Friday, March 29, 2013

The Nutting and Bolting of Academic Writing

If you were to ask me what distinguishes academic prose from other forms of writing, my answer would probably be very general. I would say something about tone, level of formality, structure, the kinds of topics, the use of sources, and other such things that might be true, but are unhelpful to an English language learner (ELL). What this means, is that when I teach writing, especially academic literacy, I am only helping my students on the macro, not on the micro level. Following Krashen and Swain (understanding that both of their work has been developed for AL rather than literacy), I have believed that copious amounts of academic input, followed by controlled output mimicking that style, would allow learners to naturally internalize and emulate the conventions of academic style.

But how can our ELLs be expected to mimic and emulate the style, when we constantly denounce plagiarism and give dire warnings of how they will fail if they copy? How can we talk out of both sides of our mouths? “You need to copy the style but not the exact contents,” we may say, but that is a hair-splitting distinction that probably makes no sense at all to a learner.

Which brings us to Swales & Feak’s book, Academic Writing for Graduate Students. This book does not tell me anything I do not already know. But I know it implicitly, from internalizing and mimicking it as I mentioned above. This approach has worked well for me, but that does not make it appropriate for ELLs. The book makes the implicit explicit, and opens my awareness of how it works in the micro level. The explicit knowledge can lead to explicit instruction, helping me to create assignments and tasks that practice these micro-level skills, building confidence in their language tools, thus feeling free to mimic without plagiarizing. What they are mimicking is not a sentence, but the ability to use a Latinate verb instead of a phrasal verb. By being specific on how academic prose functions and how it differs, the common threads we want learners to imitate start as explicit knowledge, then become automatic as the ELL writer grows in experience.

The tasks and language focus boxes given in the text provide what will probably be an ELL’s first solid look at the mechanical side of academic prose. If the student has already done some reading of academic books and journal articles (which should be some level of precursor to writing), they will recognize some of them already. Furthermore, if they do the exercises individually, review them together, and complete some extension exercises, they should be able to recognize them more easily in reading and expand their knowledge beyond the cases shown in the book. My own immediate recognition of the patterns shown convince me that the authors have done a careful and thorough job of noting and clearly explaining essential features of academic writing.

APA Corner: Title Page

The title page is your first impression. Mistakes on this section predispose the reader to judge your work more critically because you have created an image of yourself as sloppy, lacking professionalism and attention to detail. How might that carry into your research itself? Do not neglect this page. The advice on the title was interesting, as I tend to try to make a literary title, with some lyrical or referential aspect to draw interest. I suppose this comes from my undergraduate background in the humanities. Something I will have to retrain as I shift to the world of social sciences, I suppose.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Fighting Plagiarism with Critical Self-Reflection

What is the cause of plagiarism? The usual causes that come to mind are ignorance or laziness. Sometimes deviousness comes into the picture. It seems hard to imagine committing this cardinal academic sin of plagiarism to some of us because it is so obvious. Don’t copy. When you do, enclose the copy in quotes and cite it. Paraphrase. What could be easier? After all, there are nearly limitless ways to express any single thought in English.

It doesn’t take a long trip down memory lane to remember my own experiences as a fourth grader, struggling to re-write the encyclopedia entry on narwhals into my own words. My own words? What is that supposed to mean? No words are my own—they are all taught to me by others. Besides, that book said it perfectly—I don’t know how else to say it that doesn’t sound stupid. I have another clear memory of the same thing in writing a report about an island in seventh grade. Even three years later, the skill of putting things in my own words was not nearly as simple and automatic as it is now.

This is why Yamada’s article (2003) was so on-point. English language learner (ELL) writers are not as much stealing, as they are lacking the inferential skills necessary to successfully incorporate reference material into an original framework. They should be seen as being at that developmental stage I had to go through as well, and given appropriate assistance in how to develop the skills of deductive and analogic inference.

As a teacher of EFL academic writing, I need to revise my curriculum in order to include these two skills with at least one lesson on each of them, in addition to my lessons on citation and quotation. When students feel confident integrating and maneuvering the content in their own creative structure, plagiarism from this source should become a previous developmental stage rather than a current problem.

Determining the places in my own experience where my students’ plagiarism comes from lack of inferential skills, and evaluating the effectiveness of the lessons and tasks I create to instill these skills, is a place where the Critical Incident Protocol (CIP) of reflective practice can be an invaluable tool (Hole & McEntee 1999). Working together with a group of peers to analyze isolated events, place them in a larger context, and look at paths for change, can bring fresh perspective to persistent problems.

One problem with using the CIP is finding a group of reflective practitioners with whom you can be vulnerable enough to admit your areas of greatest struggle. Teachers can be an insular lot, treating the classroom as an island, or even a fortress. The Daejeon chapter of KOTESOL has a reflective practice special interest group (SIG) that might be a good place to start.

Students can also be asked to engage in reflective practice as a form of consciousness-raising peer evaluation, where they look at their own experiences of writing, share them together, examine what they have done, why they have done it, and the meanings and implications of these experiences on their own future experiences of academic literacy.

