Concept Mapping My Academic Writing Course

While doing research on graphic organizers, I was quickly enraptured by the idea of concept mapping. Concept maps are a means of spatially representing the relationships between ideas and showing how they can form complex networks of knowledge. These types of maps can help both instructors and students more firmly grasp the connections between apparently disparate ideas and help to form a more integrated understanding of a topic or a whole course.

Our university courses are taught in a linear fashion. Ideally we try to scaffold or build towards more complex ideas and skills as the term advances. But the ideas of our courses are not necessarily related to one another in such a simple linear fashion, they often connect to and reflect one another at multiple junctures. In fact, being able to conceptually grasp these multiple juncture points, or how ideas are related on multiple fronts, can be an important step towards real mastery of a subject. Visual resources such as concept maps have been shown to be potent pedagogical tools that aid in building this type of holistic perspective.

In terms of construction, concept maps can show relationships between ideas through spatial placement or proximity (or hierarchy, though that is more usually reserved for tree-diagrams). These maps may be centered around a central idea, although this is not necessary. Importantly, connecting lines (or arrows to show direction) are added to clarify relationships between ideas, and in more detailed maps those lines can be labelled, thus adding even more clarity and precision.

Inspired by its conceptual utility and using these basic principles I’ve just outlined, I set out to create a concept map for my writing course. I wrestled with having my students do their own in groups as an in-class activity (this is often recommended in the literature I consulted), but I decided I needed to struggle with it first to see how reasonable the task would be and how long it would take. Brainstorming the individual components (the ideas/skills I considered most critical) was not difficult, nor was connecting some of the ideas. The biggest challenge was trying to limit the different ways I could connect ideas. In fact, if I was to recreate my concept map from scratch, it almost certainly would look a little different. I tinkered with it a bunch, mostly playing with the labels on the connecting lines. I decided to give it to my students near the end of the term, using it as a cover to a stack of (digital) documents I provide each student (this includes some of their own reflective pieces and copies of handouts we’ve used in class that I think will serve them after our course). Nevertheless, below is my concept map for my writing course.

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Concept Map Cover for my writing course.

I first showed the students the concept map as projected onto a screen in our classroom. I didn’t tell them what it was and allowed them a few minutes to discuss its meaning and purpose in small groups before having a short class discussion. Since I only learned about creating concept map towards the end of my course, I would likely do this at the beginning of the course next time.

Lastly, I was greatly inspired by Linda B. Nilson’s The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating your Course when I designed my concept map. It provides numerous examples and an assortment of ways one could tackle such a project.





What Does a Thesis Statement ‘Look’ Like – Thesis as Metaphor

Early in the semester, I have my students tell me what a thesis statement looks like. They break into groups and write out a few bullet points listing what they think are the non-negotiable components of the ideal thesis.

Additionally, I ask them to think of a metaphor that best conveys what a thesis statement does (examples below). Finally, I ask them why that metaphor was chosen and to explain how it reflects some or all of the itemized bullet points. It’s a relatively quick exercise (no more than 3-4 minutes of group collaboration, and another 10-15 of class discussion) and I encourage creativity in the metaphors. If the metaphor component is confusing the groups, I will give one example, often saying something like this: “A thesis is like a map, because it shows you where you are going [i.e. it foreshadows the conclusion] and highlights important landmarks [i.e. foreshadows some evidence] along the way.”

I wish I was far more fastidious over the years in copying down the metaphors created by my students. Nevertheless, scribbled in the margins of my lesson plans are the following examples:

A thesis is like a compass (because it gives direction), blueprint (provides an overview), billboards (works like advertising), food label (lists contents), skeleton (provides general shape), receipt (tells you what you got), shopping list (tells you what to look for), bridge (brings you to a new place of understanding), flashlight (tells you where you are going and is “flashy”), treasure chest (holds all the “valuables”), heart (vital organ, the core), pyramid (strong foundation; made of blocks/components), magnifying lens (it focuses), spine (directs the body [paragraphs]), recipe (provides instruction), Tinder profile (makes people interested).

In any individual class, the groups’ suggestions are usually diverse enough to point out that no single metaphor can likely characterize all of the functions of an ideal thesis statement. That is why I like this exercise, in part, because choosing a metaphor is an argument; students have to come to some consensus on which aspect is the most important, which is then memorialized through the metaphor.

