Thursday, April 7, 2011

Teaching Writing

I have two very good groups of students in my literature course this semester. I'm very proud of them because, except for two native speakers of Spanish, these kids learned to speak the language at our university. And now, when they are in their junior and senior years, they can read, analyze and discuss works of literature from La Celestina to Tiempo de silencio. One thing, however, that it's consistently difficult to get them to do well is to write an essay. I'm not talking about their linguistic limitations here, just the actual knowledge of how to construct a good piece of writing. 

The training that students get in how to write well is often seriously lacking. To give an example, they have all been told ad nauseam that they need to come up with a good thesis for their essay. However, nobody took the trouble of explaining that "Cervantes is a famous author" or "These two short stories have some differences and some similarities" are not good theses. They also have no idea that inane statements like "All works of literature have characters" or "Everybody wants to be happy" do not add anything valuable to a piece of writing.

It also seems to me that some enemy of humanity taught many of my students that it's a good idea to pluck out statements from each paragraph and repeat them (often verbatim) in the conclusion. There is also this annoying strategy of starting a new paragraph with the same sentence that concluded the preceding one.

The students seem genuinely surprised when I tell them to avoid generalizations, trivialities and not to copy-paste the same sentence into different parts of the same sentence. They are also shocked to find out that I don't like them to copy-paste things I said in my PowerPoint presentations into their essays as their own statements.


Spanish prof said...

"These two short stories have some differences and some similarities".

I think that if they could tell me what the differences and the similarities are, and what do they attribute them to, I would be happy.

I am going through my students' final essay proposals this week (Thesis, outline, annotated bibliography). As you, I've said many time to avoid generalizations, to think little rather than big, and that "La virgen de los sicarios" describes the effect of violence in Medellín is not a thesis but a description of the novel.

Some proposals are good and very good. One is brilliant. But others are impossible. For example (this is a civilization course, not a lit one):

-Thesis: The future of Latin American kids is doomed because of lack of attention to educational policies which will condemn future generations to ignorance (????)

-Thesis: I want to research the influence of the Catholic Church in Latin American culture and economy, and how Latin American identity is changing with the spread of Evangelical protestant churches in the continent.

And I could go on and on.

Clarissa said...

As for the last topic: you aren't in the Bible Belt, are you? I wouldn't expect such a topic anywhere else.

Spanish prof said...

I'm not in the Bible Belt, but I work at a religious institution. Pretty liberal, but some students are more zealots than others regarding religion.

Clarissa said...

I once applied to a position at a religious college by mistake. They required that I provide a written pledge not to engage in extramarital sex and drunk and rowdy behavior while employed by them. They also wanted a statement in how I was going to incorporate my faith into my courses. Including a course on Spanish grammar. I can just imagine such activities: "Don't forget to use the subjunctive, students! Jesus liked and used the subjunctive all the time."

Spanish prof said...

There are religious institutions and religious institutions. I only applied to the ones I felt I could be comfortable in (hint: they didn't require a statement of faith). I know people who applied and have been hired at really conservative ones, and they have been told that being seen in the town's bar (on their own time, on a Saturday) drinking alcohol, was grounds for dismissal. One person in particular told me that she was forbidden from teaching Esteban Echeverria's "El matadero", but never given an explanation as to why. It is puzzling, since I doubt anybody but a Spanish prof has read "El matadero".

Clarissa said...

Have these people missed the news that Jesus definitely loved his wine? And that the Bible is filled with scenes of violence that can compete easily with those in "El matadero"?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Back to the writing: I am beginning to work from an Augustinian theory that posits a sort of original writing sin being innate in human beings. Despite the efforts of teachers to explain the difference between fact and argument, very few people are able to put these precepts into practice without some sort of divine grace. Now if I could just figure out how to call down that grace upon my students (and yours), we'd be fine.