Helping Students Understand Their Purpose, Audience, and

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Helping Students Understand Their Purpose,
Audience, and Evidence, and Locate Their Scholarly
Voice
Purpose and Scholarly Writing
Consider this paragraph—the opening of an essay written by a high school student.
As you read, think about her purpose:
If you have too much cholesterol in your blood, your arteries can become
coated with this fat-like substance. Eventually your arteries can get narrowed
and clogged, which will make it more difficult for your blood to get to your
heart. When that happens your chest might start hurting. If part of your heart
gets completely cut off from the block artery, you might experience a heart
attack.
In essence, this high school student was trying to persuade her teacher that she
knew something about cholesterol’s effect on blood circulation. And she
demonstrated her knowledge by summarizing what she had read about cholesterol
and the blood supply to the heart.
Now consider the purpose of this paragraph on a related topic, taken from a medical
journal:
According to the oxidative-modification hypothesis, LDL initially accumulates in
the extracellular subendothelial space of arteries and, through the action of
resident vascular cells, is mildly oxidized to a form known as minimally modified
LDL 14 (Figure 1). This minimally modified LDL induces local vascular cells to
produce monocyte chemotactic protein 1 and granulocyte and macrophage
colony-stimulating factors, which stimulate monocyte recruitment and
differentiation to macrophages in arterial walls.16 The accumulating monocytes
and macrophages stimulate further peroxidation of LDL (Diaz, Frei, Vita &
Keaney, 1997, p. 409).
Students spend years—literally—learning how to establish their authority and not
sound like high school students. Inasmuch as it isn’t easy for you to guide them in
that direction, it’s even harder for students to get there. But it does happen.
Focusing your student’s attention as specifically as possible on writing with clarity of
purpose, with the reader in mind, with solid evidence, and with a scholarly voice can
create remarkable moments of understanding and intellectual growth . . . when
students say “Ah-hah! I got it!” instead of you saying “Ah-hah! I gotcha!”
Audience
Too often students make the mistake of regurgitating what they've read, in a style
not far from this:
Jones (1997) studied such and such. He surveyed 100 students. He
found this and that. Smith (2000) studied something else. She
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surveyed a different group. She found this, that, and the other. Perez
(1999) studied yet something different. She too surveyed people. She
found out something interesting too. But to tell you the truth, I think
these people are all wrong.
You, the eye-strained reader with expectations of graduate-level prose, are
unimpressed with a patchwork quilt of vaguely related ideas and mini book reports.
You’re not wearing the same reading hat as you wear when you read a daily
newspaper or recipe for lutefisk. In scholarly writing, your students must show that
the writer has critically examined what he or she has read--in other words, that the
writer analyzed, evaluated, interpreted, and questioned the material and his or her
own experience.
As an instructor, you are responsible in guiding your students beyond regurgitation.
That means, frankly, you should not be accepting a book report as a substitution for
genuine critical analysis. While, yes, students should develop skills in summarizing, it
is imperative that you work with your students and have them build on their ability
to






compare
contrast
synthesize
analyze
evaluate
and interpret
the literature.
Evidence
One of Walden students’ biggest hurdles as new academic writers is understanding
what does and does not work as evidence in graduate writing. Consider the following
assertions:

Boys are naturally better at math than are girls.

In the northern United States, cedar shakes withstand seasonal climate
changes better than asphalt shingles do.