In sum, the metaphors above suggest that a thesis statement provides direction and cues the organization and methods of a paper. Furthermore, a thesis should also be focused (or relatively concise) and bring the reader to a new understanding of a topic. Ideally, a thesis should also be “attractive” (compelling or interesting).

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I prefer focusing class discussions on the function of the thesis statement rather than on its forms (i.e. the listed bullet points). In the language of genre analysis, we are looking for the rhetorical purpose of the thesis, not its conventions.

I prefer this because many students have already been drilled in the conventions: a thesis is one sentence; a thesis needs to provide three points of support; a thesis is the last sentence of an introduction. These are all guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.[1] Having a clear understanding of what the thesis is supposed to do can provide better direction of what it is supposed to look like. I would say the description above provides a good foundation for a generalized thesis.[2]

But a thesis can do more than summarized above, much more in fact, depending on the writing genre it is used in. Generally, I focus on argumentative/persuasive essays (but expository essays are common in my religious studies discipline), and thus a thesis in this context should also make a claim or take a stand, an aspect not clearly articulated in the above metaphors. In other words, you should imagine a reasonable person raising possible objections to your claim. This has two purposes. First, it draws in the skeptical reader who wants to see how you defend your claim. Second, it makes you a more thoughtful writer since it asks you to imagine, and possibly mitigate, potential counterarguments.[3]

Often, another aspect of a strong thesis is that it passes the “So What?” Test, meaning that a person’s first thought after reading the thesis should not be, meh, so what? To me, this is a very complex issue because it relates to significance. Often, scholarly theses do not pass the “So What?” Test for students because students often do not understand the broader disciplinary issues the scholar is tackling. In other words, the significance may not made explicit because the scholar is writing for his or her professional peers and who already know the gaps of knowledge in the field, not students who are novices in the topic. (Although I would contend that good, effective scholarship should make a paper’s significance explicit).

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For students, I’ve found success in enlivening their thesis claims by having them clearly articulate the question they are asking. Among all the other things we’ve talked about, a thesis is a response to a question (and a conclusion based on premises).  I’ve often found that a dead-on-arrival thesis is based on a rather uninspired research question. Instead of working on the thesis, I’ve had better responses talking to students about the questions they, often implicitly, are asking. While writing can be tortuous (and sometimes torturous), I suggest students return frequently to their question and try to refine it in terms of the new evidence they gather. In some situations, students find that the significance of their thesis can be rhetorically heightened by explicitly working their research question into the paper (according to the rhetorical principle of anthypophora).

Overall, I’ve found that defining the principle elements of a thesis statement can elicit deeply personal reactions. This may be due to personal preferences, misunderstanding regarding the genre of essay, or even disciplinary norms. These can be mitigated if we just tell our students, as clearly as we can, what we want a thesis to look like…but more importantly, what we want it to do.

So – What Can a Thesis Statement Do? (Anything else?)

  • It can preview (or provide) the conclusion of the argument
  • It can capture the interest of the reader
  • It can take a stance on an arguable claim
  • It can point to the significance of the argument or conclusion
  • It can preview the organization or structure of the essay (as reflected in the structure of the thesis statement)
  • It can encapsulate or highlight the most important points of the essay

So – What Does a Thesis Statement Look Like?

As you can start to see now, as long as a thesis statement accomplishes its necessary purpose(s), it can actually look different for different writing projects. If you still are looking for some more concrete starting points (that’s ok!) see the resources in the notes below.


[1] I have had colleagues use “starter formulas” for creating thesis statements, such as: Primary Sources + Observations = Conclusion or Evidence + Claim = Conclusion. In these cases, the Observation or Claim should change the understanding of the underlying evidence. Elsewhere, I have seen more specific directives to fill in the blanks: While critics argue_____, I argue_____, because_____./By looking at_____, I argue that_____, which is important because_____./The text, _____, defines _____as_____, in order to argue_____. I think these are all reasonable ways to jump start students who are struggling, but I would also be careful of pigeonholing student creativity or artificially limiting their argument styles.

