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Myra Kogen THE CONVENTIONS OF EXPOSITORY WRITING A number of composition researchers in the past few years have come to the conclusion that students cannot think. Not the day-to-day thinking of ordinary life-it is admitted our students can get along there. But the abstract formulations and analytic conceptualization required for academic discourse are said to be beyond them. As the basis for such assumptions, composition researchers have turned to the cognitive theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, both of whom developed schemes to describe the growth of concept formation in young children. According to these schemes, children move from sensory-motor operations to concrete operations to higher and higher levels of abstracting and synthesizing, until, at the age of puberty (ages 11 to 13), they reach the stage when they can carry out sophisticated problem-solving operations. The problem, as some see it, is that our students have never attained the abilities that Piaget and Vygotsky predict will be achieved by early adolescence. Thus, Annette Bradford questions why "a large number of college freshmen have not acquired an ability which theorists link with ages eleven through thirteen" (19). Andrea Lunsford asserts that basic writers "have not attained that level of cognitive development which would allow them to form abstractions or conceptions" (38). Elaine 0. Lees finds in Myra Kogen teaches writing and literature at Hofstra University, and has taught basic writing at several colleges of The City University of New York. Her articles have appeared in English in the Two-Year College , American Literary Realism, and The Journal of Business Communication. She is currently working on a book on writing in the professions. ©Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1986 24 student writing "an absence of generalization, an apparent inability to go beyond talk of specific incidents and experiences to conclusions based on them" (145). And Marilyn Goldberg speaks of "the emptiness of [student] generalizations and the poverty of their supporting knowledge" (39). I would like to take a step back from such categorical assumptions of inability and inadequacy. It is all too easy to conclude that those who do not do, or who do not wish to do, what we seem to be able to do are deficient and underdeveloped. But, more important, such assumptions about reasoning and its role in discourse are not borne out by experience. In this paper I wish to challenge the notion that students, including basic writers, cannot think abstractly. First, I will briefly question the underlying assumptions behind the deficit model; second, I will look closely at student writing samples to show that students are not inept thinkers but simply insufficiently familiar with the conventions of expository discourse; and, last, I will apply these insights to a prominent piece of research which purports to demonstrate that students are poor thinkers. In concluding that students are cognitively undeveloped, composition researchers are assuming that the conventions of argumentation characteristic of expository discourse are absolute and universal. They take for granted both that the analytic patterns of academic discourse are equivalent to modes of thought and that the chains of reasoning characteristic of expository writing are the only forms of analytic thought. As the work of Walter Ong and others have shown, however, in other cultures other forms of argumentation can be viewed as persuasive (Interfaces of the Word and Rhetoric, Romance and Technology). Ong has found that primitive and nonliterate people are capable of developing intensely rich and complex forms of language based on oral traditions (forms based on rhapsodic patterns which employ ritualistic expressions, epithets, and proverbs). Ong believes that modern society, enveloped as it is by the mass media, often exhibits a kind of secondary orality. As an illustration, Ong describes a teacher asking a class of Black innercity students what they think of Nixon's actions in Cambodia, and being told by one student, "I wouldn't vote for that Turkey. He raised his own salary" ("Literacy and Orality" 4). Ong points out that, annoying as this comment may have been to the teacher, it shows the ability of the student to think analytically in accordance with the conventions of an oral culture which places primary emphasis on the deeper issues of life: "The highly oral student handled the instructor's query as a rhetorical example, 25 as a concrete instance referring to something at a higher, more generalized level of abstraction" (4). What Ong's analysis is pointing to, I think, is that college freshmen are not retarded at an early stage of thought development but that, in learning to write, they are falling back on other, less academically oriented forms of reasoning. David Bartholomae makes a similar point about the syntactic difficulties of basic writers: If we begin [by studying basic writing], we will recognize at once that "basic" does not mean simple or childlike. These are beginning writers, to be sure, but they are not writers who need to learn to use language. They are writers who need to learn to command a particular variety of languagethe language of a written, academic discourse-and a particular variety of language use-writing itself. The writing of a basic writer can be shown to be an approximation of conventional written discourse; it is a peculiar and idiosyncratic version of a highly conventional type, but the relation between the approximate and the conventional forms is not the same as the relation between the writing, say, of a 7th grader and the writing of a college freshman . . . . [basic writing] is a variety of writing, not writing with fewer parts or more rudimentary constituents. It is not evidence of arrested cognitive development, or unruly or unpredictable language use (254). When basic writers try to argue, reason, develop ideas in academic discourse, they have the same difficulties that Bartholomae notes concerning syntactic fluency. Teachers reading the essays of these writers find the ideas messy, undefined, undeveloped; the writing seems overly general, or at the other extreme, too specific and personal. The points seem foolish or immature or unrealized. These difficulties are attributed to a lack of ability on the parts of students to reason, to think analytically. However, the patterns of reasoning we have come to expect in academic writing are not inherent forms of thinking but conventional modes. These forms are so familiar that we conceive of them as natural and