Individual school districts rather than state or federal governmental bodies
should set achievement standards at the local level.
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Your task, as the critical reader of your students’ work, is to help them understand
that only through their successful mining and presenting of solid, scholarly evidence
can they establish their authority.
So to the extent that you are able to read paragraph by paragraph if not always line
by line, it is your responsibility to read critically and challenge your students to show
the truth through acceptable graduate-level evidence, and not just tell it with
anecdotal evidence and experience, opinions, and fluff.
The Value of Opinions and Experience
Is there a proper role for opinions and experience in scholarly writing? Only to the
extent they help advance a graduate-level research argument. And for the most
part, that might not be very far, unless an assignment specifically calls for
experience and opinions, and only if there is a point for a student sharing them. and
if they matter to the scholarly reader. After all, our opinions, as author Anaïs Nin
pointed out, often reflect not the way the world is—but the way we see the world.
To repeat: Students have a difficult time understanding the importance of scholarly
evidence in a research-based argument. They listen to lots of talk radio, read a lot of
editorials and opinion pieces, and have lifetimes of rich experiences in classrooms,
hospitals, Fortune 500 companies, clinics, police stations, public agencies, and on
and on.
A brutal message for them to hear is “So what?” Yet at times that is the most
appropriate response (if not always the best way of saying it) to what they’ve
written.
How You Can Help
1. First, remember that for many Walden students this is the most challenging and
unfamiliar intellectual exercise they’re taking on in their entire lives. It’s challenging
to them because it’s hard—and they don’t know what they’re doing.
You, the faculty, must guide them. And while student writing can drive anyone nuts,
we all have to remind ourselves that poor writing isn’t a result of stupidity or
laziness. Students haven’t learned what’s wrong—or what’s right.
If you find yourself getting angry, stop. Take a break. Watch TV. Do something.
Adult learners don’t improve by getting yelled at—ever.
2. Remember to show not only what’s wrong with something—but do your best to
offer an alternative or an explanation of what can be done better.
3. Remember that you do not have to mark every crummy mistake in every crummy
paper. In fact, bursting an artery all over a paper is counterproductive: It’s
demoralizing and depressing. Instead, show a few patterns. Offer solutions. Refer
students to the writing center, or to a course, if necessary.
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4. Know that it’s okay for you to set high standards. That includes, among other
things, expecting your graduate students to be analytical. But for them to meet your
standards, you do need to give consistent, constructive feedback.
Helping Your Students Find Their Scholarly Voice
One of the most common misconceptions about an effective scholarly voice is that its
strength comes from using an excessive number of letters in a word, words in a
sentence, and sentences in a paragraph.
Indeed, one can locate and discover more than ample support for the declaration
that the veracity of that assertion is mired in mythical and canonical absolutes that
are at once preposterous, ignorant, bloated, pompous, delusional, and repetitive,
redundant, and said more than once, redundantly.
Or, as said better by Walden’s 2004 Teacher of Year, Lil Hoehn: “Tell students to
figure out what they want to say and just say it.”
Still, scholarly writing should not sound like something you might read on the back of
a cereal box. After all, Walden students are not writing for children reading the back
of a box of Toasted Sugar Bombs.
Clarity, concision, and the appropriate use of precise terms are necessities of
effective writing. Long sentences and puffery are not.
Consider Why Walden Students Write the Way They
Do
1. Walden’s students, many of whom have little if no recent formal writing
experience, are often apprehensive about the task at hand. They are
intimidated by academic role models whose own pompous writing might have
impressed tenure committees. Sallo (2001) argued that obtuse writing by
professors is designed to “lend undeserved gravity to the writing [because]
writing that is too accessible is considered suspect” (p. 1). In short, students
think they need to sound brilliant, and they end up imitating the inelegant,
polysyllabic fluff of their mentors (Becker, 1986).
How You Can Help
Reassure your students that if they can say it in 10 short words they need not
write 30 polysyllabic words of baloney. Support that effort by offering a
couple of translations.
Rather than their writing:
There was a reunification held of the most significant leaders of the
governmental body that unites various countries that belong to the
Organization of American States (OAS) who met in Panama City to
take part in international discussions.
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suggest instead:
Key representatives from the Organization of American States (OAS)
met in Panama City.
For your efficiency, you need not “translate” every phrase or paragraph.
Simply point out a few patterns, offer a few suggested improvements, and
reassure students in their discussion postings, papers, and KAMs that their
readers will be impressed with meaningful, clear writing and will not be
snowed by palaver.
2. Walden students tend to focus on page length requirements. Sometimes
minimum course paper requirements serve students well. Sometimes
apprehensive, inexperienced writers think meeting the page requirement is
paramount, and they then fill up their papers with pabulum rather than solid
