Should we Abolish Page-Lengths When Assigning Student Papers? (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part IV of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X]

For those of us who are writing, or have written, a dissertation, it is likely that we have run across a well-meaning friend, family member, or stranger in a bar (or Buddhist temple!) who has asked us, “How many pages does a dissertation need to be?!” “Everyone knows,” I say, “it’s exactly 373, no more, no less.”

Of course, this is a silly answer to a genuine question, but I think we scholars have to admit the assumptions behind this question are, well, misdirected. I’ve seen dissertations in my field that are 200 pages and 1200 pages. I would say age-old conventions more commonly determine page length of dissertations, not whip-cracking advisors.[1] More importantly, the guiding principle behind writing a dissertation is identifying and crafting a compelling argument. The scope and depth of the argument is better at determining the length than any pre-established page length. I would say that most scholars do not have the problem of developing the length of their writing, but containing its scope of ideas! Word limit is our enemy, not word count!

In teaching academic writing, my colleagues and I foreground the importance of developing ideas through short writing assignments and drafts. Yes, we do have page-lengths, typically three 5-page papers are due throughout the term. But each of these 5-page papers were preceded by two 2-page papers, used to develop elements of the longer argument. This structure allows students to develop ideas over time (they receive critical feedback along the way) and draft verbiage that can be used for their longer paper. Even these initial 5-page papers are drafts that are revised and edited for their final portfolio.

The first time I taught the course I was caught off guard by how many portfolio papers were too long, either repetitive or unnecessarily broad or meandering. They blew by the 5-page limit because they had too many good ideas![2]  I soon established page-maximums for the portfolio papers (7 pages), and decided to start talking throughout the course about how students should think about the scope of their thesis and the depth of their evidence and analysis. Surely, some initial 5-page papers are short, but I have an equal number of students who are struggling with too many possible trajectories for their argument. They are no longer concerned with page length, but with identifying and crafting a compelling argument. To be clear, this only happens because they are allowed (err…coerced) to developed ideas through writing over a period of time with critical feedback. I commiserate with students who are vexed by having to edit out good (or just fun) ideas – I tell them that is what real scholarship often entails – save them for your next paper!

Now, I can hear (and have heard) the objection, “But, I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach Religious Studies, I do not teach writing!” True, but I would suggest we rephrase the statement like this: “I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach facts, not skills!” I would argue that writing (or argumentative writing) is a core skill of doing Religious Studies, and if one wants to develop critical thinking, the practice of writing is a main vehicle for its development. If one is truly interested in teaching only religious literacy (i.e. facts), then writing assignments do not need to be assigned – multiple choice exams will adequately test retention of ideas. (And don’t fool yourself if you think assigning an “essay question” necessarily elicits higher-order thinking – most essay prompts ask the student to list facts in one way or another. For example, a good essay question should ask the student to apply a skill in a novel context.)

Grist for the Mill: By writing this (go figure!), I think I’ve come to a better understanding of the value of page-lengths. Page-lengths really don’t matter much if you are working with a motivated student to continuously help develop his or her ideas. Depending on the depth of available research materials (both primary and secondary sources), the complexity of the research topic, and the base knowledge of the student, paper lengths may vary significantly, but still reflect an equivalent effort. The point, I concede, may be simply placing the primary focus on – and underlying motivation directed towards – the quality of the argument and not the length of the paper. One way to do this is to emphasize the need for the slow development and building of ideas with regular peer or instructor feedback.

Dare I say, page-recommendations should perhaps be determined by the time a teacher has to critically read and comment on them all – as opposed to some arbitrary 10, 12, or 15 page paper?[3] I average about 20 minutes of reading and critical feedback per 5-page paper. This feedback (and sometimes this is just suggestions, not “corrections”) is then used to write a final, more polished piece of writing. This process requires more planning than simply penciling-in a “research paper” into your syllabus due at the end of the term. Is also requires a prompt that allows for the development of a student’s ideas over an extended period of time. Granted, this may not be ideal for every class, but I think it is preferable in many Religious Studies courses.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] If I engage in a longer conversation, I will usually say that scholars often think about the number of chapters needed to develop an argument, and that by the general concern of publishing a chapter or two as a 10-20+ page article we often arrive at a determined dissertation length. In other words, we (typically) do not start by having a page length.

[2] Long papers could be plagued by what I call “stream of consciousness writing,” writing that meanders with no point. I usually tell students that this is the sign of a good rough draft, but now needs to be critically analyzed for kernels of ideas or good argumentation. Unless a student willfully wants to fail, this informal style of writing is almost always fixed after revision.

[3] Many universities have stipulations for certain classes that involve the required assignment of a certain number of pages of writing (it is 15 pages at my university). Typically this represents total pages of writing, thus, following a similar program I outline above, a final 10-page paper should easily be preceded by more than 5 pages of drafting, consequently complying with the 15-page minimum.

