Week 10 – Inquiry Versus Info-dump: Better Research Thinking and Writing in Any Discipline

What the heck is he doing here?

What the heck is he doing here?

I am not going to try to cover all the concerns introduced by Bean in this chapter.  “Research” means something quite specific as we shift from one discipline to another, so I hope you feel free to talk about whatever particular idea you found most relevant for you and your domain.

I am going to limit my kick-off post to one concern: Free choice or prescribed topics for research?

I’ve gone down both roads in preparing major English term assignments, and I would say that if you are prepared to fully support the Q-defining and narrowing process with lots of class time and lots of conferencing, then it can be rewarding for students.  If not, you are asking for frustration, data-dumps, all-abouts, and plagiarism.


In the past I let my environmental literacy BXE students define and narrow their own topics – with some pretty good results, but with a time-consuming process too. I don’t do it any more because 1) I have a more specific set of learning goals for that part of the course and 2) I am better at creating a set of several options that stimulate inquiry AND also achieve those learning goals. For example, I now have them working within the genre of the open letter, and writing on one of three topical enviro controversies (recent eg. the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides) from the viewpoint of one of several stakeholders.

I agree with Bean that our first concern with college students ought to be to stimulate curiosity and to model inquiry.   As he notes, college students tend to think of research as “going to the library” (226) – or increasingly, to Wikipedia – when what we are talking about is a kind of disposition toward an interesting question, and its known and unknown unknowns.  

Arguably, we can stimulate curiosity if we narrow the research that students do, so they can better get excited by the inquiry.   Several years ago, in my ICE:Writing English course we worked on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for several weeks. During that time, I discovered through some simple research several interesting and related texts:

  • A series of song settings of sections of Leaves of Grass by the American composer Andrew Martin, posted to Youtube
  • A letter of Van Gogh to his sister, where he talks about how he has been smitten by the poetry of Whitman
  • An advertisement for the Apple iPad, that quotes from Whitman’s “O me, O life!” (which, you may also recall, is recited at a dramatic moment by Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) in the film Dead Poets’ Society).
  • A newspaper editorial penned by Whitman himself, that argues against the abolition of slavery and the accordance of voting rights to African Americans

So, for the essays on Whitman I pulled each of these sources – it is more accurate to call them “inter-texts” – into a topic.  The topics required the student to create and defend a thesis in relation to an inquiry into the relation of a specific Whitman text and one of these specific intertexts.   And as a result, I got to read some really interesting analyses.  The “research” part of it was set up by me – but that allowed the students to really focus on the “inquiry” part of the work, which is to say the probing and analysis of the relationship between the texts.  This kind of approach could easily be widened as the students progress in their skills – at a higher level, I might invite students to then identify two more inter-texts on their own, thus pushing them into a more traditional researcher role once they are motivated and confident.

So, at least early in college, where we are definitely dealing with “novices”  developmentally (228), I now think the more carefully we frame the problems into which the student inquires, the more likely it is that students will experience a maximum of the thrill of curiosity and discovery which motivates research, with a minimum of frustration and false steps.

What should excite and interest students about doing research in your field?  What research skills are required for competent practitioners?  What kinds of projects and assignments can best elicit that excitement and hone those skills?   Do you think that BIzzup’s “BEAM” approach is one that you could successfully import into your current recipe for teaching research writing?


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Week 7: Designing Formal Assignments

calvin-enjoy-writingFor me, the heart of Bean’s discussion on designing formal assignments is his RAFT/TIP heuristic (98), which encourages the creation of assignments that are problem-driven and rhetorically situated.  Bean suggests that the trouble with traditional assignments (the “term paper”, the “research paper”) is that they are topic-oriented – “Discuss diabetes!” – and thus likely to result in “data dump” or “all about” papers that are boring to produce and boring to read.  Moreover, these papers bear no resemblance to any writing that we actually do in our fields: they are composed in a rhetorical vacuum, and sent down a one-way street to the teacher-as-examiner.Continue reading

