Friday, November 25, 2005

Abstract for my part of Dec. 3's panel on writing instruction

Earlier I mentioned that my department is hosting a workshop on writing instruction on December 3. I'm on a panel about text-type in teaching and will talk about teaching students to use reference materials such as different kinds of subject dictionaries, subject encyclopedias, and handbooks when they're doing research. I want to post the abstract for my part of the panel and make a few comments about what I'll talk about. Here's the abstract:

Tunghai sophomore English majors are required to take an introductory course in research methods. Some of the more important ideas that I hope students in that course will think about concern how they understand themselves as users of (English-language) texts and how they understand how the texts they are using have been designed to function. I will use basic reference works such as dictionaries and encyclopedias to serve as an example to discuss orienting students to texts that are nominally of the same genre. In Research Methods, students look at how surface differences (such as textual conventions like the use of complete sentences vs. fragments, use of headings, bold typeface, and italics) among various reference materials can inform them of those materials' different purposes and audiences. I hope that this focus will help students become more conscious users of reference materials (in particular) and of texts (in general).
In my 10-minute talk, I want to take people through some of the experiences I had teaching the research methods course and coming to an awareness of what students needed in order to be able to use reference sources. I remember at first, years ago, when I gave students an exercise summarizing subject encyclopedia and subject dictionary articles related to their research topics, some of them would have a lot of trouble figuring out the main idea of the article. There turned out to be several reasons for this trouble, one of which was that the articles didn't always organize information in the same way. Articles in some reference works start out immediately with a brief explanation of exactly what the concept is. (Sometimes the brief explanation is all they have.) Others begin with a "funnel"-like introduction--moving from general to particular in ways similar to how students are often taught to write English essay introductions. (David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language is like this, for instance.) The variations in the organization of articles disrupted student expectations about how to identify the main idea(s). So part of what I found I needed to do was help students put aside those expectations.

Another related issue I will discuss concerns helping students see typographical conventions such as bolding, italicization, capitalization, and the use of different fonts as information rather than decoration. The idea that those surface features (what Paul Prior calls "typographical cuing systems") mean something was something I took for granted until I taught people and worked with people who didn't take it for granted. (This reminds me of Prior's story in Writing/Disciplinarity about an Indonesian undergraduate in one of his classes who had copied down a call number from the index but didn't know what to do with it. Prior's point is he considered libraries "transparent spaces" until then. What he considered "basic" knowledge was not so basic to the student who perhaps had never before used a library with an open-stacks system.) So one of the in-class activities I initiated involved looking closely at various dictionary entries on the same word, comparing and contrasting the information that different dictionaries presented about that word. (This exercise is similar to one that Roy Flannagan had us do in his graduate class in Milton back in the early 1990s, except, of course, we worked with different versions of a poem by Milton.) From there we could begin to discuss purposes and audiences for reference works and begin to see how compilers of those works find ways to condense different kinds of information in different ways for those audiences and purposes. Finally, we would look at the Oxford English Dictionary (which I think English majors should work with at least once before they graduate--if it's available, of course) in its physical and virtual forms. We worked on understanding the types and forms of information that the OED provides. The students' final assignment in this sequence was an exercise in "decompressing" the information in an OED entry and writing a brief "study" of a word based on that entry.

I hope that students were able to take out of these activities the idea that reading and using information in English requires attention to, and interpretation of the "typographical cuing systems" as well as the ability to read "through" the words to get at the meaning. I have some sense that many were able to do this. I think it also can help create an atmosphere in which learning how to use the MLA citation system is tied to communicative purposes rather than being merely an exercise in formalistic correctness.

Anyway, that's basically what I'm going to talk about on Dec. 3. If you're in the area, stop by! (Not just to hear me talk, though! More interesting people than I will be on hand!)

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