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Review of “Cheating Lessons,” by James M. Lang

In Academia, America, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Humanities, Pedagogy, Teaching on September 24, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared in Academic Questions (2014).

A few years ago, when I was teaching composition courses at Auburn University, I had a freshman from Harlem in my class. He had traveled from New York to Alabama to accept a scholarship and become the first person in his family to attend college. He was kind and thoughtful, and I liked him very much, but he was woefully unprepared for higher education; he had trouble comprehending more than a few paragraphs and could not write basic sentences. The university, however, was proud of this recruit, who contributed both geographic and racial diversity to the otherwise (relatively) non-diverse student body.

Encouraged by his tenacity, I met with this student regularly to teach him sentence structure and to help him turn his spoken words into written sentences. Although he improved by degrees over the course of the semester, he was never able to write a complete coherent paragraph.

During the last weeks of class, I informed him that he needed to earn at least a C+ on his final paper to avoid repeating the course. He was conspicuously absent from class whenever preliminary drafts were due, and he never responded to my prodding emails. Shortly before the due date, he materialized in my office and presented a piece of paper that contained several sentences. He asked me questions and attempted to record my responses on his paper. I reminded him that although I was happy to offer guidance, he needed to submit original work. He nodded and left my office. When, at last, he submitted his final paper, it consisted of roughly four intelligible paragraphs that regrettably had nothing to do with the assignment. I inserted these paragraphs into a Google search and discovered that they were lifted, verbatim, from a Wikipedia article unrelated to the assignment. I failed the student but showed him mercy—and spared the university embarrassment—by not reporting him to the administration for disciplinary action.

To this day I wonder if there was something I could have done differently to prevent this student from plagiarizing, or whether his cheating was the inevitable consequence of being unprepared for university study. Many teachers have similar stories.

Academic dishonesty, a topic now admirably undertaken by James M. Lang, has received more scholarly treatment than I was aware of before reading Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Like many of us, Lang grew interested in the subject because of his experiences with students who cheated in his classes. The more research he did on academic dishonesty, the more frustrated he became with “the same basic prescriptions” that were either quixotic or impracticable for one faculty member to undertake alone. One day, Lang realized that if he “looked through the lens of cognitive theory and tried to understand cheating as an inappropriate response to a learning environment that wasn’t working for the student,” he could “empower individual faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they constructed.”

Lang’s goal is not to score points or court confrontation, but simply to help teachers and administrators to reduce cheating by restructuring the content and configuration of their courses and classrooms.

Lang divides Cheating Lessons into three parts. The first is a synthesis of the existing scholarly literature on academic dishonesty that concludes with four case studies, about which little needs to be said here. The second part consists of practical guidance to teachers who wish to structure their classrooms to minimize cheating and to cultivate the exchange of ideas. And the third, which is an extension of the second, considers speculations about potential changes to curricula and pedagogy to promote academic integrity not just in the classroom, but across campus.

Most original are parts two and three, which are premised on the structuralist assumption that systems shape and inform the production of knowledge. The treatment of academic dishonesty as a symptom of deterministic models and paradigms makes this book unique. If the models and paradigms can be changed, Lang’s argument runs, then academic dishonesty might decline: the shift needs to be away from the “dispositional factors that influence cheating—such as the student’s gender, or membership in a fraternity or sorority, and so on”—toward “contextual factors,” the most significant of which is “the classroom environment in which students engage in a cheating behavior” (emphases in original). What’s exciting about the structuralist paradigm—if it’s accurate—is that teachers and administrators have the power and agency to facilitate constructive change.

But what if the structuralist paradigm isn’t correct? What if dispositional factors are more determinative than contextual factors in generating academic dishonesty? Lang’s argument depends upon a profound assumption that he expects his readers to share. It’s most likely that dispositional and contextual factors are interactive, not mutually exclusive: consider the student who is not as intelligent as his peers and who resorts to cheating because of his insecurity and the pressure on him to succeed. Lang is onto something, though: students are less likely to learn in an environment that compels them “to complete a difficult task with the promise of an extrinsic reward or the threat of punishment” than they are in an environment that inspires them “with appeals to the intrinsic joy or beauty or utility of the task itself” (emphasis in original). In other words, “in an environment characterized by extrinsic motivation, the learners or competitors care about what happens after the performance rather than relishing or enjoying the performance itself” (emphasis in original).

How does Lang propose that teachers and administrators structure their courses and curricula to foster what he calls “intrinsic motivation” (as against “extrinsic rewards”) among students? For starters, he urges professors to help students learn for mastery and not for grades, to lower the stakes per assignment by multiplying the options for students to earn points or credit, and to instill self-efficacy by challenging students and by affording them increased opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. In the abstract, these suggestions seem obvious and unhelpful, so Lang backs them up with interviews with accomplished teachers as well as anecdotes about successful classroom experiments: the improvising by Andy Kaufman as he taught Russian literature to prison inmates, for instance, or the unique grading system implemented by John Boyer at Virginia Tech. All the tactics and approaches discussed and promoted by Lang can be traced back to the premise that “the best means we have to reduce cheating is to increase motivation and learning.”

