively. I'm also concerned with the arrangement of the arguments. If I get good writers who can master the form, then it's a matter of "prodding" them about the arrangement and subtlety of arguments. It's a simple set of objectives. There is also the opportunity to revise. Though, perhaps because the form is repeated in all three papers, I tend to get fewer revisions than one might like.
Bob: They have the option of whether they want to revise it?
Ed: The option is available to them. I don't require it.
Bob: You give them the grade when you hand back the paper, and then you give them the choice?
Ed: Right. There is a virtual guarantee that if they go about revising it their grade will improve.
Bob: Is this problem of "no revisions" because no one can read your handwriting?
Ed: That could be the case.
Bob: I've had occasion to try to struggle through a few of your commentaries.
Ed: That could well be the case.
Bob: By the way, if it's any consolation, your penmanship has earned you the reputation as being one of the two worst pens on the campus.
Ed: Who is the other one?
Bob: Bill Flanagan. I'd hate to make the call between the two of you; it's pretty close.
Ed: You know, it's funny, but I've become self-conscious about that to a degree. I try to make adjustments, but in the end you are grading 25 or 30 papers and you have other things to do. So you write what comes to mind and hope they can decipher it. And in time, I find if kids take 9 or 10 courses with me they can read my notes.
Bob: When you say that not as many papers get revised as perhaps one would want, what kind of percentage are you looking at in a course like World Lit?
Ed: Typically enrollments in that class will be 25 to 30, and of course the option exists only for the first two papers because the third paper is due on the last day of class. I would guess I might get 5 or 6 kids to revise. Sometimes I'll try to use plus and minus grades to motivate a student. For example, by giving a B plus, I'll see if I can motivate the student to get up to the A, or by giving a C plus to motivate him to get up to the B.
Bob: Do you think that works?
Ed: I can't tell. What I tell kids in terms of grading is that I look for one of two things. Either a pattern of consistency in their performance, so that if there is an instance where they have blown an assignment, they are not going to pay as a consequence of that one grade, or a pattern of improvement, and if they can show me a second paper that is better than the first, and a third one that is better than the second, they tend to get the latter grade. I just won't mechanically average all of the grades, because they need to get adjusted to what my expectations are in terms of writing and examinations. Improvement ought to occur with gained experience, so if I can motivate them by grades to do more writing, their final grade will reflect the improvement. I use that as a motivator.
Bob: Because of the way that you have set it up, there is an opportunity to build on previous experiences because you are repeating similar assignments.
Ed: Right. That's what I intend.
Bob: When you are responding to papers, how would you describe the comments that you make? What sorts of things do you hear yourself saying most frequently?
Ed: It's interesting, but what I do now is a consequence of your coming on campus. There is a consciousness of what will penetrate and what won't penetrate. I used to tear papers apart and I would spend an awful lot of time including suggestions on ways in which arguments could be rearranged or suggesting different word choice and phrases. By the time I was finished, the paper looked like a map of the inner-city. The kid would say, "Yeah, Thanks." What I try to do now is to be more minimalist in my approach to responding, with fewer observations focused on key points.
I also come at different students' writing differently. My principal concern in all of their writing is that, by the time they get through with all three papers, they can write a fairly clear argumentative essay (with thesis, arguments, conclusion). So my first level of observations is concerned with form, organization, and structure. The comments are either to the effect that the student has succeeded, or hasn't succeeded in organizing the paper. Also, since each assignment is text specific, there is an advantage for me. If the body of evidence from which the student can make the appeal is limited, I can show fairly precisely how the paper could be arranged differently.
With kids who can do the form already, the comments that I find myself making are "pickier" in some respects. If I find a student who can write well and who thinks well, I am more concerned with word choice and suggesting to the student that there is an alternate way, there is another word or phrase that will work perfectly.
I also have a middle range of comments concerned mostly with the internal design of arguments, suggestions about how an idea can be rearranged and presented more effectively. How beneficial these more complex observations are to the student--I don't know. I try to think back to my own experience. Such comments may not lead immediately to an improvement by the student in the quality of writing. They won't sit down and say, "Let me tackle this again to see if I can get it right."
But if somebody is telling the student every time he writes, poking him on the head and saying, "You could do that differently and make it better," the student who is concerned becomes more self-conscious about writing carefully, slowing the process down. The good student will, in time, respond to that. It's cathartic for me, I mean I have to do something if I see a messy argument, I just do.
