Language Diversity in FYW

September 11, 2019

Vershawn Ashanti Young’s 2010 article, “Should Writers Use They Own English?” is an extended answer to the question the title poses. Yes, it says, entirely written in Young’s own English–Black vernacular. The piece, which takes on Stanley Fish’s three part “Opinionator” series in the New York Times on “What Should Colleges Teach?”, effectively argues for a more open-minded view of linguistic diversity particularly as it relates to our students and their writing–in doing so we might also make some headway in reducing prejudice and racism on a societal level.

“Dominant [or standard] language ideology,” Young explains, is based on the belief that there is a standard set of rules that “all writers and speakers of English must conform to in order to communicate effectively.” This form of ideology is also okay with writers/speakers using their own language, but only at home. In other words, dominant language ideologues say, keep that language where it came from.

Young makes a case for teaching language descriptively (as opposed to prescriptively, which he accuses Fish of doing). “People be mo plurallingual than we wanna recognize. What we need to do is enlarge our perspective about what good writin is and how good writin can look at work, at home, and at school” (112).

Young introduces the term “code meshing,” which he uses in place of “code switching,” because he argues the latter term gets used incorrectly to mean translating or changing from one dialect into another. “Code meshing is the new code switching; it’s multidialectalism and pluralingualism in one speech act, in one paper” (114).


Notes from Teaching Community Discussion of Young’s article:

  • How do we unteach ourselves, when we’ve been trained to “correct” language that’s not Standard American English (SAE)?
    Try to catch our thinking and intervene as it is happening
    Recognize that this is a construct, that it’s arbitrary
    Remember that there are grammatical things we each choose to let go of
    Sr G shared the book, The Five Clocks by Martin Joos. The fifth clock is the most formal English, while we usually speak more informally (1st or 2nd clock).
    Refers to 5th clock as “frozen” and students discuss when they’re required to use “frozen stuff.”
    Discussed hegemonic and non-hegemonic language and that there is a power structure involved in what langauge goes into which category.
    Where does our discussion of linguistic diversity fit in with preparing students for the “real world”?
    Do students know when it is appropriate to use certain phrases and when it is not?
    Young would probably argue that there is a cultural shift that needs to start somewhere.
    Is freshman English “defensive English”? (In the sense of defensive driving…).
    How can we teach students to survive other instructors who insist on SAE as it is currently defined.
    Let our students know that the conversation is taking place.
    Writing studies conferences (CCCC and Computers and Writing) have provided a lot of hopeful stories about opening people’s minds to ideas of linguistic diversity.
    ESL students and whether or not we want to change their writing. Must the ESL student know the rules before they can break them?
    What do we do when we get our first essay submissions?
    Students are encouraged by individual conferences.
    Have students read their writing out loud.
    Let students know they are reading and writing all of the time.
    Writing exposes students and makes them feel vulnerable. Be sensitive to this.
  • We also briefly discussed the textbook, Speaking of Writing. A rep from Broadview will be at our next Teaching Community meeting. The book includes unique activities for practicing the writing process. A lot of the book is written in dialogue form with the characters actually talking about writing, accessible, not complicated (why should it be?)

    In her chapter, “Threshold Concepts and Student Learning Outcomes,” Heidi Estrem makes the case for the beneficial impact that threshold concepts can have on the kind of outcomes-based assessment that is standard at many institutions. Threshold concepts, Estrem tells us, help illuminate the messiness of learning that undergirds the the curriculum we measure with outcomes-based assessments. “Threshold concepts provide an alternative perspective on the neat vision set forth by the use of learning outcomes alone, reminding us that the actual learning happens between these signposts and outcomes.” Outcomes-based assessment practices focus on the end learning (“certainly one valuable place to begin understanding learning, but not the only place,” Estem contends) and “depict writing as only a skill (albeit an ‘intellectual’ or at least ‘practical’ one)”. In contrast to this, “a threshold concepts approach” to assessment offers: 1) a way for faculty “to articulate the content of their courses,” 2) a way to identify student learning throughout a course, and 3) a way to create a set of shared values for writing that faculty hold.

    Estrem begins by defending the importance of outcomes-based assessment: It’s a powerful way to speak to and with stakeholders (this is the kind of evidence they value). It is often required for accreditation reasons. It’s a way of linking assessment with “meaningful goals.” It provides a means of consistently and systematically checking in on student learning and the institution’s related accountability. As mentioned earlier, outcomes-based assessment tends to reduce writing to a set of discrete skills that are frequently seen as something that can be packaged up and taught anywhere by anybody.

