The Writing Empathy Exercise

It was a bit of a rough year to say the least in my department when it came to issues of student academic writing.  There were whole classes that revolted about assignments and many grade appeals. I, the so-called writing expert (are any of us really “expert” at this?) felt I was being called in to put out fires about every two weeks. Problem solving these issues consumed my entire third term and sometimes my restful sleep.

The situations that arose created a lot of negativity from instructors and students alike. And the truth was that all these issues could have been prevented with the right discussions occurring at the right times.  So in order to build some capacity in instructors both seasoned and novice, and to encourage some degree of consistency in our department, I was asked to create a workshop about writing assignments across the curriculum.  One thing I sensed in the many meetings I attended was there was a degree of amnesia about what it was like to learn to write as a student.  I saw the workshop I was asked to do as an opportunity to take my colleagues back in time to when they were new nursing students and having to write for the first time in our discipline.

I also had a myth busting agenda.  In the midst of trouble shooting student revolts and appeals, I’d had far too many conversations with both students and my colleagues this term that indicated a very narrow view of citation and paraphrasing was floating around and it was affecting how students were being graded and the advice they were getting from other instructors.  I sensed there was a pervasive belief that every sentence a student wrote needed to be cited, and that if a citation was present, the teacher should be able to go back into the original article and find the exact point or fact associated with that citation.

The problem was that we as academic writers cite the work we borrow for many more reasons than straight-up paraphrasing. More problematic was that expecting every sentence in a student’s paper to be a paraphrased version of words written by someone else limited the students’ ability to argue, be creative, or have any semblance of coherent thought they could claim as their own.

Thus I created the empathy exercise. This exercise was not unlike the exercises I often gave my first year students in their introductory writing course: I chose three passages from three different sources and told my colleagues to write a short paragraph using the three sources and to be sure to cite those sources using correct APA format.

I needed to pull them out of their comfort zone but not too far out of their comfort zone. The three passages were not about nursing, they were about being a woman and riding a bike. I confirmed that all of them had at one time in their lives ridden a bike. I wanted there to be some personal experience they could draw from when they wrote their own paragraph. I made sure that the sources contained some unfamiliar “cultural” terminology about bike riding, and that at least one of the sources described riding in a peloton (like the Tour de France riders) — something I was sure that none of my colleagues had experienced. (Note: the linked passages are to the three sources I gave the group.)

So the group wrote their paragraphs and we put them aside until later.  I had a whole morning’s worth of writing instruction lessons to give before I made them scrutinize their own work, hoping that the information I was about to provide them would make them better equipped to examine their own writing with an open mind. I was looking for a paradigm shift in writing that day — one where there was more of a focus on critical thinking than on grammar, and a bit more flexibility with students being allowed to have a voice and be an expert about what they had researched.

When we were done for the day I posted the following slide and asked them to mentally check off how many of these situations were present in their own paragraphs.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 10.23.09 PM

I didn’t make any one stand up and read what they wrote nor did I make anyone declare their short comings.  I saw the exercise as a time for reflection on their own paraphrasing methods. If they were allowed to extemporize, build paragraphs inspired by the original text but not exactly paraphrased from the original text, or occasionally use the exact words in the form of terminology or other critical or unmodifiable  information, then students should be allowed to write that way as well.

I saw a few lights turn on in the room that day. I recognize that it is a difficult learning curve to be grading and also be able to diagnose the intention of a student’s citation without the student present to explain.  I told my colleagues my motives were to enhance their empathy in the student experience. I wanted to remind them of what it was like to be learning the language of a profession, so I had given them a topic to which they had some vague lay person knowledge and then immersed them in the lingo of those who live and breath the experience of cycling on a daily basis. There is some discussion in the literature that when we grade student writing in the disciplines, that we are expecting a fluency in the discourse of that discipline before we’ve taught them the discourse of a discipline.

But what I really wanted them to understand was that citation of sources was more than just ensuring that everything written was easily locatable in the source cited. That to paraphrase well, you have to be well read, experienced, and insert a bit of yourself into the mix.

“So, in other words, what you are saying, is you want us to lighten up,” one of my colleagues, clearly on to me, said to the group.

Yes. Yes, I do.



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