- A Complex Move
- Writing as a Resource
- Why Messiness Matters
- The Messiness of Decision-making and Unwarranted Solutions
By Ron Christiansen
During my twenty years of teaching, students (that’s you, my primary readers) have often pushed me to be more explicit about what I want in my assignments.
While I think this is a fair demand from students and one we can learn from as teachers, I also see how this interchange is much more complex than many students and teachers realize. You may believe I’m up to some trickery, hoping to trip you up if you aren’t paying close attention. And, if I’m being honest with you, I may believe you are being a tad lazy, wanting the instructor to do your work for you.
Let’s take an example from a common introductory composition assignment (see the appendix beneath this essay), which asks students to identify at least three distinct points of view concerning their research question. Often, we can easily develop two viewpoints, usually a pro and con, but many of us struggle to develop the third point of view. In discussions with students, I’m often asked, “Is this a good third viewpoint? Is this what you want?”
Again, these are fair questions. I assume in the past you have engaged an assignment on your own terms, believing the teacher wants your unique take, only to get burned by a low grade. Still, I also get a bit frustrated, especially with the second question. My frustration isn’t simply with you, but with my own teaching abilities and the overall educational system that sometimes encourages such simplistic thinking. This system often focuses on so-called discrete skills that will help students get a high score on the ACT or pass the AP exam or gain usable job skills. While these endeavors have some merit and pragmatic applications, they do not prepare students to engage in complex writing situations that come out of specific contexts.
First, these two questions assume that I only want one kind of viewpoint. Second, they assume that each topic or issue has three correct viewpoints. Third, the questions attempt to remove your decision-making from the equation. Without your decision-making, you are simply using language to prove knowledge mastery rather than actually creating something. Fourth, the questions focus more on you being right than being clearly understood.
Because I view writing as a resource that people use to do and be things in the world, the answer to the question “Is this what you want?” is complex and demands engagement with the overall context of writing. If I simply see language as a tool used to demonstrate knowledge about a subject then the answer is straightforward. I can say, “Yes, let me clarify. I want you to identify and explain two polarized views and then a middle ground position on your issue.” I’m sure many of you have had teachers who are primarily focused on how students use language to demonstrate knowledge.
But I’m usually unwilling to answer the question in this way and to clearly and simply define the problems you are wrestling with, as heartless as this may seem. I believe clarifying and identifying three viewpoints doesn’t have a correct answer; there are many ways to establish these viewpoints as long as there is a rationale that you can articulate.
When you understand this, you can focus your energies on figuring out the messiness instead of pursuing the right answer while waiting for the teacher to clarify the assignment. Trust your own personal knowledge from your own experiences of talking with people, reading online, watching movies…you know, doing life. You have experience that will help you understand your assignments. I believe this process will make your writing experience more meaningful and will often create a more positive response from instructors. And I’m certain in many work situations employers will want you to confidently engage with the situation you are given on your own rather than immediately ask them what they want. Even if they don’t say it out loud, my guess is they are often thinking, “Figure it out yourself!”
From this perspective, many writing tasks not simply about using language to demonstrate knowledge. Rather, I want to open up spaces where you can actually use language for your own purposes. This may sound daunting and messy but I think that’s exactly why it’s so important.
Even as an instructor I’m a tad overwhelmed with the task at hand. Nevertheless, it’s what we writing instructors say we want and it’s what we believe will actually help students become better writers, not just with our assignments, but down the road in another course or in a job situation. For me to impose my understanding of an issue and its context is to deny you the opportunity to learn to think your own thoughts.
Just take a look at one of the threshold concepts for this course:
When applying this concept, we often focus on the situation of the debate itself but situation is actually uniquely defined by each individual. So if your overall question is what should the minimum age be for drinking alcohol, you would probably, depending on your overall purpose, want to know something about the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed by President Reagan in 1984. This is part of the situation or, more specifically, the historical context, and is fairly straightforward after some research. But another important part of the “situation” is that YOU the writer are asking the question and formulating a response. The viewpoints you arrive at and choose to include in your project reflect what you know about your issue and how you are thinking about it. In this case, maybe you have personal experience with the issue that informs your ability to understand the context and create various viewpoints. It’s not a question of wrong or right.
A more specific example: a student exploring drinking age laws previously lived in Germany where the legal age for drinking beer and wine without a legal guardian is sixteen. This experience shaped the student’s construction of the debate in ways that many teachers in the U.S. can’t begin to understand. For the student, having a glass of wine at a young age with his family or a beer with friends was normal and not fraught with issues of illegality or shame. Some teachers may not even recognize this as a potential viewpoint because they did not have early experiences with alcohol or they primarily identify teenage alcohol consumption with parties, excess, and getting drunk. For the teacher to clarify the assignment at this moment, to lay out how they see the landscape of this debate, is to deny a student’s knowledge and experience, ultimately denying the student an opportunity to use language in a productive manner.
One last example: A student in a colleague’s class was researching, “Does the American Dream still exist for immigrants?” The student had immigrated and saw herself as living the American Dream. Yet a family member, at least as capable as herself, had really struggled and had been advised to move back to Peru. Yet another family member is in the US on DACA, on what he thought was a clear path to the American Dream, until his dream was suddenly called into question by federal policies introduced by President Trump to revamp DACA. All of these views are valid in the sense that they are embedded in personal experience and various contexts. Again, these various contexts are most likely not available to many instructors. In this interaction, I find it best for me as an instructor to first ask questions and listen before I offer my ideas on the debate, even though this requires more time and locates the student as the expert.