    If we are given professional development opportunities to truly engage faculty in thinking about a threshold concepts approach to assessment, they could serve an important cross-curricular purpose with two critical ideas: “(1) that threshold concepts for writing (and perhaps other kinds of learning) across courses and disciplines may exist; and (2) that when these threshold concepts are made more explicitly, students may be more likely to at least recognize and perhaps even access, aspects of those concepts ….”

    Ultimately, according to Estrem, outcomes-based assessment provides too tidy a vision of what learning actually looks like. If we can learn to embrace the messiness of learning (and learning to write, in particular) and use a threshold concepts approach to thinking through this, we might developed a more informed picture of what assessment could and should look like–an assessment practice that captures the rocky terrain of learning.

    In chapter 7 of Naming What We Know, Doug Downs and Liane Robertson argue in favor of making threshold concepts “the declarative content of the course.”

    According to Downs, FYC should do two things:

      be a space for students to think about and reassess “prior knowledge about writing in light of new experiences
      be a course that acts as a general education course, “teaching transferable knowledge of and about writing so that what is taught and learned can be adapted to new contexts of writing”

    Ultimately, “helping students examine prior knowledge and teaching for transfer.”

    Threshold concepts, they point out, dovetail nicely with teaching for transfer “because the threshold concepts of writing are general principles that apply across a wide range of writing situations, even as those situations vary widely.”

    Downs and Robertson suggest that we have four areas that pose problems in addressing the twin mission of FYC:

      1. Writing as human interaction/rhetoric: student writers are not as likely as seasoned writers to understand the rhetorical/interactional nature of writing–the idea that meaning is shaped by reader and writer (part of what makes writing “collaborative”) (see 1.2).
      To teach this, utilize readings that effectively discuss or navigate the rhetorical situation. Then discuss, in-class, elements of the pieces that do this kind of rhetorical work.
      2. Textuality: this refers to the relationship between writer and text–especially when it comes to text creation/the invention of content. Threshold concepts having to do with language getting its meaning and having to do with the idea of text as separate from the writer are ways of addressing this challenge.
      To teach this, provide readings on activity theory or genre systems. Use peer workshopping to illustrate the provisional nature of meaning making.
      3. Epistemology: this category addresses the idea of “writing to learn.” Language is not just a conduit of meaning, it also produces knowledge and “creates new meanings.” Teaching FYC in a way that focuses on having students learn about writing will be helpful in facing this challenge.
      To teach this, use reflection as a tool for learning, also, any research that generates new knowledge through primary research can illustrate this.
      4. Writing Process: Students often come to FYC with misconceptions about how written texts come into being. They don’t see writing as the iterative, ongoing process that it is.
      Like the other troublesome areas, this one can be addressed through assigning readings that treat the writing process in a theoretical manner. Assignments can include “process analyses, self-observations, invention activities, revision exercises, and reflection that is reiterative and sustained throughout an entire semester so it becomes embedded in the process.”

    Downs and Robertson go on to unpack three claims related to why they believe threshold concepts are effective for framing FYC:

      1. Writing conceptions and theories are important to the activity of writing: This is the belief that every writer comes to the act of writing with their own conceptions and theories about writing based on past experiences and what one thinks might happen in the future. Threshold concepts help students to locate these theories “within a framework that allows for transformation, the shift in values about writing that affords a reconceptualization of writing.”
      2. Prior knowledge about writing plays an important role in writing courses: This knowledge goes as far back as our first literacy experiences. When students run into a writing challenge, it is frequently on account of some prior belief they hold about writing. This prior knowledge can lead to what Anne Beaufort calls “negative transfer”–the application of inappropriate prior knowledge to a particular writing context. The goal of threshold concepts is to get students to see new possibilities in their thinking about writing, to “ease a learner into acceptance of troublesome knowledge that seems counterintuitive, alien, or incoherent.”
      3. Value in making threshold concepts declarative course content: “Threshold concepts provide the framework into which students might transfer their prior knowledge: knowledge transfers in, is transformed or not, and then choices are made by students (with instructor guidance) through the framework of threshold concepts.”