Week 1: Writing and Thinking

When I have to talk about the value of informal writing – or scribbling, if you like – I often refer to the notebooks of Charles Darwin.  You are likely familiar with the doodle that represents – or did it generate? – one of the most important insights in the history of knowledge:

darwin treeBut you can also open the notebooks to almost any page, and “see aloud” Darwin thinking the thoughts that will soon turn science on its head – check out this passage for example.   This is a great way to spin “I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say” into “I don’t know what I think till I see what I write.”  If you happen to be one of those people who keeps a personal notebook or journal, it’s easy to supplement this example with a personal anecdote about how writing can pull the invisible and unknown into full view.
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Weeks 1 and 2: Linking Thinking and Writing

colorfulI’ll kick off the discussion with a few remarks after my rereading of  Bean’s Chapters 1 and 2.  For each Chapter I’ll then throw out a question or two for you to respond to.  These follow roughly those guiding Qs found in the Schedule for Week 2 – but I’m tweaking here and there as we go.

Let’s start with, hmm, Chapter 1!  Bean wastes no time in setting the stage with a host of interesting ideas and problems.  For me, the most important concept introduced in Chapter 1 is the idea of design – in our context, the intentional decisions made by the teacher regarding the learning experience that the student will undertake. Continue reading

Welcome to the F2016 Writing Fellows Blog

Welcome to the Blog for the Fall 2016 Writing Fellows, where we’ll discuss the weekly topics and readings. Moderators will set up one or two guiding questions, and their views thereupon, and the rest of us can comment at the bottom of the post in the “Leave a reply” box. You can reply directly to the Post, and also to others’ comments on the Post. It’s standard blogosphere procedure, and the default tone is conversational. Still, we take the idea of “writing to learn” seriously, so be brief or be lengthy, but either way, try muting your perfectionist internal editor, and let your fingers do the (fresh) thinking.

It is important to be consistent in your visits here.  By contributing something every week, we increase the collaborative learning of the group. Many past Fellows have remarked that some of the most important insights of the semester came while writing their comments or reading the comments of the other group members. Because not everyone has done a lot of writing online, it might be inspiring to hear from a previous Writing Fellow on how she felt about blogging in an online community of colleagues. Here’s a few thoughts from Davina Mill (Psychology Writing Fellow Fall 2010):

Congrats, guys, for being selected for WID. You’re here because you’re open to new teaching ideas and WID delivers. You probably already do a lot of special things in the classroom, but I know I certainly walked away fine tuning some old techniques, and learning a bunch of new ones to boot. You’ll get out of blogging what you put into it, so a couple of suggestions that, looking back, I think you might benefit from knowing about.
WID groups meet about once every 2 weeks. Given this structure and my tendency to procrastinate (not that any of YOU do, but just in case…) sometimes, I’d wait to the last minute to do the readings and then add my comment to the blog. Which meant I put less into the process and got less out of it. Suggestion: do readings early on and then throw ideas onto the blog!
And I mean “THROW!” I was a bit hesitant to write… this is a group on writing and critical thinking, so I worried, Will what I write make sense? Plus, before I got to know how cool everyone in the group ends up being, I was worried my peers would scratch their heads at my ramblings. Heck, maybe you are too! But, the key here is: It doesn’t matter. Seriously. This blogging is meant to share ideas, but also to help you unclog your own thoughts. Hey, maybe we should call it Blog and Unclog. But I regress. Main point: try not to get hung up on spelling/ grammar and if you make sense. Your contribution will more than likely resonate with at least one person in the gorup. (note: I am working very hard right now to restrain myself from obsessively correcting my errors in this blog)
As you can see, I tend to ramble in my blogs. But blogs can be super short, too.
So, blog and unclog- it’s liberating and will help you get the most out of the experience.
And don’t worry about how you end your blogs because…
          – Davina Mill, Psychology


So, I hope you are looking forward to the online conversation here as the weeks proceed. If you have any questions or comments about the blog and how we’re using it, doesn’t hesitate to chime in.

Have you previously done any online writing or blogging? Take the comment box out for a test spin…

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