Periodic Table of Academic Disciplines

9-10-2010.jpgI’m continually amazed how the efforts of random bloggers make my life as a writing instructor all the more easier. For our second writing project we focus on the  epistemological dimensions of different academic disciplines and how those implicit expectations shape the scholarly writing in those fields. While students are quite familiar with different department in the university, trying to explain why they exist in the way that they do can, at times, be challenging.

I use class time to discuss the basic framework of how scholars of different disciplines ask different types of questions about the world, and how they marshal different types of evidence to support their claims. This is, as always, an exercise in raising awareness. I use a podcast (as homework) to explain the history of disciplinary divisions, stemming from the secularization of the German university system in the 19th century and “discovery” of the social sciences (political science, economics, sociology, anthropology, etc.).

I charge the students with researching a topic and finding appropriate scholarly materials on that topic from different disciplines – both books and articles. They have to decide which discipline the work falls under, which can be harder than it seems, especially if you are not used to trying to differentiate those characteristics already. At some level, having a list of options makes the job easier, where Claudia’s blog helps exceptionally. She has made a chart, mirroring that of the Periodic Tables of Elements, with academic disciplines – even grouping them according to field.

My only criticism is that it does not represent various area studies, such as Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Chican@ Studies. etc. Because of this, Religious Studies is placed in the Humanities field (which is not inherently problematic), but does not make it clear that Religious Studies is a “raider” discipline, pulling methodologies from various other disciplines (history, sociology, psychology, cognitive science, etc.).

Rhetorical Contexts: Who is the Audience?

I did not learn genre theory in my college composition classes, so when it was introduced to me at UCSB I was unsure of its application outside of just being another provocative theory. I’ve come to realize how the right approach to genre theory paints writing as a social practice, and when mastered, turns writing into a powerful and eminently practical skill. Part of genre analysis requires an assessment of the rhetorical situation, which is dissected in various ways by theorists and scholars, but always incorporates the element of intended audience.

When writers write they typically write for an imagined audience, and this largely dictates the choice they make while writing. Thus, while it is possible for anyone with an internet connection to read a blog post, depending on how it is written it may draw in certain audiences and drive away others. Those that come and stay would be the target audience (or intended audience) of a blog post.

When deciding to perform genre analysis on news genres, I was searching for another way to think about intended audience rather than the standard focus on demographics like age, ethnicity, gender, income, region, education, and so forth. After chatting with my writing advisor, Chris Dean, whose interests involve the critical analysis of urban legends and conspiracy theories, he highlighted the recurring issue of confirmation bias at the heart of all legend trippers and conspiracy theorists. This provided at least another way to view the audience of moderately (even grossly) biased Soft News articles, those looking to confirm their personal perspective on certain topics.

cognitive-biasThis lead me down a train of thought which wanted to play with audience and several other types of cognitive biases. In other words, how do certain cognitive biases direct what and how we read? I was reminded of the fabulous chart, originally posted by blogger Buster Benson.

I was surprised at how many other cognitive biases are similar to confirmation bias.

  • Anchoring Bias: People are over reliant on the first piece of information they obtain
  • Conservatism Bias: People favor prior evidence over new evidence
  • Choice-Support Bias: People favor a choice they have made even if it has flaws
  • Availability Heuristic: People overestimate the importance of information that is available to them

I gave the chart to my class and asked them to ponder some aspects of it to foster creativity in defining who the audience of news articles may be. I will say, however, for each person who is subconsciously looking to confirm his or her bias, there may very well be another person who is consciously looking to understand the “Other side” in order to challenge his or her own biases.

UPDATE: While the above chart is detailed and comprehensive, it may be too comprehensive for many to find a nice toe-hold. The more highly selective chart below may be a better alternative.


Genre Analysis: Hard News, Soft News, Fake News

The first-year composition class at UCSB requires students to engage in discourse and textual analysis through developing a “heightened awareness” of writing genres. Genre-based analysis works on a wide range of texts (really, all texts) and given the important role of media in the last US elections and the prominent and recurring spotlight thrown on Fake News, I thought an examination into news genres would be timely and interesting.

While researching and analyzing the distinctions between news genres one online resource stood above the rest because it offered a convenient visual representation of news sources along two axes of partisan bias and journalistic integrity. The chart (below) was created by Vanessa Otero, a blogger whose keen eye helped me make several important distinctions between news writing styles.


Vanessa Otero’s Chart [Version 2]

There are several online resources which chart the political polarization of news media, including a well-researched report by the Pew Research Center and the curiously amusing “Blue Feed, Red Feed” maintained by the Wall Street Journal (also helpful are the AllSides and Media Bias/Fact Check websites). These resources, however, only measure partisan bias (horizontal axis above), and I was looking for other measurements that may align with elements of genre analysis. Otero’s chart was helpful because it added a vertical axis that charted journalistic quality, highlighting important stylistic differences that I could easily map on to the traditional divisions of news genres: Hard News/investigative journalism (just the facts!), Soft News/Feature News/Editorials (analysis and opinion), and Fake News (plain fiction).