[2] The advice available online for how to craft a thesis statement is absolutely daunting. It behooves us as instructors to help student navigate these resources if they have more questions. Arguably, one of the best online resources is the Perdue Online Writing Lab (Perdue OWL), but I would not say their thesis discussion is all that robust (a claim which pains me because it is such a valuable resource overall). I like the Harvard College Writing Center site because it provides some thesis caveats, and the University of Toronto Writing Support site because it talks about some myths. In addition to these, there are plenty of online materials which describe the process of developing a strong thesis, such as the University of Wisconsin Writing Center. I’ve used the handout from Vanderbilt University Writing Studio to develop my own worksheet for the thesis drafting process. Finally, for fun, if my student are having problems with crafting a draft thesis, I tell them to go here

[3] I have a friend who likes to tell a story of his college writing instructor who made all students develop their theses (claims) until no one in the class agreed with the claim. Only once no one agreed with the thesis, was my friend set to writing to convince his peers to agree with him!


Zhao, Jun. 2007. “Metaphors and Gestures for Abstract Concepts in Academic English Writing,” Dissertation, University of Arizona. [here]

Teaching Writing When You Don’t (Want to) Teach Writing


(Or…Teaching Writing in a ‘Content Course’)

I know. Student writing is horrible. The sky is falling. Doomsday has come. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about the sordid state of student writing. I once hooped and hollered atop that bandwagon too. It was so easy to blame high school teachers and college writing instructors (or anyone else) for not preparing students adequately in the fine art of written argumentation.

Then, I got a job as a university writing instructor. I’ve come to see that the problem partly lies with me and my curmudgeon colleagues (its a blight that extends beyond religious studies). It’s our duty to teach writing too, we just don’t want to do it.[1] Student writing is also not that bad, if you give students a fighting chance.

I’m a traitor to the “but-I-don’t-teach-writing” cause. I know.

If I haven’t angered you to rage-close the browser tab, then let me explain. At one level, writing is a skill, not a “fact”; all students know how to write, but some may not be proficient at it. They need more practice – and guidance in The Writing Process.

When I say instructors need to teach writing, I really mean they need to apportion time and structure activities that allow students to critique and develop their own ideas. Once students thoughtfully struggle with their ideas and arguments, they are more likely to want to “own” those ideas. As a result, almost magically, their writing will get better. In our religious studies courses (or humanities more broadly), we do not need to formally “teach writing,” as much as we need to give students the opportunity to work out their ideas in a strategic and structured manner. Teaching “writing” is just code for teaching critical thinking skills.

One of the key aspects of my writing courses focuses on (re)shaping student writing habits. We talk at length about “The Writing Process” and students develop their own ideal Process. While many facets are individual – some do their best writing in the library, some in their rooms; some listen to background music, some prefer silence; and so forth – other facets are non-negotiable. My writing course is structured around these non-negotiable facets, namely drafting, peer-review, and revision (see below). Ideally, my goal is to have students incorporate these elements into their natural Process, but like many new habits, they can be hard to adopt.[2]

In the non-teaching-writing classroom, it can be easy to omit drafting, peer-review, and revision activities (hereafter DPR). But these are precisely what students – and us scholars – need to produce our best writing. If done skillfully, DPR can all be handled by students themselves; there is no extra work for our already-exhausted teaching souls. I will admit, however, it does take time to devise drafting prompts, structured peer-review sessions, and direction for revision. Undoubtedly, these activities will go wrong before experience teaches us how to make them right (online research will certainly help too, or, gasp, conversations with colleagues about our failures).

Of course, I do think students benefit greatly from our expert insights on their ideas. If we can provide verbal, recorded audio, or written commentary at early stages in the Process, this will greatly assist students in developing their ideas. Spending time to get students to talk about their research in class with other is also valuable.

Overall, here are some thoughts about incorporating writing good critical thinking habits into your non-teaching-writing-classroom based around DPR.

Drafting: A simple recipe for disaster is to assign a big writing project due at the end of the term which does not also formally schedule several “checking-in” assessments along the way. These formative assessments could be a simple conversation with individual students or classroom activities where students discuss the early stages of their work. Drafting is another option. This does not have to be a full draft of the final essay. I’ve seen colleagues assign small segments of the essay that are due regularly throughout the term, such as drafting the introduction with a thesis, or body paragraphs with solid evidence, or the conclusion with the potential significance of the findings. More commonly, I’ve seen colleagues assign research proposals or annotated bibliographies, which discuss proposed research questions and potential lines of argument. Personally, I prefer (when possible) to assign smaller writing assignments that allows students to work on certain facets of their larger argument for their final paper. This works best if students don’t have an open-ended final research project, but are expected to address a pre-determined topic or theme at the end of the term (but I’m sure savvy instructors could still craft prompts that function in an open-ended manner). Overall, there are plenty of drafting options to help stimulate student thinking along the way, including daily writing reflections, for example. [3]