    Threshold concepts also align with writing-about-writing (WAW) pedagogy. That is, both, work to teach about writing as the course content rather than as a discrete skill to be learned (described in Robertson’s course as “writing-concept based, teaching-for-transfer design”). “Though procedural knowledge–the how–remains central to the writing of the course, first-year writing is no longer posited as a course in how to write at the college level, one of the most frequently stated goals in the non-WAW FCY pedagogy, but instead becomes a course in learning to study writing and using writing as a means for facilitating that study.” This shift in emphasis from procedural knowledge to declarative knowledge, often leads to a shift in learning outcomes.

    Three Recurrent Principles That Systematize Instruction of Threshold Concepts in FYC
    1. Crossing the threshold comprises a significant paradigm shift. It is only through creating dissonance with prior knowledge that these “a-ha moments” can occur.
    2. Learning within a threshold concept requires a process of mindfully interrogating one’s own knowledge/what is being learned.
    3. “[L]earning in a threshold concept course is likely to occur either near its end or after the course is over because of the time required to build critical mass against any ineffectual prior knowledge and to reflect on new explanations for experiences that prior knowledge fails to explain.”

    Three Teaching Approaches to Introduce Threshold Concepts to Students
    1. Research-based: Explanations for experience that create dissonance with prior knowledge should be “grounded in accessible existing scholarship and primary (first-hand) research experiences.”
    2. Translational: Make threshold concepts less abstract by using metaphors, comparisons, and concrete examples.
    3. Experiential: Students need to experience for themselves that the writing process varies from writer to writer and context to context.

    Threshold concept #5 in Ways of Knowing reminds us that in addition to the work being done on writing as a social act since the social turn (early 1990s) in Writing Studies, writing is still (also) an activity that takes place in our brains, and, therefore, “we must revisit what is known about composing processes inside the skull.”

    This chapter brings in evidence to show that writing influences mental processes and our nervous system, citing Marilyn Cooper’s 2011 work in “neurophenomenology” that argues “what we write literally helps make us who we are.” This phenomenon also helps explain why certain aspects of writing instruction might become “entrenched,” causing writers to attempt to extend instruction they’ve received in one writing context to another one where it might not work so well.

    Additionally, viewing writing as a cognitive practice reminds us that “automaticity take time,” and that writers taking on a new writing task need to forge neurological connections that are not there yet.

    5.1 Writing Is an Expression of Embodied Cognition
    “If cognition assumes complex mental processes at work, then embodied cognition draws in addition upon the physical and affective aspects of the composing process.” In other words, we write with our bodies. (Tension of thought while sitting and typing, laughter at an unexpected discovery, etc.)

    5.2 Metacognition Is Not Cognition
    Cognition is knowing (knowing what we know). Metacognition is knowing that we know things and understanding how we know them.
    For writers, cognition might refer to:
    –an understanding of a question
    –fulfilling the requirements of genre
    –meeting the needs of an audience
    –exhibiting control over language
    For writers, metacognition includes:
    –discerning the structure of a draft (and why the structure is that way)
    –picking out patterns of error
    –figuring out what is necessary and what isn’t
    Metacognition is generally considered to be required for transfer to occur. Cognition alone is not enough.


    5.3 Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment

    Repetition of the same task (a key component of teaching/learning writing) can lead to “automaticity” or “unconscious competence.” This becomes a problem for writers when they misapply habituated practices to writing contexts in which those practices don’t work or are not useful.

    5.4 Reflection Is Critical for Writers’ Development
    “Reflection is a mode of inquiry.” Systematically recalling writing experiences and applying them to a new or different writing situation “allows writers to recognize what they are doing in that particular moment (cognition), as well as to consider why they made the rhetorical choices they did (metacognition).”
    Reflection can be troublesome for some writers because it isn’t a commonly considered an integral part of the writing process, but almost any factor related to student success in writing depends upon their ability to use effective reflection as part of the writing process.

    Threshold concept #4 in Naming What We Know describes how all writers have more to learn (yes, that means us–the instructors who teach writing, and yes, it also means that we cannot possibly teach students to write in one or two semesters). Writing strategies need to change alongside the writing context. Some writing strategies developed in one context can transfer to another. For example, “writing multiple drafts or setting aside regular, frequent periods for writing…. [U]sing explicit transitional words to signal organization or using illustrations to develop an idea will work well in many different writing context for many different purposes.”