inevitable. Our students bringing other, more colloquial forms of reasoning to their writing, are also convinced of the superiority of academic argumentation. They struggle to employ it in their essays but they have learned the systems imperfectly so their attempts seem inadequate and immature. It would help immeasurably if we could understand exactly what the conventions of argument in academic discourse really 26 are. Unfortunately, such understanding is difficult to achieve because conventions, by their very nature, are instinctual and automatic. As Douglas Park has poi ted out, writers are usually not aware of the conventions that go ern a piece of writing; more often it is merely a matter of "being on sure ground," of feeling comfortable with one's voice, and kn wing intuitively that a piece is proceeding in accordance with ne's own and the readers' expectations (254). Once we look at the patterns of rgumentation used by our students, it becomes clear that what ver their backgrounds may be, in school they are trying to e ploy the usual modes of reasoning of academic discourse-tr ing but not totally succeeding. The writing is characterized b conventional patterns that are imperfectly used and only margi ally realized. Interestingly, the ideas themselves often seem rea onable enough but connections between ideas are often weak generalizations needed to link minor and major ideas are ofte missing, supporting explanations may be only vaguely suggest d or even entirely omitted. This lack of adherence to characterist' c patterns of argumentation is evident not only in the developm nt of ideas but also in the use of tone or voice. For example, in an essay titled " y Strengths as a Student," a student in one of my basic writin classes wrote: The only way I can accomplish hat I want to in life is to have strength as a student. I want to do some kind of technical work with my hand, and if I don' finish my degree, I'll never accomplish what I set out to do. With all the changes I went thr ugh with when I came to Register, I feel showed some str ngth of determination. My Job didn't help matters in fact t ey add to the confusion. I was told I would get a transfer nd at the last minute they couldn't do it. I was left running around trying to get all the classes I needed to be a full-tim student. Now I am in school and I feel I an finish once and fore all if I keep my head in the books hich shouldn't be too hard. Aside from errors in spelling and synt as a result of these, the passages see While paragraphs one and three can paragraph two seems to have only to the other two-something about r a promised transfer (job transfer?) t Readers might ask: How do the sent to the topic? Why is the transfer me 27 x, or, more probably, partly ed scattered and irrational. e said to make some sense, vague kind of connection gistration, something about at did not come through. registration relate Actually, the sentences on registration are about the confusion and difficulty of registering for the first time (a confusion experienced by many freshmen). For this student the difficulties of registering were compounded by his not having received a promised job transfer that would have provided better working hours and placed him closer to the college. The argument my student is constructing, then, is that he has already shown great strength as a student-first, because he successfully negotiated the difficulties of registration and, second, because he got through these difficulties in spite of a hampering job situation. As the ideas appear in the original passages, they seem run together, connections are tenuous, a very important piece of information (what the job transfer meant) is omitted. But the passage is not lacking in sense. In fact, once translated it makes fine sense and, once understood, forms a convincing argument. The first sentence in paragraph two offers the proper generalization for the argument (what I have already gone through to be a student shows that I have the "strength of determination" to succeed). The examples that follow properly support this point. This student simply lacks a sense of how arguments in expository discourse are characteristically developed, how a chain of reasoning is joined and filled in. One convention of expository writing is that the audience must always be told more than it would need to be told in conversation. Mina Shaughnessy, exploring this difference between speech and writing, pointed out that speech, " looping back and forth between speakers, offering chances for groping and backing up and even hiding, leaving room for the language of hands and faces, of pitch and pauses" is "generous" in comparison to writing which requires more formal supports in accordance with " the rules of evidence" (238). Writers like my student, more attuned to the conventions of speech than writing, often omit information which a listener could supply from context, from tone or gesture, or from other conversational clues. Basic writers need to be helped to understand the limitations of the reading audience, the difficulties of making sense of text without contextual clues. Even this analysis needs to be qualified, however, for it implies that the amount of information supplied by the writer is determined by the reader's need to know. Actually, writers often supply much more information than readers actually need and convention permits that they do so. Take, for example, any feature article in the New York Times on the city's beleaguered subway system which, as a matter of course, will describe in detail all the 28 unspeakable inconveniences that ew Yorkers suffer daily. The newspaper's readers do not need his information; they know it only too well. These anecdotes re used not to provide information, but to evoke common fee ings of anger and disgust. The extent to which a writer of expo itory discourse must draw out connections and provide backgro nd information, then, is not necessarily determined by the re der's need for knowledge. In class, topics are often discu ed at length by teachers and students before students write o them. No matter how much discussion takes place, however, c nvention requires that a writer provide some amount of backgro nd explanation for the reader even if it is unnecessary. Teacher familiar with the conventions of academic writing often feel t at students are poor thinkers when they do not supply such ba kground, forgetting that logic, in this case, is actually on the tudents' side. For example, a basic writing college class of min was once asked to argue for or against a writing proficiency e amination that had been proposed for the next year. As backg ound, I described