There’s no removing the messiness of the individual making decisions about how to enter a conversation and how to interpret the evidence and strategies being used. Yet this messiness can make us feel confused and frustrated. In one way or another, you might say something like:
“I’m so confused and don’t have time for this. Just tell me what the hell you want and I will give it to you!”
The anger and confusion are sometimes palpable and can lead well-intentioned instructors to come up with unwarranted “solutions.” For example, often when I’ve had confused students, I’ve revised and added more explanation and examples to my assignments. While these revisions to an assignment handout may be necessary at times, I have also witnessed how this default move can lead to an ever-amassing list of criteria, which narrow options. Nothing is necessarily wrong with a long assignment description unless instructors take away students’ opportunities to make decisions about their writing and/or if teachers then proudly proclaim, “Surely there will be no questions now—it’s all there.” If only learning were so simple.
As several writing teachers from La Guardia Community College write in an essay about messy teaching, teachers avoid, “the unexpected, messy, and slippery process through which our classes unfold in favor of clean solutions, well-designed lessons, and so-called ‘best practices.’” But it’s still not all there and never will be because the “all there” includes you, the student.
The messiness often doesn’t merely derive from a faulty assignment explanation, but surfaces in the doing, in the application. There will always be questions, always some confusion, always some frustration. Learning, deep-real-life-consequential learning, requires some false starts and failures. I believe both teachers and students would fare better facing these simple truths. But following this advice does cause complications. Teachers still must assign and grade, and students are, rightfully, concerned about how they will be evaluated. Ultimately I place the responsibility for creating an environment where this kind of learning can happen on teachers. We must gain your trust that we are evaluating fairly, to the best of our abilities, and not favoring certain students or types of responses. A simple way to do this is for teachers to allow students to explain their thinking (metacognition) and the decision-making behind their writing projects through self-reflection and self-assessment assignments.
“Is this a good third viewpoint? Is this what you want?”
“It depends.” Explain why you believe it’s a valid viewpoint. Because it depends on the issue; it depends on your experience; it depends on what you know; it depends on what you can find through research; it depends…on what you want to do.
Research Project Part II: Viewpoint Synthesis
Showing multiple viewpoints and connecting them to your own view
At this point you should have completed extensive research into your research question, exploring multiple perspectives and constructions of the issue. This research is represented in your evolving Annotated Bibliography. The purpose of research and annotated bibliographies in persuasive writing is to come to a fuller understanding of the rhetorical context and situation. That is, the purpose is not simply to find support for the views you already hold about an issue, but to also explore others’ viewpoints. Your Viewpoint Synthesis paper will discuss various ways of looking at a topic, not just pro and con.
Synthesis means “putting together.” In this Viewpoint Synthesis paper, you will flesh out your own view on your issue in the context of what you have discovered about your research question in this unit. This paper is not a researched argument but rather a brief overview of your own view shaped by your research and the notebooks/discussions from Unit #3. Still, you must compare and contrast your view with the research you have explored in your Annotated Bibliography. In doing this you should utilize your writing and thinking from the various assignments during this unit.
The last two Notebooks (Rhetorical Context/Viewpoint Summary and Clarifying Your Position within a Debate) are actually rough drafts, in a sense, of this assignment. Use your work on these notebooks to shape your Viewpoint Synthesis.
The only criteria we give you is that you must show at least three viewpoints plus your own informed viewpoint about your issue.
We imagine that the opinion summary can take on various forms. Your specific approach should come out of your engagement with your particular debate. Here are two possible ways of approaching the assignment:
- Differing viewpoints—organize your paper based on the differing viewpoints of sources or stakeholders you researched. (Think back to Week 14’s discussion and the Summarizing the Positions “templates.”)
- “Story” of my research—if your own view has changed quite a bit during your exploration you might choose this option. Recount the journey of your research and exploration of the issue: how your views changed and were reshaped & how you arrived at your current view.
As you write, consider the following guidelines:
- Remember that this is a new paper, not your Annotated Bibliography. While you may use some of the passages and language from your bibliography, this is a different paper that is meant to show us the range of positions on the issue as well as the position you take and your reasons/evidence for this position.
- Finding an organization that shows the complexity of the issue is part of the learning task for this paper (see above). Do not just transfer your annotations into this paper; think, instead, about grouping them to show similarities and differences in various positions.
- The rhetorical analysis you did in the bibliography does not show up in this paper as such. You may certainly point out flaws in arguments, and you can indicate you think a source is very credible in the way you introduce it. For example, you might say, “Noted psychologist and professor at Harvard University, John Bramble, argues that . . .”
- If you do not introduce your sources within your text, use in-text citations after any ideas or short quotes you use. Rely on paraphrase and quote sparingly, but ALWAYS signal to the reader when you are summarizing someone’s viewpoint.
- Remember that while this paper is meant to show you understand some of the viewpoints of your issue, it is also meant to give you the chance for you to “put in your oar” as Graff and Birkinstein say. Do everything in your power to be credible and persuasive in giving your reasons for your position. Make sure to include evidence that adds to your ethos and logos.
- 1,000–1,250 words (4–5 pages)
- Use your rhetorical analysis of these sources and the debate itself to make an argument about credibility
- Carefully contextualize your views with and against the research you have found
- Use attributive tags (As Johnson argues . . . OR In contrast to Johnson . . .) to situate your view amongst your sources
- “The Messy Teaching Conversation: Toward a Model of Collegial Reflection, Exchange, and Scholarship on Classroom Problems.” Johnsen, Heidi L.; Pacht, Michelle; van Slyck, Phyllis; Tsao, Ting Man. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, v37 n2 p119-136 Dec 2009 ↵