    While most school subjects divide the content into sequences and levels of difficulty that require students to complete one stage before moving onto the next one, learning how to write doesn’t work that way. “[F]ormal writing instruction is usually designed to repeat the same principles or lessons over and over as student writers encounter new situations for writing and learning.”

    4.1 Text Is an Object Outside of Oneself That Can Be Improved and Developed:
    Once writers externalize their thoughts onto paper, it reduces their “cognitive load.” It also allows them to see “how clearly [the text] reads, what it conveys, whether it can be improved in any way.” Once writers are aware of the idea that the text exists outside of them, independently of them, they can view it in a more professional light, examining it to ensure it conveys the meaning to the reader that they want it to. While this threshold concept stops short of declaring the author “dead,” it does draw on the idea that the text exists independently of the writer and is, therefore, “capable of being changed and perfected by the author and others.”

    4.2 Failure Can Be an Important Part of Writing Development
    Great writing is often the result of great failure (or of “shitty first drafts,” as Anne Lamott puts it). For the writing classroom this means weakening the tie between grades/assessment and final project and, instead, building in space for failure (grading on “quality of failure, as Edward Burger puts it). In other words, making room for students to explore what doesn’t work, so they can find out what does work.

    4.3 Learning to Write Effectively Requires Different Kinds of Practice, Time, and Effort
    Practice: to become writers, we need to write. By practicing writing “we develop writing capacities, among them the ability to adjust and adapt to different contexts, purposes, and audiences.”
    –One kind of practice –> fluidity/the “feel” of writing and its process.
    –Another kind of practice –> refined technique
    –“Practice can involve writing in different spaces, with different materials, and with different technologies.”
    –Practice can involve peer readers, a community involved in giving feedback and responses.
    This threshold concept is troublesome for three reasons:
    1) “Good” writers are assumed to have born that way.
    2) Belief that once we learn to write in one genre, we can write in any/all genres.
    3) Complexity of the fact that writing is a practice situated in communities; therefore, it takes a lifetime to learn.

    4.4 Revision is Central to Developing Writing
    The best writing comes out of multiple drafts. Revision here is not line editing; it is defined as “significant development of a text’s ideas, structure, and/or design.” Revision also requires feedback. Writers who don’t engage in revision with built in time for feedback will see fewer positive results with their written texts.
    This threshold concept is difficult in that many writers view revision as punishment or as indication that they are a poor writer. One way teachers might lessen this effect is by making revision optional or reserving it only for papers that receive a low grade.

    4.5 Assessment Is an Essential Component of Learning to Write
    Assessment here is taken outside the context of institutional mandate and moved to the classroom. Involving students in assessment–that is their ability to evaluate both their own work and the work of others–is important to teaching writing. Writers assess at every stage of the writing process–from assessing the writing context to their research process to their final written product.

    4.6 Writing Involves the Negotiation of Language Differences
    This threshold concept addresses Paul Kei Matsuda’s concept of the “myth of linguistic homogeneity.” As writing instructors we must not assume all of our student writers share the same intuitive knowledge of language and its structures as we do. Any writing context will most likely include translingual readers in its audience. As such writers need to negotiate cultural references, rhetorical features, and language features we might take for granted or as “natural.” Teachers must make decisions about whether or not to adopt dominant language practices.

    Threshold concept #3 in Naming What We Know is “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies.” This chapter works to the continue the discussion of writing as a social act, but also one this is never neutral. If we think of writing as merely an act of encoding or inscribing thoughts, then we lose sight if it as an ideological tool. This threshold concept tell us, “[T]here is no such thing as general literacy.” This tends to be another belief associated with the teaching of first-year writing: that it entails the teaching of “discrete, universal skills” and “singular discourse” that one can master if taught well. James Gee reminds us that as literacy educators we must always ask, “What sort of social group do I intend to apprentice the learner into?” Writing is always “involved in the negotiation of identities and ideologies in specific social situations.”

    3.1 Writing is Linked to Identity
    Writing plays a role in the construction of self. Writing for a particular community, for example, is about “becoming a particular kind of person, about developing a sense of who we are.”

    “It also means recognizing that the difficulties people have with writing are not necessarily due to a lack of intelligence or a diminished level of literacy but rather to whether they can see themselves as participants in a particular community.”

