Improving Student Writing through Transcription?

I have been thinking about Mark Bauerlein’s article, “The Summer Assignment” (link above), since I first read it about a month ago. As though he could read my mind, Bauerlein poses the question that undoubtedly most of us face on a regular basis: “How often … do comp teachers explain the rules of grammar and norms of style only to find them broken repeatedly in the next paper assignment?” The explanation for what can at times feel like a lack of success in teaching writing, Bauerlein suggests, is that “writing isn’t a knowledge. It’s a behavior, an ingrained set of habits and symptoms.” “Teaching,” he continues, “becomes a matter not of supplying knowledge but of altering behavior. To improve student writing, in other words, we must inculcate better habits and dispositions.  Needless to say, a typical semester of freshman composition (or remedial English) isn’t enough.” Although this isn’t exactly an inspiring conclusion that Bauerlein reaches, I do believe it to be true, at least in many cases.

Bauerlein offers a few long-term solutions to teaching writing but details a more short-term assignment he plans to initiate this summer: assigning students particular “great works of clarity and expression” (Thoreau, Wolfe, Baldwin, for example) to transcribe for 30 minutes every day for 100 days. There’s no telling how committed his students might be over the course of the summer; however, he is relatively certain that through such a transcription exercise, students “will advance a deep understanding of written communication, an unconscious sense of where commas go, a feel for sentence length and rhythm, a larger vocabulary, and other usage habits.” That is, the behaviors that during the course of a busy semester might be too ingrained within our students’ writing practices to substantially change or improve, may have a chance of more organically and meaningfully changing when students regularly do nothing more than copy the writing of some of our most gifted prose writers.

I have to admit, I’m intrigued by this idea–but I’m thinking about it with two slight modifications. First, I’m considering implementing some kind of transcription notebook/journal assignment into my regular semester classes (not over the summer voluntarily). I am envisioning this notebook as a place where alongside the original written responses I ask students to write, they are also asked to transcribe instructor-chosen course texts that may, as Bauerlein suggests, slowly but surely affect how the original responses (and essay drafts) are written. The second difference I have in mind is choosing pieces for transcription that may come from our course text; that is, Bauerlein suggests great prose works to help our students improve their writing style and clarity; I’m curious if transcribing intellectual prose essays (like the ones we ask our students to read and write in 100 and 105) may help them learn what, say, a well-structured essay and paragraph looks like, or what a clear and consistent argument looks like, etc.(In other words, this second point shifts the focus slightly through the materials being transcribed from clarity and style to argument and structure/organization.)

I guess what I’m thinking is about the possibility of using some version of Bauerlein’s transcription assignment over the course of a semester to help supplement the work I do in the classroom. Any thoughts? Has anyone used a transcription-like activity or assignment before? Any pros or cons you can report? I’d love to hear from others as I ponder this over the summer!


Facing Plagiarism with a Positive Attitude?

I don’t know about all of you, but I have found some plagiarism over the past week or so.  Last night, particularly, an essay came back from Safe Assign with a 70% rate of plagiarism. It was a documented essay that was two pages short of the minimum length requirement with no citations or sources.  The essay was almost completely taken from two blog posts.  Disheartening doesn’t begin to describe it and in about an hour, I will meet with this student to discuss this absolute blatant abuse of the internet as information provider.
I know that this is a discussion that we have frequently and I appreciate that many of you are probably tired of discussing it.  However, in my absolute desperation, I have been reading articles online that address the issue, and I found one in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, although from September of 2012, addresses plagiarism as something that requires that “the solution should be positive; that is, show students how to act as responsible scholars and writers. The same tone should be reflected in the syllabus. [The author says he has] seen many syllabi in which the penalties for plagiarism are laid out in excruciating detail, with no positive models or behavior mentioned. Surely by now we know that positive motivation trumps the negative variety” (Karon).  Of course, many of us find this difficult, as the absolute frustration takes over and we feel like our students will never care about the ethical implications of “borrowing” work from other writers, scholars or random yahoos online who write blog posts and therefore, must be credible.
I guess I am writing for two reasons.  First, I would like to hear how all of you have dealt with this over the course of our current academic year.  How do you judge intentional from accidental?  Second, I would love to hear solutions for prevention.  Should we not allow any sources that do not come from the University Library?  Will it make a difference, when students don’t cite many of these sources anyway?  Finally, how do you stick to your guns?  I find that when faced with a crying student, I have to steel myself to the tears and really make myself stay strong in order to make sure that the student learns from the experience and grows into a ethical adult and writer in the future.
I know we’re all busy and you probably don’t want to discuss that which upsets us so much, but your insights are invaluable.  Plus, it will be nice to get emails that are not grade complaints or appeals for leniency.  🙂
Here is the link to the article and, in the interest of academic honesty, the MLA citation.
Karon, Jeff.  “A Positive Solution for Plagiarism.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 Sept. 2012.  Web.  2 May 2013.