Modeling “Good” Writing

Today we have a guest post from Colin Brown, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He can be reached at colin [dot] brown (at) northeastern [dot] edu.

A few weeks ago, Shana Gadarian made a point on Twitter about explicitly teaching writing that I strongly endorsed. Getting our students to write better will, at minimum, make our job easier. If we’re lucky, it might actually promote better thinking.

For upper-level students, very open-ended prompts sometimes lead to really creative and insightful thinking—and a dissertation is of course the vaguest prompt of all. But our expectations often rest on implicit assumptions about what we think of as “good” political science. Amanda Rosen has written about this in the context of transparency. As she points out, telling students “write a five-page essay” doesn’t acknowledge that essay means different things in different fields, and many of our students will not yet know what this even means in political science.

Clarity is critical for essay prompts, especially for introductory students. While long, detailed instructions might help point students toward what they should think about, students new to a field often don’t have the context to know what is most important in a long prompt. To them, any sentence with a question mark might appear to be equally important—causing them to focus on what we thought was a minor point and producing a disconnect between what we want to assess and what we actually assess when our implicit expectations aren’t met.

Here are what I think were a failed and a relatively successful attempt to do this in my past semester’s intro comparative politics class. Students told me that while the instructions were explicit in the first, it was hard to know where to start and which parts to emphasize. With the latter prompt, they said it was not only clear what to do but why they were doing it.

One question I’ve found to be a bit polarizing in talking with colleagues is whether to provide model papers or templates. Is it a better way to make our aims clear, or does it cause students to just parrot back the template? I’ve always found myself on the side of providing models. Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say has solidified my thinking for why. They identify common rhetorical devices that mirror the most common academic ways of thinking, which they into templates that, for example, force students to write down the most obvious counterarguments. Experienced writers have read enough in the field to be able to pick up on these techniques implicitly, but beginners by definition have not. Graff and Birkenstein argue, and I think rightly, that this goes beyond rhetoric to actually learning the ways of thinking. Some students may not learn how to think about the flaws in their own argument, or even that they need to, until they are forced to write them with this kind of template.

In my own teaching, I’ve found it hard to explain in an abstract sense the need for clear writing over “beautiful” writing—and what students think is “beautiful” writing often feels cluttered and verbose to us. But when students see each other’s models and observe how much they actually understand from clear writing versus what they think is “good” writing, they start to self-diagnose their own excessive prose.

One challenge is that writing for politics requires some discipline-specific skills that might be more or less amenable to templates. Sarah James, George Soroka and I have a forthcoming JPSE piece on adapting tools from K-12 and composition studies for political science writing. But defining what we actually want from “good” political science writing seems often more folk wisdom than clearly defined—Ian Anson’s 2017 article on meaning-making is a notable and valuable exception—so as part of showing students what we want, there’s room for us to make this clearer to ourselves.

 Sarah, George and I will be leading a workshop at APSA TLC 2020 on implementing rubrics to improve student writing—Friday Feb. 7 @ 4:15 pm.

One thought on “Modeling “Good” Writing

  1. This is a really timely post given how many term 1 assignments are being assessed and how many discussions I have been having with students about how they can improve their writing. ‘Academic style’ comes up time and again. We talk about how simple and clear communication does not mean the ideas are simple – rather it is about communicating effectively. One of things I encourage my students to do is return to literature that had a big impact on them and think not only about the content but about how the author(s) communicated it. This, I hope, can help them reflect on how they seek to develop their own voice.

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