This was the perfect entrance point for starting discussion, a convenient and astutely crafted visual chart showing the complexity of news writing. It also allowed me to handily visualize the close relationship between bias and interpretation without confounding them. Analysis and description of news articles beyond partisan bias became a core assignment for my students.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 05.36.30.png

Class Slide labeling Hard/Soft/Fake News and relationship between bias and interpretation

Many sources cite the standard distinction between Hard News and Soft News as a difference in topic coverage, with the former focusing on events (political, economic, disruptive), while the later focuses on people (lifestyles, celebrities, and human-interest). The gendered implications of this division has been noted in Women, Men, and News by Paula Poindexter, Sharon Meraz, and Amy Schmitz Weiss. Otero’s chart, on the other hand, begins to suggest how writing choices also frame the categorization of news genres, suggestion attention also be paid to tonality, organization, length, and evidence, along with several other smart observations made by my students.

In order to discuss CNN’s position as outlier, being both highly analytical and opinionated and yet only mildly left-leaning, I turned to the Vox series Strikethrough which publishes excellent videos on modern American media. In a short 6-minute video (perfect for class), CNN’s approach to telling news is compared to the ESPN’s “hot take” model, which favors heavy-handed opinion and argumentative debate over cold-headed fact-reporting. This serves to underscore how Hard News can be “softened.” Furthermore, I ended up pairing Otero’s chart with the insights of Colleen Patrick into the value of Soft News as providing much needed perspective on simple fact-reporting.

Overall, these resources proved invaluable in helping me to conceive of the distinctive writing conventions found among Hard, Soft, and Fake News, and provided a good springboard into discussion on other important contextualizing rhetorical features, such as intended audience and purpose.




Welcome to Writing 2: Academic Writing – Setting the Tone

Romaskiewicz Syllabus cover.pngWRIT2 Syllabus (Romaskiewicz Fall 2017)

For the seventh time I have the opportunity to teach a first-year composition and rhetoric class. I first taught this class in the Fall of 2012, and have taught it intermittently since them. This time, however, I will be doing a significant overhaul of the writing projects, as I have slowly developed ideas that better suit my course goals and personal interests.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges I face this time around is making the point clearly that writing is a learned skill and (for many) a slow process. I plan to return to the mantra that this course is meant to help students develop a “heightened awareness” of their writing choices through the cultivation of particular sets of skill. Acquiring a skill requires repetition and incremental adaptation to higher level challenges.

I need to remind myself of this because inevitably students will just start asking me what I want to see in their writing – in the hopes of getting the best grades. Of course, at some level there are requirements, but these are always spelled out in the simplest terms in the class materials.

How to draft a thesis, how to support a thesis, how to organize an argument, or whatever other elements are necessary to “academic writing” need to be practiced through numerous iterations of drafting, critiquing, and revising. In other words, through the slow acquisition of a skill. The criterion of “good” writing is simply effective writing, and effectiveness can take on many shapes. There is no universal template for good academic writing. Sorry, Artificial Intelligence enthusiasts, computers cannot even grade essays, let alone compose them. As the prosaically named Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment (membership including Noam Chomsky) stated: “Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.”

This is more about setting a tone for the class, where taking chances are rewarded and failures are framed as true learning opportunities, not shameful embarrassments. With this in mind, I am looking forward to class discussions and activities centered on their writing and hope they all can see growth in the next few months.


Writing Process

Last week, Prof. James Benn came to UCSB to discuss his new work on the relationship between Chinese Buddhism and tea. While here, he also offered a “masterclass” on writing and research practices for graduate students, which turned out to be exceptional.

While graduate students often take research and methodology courses (there are also several of archives of classes like this online), this class was particularly insightful because we discussed an all-too-often overlooked aspect of writing: paying close attention to workflow and the tools we use in the writing/research process.

My typical writing workflow proceeds as follows: Pile open books on desk, floor, or any other open space, open pertinent pdf files on my laptop and start typing on MS Word. I use a laptop computer with external monitor, and typically place my pdfs and online resources on the external monitor while I type on my laptop screen. (At this point I cannot imagine working with only one screen…)

I use MS Word, but Prof. Benn highly recommended using Scrivener, a tool developed to foster more open-ended process-friendly writing. As I see it, this helps a writer move away from linear thinking which can cripple the generative writing process. Combined with Evernote, specialized note taking software, I am starting to rethink how I approach my process of writing. Currently, I save everything in numerous MS Word files, but these programs seem to streamline the entire process. At the very least I may not need to have dozens of Word file windows open at the same time; all of the information can be sorted by tabs in Scrivener or Evernote. I hope to experiment with these programs and see if it motivates me to write more frequently…