Are Samples Ideal?

When I’m asked what I do when students’ writing isn’t meeting my expectations or they’re not doing what I’ve hoped they would do, I’m often caught in a conundrum of sorts.  The easiest thing to say to faculty members who want to teach writing in their disciplines is that they should provide good models (samples) of what they’re looking for .  The harder thing to say to faculty who teach writing across the curriculum is that they need to negotiate between the students’ desire to write what/how they want and the teachers’ own desire for the student to write in a specific way.

In a very famous CCC article, Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch caution writing teachers about the notion of an “ideal text” in responding to student writing.  Matt Ortoleva aptly summarizes, “when classroom teachers become fixated on a notion of the ‘Ideal Text,’ they take away the student writers’ authority to make their own choices about their writing. Brannon and Knoblach are clear about the potential harm: a reduced desire to communicate, a feeling of not having anything important to say, and a reduced desire to write.”  If we heed Brannon and Knoblach’s warning, then providing sample texts is the exact wrong thing to do.

But, for teachers with plenty of experience in teaching their disciplinary content but less experience in writing pedagogy, providing sample texts is often the easiest way for them to show students what they’re looking for.  So, here are a few ways teachers can provide sample documents in the genre they’re teaching, yet still avoid the message that there’s an ideal text they’re looking for.

1. Provide most of the samples from students, not professionals.  This sets appropriate expectations.  At a more advanced level, professional samples might make sense.  But generally, a professional sample should be one of many samples you show your students.  The majority should be samples by students with the same level of expertise in the discipline as them.

2. Provide multiple samples of how the assignment has been approached in different ways.  This sends the message that you’re looking for students to make their own choices about what makes an effective text, not that you have one idea about what the text should look like.  As I said in #1, a professional sample can be appropriate, but it should be one among many.

3. Don’t provide the most exemplary examples.  Instead, provide samples that are average.  Then, go through the sample with the students and have a discussion about the successful features of the text as well as what could make that sample better.  This gives the students some of the authority in deciding what could make the text ideal.

Collecting an array of samples can take time, and it’s something you can do as you begin to think about incorporating more writing assignments into your course.  One way to collect samples is to ask students if you may use their work in future classes as an example, anonymously of course.  If many faculty in your department do this, then you’ll have even more to choose from.  Nedra Reynolds suggests turning to the NCTE Gallery of Writing, a resource faculty in disciplines outside of English may not be familiar with; it contains writing from people in all sorts of disciplines and areas, academic and creative, professional and personal.  There are now also many anthologies of student writing, and there are writing textbooks that are discipline-specific and include student samples, such as Oxford UP’s Write Like a Chemist.

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2 thoughts on “Are Samples Ideal?

  1. In specific disciplines and contexts, students thrive on successful models from former students. Regardless of how experienced the instructor is in teaching the course, the students will benefit. In fact, if the professor is a veteran, the students might need the models more. The models help to orient students. For instance, I teach an educational research course to teachers, many of whom teach courses such as art and music in the public schools. These teachers are not familiar with the educational research genre. Not only do they struggle with reading peer-reviewed journal articles in the field, but also they are further flummoxed after reading these articles. They need real models from authentic writers comparable to themselves to gain confidence in their potential and ability to meet course outcomes, which includes writing a proposal for an educational research study.

  2. Thanks for your comment Judy! I agree with you about orienting students, especially to genres that are quite discipline specific.

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