The practice of writing takes all kinds of forms, including those we might not automatically think of as writing. Just as emails, blog posts, and grocery lists are writing of a sorts, so can writing up a CIP develop our own comfort delving into words and paragraphs, and our own frameworks of thinking. Our developed voice becomes confident enough to invite other authors into the conversation, dialoguing with them in quotation and paraphrase, seeing this interaction as part of discourse, not as a threat of plagiarism to be feared and avoided.

Works Citied:

Yamada, K . (2003). What prevents ESL/EFL writers from avoiding plagiarism: Analyses of 10 North-American college websites. System, 31, 247–258.

Hole, S. & McEntee, G. (1999). Reflection is at the Heart of Practice. Educational Leadership, 56(8), 34-37.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Right To Blink

The first chapter of Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink” sets up a contrast between the things we normally associate with certainty, such as being slow and thoughtful and gathering a lot of evidence before making decisions, and the process of snap decision making. The evidence presented is clear and compelling—our snap judgments are as good or better than the slow, gradual process of gathering and analyzing evidence.

At first, this could be read as a scathing indictment of our scientific method. After all, why put in all that time and effort doing research when you (or somebody else) can just look at it and have a better idea from your gut. In fact, it is my guess that this meshes with many of the reactions we already have to published research. How many times have we, as practicing classroom teachers, looked at published study with a bit of disdain that someone would actually do a study to do something so obvious? For example, one recent example that I read was a study correlating vocabulary size to reading comprehension. Really. They found there was a positive correlation, which any teacher could have told you within a blink. This fast reaction to the text falls apart with a little bit of slow thinking, though.

In the first place, I might be able to trust my gut. I might be able to trust some expert’s gut, but does that mean I can trust everyone’s? If we don’t have some explainable standards or reasons for our decisions, it becomes hard to get anything done. The unscrupulous can claim thin-sliced knowledge in order to gain advantage over others—after all, we don’t have to prove things. No, I will not trust your hunches. You will have to prove things to me, and then I will believe you. That is what research and statistics can do.

Second, it was research and statistics that discovered the legitimacy of the hunches. How would we ever know if our knee-jerk reactions were accurate or not if nobody did any research on it? It was Gottman’s study that proved the marriage math. It was Levinson’s work that showed how doctors’ speech affects the rate of malpractice suits. Without this work, we would have been have been guessing about whether we were good guessers or not.

Ultimately, the right to make snap decisions is earned. Those who are accurate at it, such as Harrison and Gottman in Gladwell’s chapter, are those who have put in all the time at slow thinking and processing until it becomes such second nature that they can make the thin-sliced blink decision. Pay your dues, and then trust your gut once you have a massive and deliberately acquired knowledge base.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Problem of Having a Problem

What does one do about the problem of students cheating in Korea?  Let me tell you, dear reader, as you sit before your monitor with your cup on tea in one hand and pipe in the other, squinting at this missive through your monocle, that this problem is a most heinous one indeed.  Students would as soon cheat as breathe, and the devious little suckers just can't seem to not cheat.  The appalling thing is, with the amount of effort they put into cheating, they could just do the work themselves and not have to worry about it!  The amount of effort I have to put in each semester, just to make sure that students do their own work, leaves me feeling drained, as if the class itself is not the collaborative learning environment so extolled by our pedagogical giants in the field, but a battle zone--a war in which each push is met by a strategic withdrawal or a counterattack.  There are feints and ambushes; back and forth it rages through tests, homework, and even classroom activities.

I know I am not alone in this either--I have had many conversations with a large number of you about what your students have done.  We laugh and swap stories over a cold pint in the pub.  We collaborate in offices and staff rooms and share techniques and knowledge of how to win skirmishes and even battles.  We stand, shoulders hunched in disbelieving shrugs and jaws hanging aghast and slack at the audacity and brazen nature of the lack of academic integrity that goes on before our eyes every day.  How do we bear it?

Yet this battle may have to be re-examined.  In fact, it may be a false battle--one that we, the noble, enlightened pedagogues of the West, may have taken upon ourselves in an unfair imposition of value in a context where it does not belong.  David Nunan (among others) mentions in "Second Language Teaching and Learning" that:
"[T]here has long been a debate about the appropriateness of many of the methods used by expatriate teachers and those trained in expatriate methods, some commentators claiming that Western concepts of education are being applied, inappropriately, in non-Western contexts.  Increasingly, it is being recognized that pedagogical action needs to be sensitive to the cultural and environmental context in which the teaching takes place." (4-5).
In other words, stop being racist.

Well, I can hear you now, dear reader, your eyebrows arched in true sophistic glee, querying, "My dear deluded friend, how and in what possible way can cheating ever be a good thing?"  Well stated, my dear hypothetical reader, and indeed, this is the reason it has taken me three years of teaching in this country to even begin asking the question.  The answer to that question is painfully simple.  There isn't one.  Cheating is bad.  It's wrong.  "Ah ah!" I hear you scream, my dear antagonist, "I have you backed into a corner now!  How can I be racist if it's actually wrong.  It's no longer a matter of ethnocentrism, but of morals.  What is right is right, and don't you try to relativize such simple things."  Well put, my eloquent interlocutor, but the problem is that such an answer still ethnocentric.  It demonstrates such linear, propositional Western reasoning that I can scarce think out of that cast long enough to frame a reply.  What I venture is simply that it's too narrow.

