Making transitions when writing in new media

I have been procrastinating about some revisions I need to do recently on my own PhD thesis and also on a paper I have been writing with colleagues. One of the forms this procrastination has taken is looking back at some of the early posts on this blog. I was struck by how formal they are – so ‘academic’ in tone and style. The later posts are different, more humorous in some ways, and also more relaxed; more like what I now think blog posts on this kind of blog should be – conversation-starters or think-pieces there to stimulate discussion and thinking and conversation in a more relaxed or informal way. They should be engaging – of the writer and the reader, and be fun to write and read. Well, this is my opinion of them anyway.

But I got to thinking, ‘what changed? Between now and then, why did my style shift so?’ There is also a bigger question here about transitions writers make in their own processes of growth and learning, and how and why these transitions happen. We in writing centres are, I think, quite focused on these transitional moves, because part of our work is to enable them to take place and also to make student-writers more aware of the need for change and transition and growth and how to achieve this.

In my own blog-writing I think my learning has been quite tacit. As I got more comfortable with the blogsphere, and as I started subscribing to and reading other blogs, I started to learn about what I liked to read, what kinds of tones and styles were used in blogs that I identified as being like my own, and I began to play with this genre a little more boldly, although I didn’t try things out very consciously – rather I just began to write a little less formally, and with a little less planning and careful thought. I tried to just let the ideas come, and then edited and organised retrospectively. If I think back, I cannot pin-point this strategy or that which worked, although I could show you posts I liked writing more, and less, and probably the ones I liked more were funnier and more fun to write, and also more personal and about my own writing and how my learning is carried into my conversations with students and tutors. They felt more like the kinds of texts that tend to count as relevant or authentic in the blogspheres I think they fit into.

So, I suppose I have to ask myself, now, ‘what learning from this experience of changing my own writing style in my blog can I take into my tutoring of students and writing tutors?’ You may say that this is an easier space to play within than perhaps a university course where the assessment of the students’ writing is high stakes. After all, no one is marking my blog posts out of 100 or judging the posts to pass or fail against some preset criteria. However low-stakes this space may be in terms of the formal understandings of assessment of writing in higher education, it is not all that low-stakes for me. I am putting my ideas out into a very public space, sharing them with many people I cannot meet or see, who do not actually know me the way a lecturer might, or be able to give the benefit of any kind of doubt. This has made me feel quite vulnerable, and open to possible critique and misreading. While I know, as an academic, that critique is good if it can help me grow and learn, it is not always easy to hear. So each post feels a bit like an act of bravery, and each post is another step in my learning process about writing in this space, in this medium.

I think that each essay and assignment must feel to many students like an act of bravery, as they open their work and their selves expressed in their work up to critique and correction. Students also need to learn to write well in new media and new genres, and often the rules and conventions of these genres are not explained or opened up for discussion and deconstruction in lectures or tutorials. Many lecturers assume that students can work these rules and conventions out on their own, and struggle to see the tacit-ness of their own learning and growth as writers. If they could see this, as I can try to see my own tacit learning and growth, then they could start working with student writers from a place of empathy, because writing in new media and new voices is risky and does feel vulnerable, and support and feedback is needed. They could also begin, as I have tried to do with my tutors, to explain their own processes of learning, making the rules and conventions that govern what counts as the right tone or style or voice in these different media more explicit and easy to see, understand and also challenge where necessary.

Writing never stops being work, and even when we stay with one or two media we are comfortable with as writers we still need to make transitions and change and grow in order for our writing to remain engaging, current, relevant to our audiences. But it doesn’t always have to be painful, unpleasant work. I think that reflecting on our own journeys as writers, trying to pull out and explain our own transitions and what enabled them or made them happen could be a useful and creative starting place when we approach working with student writers who need our feedback and guidance.

How to write task questions that don’t confuse students (or writing tutors)

One of the most common things that lecturers seem to complain about with regard to student writing is students’ seeming inability to answer task questions properly, fully, or in the desired way. One of the most common things we assist students with in our writing centre is what we call ‘task analysis’. In essence this means that we work with students to unpack and understand their task questions and then use this as a starting point for talking about what they have written in their drafts and where they can see gaps and areas for improvement and revision. One of the things that often frustrates us as writing tutors standing outside the disciplines is confusing questions, or questions with so much information packed into them that we are not sure what is more or less important or where to help students start with their thinking and writing. So, these are some of the things we think are worth thinking about when writing assignment questions that don’t confuse students (or writing tutors).

The first thing to consider when writing a question is one of the things we teach students to do when reading a question: think about the CONTENT words, the DIRECTION words and the PARAMETERS or boundaries. The content words are the stuff of the question and tell you what the essay/report/assignment needs to be about. For example, the ways in which power was exercised during the Marikana strikes, or the effects of climate change on animal habitats in the Arctic Circle and in sub-Saharan Africa. The direction words tell you what to with that content or research, for example critically discuss the exercises of power or compare the effects of climate change in these two kinds of habitats. The parameters or boundaries limit the topic so that you are focused and cannot simply write about anything and everything. So you might critically discuss the exercises of power at Marikana with particular reference to the behaviour of the army and the police force, or you might compare the effects of climate change in these two kinds of habitats over the last ten years. Thus you are limited from writing about the behaviour of the strikers or the mine owners as well as the police and army, or the effects of climate change in general over the last twenty or more years, such that your essay does not focus on what you have been asked to focus on. If students need to use these tools to unpack and understand questions, then it may help lecturers writing questions and tasks to be aware of them, and use them carefully.

The second thing to consider is avoiding the use of ambiguous direction words. The most often-used direction word is ‘discuss’. This is not in itself a problematic word, but it becomes confusing for students who see it used in different disciplines where it means different things, yet the exact meaning is often unclear. Discuss is therefore often experienced by students (and writing tutors) as being a rather vague direction word on the whole. Rather ask yourself, as the question-writer and assessor what you really need students to show you or do with the research and content and use direct, clear words, like ‘compare and contrast’; ‘analyse and explain’; describe’; critique’ etc to guide them.

The third thing to consider is to talk your students through the tasks you set carefully, making time for questions and answers. This could prevent at least some of the confusion around what reading and research to do and can help your students to understand exactly what you are looking for in their essays or assignments. Take time to explain to students exactly what your direction words mean in relation to the content and the parameters, and try to give them a set of assessment criteria – what are you looking for, what are you awarding marks for and what do they need to focus on. All the better if you can write these criteria down clearly and give them to students or have them accessible online via Google Drive or your university’s e-teaching platform.

The final thing to consider is that simpler is almost always better when it comes to questions. The more you pack in there the more likely students are to get dazed and confused and write off-topic. Even if you are assessing students at senior undergraduate or postgraduate level where they should be ready and able to unpack, understand and answer complex or layered questions, the more direct, clear, focused and simple your approach to writing the question, the more likely students will be to grasp what you want from them and meet the required standard in their responses. Complex questions don’t have to be written in complex and obscure language. In fact they absolutely should not be. We want students to learn, succeed and grow, and we need to give them opportunities to do this. Writing obscure, difficult, or confusing assignment questions is unlikely to help students achieve this learning, growth and success.

It takes time to learn how to write clear questions, so ask your colleagues or an academic literacy practitioner if you know one to read your questions and give you constructive feedback. Try out different ways of asking the same question. Cast your mind back to when you were a student, and try to remember what you found helpful and unhelpful and use this insight in your task writing. It may be tough to start with, but the rewards for you and your students will be worth it. The writing tutors will thank you too :-).