    3.2 Writers’ Histories, Processes, and Identities Vary
    Writers’ identities are shaped by their family, schools, culture, their histories, and the historical context in which they are situated.
    As writing studies scholars we have come to realize, over time, that the writing process varies from writer to writer, “the genre being composed, and the rhetorical situation.”
    School is merely one historical context. We see this as composing takes place across multiple digitized spaces without formal instruction.
    This threshold concept is troublesome because “it speaks to the complexity of composing itself and to the complexity of the task of helping students learn to compose.” This troubles stake-holder who believed FYW could be a kind of inoculation against “bad” writing.

    3.3 Writing is Informed by Prior Experience
    All of carry prior associations (both positive and negative) about writing into our current writing situation. We also draw on personal knowledge when we compose, and in particular, we utilize prior knowledge about particular essay genres. “In some instances, prior knowledge and experience are necessary and often helpful; in others they can work against writers. When writers call on strategies they have used before when approaching a new writing task, those strategies may or may not work well in the current situation.”

    3.4 Disciplinary and Professional Identities are Constructed Through Writing
    Discipline-specific learning requires more than just new knowledge acquisition, according to Meyer and Land, it also involves, “an expansion and transformation of identity of a learner’s ‘sense of self.'” Writing is the means by which disciplines learn, think, inquire, and communicate differently; therefore, disciplinary identity gets “enacted” through writing.

    3.5 Writing Provides a Representation of Ideologies and Identities
    Depending on the rhetorical situation we might choose to foreground (or hide) certain aspects of our identities. “[B]ecause all writing is inflected by power dynamics shaped by identities and ideologies, writers must become aware of the [sic] how those identities and ideologies are represented in their writing.” Critical pedagogue, Henry Giroux, calls this a “pedagogy of representation.” This asks students to examine the kinds of social/cultural biases that shape their own writing. Ask: “What’s being said? What’s left unsaid?”

    Threshold concept #2 in Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies covers concepts of rhetorical situation, genre, and activity system. The shaping of communication (written or otherwise) is in some ways pre-determined by the situation we are in. The complexity of the rhetorical situation is looked at by Charles Bazerman who stresses the importance of it in writing (as opposed to speaking). “[M]ore complexly,” he writes, “we may need to understand how documents move from, among and between spaces” (including real and virtual). “Thus to understand the full range of situations a document in particular genre may be sued in and the full set of meanings that might bet attributed to it, we also need to understand the activity system it is part of.”

    2.1 Writing Represents the World, Events, Ideas, and Feelings:
    This sub-concept addresses the limitations of language in expressing our thoughts accurately, “noting ‘the map is not the territory.'” Despite this, most of what know comes from language (“the representation of the world and events”). “Knowing this can help us write more carefully and effectively to represent the world, events, and ideas credibly within and across communities and to discuss the representations of others in relation to the social worlds the knowledge circulates within.”

    2.2 Genres are Enacted by Writers and Readers:
    Genres are the outcome of “human action, routinized to the point of habit in specific cultural conditions.” No single text is a genre and no individual writer can create a genre; it is a “socially mediated” construct–meaning, genres are only “relatively stable.”

    2.3 Writing Is a Way of Enacting Disciplinarity
    Writing done by members of a discipline are shaped by and shape that discipline. Therefore, conventions of a certain discipline’s writing carry with them the beliefs and values of the discipline.

    2.4 All Writing is Multimodal
    This threshold subconcept points out the mistaken notion that some texts are monomodal. This generally refers to traditional print/alphanumeric texts (like the kind produced in a FYW/comp class). The five modes implied in modal refer to linguistic, aural, visual, gestural, and spatial. “[A]ll texts–every piece of communication a human composes–use more than one mode.” Another mistaken assumption is that all multimodal texts are digital–many are, some aren’t (zines, commonplace books, etc.).

    2.5 Writing is Performative
    “[W]riting acts…it can make things happen.” “[W]riting has the capacity to produce thought and knowledge.”

    2.6 Texts Get Their Meaning from Other Texts
    The reading a reader comes to of a text is never informed by that text alone. “[T]exts always refer to other texts and relay heavily on those texts to make meaning.” Texts are not only informed by other texts that the reader/writer might have encountered in the past but are also shaped by future texts the reader/writer might be anticipating.

    Naming What We Know

    January 21, 2019

    Introduction to the Book

    Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s collection, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, situates itself squarely in the primary subject of writing studies (also known as composition or rhetoric and composition): the study of composed knowledge.