Bob: So much of what we do is for ourselves, probably, rather than for the students. It makes us feel good. I totally agree that there may be a real time delay between when the student receives our comments, and when they finally have an impact. For me, this was particularly the case with my first freshman composition course. I didn't understand what the instructor was talking about until I was in graduate school, teaching a freshman composition course. For whatever reason, some of the language and his arguments from that comp. course, particularly in his analysis of one of my papers, finally began ringing bells four years later. I'm not sure that his advice helped my freshmen at Washington State, but it made sense for me in terms of my teaching and it finally began to have an impact on my writing, after four years of hibernation.
Of the thousands of research projects attempting to evaluate writing instruction, probably 99% of them have been for one term. They examine the impact of three months instruction on the students' writing. It is impossible to discover what effect the teaching has by looking at one semester's work and one sample of writing completed before the students exited the course.
Ed: Sure, the effect typically is so far removed from the causes, as to not make it clear that it is the effect.
Bob: Do you see much difference in writing between freshmen and upperclassmen? Do things change or is it just more of the same?
Ed: I do see a change, though there are a significant number of exceptions. I'm not sure what causes the change, but I would guess it has only a limited amount to do with writing instruction and a lot more to do with the acquisition of confidence. Greater exposure too. They've read more, they've written more. They have become more sophisticated, and they've simply matured some. It strikes me that improvement in writing, improvement that I can witness, is largely a function of maturation.
Bob: 21 or 22 instead of 18 or 19.
Ed: Yes, they've gone from the adolescent environment of high school to being young adults with more serious responsibilities.
Bob: What about your Ways Of Knowing section this fall? That course involves opportunities for writing. What kind of plans do you have?
Ed: Again I like the pattern of three papers, and I like the length of three to five pages. I suspect that I may continue to do what I tried to do with IMC, which is to have "graded" assignments. The first one typically is a response to a written text; the second one is a response to a visual text, but only after we've done some talking. This is the kind of writing that the kids don't normally tangle with. They need a vocabulary and a way of seeing things that they are not accustomed to using. The third assignment tends to go beyond a specific text. In IMC at least, they were to respond to different texts as illustrative in one way or another of an era.
Bob: Trying to synthesize some loose ends into a coherent whole.
Ed: Right, to get to a larger perspective but still requiring them to appeal to evidence and to marshal arguments in support of their thesis. So these are "graded" exercises in the sense of taking them from a writing experience with which I assume most of them are relatively familiar (that is responding to a written text) to writing about a text that will be unfamiliar (a visual text) and so on.
Now, in the core course, different from the other courses, revision is required on the first two papers. It is not an option. They're to come back and we'll have a conference, and then they are expected to rework it. With these drafts, I deliberately grade low. I've thought about not grading and letting them respond directly to the comments, but my sense is that they respond better to that letter. If they can see that they can move it up from a C to a B, or whatever, they will try.
Bob: So you put them in purgatory first.
Ed: Yes, so I try to motivate that way. In the core course, I tend to be concerned almost exclusively with form, mastering the argumentative essay. I talk to them about the need to put that thesis within a context, and I give them rules of thumb for the arrangement of the arguments.
If there is a higher level of criticism, in terms of arranging arguments, it's in terms of transitions. There is a tendency for them to be too mechanical in following my suggestions about organization. So we talk about ways out of arguments and how to move into arguments. But at first, I have no concern if they are mechanical, as long as they recognize the need for order and lay out evidence to make their case.
Bob: You do quite a bit of writing yourself, and are active as a researcher within your field. Do you see any connections between that work and the work that you do with a students' paper? Do you think that there is any feedback or cross-fertilization from one to the other?
Ed: Yes, to this extent. I have a mind-set about writing, and that is that good academic writing is a slow, deliberate process. I get annoyed when students write too fast and imagine quality will be the consequence. My sense is that it is much harder to produce a finished product. When I write, I write on a yellow pad and I double space, and I may rewrite a sentence a dozen times just in the first draft. It just doesn't spill out. I think, and reflect, and revise in my own mind and then I begin to write it down.
Bob: Then you are doing a lot of revising right from the beginning. If the first sentence doesn't sound right...
Ed: ...it's gone. I mean I don't just cross it out, I erase it. It is a strange process, a ritual almost. There are times when I can take off in a sort of heat as the evidence just comes to me, flowing. But, typically if I can get two legal pages, double spaced, done in one day that will be a productive day.
Bob: When you are working on one of your own pieces, do you have a clear idea of what you want to do when you are starting a piece?
Ed: I spend a lot of time thinking in advance. I'll go around for weeks, ruminating about different portions of arguments and where they might go. So I have in advance some idea of where it is I want to go. And then I often create an outline. There are all those mental translations that occur from the moment that you have an insight about whatever you are writing on, to the construction of the argument, to the selection of the evidence.
