Kathleen Vacek, Director, Writing Center, University of North Dakota
As educators, we want our students to use writing to learn about the world around them, and we want them to use writing effectively as actors in that world. When it comes to helping our students reach these goals, we shouldn’t throw any options off the table. We should use all kinds of writing assignments–everything from blogs to term papers–as long as we thoughtfully match the assignment to learning outcomes.
Being very clear about learning outcomes is the first step. In her book, College Writing and Beyond, literacy researcher Anne Beaufort offers a model of writing expertise that I find very helpful for thinking through writing-related learning outcomes. Beaufort depicts the knowledge of expert writers as five overlapping domains: rhetoric, genre, writing process, subject matter, and discourse community. I’ll use term papers and blogs as examples to illustrate how you might think through the five domains when defining outcomes and designing assignments.
What is a term paper?
What I call a term paper is a scaled-down version of what we write for journals. It seeks to answer an interesting question using appropriate evidence that will be convincing to a particular audience. It is not a summary of a bunch of stuff other people have said. (Students often think a term paper is a summary of sources, so if we want to see a research question and evidence we need to ask for it.) If we want students to be able to pose questions, assemble and analyze evidence, and make an argument, we should assign term papers.
Because the term paper is a sustained project resulting in a relatively long finished product, a successful student writer must make full use of the writing process–starting early, working through multiple drafts, leaving time for editing–to produce the paper. The student needs exposure to the genre “term paper” to know what sections or moves are typically included, what it should look like, and how sources are to be incorporated. The student has to draw on rhetorical knowledge to know how to make a persuasive claim for the particular audience and how to back it up with the appropriate kinds of evidence. The student has to have learned enough about the subject matter to have something to say, to have background knowledge against which to evaluate sources of evidence, and to know what’s common ground in the field versus what’s up for debate. It should be clear by now that all of this knowledge is context-specific. To write a successful anthropology term paper, a student writer needs knowledge of the anthropology discourse community, including what kinds of questions are asked, what approaches are taken to answering those questions, and what specialized vocabulary will show that the writer is a anthropology “insider.” Being able to do this in anthropology does not mean the student can do it in economics.
The term paper is appropriate for upper-division courses in the major because students must integrate the five knowledge domains. But that does not mean that a student’s first encounter with a term paper should be in the capstone course. If we want to use those papers as assessment tools, we need students to practice doing them before they write their final culminating project. We should find ways to build in practice for the capstone project at the upper-division level but before the capstone course.
Some ways to use blogs
Lower-division courses can begin building up particular components of the five knowledge domains. A blog assignment that requires students to make arguments, for example, can be a great way to build up rhetorical knowledge. By writing for a real audience that can respond through comments, students practice being persuasive and see almost immediately if they are successful. A blog might also be used as a student’s journal, documenting his or her learning throughout the course. This kind of blog assignment teaches students how to make use of the writing process to aid learning and to discover new ideas. And blogs are only one tool. There are countless ways to design writing assignments, both high-tech and low-tech.
So term papers and blogs are both potentially valuable learning experiences. Defining clear learning outcomes and matching learning experiences to the outcomes is key. Students need repeated practice in each of the five domains, and they need to build up to complex projects. If we start thinking about the development of writing expertise over the course of a student’s program, we will be better at defining outcomes and designing the assignments that help students reach those outcomes.