    Writing studies scholars are experts in a wide range of practices related to composed knowledge, including,

  • “What composed knowledge looks like in specific contexts”
  • How we define good/less-than-good qualities of composed knowledge (taking into account “by whom, and with what values” we arrive at these definitions)
  • “How to help writers compose knowledge within specific contexts and with what consequences”
  • “Relationships between technologies and processes for composing knowledge”
  • How and why composed knowledge is best assessed
  • Connections between affordances and composed knowledge


  • Adler-Kassner and Wardle point out the many stakeholders who are not experts in writing studies but who weigh in on how we should teach and assess writing. This is what gives exigence to the idea of “naming what we know.” Ultimately, it is crucial that writing studies scholars can better articulate to various stakeholders (non-experts) what our field knows and “help[ing] others understand how to use the knowledge as they set policy, create programs, design and fund assessments, and so on.”

    The concept of naming what we know is presented, in this book, within the frame of “Threshold Concepts.” Characteristics of threshold concepts include:

  • Transformative learning
  • Irreversible/unlikely to be forgotten once learned
  • Integrative, which helps learners make connections
  • Involve forms of “troublesome knowledge”–knowledge that is “alien” or counterintuitive


  • Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s collection is a “crowd-sourced encyclopedia” of 37 threshold concepts of writing studies. The “metaconcept” under which these all fall is “Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” They stress that this book is by no means meant to be exhaustive or permanent. Instead, they describe these concepts as “final-for-now definitions of some of what our field knows.” These concepts, they argue, are critical for current “epistemological participation in our disciplines” and “critical for anyone who wants to help learners write more effectively.”

    How Not to Use This Book:

  • This book it not intended to be a checklist for creating learning outcomes for assessment nor for the development of curriculum. Doing so would strip the complexity from these concepts.

    One reason it is not appropriate to conflate learning outcomes and threshold concepts is that threshold concepts are liminal, and learning them happens over time at varied levels of understanding. They often cannot be taught directly by explication but must be experienced and enacted over time with others before they are fully understood.


  • Concept 1: Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity
    “[W]riters are always connected to other people…. Writing, then, is always an attempt to address the needs of an audience.” This social nature of writing goes beyond the people for whom the writer is writing, it also “encompasses the countless people who have shaped the genres, tools, artifacts, technologies, and places writers act with as they address the needs of their audiences.” This is in contrast to the individual, solitary activity of writing we often think of when we describe our acts of inscribing text–like, “I’m writing a blog post right now.”

    1.1 Writing is a Knowledge Making Activity:
    The act of writing generates thinking. “We write to think.”

    1.2 Writing Addresses, Invokes, and/or Creates Audiences:
    Writing is part of “an ongoing conversation with others.” This is made visible by the rhetorical triangle (writer/audience/text). The triangle, however, is less stable than it once was, now that we are firmly entrenched in the digital age. The line between consumer and producer of text is blurred and fluid.

    1.3 Writing Expresses and Shares Meaning to be Reconstructed by the Reader:
    The meaning of text only resides in the interplay between writer, reader, and text. Our thoughts cannot be represented fully on the page through language. Meaning is not transparent.

    1.4 Words Get Their Meanings from Other Words:
    Language is arbitrary. Words mean different things to different people, depending on their language and cultural context. “Any definition relies on words to explain what other words mean; moreover, words in a sentence or paragraph influence and often determine each other’s meaning.” Words develop meaning through usage.

    1.5 Writing Mediates Activity:
    Writing is a technology, meaning it intervenes in/comes between the activity of people. “The concept that writing mediates human activity is troublesome because it goes against the usual concepts of writing as ‘just’ transcribing…thought or speech.”

    1.6 Writing is Not Natural:
    We acquire language; we learn to write.

    1.7 Assessing Writing Shapes Contexts and Instruction:
    Assessment refers to how we judge or evaluate student writing based on “a particular set of expectations or values….” This is not a neutral activity. “[I]t shapes the social and rhetorical contexts where writing takes place, especially in school.”

    1.8 Writing Involves Making Ethical Choices:
    When we write for another person, we need to ask questions that are akin to questions that moral philosophers describe as ethical. “What kind of writer do I wish to be? What are my obligations to my readers? What effects will my words have upon others, upon my community?”

    1.9 Writing is a Technology through Which Writers Create and Recreate Meaning”:
    “Writing makes material some version of the thoughts and ideas of its composer.” It’s a technology for thinking. With the increased ubiquity of digital technologies, the impact of technology on meaning making is more visible than ever.