My preliminary thinking is concerned with understanding those kinds of problems. And then I tend to write an outline of sorts. It's not sacred, but as I begin to write I look at the outline to see whether I am going toward the next point or whether it is taking a different kind of shape than I had anticipated. I never create a mold that I require myself to follow. If it's not working, then it is back to the drawing board. My professional writing is never spontaneous. I don't just sit and write.
Bob: Do you know when you are finished with an article? Do you know when it is done or does the writing just linger on?
Ed: It is a long process. I have a piece now, for instance, that I started in February, and it's got me into a range of materials that I have not dealt with before, largely epigraphic in character. It has been a slow process getting at that evidence, and translating it and sorting it out. At the same time I was reading--February, March, April, and May. I had to force myself to begin to write because I was spending too much time double-checking evidence and writing down what was the latest on this topic, and the latest on that topic. I just had to get at it. So, I have been writing maybe three or four hours a day from about mid-May. I finished a couple of weeks ago what I regard as the first full draft. Now it is a matter of going back.
I suspect that I may not be done with this until the end of next summer. But I'm reasonably confident of its structural coherence. And I'm more or less confident of its argumentative legitimacy. Now it is a question of the detail of the evidence, and making sure that the evidence is presented correctly. That is just a pain in the ass exercise. Having spent so much time on this, my enthusiasm for the project has begun to wilt, so the start of school is welcome.
Bob: A bit like gardening. You're getting close to the harvest and then the hell with it!
Ed: But I will know when it is done. And then I'll go back and I'll type a clean draft. I don't rely on the computer. I'll let the clean draft sit for three or four days and then if I don't like it I'll type it again. I find typing to be more than therapeutic. It provides me with an opportunity to slowly work through the arguments one more time.
Bob: I feel that there is something about the typing process that allows the text to sink into me, penetrating in ways that don't occur with the computer; I get it internalized a little more. I suspect I know my text better when it's gone through that process. With the computer it is always so fluid, as if the words are on the verge of evaporating, disappearing off the top of the screen.
Ed: What scares me in some respects about the computer, with kids who aren't particularly experienced at writing, is that it comes out and looks so good. There is no translation from written word to typed but that can be an important step in writing, to move from what you've written long hand to typing it. That's an important step because it should be an editing process, a time to correct and rephrase. Usually it is the case that for a few months after I've finished with a piece, I can recite it verbatim, I have it memorized. Even now I can do opening paragraphs of things that I had written 10 or 12 years ago. But the way I go about writing may not be healthy for students who have three 3 to 5 page papers in a term.
Bob: One of the tricks in this business is learning, from one's own personal experiences, which techniques for producing texts are really helpful for students. What is idiosyncratic to me? What are my habits that would prove counter-productive to students? This is really tough to know. For example, I am not a good planner. I'm not good at doing outlines. I have a little notecard and I'll throw a few ideas on there. But usually I just take off, not having much idea if I'm going to crash or find a safe landing strip. I suppose that is one of the reasons that the computer is so appealing to me. If it doesn't look good I don't have to worry about the eraser. I can just eliminate it and move things around. The computer is so nice because it gives me that flexibility. It probably matches with the kind of writer that I am.
Your point about the dangers of not getting involved in your writing is right on target. I recognize in my own writing something missing with regard to producing text. It seems to me that the complete, ideal writing program for Coe would involve making sure that all students know how to use a computer. At the same time, I would like to give everyone yellow pads.
Ed: Still, in the end, for students there is probably only a certain level of ability that they need to acquire. Beyond that, I'm not sure that they need a whole lot more. If they can communicate effectively, and if the computer can help them, it may well be the perfect tool. Sure, it may produce some bad habits, but if the right instruction is available, these can be corrected. The problem is for me that the computer just doesn't work. I've tried, one day last year.
Bob: Perfect ending!
COMMON RHETORICAL FIGURES
Prosthesis: to use words that are very hard to spell.
Antithesis: the make fun of an opponent's doctoral dissertation.
Argumentum ad mulierem: to buttress one's argument by asking one's wife for support.
Tracheotomy: to prove an argument by saying, "Because I say so, that's why."
Amnesia: to repeat a word or phrase because you can't remember what you were going to say.
Epilepsis: to draw out a word or phrase because you've dropped your notes on the floor.
Hysteria: to begin a speech by telling a little joke you for from the utility company newsletter.
Catachrome: to show a slide that has been put in the carousel upside down.
Erotolepsis: to illustrate a point with an off-color anecdote.
Diaspora: to deliver an introduction longer than the speech of the person introduced.
Anastrophe: to ask a question of someone unable to answer, as, "If you can't hear me in the back there, raise your hands."
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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.