Peer-Review: It is important to remember that drafts can also be read by other students (even as homework), if reading students’ work is too time consuming for an instructor. Peer-review can be tricky to run effectively, however. One thing to keep in mind is that students will need assistance on how to critique the work of others; offering truly constructive criticism and thoughtful insight on writing is a skill in itself (as I’ve painfully learned as a writing instructor). Consequently, review sessions need to be highly structured. Provide a commentary rubric or the grading rubric you would use for evaluating the assignment. Or, at the very least, provide a list of things for students to pay attention to. I’d suggest saving the best papers from each term and sharing them during subsequent peer-review sessions. The entire class can read and comment upon the paper(s), thus helping to align expectations about the review process. I’d also strongly suggest having student converse with each other after providing written commentary; talking can easily clarify confusions on both sides. There are numerous discussions of running peer-review online, I’d suggest finding a method that might work best with your class and tinker with it.

Revision: The purpose of doing the above activities is so students think through their ideas and potentially see how others attempt to tackle the same or similar issues. Depending on the drafting assignment (suggestions above), you would have to decide how to have students build off of their initial insights. In other words, what is the next step in the Process? Does their thesis statement need to be re-thought (and possibly re-drafted)? Does their research proposal need to be more focused and peer-reviewed again? Is their annotated bibliography missing an important work? Will students’ smaller writing assignments dovetail cleanly into their larger argument or are there potential flaws which need to be redressed? While some of these interventions can be performed by other students, instructor commentary (or even better, conversation) will prove invaluable. Importantly, only work that will be revised merits extensive feedback, there is little pedagogical value in heavy commentary on final products – the real critical thinking work has already been done.

A final note: There are numerous other suggestions to consider as well when focusing on the Writing Process. One that was not immediately apparent to me was “exposing” myself as a writer to my students. I now regularly tell my classes about all of the writing projects I need to engage professionally as a writer: conference proposal, book review, dissertation chapter, journal submission, and so forth. I share with them the struggles, setbacks, and new insights gained through developing my work. It’s important for students to see or hear about writing that isn’t published, that isn’t perfect, that needs further reflection. By seeing the care that goes into our professional work, students can come to emulate that process.


*Some of my comments here developed out of my ruminations on abandoing page-lengths for student writing.

[1] Duty might seem like a strong word, but I’ve used it purposefully. If we consider our course goals to include cultivating critical thinking skills, this almost certainly includes (there are reasonable exceptions) some form of writing assessment. As you will see, I do not consider the teaching of writing in the non-teaching-of-writing-classroom to be a review of low-level mechanics or refinement of diction, but the critique and development of ideas that normally happens in the Writing Process. In this case, the teaching of writing is, simply, the teaching of critical thinking.

[2] I’ll say it again, but now as a footnote: So-called “good writing” is not the memorization of facts. Most students are fully aware of the elements of a good thesis or how to make a strong argument. In many circumstances, what limits them is not their misunderstanding of these facts, but the underdeveloped ideas they have. By spending time on their ideas (researching, conversing, debating, refining, reflecting, etc. ) students generally come to care for those ideas. When folks don’t care about their ideas, they hand in “poorly written” work or plagiarize it.

[3] Even regular, short responses to readings can include a few comments by students on their relevance to a proposed final project. In other words, responses to readings don’t always need to be simple summary.

Further References:

Wingate, Ursula; Andon, Nick & Cogo, Alessia. 2011. “Embedding Academic Writing Instruction into Subject Teaching: A Case Study.” Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 12, No. 1., pp. 69–81.

Efficient and Effective Grading of Student Writing Workshop

Once, over the coure of five weeks, I graded – and commented upon – just over four hundend student papers. It was mind-blistering work. I was asked by a colleague if this experience passed a cost-benefit analysis. Many of these papers were drafts (or important student reflections), and thus demanded more care; students would be building their ideas off my comments. In the end, their final papers – which received minimal comments from me – were mostly enjoyable to read. My work had paid off. Ultimately, efficient and effective gradings requires the frontloading of teacher effort.

After several years, I like to think I’ve become somewhat better at offering constructive criticism of student writing. It’s never become “easy,” but I think I’ve become more effective in advancing students’ writign abilities and efficient in my time spent on the task. Below, I offer some of the slides I presented on this topic for our university’s Instructional Development program for TAs and add some additional commentary.