the plan for the examination to my students ·n detail. Nevertheless, I was very surprised when I received a whole set of essays that took for granted that the reader would now all about the proficiency test and its use. My students, as t e following introductory paragraph shows, did not realize that convention required that they set the scene by giving known ba kground information: In my opinion, we the students of Queens Community College don't need this proposed requirement. We have already taken enough exams from the beginning to determine our proficiency in writing. Those who failed the placements tests, were penalized already by taken remedial courses. It would unfairly penalize then again. The lack of explanation in this paragraph interestingly contrasts with the work of a second, more savvy freshman writer in another college, who was asked to evaluate the effects of an exam already in place: There are many exams that students are given throughout their lives in order to evaluate their abilities and weaknesses. One such test is the proficiency exam in writing, which must be passed in order to graduate from Hofstra University. Many feel that this requirement should be done away with, but I do not agree. While this test may have its faults , it does measure a students ability to reason logically, put their ideas on paper, and also shows their level of vocabulary. 29 The first writer was totally unaware that the proficiency examination had to be briefly described in her paper, that the context had to be given. The second student is aware of the conventions and does describe the examination, but, interestingly, he does so with a certain degree of stiffness. He has not yet worked out ways to include unneeded information gracefully. Aside from logical connections and the use of background information, academic writers also must be concerned with making clear the generalizations upon which their arguments hinge. In less stringent circumstances, for example in conversation, a point can be made swiftly in passing, without a detailed explanation of how it relates to the main theme. In expository writing, however, explicit statements are needed to relate supports to basic propositions. For example, in a passage taken from another paper on the topic of the proposed proficiency examination, the writer suggests a relevant well-reasoned point, but fails to offer a generalization to show how her point relates to her claim that proficiency examinations are an unfair measure of a person's writing ability: Another point that I will like to make is that what if a person with an A average somehow does not do well on the essay and a person with a D average happens to do the essay well, it would be wrong not to give a degree to the A average person who work so hard to achieve an A average and get the degree and not get it and the D average to get the degree and not even had work that hard with the rest of the work. The syntax is somewhat difficult to unravel, but the implied point is clear. Using an example, the student argues that the grade on a proficiency examination reflects achievement on one test whereas an overall grade point average reflects achievement in many courses over several years. Therefore, overall GPA is a fairer measure of writing ability and of a student's qualifications to graduate than a proficiency test. The point makes sense, it supports the writer's basic contention and it is neither unreasonable nor simplistic. The student, however, fails to express it explicitly. Basic writers often need help with this important step. They are not aware that convention requires that examples and supports be tied to generalizations with statements that explicitly explain the relationships between them. The student is aware of this realtionship or she could not have come up with the example. She needs merely to be told abqut and given practice with the convention. An opposite problem, generalization used without an appro30 priate elaboration, often appears as well. The following passage in which a student suggests ways of improving registration procedures is an example of this type: To improve registration procedures they should have all the cards, computers, teachers, chairmen, etc. all in one room. In doing this they will avoid having students running all over the place. The counselors are a great help but they really can't spend much time with each student. They should also have many more lines of teachers at each booth. The suggestions for improving registration seem sensible. However, the student is not explaining or supporting his arguments. He is merely stating his ideas without backing them up. Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor have pointed out that cause and effect arguments are supported by the use of a ruling assumption called "agency." Since members of a society are likely to share a number of casual assumptions about human and physical nature, the extent to which the writer must articulate and explain the role of agency in argument is often a matter of judgment: . . . whether or not we articulate agency in a casual argument depends largely on audience. For example, if we argue that a significant cause of teenage vandalism is violence on TV, the agency between these two is imitation. Since most audiences will readily accept imitation as a human motive, we would not have to stop and argue for it. But if we claimed that wearing a mouth plate can improve athletic performance (Sports Illu strated, 2 June 1980), we will certainly have to explain agency (25). One might say that to my student, the improvements he is suggesting are so obvious that they represent the kinds of casual connections that people in shared cultures can take for granted. The student needs to be made aware that the conventions of academic discourse require that he support or somehow detail his assertions. The extent to which propositions must be explained and supported, however, is a matter of judgment, since no argument can ever be said to be "proved" in this fashion, no matter how many examples or supports are provided. In addition to lacking facility with the conventional strategies for reasoning and arguing, many students are also unsure about voice and tone. Related to this inability, I think, is the common perception of teachers that much student writing is too personal, too highly confessional and emotional. This perception, while it 31 seems to be about the treatment of the topic, often turns out to be about voice. Students are approaching topics in what is felt to be an unacademic and overly emotional way. For example, a student of ...
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