    Jane Harrigan’s chapter on editing in Nuts and Bolts sets out to establish three basic goals:

      1. To expand the definition of editing (a way of seeing, conferencing and workshopping are editing. Her colleague Sue Wheeler describes it as the “last glance in the mirror to pick off the lint.” (153)). Harrigan’s need to expand the definition of editing comes out of composition’s wary view of teaching grammar and editing as a standalone part of the curriculum. “Trying to teach writing without mentioning grammar,” Harrigan argues, “is like trying to teach music without mentioning scales” (154).
      2. To get students to see and understand why editing matters: Great ideas couched in messy language get lost. Harrigan works with students to illustrate the various ways that clear writing matters. She does this by giving them lots of examples from published writing that contain errors. Students have a much easier time editing work that is not their own and are often quick to pick out the issues, leading them to see “not only errors but their effects” on the reader (159). From there, Harrigan assures us, it is “only a short leap to apply that lesson to their own writing” (159).
      3. To increase student confidence in their ability to edit (lead them to see that they know more about grammar than they think they do, and that we teachers do too…): For this she includes a number of grammar related activities designed to engage students in both sharing and learning “rules” of grammar. These include:
  • Usage lessons: students randomly pick one of the top 20 grammar errors made by student writers and present a brief lesson to the class
  • Create your own sentences with errors or use sentences from student papers. In one model she creates what she calls a “relay” by writing the sentence on the board and holding out the chalk for a student to approach the board and fix the sentence. Students continue to hand off the chalk to other students.
  • Student-generated exercises. The opposite of the last example. In this activity, students create sentences with errors and trade them with other students to be corrected.
  • “When we sit down to grade our students’ work, we are, in part, grading ourselves.” ~Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater

    The final chapter of Nuts and Bolts guides us through the ever-elusive task of responding to and evaluating student writing. Chiseri-Strater describes in detail the work she has done to untangle the complex relationship between responding and evaluating (or feedback and assessment). Ultimately she tells us that the two can never be fully separated, and as a result we need to be especially careful about our grading procedures overall. Chiseri-Strater describes her current grading process as comprised of the same practices she stresses in her writing classroom: “critical reading, constructive response, and reflective thought” (179).

    Our grading is always imbued with our personal beliefs and what we value about writing. For this reason Chiseri-Strater critiques rubrics (or grading scales as she describes here) for “foster[ing] an overreliance on external standards of authority, prevent[ing] teachers from figuring out their own attitudes and procedures for evaluation, and mask[ing] the many interesting pedagogical issues involved in the assessment process” (180). Instead, she recommends meeting with other instructors to discuss student papers from the angles of both response/feedback and grading.

    The first step in learning to read and respond to student writing is figuring out what exactly we are trying to evaluate: “the student, the paper, or her writing process” (182). If, like Chiseri-Strater, we are most concerned with the student’s writing process, then extricating responses of evaluation from those of support is important. For example, it is necessary to avoid attaching responses to negative evaluations (e.g. This opening anecdote is very compelling, but…). In closely studying our own feedback practices, we might, like Chiseri-Strater, “become over time more reflective about [our] own responses, more critical of [our] evaluations, and more careful about [our] grading procedures” (185).

    The middle part of this essay is focused on engaging students in the process of evaluation through self-assessment (here again, if the focus is on the writing process, then knowing how well students are metacognitively aware of their own processes can play a central role in how we grade them). One recommendation is to have them collectively create a list of what makes good writing. The other is to have them write self-evaluations for mid-term and/or final portfolios.

    The final section of Chiseri-Strater’s essay addresses what to grade and when. There are no hard and fast rules here. However, there is a strong recommendation for the best practice of giving detailed global comments at the end of a student paper (as opposed to cluttering the margins with reading responses, questions, and/or grammar/mechanics). Chiseri-Strater gives us an example of the feedback letter she gives to one student. The letter is written in sections that one might find on a rubric or grading scale: style/voice, content, structure/organization, readability (mechanics), and overall.

    In closing, I do want to stress the point that I open on with the quote above. The most important aspect that we can take away from the evaluation process is information about our own teaching practices. The student self-assessments that are described here give us more than just information about the student and her metacognitive awareness of herself as a writer, they give us insights and new ways of thinking about our pedagogy.