So let me expand.  If you look at a simple statement, cheating is wrong.  But look at the entire cultural context.  Why do Korean students cheat?  Are they stupid?  Absolutely not.  Are they lazy?  Profoundly not!  Their work ethic puts my own, and most of my Western compatriots, to shame, and not just any shame, but world-ending, non-existence levels of shame.  There is, dear reader, a huge amount of good in Korean culture.  It's safe.  I can leave my backpack on a park bench and it will be there when I return from the restroom.  My friends can leave their baby in the real-estate office while they go out to look at apartments.  I can walk down dark alleys in the dead of night without fear.  It's friendly.  People don't try to cheat me in the market, they're just glad I enjoy Korean food.  People are delighted to give you a hand, like the lady at the highway oasis who, when I didn't undertand that I had to order at another window, receive a ticket, and then trade that ticket for my food, took my money and went down to that window to do it for me.  Such are the benefits of a collectivist society (and while there is an interesting conversation to be had about Korean racism, that is a conversation for another day) where people are trained from a very young age to watch out for and care for each other.  This is the upside.  The downside is that cheating can be justified as a way of doing so.  Instead of just looking at the downside, let's look at both for a change, can we?

Though we can look at the downside of Western academic culture, if you like.  Students in Korea know that cheating is wrong, just like students in the West know that backstabbing, undercutting, and sabotaging your classmates is wrong.  Yet all of us, if we lean back in our chair and ponder for a mere moment, can think of examples and anecdotes from our own and our friends experiences where Western students would do such things to their peers, or should I say, opponents.  Aye, dear reader, there is the rub.  In the crush of radical individualism and achievement at any cost, humans are the detritus over which we walk on our own path to greatness.  We do not look out for them, we look out for ourselves, and in so doing, we can easily view them as less than human, for at the least, they are less important than we.  Ah, let us cast open this dark side of our own heartlands!  Have you not heard of such things as students destroying opponent's assignment leaving them insufficient time to do it again?  Of university graduate students hiding or destroying books in the library that would strengthen their opponents' position?  Of gleefully reporting another student's cheating, not from morality, but to increase their own class standing?  My dear friends, can we be so blind to our own dark side of immorality permeating our academic environment, poisoning it with hostility and adversarial thinking?  What is a little cheating as the price of having a harmonious relationship with our brethren?

And there is the crux of the matter.  Western students know that these things they do are wrong, and so do Koreans.  What is going on here is not ignorance, it is a class of values--a very intentional choice to esteem one set of priorities over another.  In Korea, the value of social connections is higher than the value of personal achievement and strict academic integrity.  So, dear reader, before you jump to a speedy knee-jerk response as to which value set is better, reflect for a moment on this final question: which set of priorities creates a culture that you would rather live and work within?

Monday, May 30, 2011

You Can Visit, But You Don't Have to Live There...

I've been having a fairly interesting conversation with my friend regarding the nature and role of critical theory in informing our classroom decisions, planning, discipline, and even simple observation and perspective.  There is a lot to think about.  While this is not completely on point with his main argument of critical thinking versus critical theory, I wanted to take up an element of his post and respond.

His conclusion (horribly simplified by me) is that hegemonic pedagogy and critical theorists are both biased, and it is healthier and more constructive to be positivistic.  I've framed it harshly, but I'm actually quite sympathetic to this view, and in fact, got lambasted in class when I mentioned something similar to the professor.  What it comes down to for me is simply that critical theory strikes me as whiny and unproductive.  Everybody's a racist oppressive product of the system, except for a keen-eyed elitist few who can carve through the layers of bullshit with a surgeon's deft hand and expose the ulcerous tumor in the heart of every school.  I'm sick of victimizing and looking at how broken everything is in the world.  I want to do things.  I want to work hard and do my best and have a positive attitude about myself, my role in the world, and the students I teach.

On the other hand, I don't want to lie to myself to be there.  I don't want to be blind to the institutionalized power policy makers, materials publishers, administrators, my colleagues, and myself wield over others, and how we/they are participants in loathsome behavior.  I'm so glad I took a course on critical theory because it enables me to see these things more easily--it gives me a perspective I didn't have before, and it allows me to ably reflect on my own actions and those of my students and peers.

In the end, I cannot continue to do my job if I adopt a strong critical theory perspective.  I am not driven or emotionally resilient enough to push myself into every fight against discriminatory behavior in my classroom, department, school, national education system, or field.  What I want is to keep that critical voice very near to the surface, so that I do see it, and I can make the choice at each phase if this is a battle I can fight, or wish to fight.  I have a window into the dark side of the English education racket, and I will never look at it the same way again.  I believe we are doing some good in the world.  I believe most of us are doing the best we can, but I have changed things about the way I teach from learning critical theory, and others can as well.  It's an insidious world, but I choose to spend most of my time looking at the beautiful products and moments that come out of it in spite of (or because of?) that fact.  The lotus flower needs to root in muck and filth to put out its blossom.