About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing About Education

            For quite some time, I have been teaching two graduate courses to help students in education write more effectively, both for professional and general audiences. Professional writing in education, and in the social sciences generally, is not known for its eloquence, yet the issues written about – from child development to the economics of higher education – are hugely important. So all of us involved in education, from teachers and administrators to researchers to school board members, need to get better at writing about what we know best.

 I get asked about these courses a lot, so I thought it might be useful to reprint here a (slightly edited) section from a commentary I wrote about them for the journal College English (January, 2010). In the article, I focus on students in the midst of graduate study, but the general principles and the techniques could apply easily to teachers, administrators, and members of school boards.
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Education includes areas of study as different as history and developmental biology and psychology…as well as economics, linguistics, anthropology, political science, sociology, statistics, and more.  It is not uncommon for a student to study several of these disciplines, acquiring their vocabularies and modes of argument along the way, acquiring as well the authority of disciplinary membership.  But education is also intimately connected to broad public concerns, and the majority of students in education very much want to affect educational policy and practice.  How do they turn, and tune, their voices from the seminar room to the public sphere?  As they try to do so, they find themselves smack in the middle of a whole set of questions about communication: about writing, voice, audience, and the tension between the language of specialization and the language of public discourse. 

I hadn’t been in UCLA’s ed school for very long before these tensions became a focus of my teaching.  Student after student in child development, or language policy, or the study of higher education sat in my office expressing a desire to make a difference in the world, to communicate with the public about educational issues that mattered deeply to them.  But they didn’t know how to do it, or, to be more exact, worried that the specialized language of learning theory, or critical social thought, or organizational behavior that they had worked so hard to acquire both certified their authority in the academy and tongue-tied them when it came to writing for non-specialists.  Some also worried that these new languages – the syntax and vocabulary, the conventions and stance – left no room for a personal mark, for the deeply felt beliefs that brought them into education, for passion.

            The first course I developed helps students become more effective scholarly writers.  And while it certainly addresses everything from conventions of citation to summarizing a body of research literature, it also assists students in framing a tight argument and questioning it, in thinking hard about audience, in appropriating stylistic devices and considering the grace as well as informational content of their sentences.

            The course is structured like a workshop, and each student begins by reading aloud a piece of his or her writing, even if half of it is charts and statistical tables.  Because so many students in education come out of the social or psychological sciences, they rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to think about their writing as writing and not just a vehicle to hold information.  I want them to hear their writing.  I urge them to find other scholarly and non-scholarly writers they like and read them like a writer, noting and analyzing what it is they do that works – and then incorporating those writers’ techniques into their own work.  At the end of the quarter, I think that the primary thing students acquire is a rhetorical sense of their writing; style and audience are more on their minds. As one student put it so well: “The course got me to think of my writing as strategic. Who am I writing to? Where do I want to take them with my argument? How can I get them there?”

The second course shares a good deal with the workshop on scholarly writing, but is designed to help students in education write for the general public. The goal is to produce two pieces of writing: the newspaper Op Ed piece and the magazine article. Students can vary these for online media, but the purpose remains the same: to draw on one’s studies and work in schools to write for a wide audience a 700-800 word opinion piece and a 1500-2500 word magazine article. Students are also required to familiarize themselves with appropriate outlets and submit to them.

To streamline our discussion here, I’ll focus on the opinion piece, though my students and I go through the same process and make some of the same discoveries in writing the magazine article.

On the first day of class, I distribute a variety of opinion pieces – and encourage students to subsequently bring in ones they find that catch their fancy. We operate inductively, reading the selections and looking for characteristics and commonalities.

Students immediately notice the brevity and conciseness of the opinion piece (versus the longer, more elaborated writing of their disciplines). Claims and arguments are made quickly and without heavy citation or marshalling of other research relevant to the topic. Evidence is present in the opinion piece, of course, but it will be one or two key statistics or examples or reports, or a telling and crisp quotation from another expert. How, then, does one select a sample of evidence that is vibrant yet still representative? Or, more challenging, how does one deal with conflicting evidence within significant space constraints?

Students also notice features of the Op Ed genre, particularly the “hook,” the linking of the piece onto an event in the news. And, in some pieces, the “turn,” that point where the writer, having summarized current policy or perception, turns the tables and offers another way – the way the writer prefers – to think about the issue at hand.

Opinion pieces are written in all kinds of styles and voices – from polemical to didactic to ironic – but students comment on the commonalities in language, the accessible vocabulary, the lack of jargon (or the judicious use of it, always defined), the frequent use of colloquial speech – always for rhetorical effect. Along with diction, they note the syntax of sentences – often not as complicated as they find in scholarly prose – and the short paragraphs (versus paragraphs that in scholarly writing can go on for a page).

This attention to style leads to experimentation: incorporating metaphor, varying sentence length, the strategic shortening of paragraphs. It also contributes to a heightened appreciation of revision and a commitment to it. “By the time I got done with my piece,” one student said, “every sentence was changed. It does you no good to hold onto your precious words.”

One thing I love about teaching this course – or the one focused more on scholarly writing – is how easily, readily big topics emerge, topics central to the kind of work the students envision for themselves. We might be talking in class about the kind of evidence to provide, and that discussion balloons to the issue of authority, of demonstrating expertise. Or we’re down to the level of the sentence, mixing long sentences with short ones, or even the effective use of the semi-colon or the dash, and suddenly we’re talking about how someone wants to sound, to come across to a reader.

This concern about how one comes across has a lot to do with identity, a fundamental issue at this stage of a graduate student’s development. What kind of work do I want to do? How can I sound at least a little bit distinctive while appropriating the linguistic conventions of my discipline? Who do I want to write for; how narrowly or broadly will I think of my audience or audiences? Who am I as an educator?

Another gratifying effect of the course is the cross-over effect that always emerges: The students begin to apply the lessons learned in this class on popular writing to their academic prose. I encourage a kind of bilingualism, the continued development of facility with both professional writing and writing for non-specialists. But, as well, there is playback from the opinion piece and magazine article onto the writing students do for their disciplines.

They learn, for example, to present their argument quickly, tersely, without the scaffolds of jargon, catchphrases, and a swarm of citations. This honing of language can have a powerful effect on a writer’s conceptualization of the argument itself. What exactly am I trying to say here? What is the problem I’m trying to solve? What is the fundamental logic of my study? Writing the opinion piece, one student observed, “helped me think deeply about my topic. It’s so easy to string a lot of fancy words together that look really important, but don’t really have substance to them.”

I’ve been writing about the crossover from the opinion piece to academic writing, but the crossover works in both directions. Students gain a heightened sense of the potential relevance of their work to issues of public concern.

The fostering of a hybrid professional identity – the life lived both in specialization and in the public sphere – is something I think we as a society need to nurture. The more opinion is grounded on rich experience and deep study, the better the quality of our public discourse about the issues that matter to us. 

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