Our workshop was fairly small and thus I wanted to start by survying our group’s attitudes towards elements of the writing process. Using Mentimeter, the first question asked the worksohp attendees to rate their opinions of the importance of drafting, peer-review, and creating rubrics:


The numbers above represent the averages of the individual responses (“5” being the most “necessary”). Of those, creating grading rubrics was deemed the most important among our group. Happily, this aligned with the workshopping component of my presentation. Drafting and peer review require some “experice” (ahem, failures) on the teaher’s part to get it “right.” Nevertheless, I consider all three to be closely related, I’ll return to this below.

The second question asked the participants to do a cost-benefit analysis of creating rubrics, setting up peer-review, and giving ample commentary:


Not surprisingly, providing feedback was the most time-intensive, but it’s value was on par with crafting a good rubric. As I noted above, there’s an inverse value to feedback as the semester progresses. It’s most valuable early in the term, when students can adjust their habits and styles (and build their ideas); there is minimal value on maximal feedback at the end of the term.

The final question was more straightforward: how long does it take to read, comment significantly, and grade a five-page paper?


I asked this question to get a sense of how others operate – we instructors often don’t talk about these types of things with each other. At the very least, I think its important to have an internal estimate of our grading times so we do not go overboard with commenting. Personally, I have not been able to break the 15 minute barrier for five-page papers. I average about 18 minutes. As such, I set a timer for each paper I read at 20 minutes and always try to “beat” it. (Perhaps I can call this a variant of the Pomodoro Technique.)

Before diving into my presentation formally, my favorite suggestions for managing paper load comes from Shelley Reid’s insightful thoughts posted in her “Shelley’s Quick Guides for Writing Teachers.” Many of Reid’s principles are sprinkled into my presentation here.

I start by asking why instructors should assign papers at all. I think its important to keep in mind the value of writing in that is often recruits “higher orders” of thinking, which are all but impossible to access through multiple choice exams. It is also important to think about which orders of thinking writing prompts address; some writing prompts may only ask students to list elements of a concept or theory. This remains in the lower order of “remembering” (see Bloom’s Taxonomy below).

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There are several things we instructors can do to off-load more of the conceptual “heavy lifting” to students – and thus have them build more of the conceptual “muscle.” Having students draft is an important step in the writing process because it allows them to develop (and become more invested in) their ideas. If you pair this with a structured peer-reivew, there is actually minimal work for the instructor. (Of course, anyone will tell you that peer-review requires a lot of structure and guidance. Students need to practice and learn the skill of truly constructive criticism. Perhaps I will run a workshop on the practices of drafting and peer-review in the future…)

I offer the next few slides with only minimal comment.

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“Before you Grade” considerations


After reviewing the basic components of grading rubrics (criteria, description, scale), we spent time lookign for relevant rubric templates online – there is no need to re-invent the wheel! There are many resources available that can inspire your rubric divisions. I provided the following handout for consultation: Creating Grading Rubrics Handout.

After discussing some strategies “before you grade,” I swith to pragmatic suggestions “while you grade.”

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“While you Grade” considerations


I have long been a covert to audio commentary and have suggested it to many of my colleagues. If you have the space (the one limiting factor is you need a generally quiet locaiton), it’s worth a try. Finally, I ended with a few thoughts on “after you grade.”


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“After you Grade” considerations


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*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

Edit: This post below addresses several similar issues, but adds other interesting insights:


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 – some 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 5, 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

Peter Romaskiewicz [Updated December 2019]

The first-year composition class at UCSB requires students to engage in rhetorical 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 (2016) US election 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. [Updated Interactive Media Bias Chart 5.0]

Vanessa Otero’s Chart [Version 2.0]

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 [now archived](also helpful are the AllSides and Media Bias/Fact Check websites). These resources, however, only measure partisan bias (horizontal axis above). 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 entry 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.

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Class Slide labeling Hard/Soft/Fake News and the 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 latter focuses on people (lifestyles, celebrities, and human-interest). The gendered implications of this division have 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, suggesting attention also is 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 an 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 cool-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.

For other posts related to teaching Freshman Composition and Rhetoric see here.

Welcome to Writing 2: Academic Writing – Setting the Tone

Romaskiewicz Syllabus cover.png

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…