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.