evidence.
How You Can Help
If you want less padding, then suggesting page length guidelines might be
more effective than requirements. And maximum page length requirements
can help force students to write concisely (and prepare them to write a
thesis).
And then, reinforce the notion that students must rely on solid evidence
rather than their strong feelings and opinions to show the truth of their
assertions:
If a student writes:
Many people feel very, very strongly that the federal limits on stem
cell research have limited scientists’ ability to find new cures for
existing diseases.
You might comment:
Maybe true—but back up your assertions with evidence from the
literature rather than your own intuition, experience, and opinions.
3. Many Walden students have problems with grammar, spelling, and APA style
manual. Some come from education and social backgrounds in which
standard American English was not spoken. Some native speakers never
learned good writing habits. Some wrote few term papers. Some have never
been told their writing needs work. Some had bad experienced with teachers
who bled red ink all over their papers like burst arteries.
How You Can Help
You, as a faculty member, are expected to point out patterns and problems
with such basic writing problems. But you need not spend hour upon hour
editing their work. There are resources, including the writing tutors
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([email protected]) who can help students with grammar. You can
recommend writing courses, including SBSF 6000 and 6150, the grammar
and APA style pages in the Writing Center, and so on. Again, to emphasize,
you do need to alert students to the kinds of problems they have. You should
point out examples and show some repairs. But you should not do a line-byline, page-by-page edit of their papers.
On the Use of First Person
In early 2007, Walden’s provost declared that students may begin using first person,
as appropriate, in all Walden work.
Needless to say, faculty have strong attitudes on either side of the first-person
debate, and we’re not talking Adam.
The phrase “as appropriate,” of course, is key.
The APA manual, in sections 2.04 and 2.08, offers examples of “appropriate” use of
first person, including in quantitative expository writing. (For several years firstperson qualitative dissertations have been accepted at Walden.)
Still, you, as a faculty, member, may well dispute what “appropriate” means.
For sure, many students are quick to share their first-person opinions and
experiences, and will feel liberated—at least from a technical standpoint—to write a
statement like “I think that public policy makers reluctance to tackle global warming
shows how beholden they are to the moneyed corporate interests.” That is, allowing
first person may well be seen by unsophisticated writers as license to write a lot of
hooey.
At the same time, consider these two sentences:
This section explores the ideas of three theorists, after which their
perspectives on health care will be analyzed in light of contemporary
problems in affordability and access.
In this section, I will explore the ideas of three theorists, after which I will
show how their perspectives on health care can be analyzed in light of
contemporary problems in affordability and access.
In simple exposition—I will do this, I will show that, I will summarize this, I will
conclude with that—first person can sure reduce the amount of passive,
anthropomorphic confusion that shows up in student writing.
Maybe. Maybe not, right?
One consistent complaint from Walden students is that faculty are inconsistent about
form and style, about page lengths, about mechanics—in general, about what’s
acceptable and what isn’t. They’re adult learners. They want to know how to do
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things, and they have little patience for what they perceive to be arbitrary,
inconsistent, or bureaucratic rulings.
Yet even beyond that inevitable grumbling, what really bugs students is that faculty
are unclear about their expectations or that they change the rules in midstream.
That does not have to be inevitable. So, with regard to the use of first person, here
are some ideas.
How You Can Help
1. First, be open-minded. The APA style manual does endorse its use, as noted
above. But consider: The problem isn’t first person per se anyway. Allowing it might
facilitate hooey in student writing—but first person is not in itself the cause. Consider
these three sentences:
The author believes that eating white bread causes cancer.
Eating white bread causes cancer.
I believe that eating white bread causes cancer.
In each case, without sufficient supporting evidence, what the student has written is
baloney.
What’s more, many peer-reviewed journal articles and dissertations from various
universities are written in first person. In fairness, many are not. If a student hoping
to publish finds out first person is unacceptable in a particular publication, well,
that’s how it goes. He or she will find out—much as he or she will find out that
different journals have different house styles, content requirements, and on and on.
2. Be upfront. If you absolutely, positively abhor the use of first person, make that
known, front and center, in your syllabus, in an announcement, in your feedback,
and in your discussions with your own peers. But be sensitive and be rational about
it. Give your students the reason. Keep the discussion on an intellectual level.
References
Becker, H. (1986). Writing for social scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sallo, T. (2001, Summer). Professorial prose: Why do they write like that? National
Crosstalk. Retrieved May 31, 2007, from the National Center for Public Policy
and Higher Education Web site:
http://www.highereducation.org/crosstalk/ct0701/voices0701professorialprose.shtml.
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