Teachers and administrators are forever trying to motivate their students to learn. It’s easier to conceive of this goal, however, than to achieve it. Teachers everywhere seek to inspire their students to love and pursue knowledge, and despite a plethora of opinions about how best to do so, no general consensus has arisen to establish a definitive course of action for all students and disciplines. Many teachers chose their profession and discipline because they relished their own education and wanted to pass on their knowledge and love of learning to others. Lang’s insistence that teachers inspire a passion for learning is hardly novel; rather, it is the touchstone and stands in contradistinction to the utilitarian, standardized, test-centered, and results-oriented educational strategies that politicians, bureaucrats, and policy wonks now sponsor and defend. In this respect, Cheating Lessons is a refreshing alternative; it’s written by an educator for educators and not, thank goodness, for semiliterate politicians and their sycophantic advisers.

One thing this book is not: a template or checklist that you can follow to construct your own productive learning environment for students. Each learning environment is contextual; one model will not suit every setting and purpose. Because Lang cannot and does not provide step-by-step how-to instructions, Cheating Lessons borders on the self-help genre and is more inspirational and aspirational than it is informational. And Lang’s meandering style—for example, his digressions about Robert Burns and coaching youth sports teams—are disarming enough not only to charm but also to contribute to the impression that Cheating Lessons is “light” reading.

Lang can overdo the playfulness and make exaggerated claims. Early on he quotes a Harvard administrator complaining in 1928 about the problem of cheating among students, an example that’s meant to refute the assumption that “we are in the midst of a cheating epidemic, and that the problem is much worse now than it was in the idyllic past.” Lang adds that he hopes to convince us that “cheating and higher education in America have enjoyed a long and robust history together.” But it’s not as if 1928 is ancient history. Data about academic dishonesty since that time will not convince most readers that there were as many cheating students in the one-room schoolhouses of the nineteenth century, when fewer people had access to formal education, as there are today. Perhaps anticipating such criticism, Lang invites us to “hop in our time machine and leap across centuries” to consider the cheating cultures of the ancient Greeks and of Imperial China “over the course of [a] fourteen-hundred-year history.” But surely the substantial data we have gathered on the twentieth- and twenty-first-century academy cannot be compared to the limited and circumstantial data garnered about these early cultures; surely “illicit communication” by “cell phones” is not comparable to the use of cheat sheets in nineteenth-century China. It seems preposterous to suggest that academic dishonesty in contemporary America exists to the same extent it did centuries ago on different continents and among different peoples with different principles and priorities.

Nevertheless, even readers skeptical of Lang’s structuralist premise and apparent optimism will find much in Cheating Lessons to contemplate and to amuse. Unfortunately, however, even after having read the book I’m still not sure what I could have done differently to prevent my student from cheating.

 

 

 

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Paul H. Fry’s “The New Criticism and Other Western Formalisms”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Communication, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on May 28, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the sixth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, here, and here.

Paul H. Fry’s “The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork”

In Academia, American Literature, Art, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Creativity, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Philosophy, Writing on May 21, 2014 at 8:45 am

Below is the fifth installment in the lecture series on literary theory and criticism by Paul H. Fry.  The three two lectures are here, here, here, and here.

Review of “Teaching Law and Literature”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Fiction, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, Novels, Pedagogy, Teaching, Writing on April 24, 2012 at 8:33 am

Allen Mendenhall

Teaching Law and Literature.  Austin Sarat, Cathrine O. Frank, and Matthew Anderson, eds.  New York: Modern Language Association, 2011.  vii + 507 pp.  $25, paper.

What began as a coordinated, idiosyncratic project in American and British law schools has become a common component of curricula in English departments across the globe.  Law and literature as a subject and as a movement has gained purchase over the last three decades.  Inaugurated in 1973 with the publication of James Boyd White’s The Legal Imagination, which highlighted, among other things, the affinities between legal and literary rhetoric, law and literature has splintered into so many narrowed foci that today it is just as common to see courses like “Law in Late 19th Century American Literature” as it once was to see courses called, quite simply and broadly, “Law and Literature.”

To celebrate and explain this movement, The Modern Language Association (MLA) has released Teaching Law and Literature, an edition with forty-one essays by some of the most prominent scholars in the field, including none other than White himself.  Although law and literature has enjoyed ample funding and has become the subject of an increasing number of journals and conferences, not enough work has been done on the pedagogical aspects of the discipline.  Put another way, the discipline has yet adequately to address the question of how professors ought to teach the interplay of law and literature to students.

That is a gap that this book seeks to fill.  According to editors Austin Sarat, Cathrine O. Frank, and Matthew Anderson, Teaching Law and Literature  “provides a resource for teachers interested in learning about the field of law and literature and how to bring its insights to bear in their classrooms, both in the liberal arts and in law schools.”  Despite that stated goal, the book is weighted toward undergraduate education, and the editors admit as much in their introduction.

At a time when American law schools are under fire for admissions scandals and fabricated data, professors of law and literature—and law professors interested in humanistic and jurisprudential approaches to law teaching—would do well to turn their attention to undergraduates.  When budget cuts and faculty purging befall the legal academy, as they likely will, law and literature (and its various offshoots) will be the first curricular elective to suffer.  A discipline whose proponents struggle to articulate its purpose—will a course in law and literature help law students to pass a bar exam or to become better lawyers?—may not survive the institutional scrutiny of deans, administrators, and alumni associations.

Yet it is the urgent quest for validation that makes law and literature such an important subject.  At its core, law and literature is about grand questions: Why study literature at all?  What use do novels, plays, poems, and the like have for the general public and for the practical, workaday world in which lawyers serve a necessary function?  Might the recurring themes of justice, fairness, and equality expressed in canonized texts from disparate cultures and communities point to something recognizable and distinctive in the human condition?  And are there paralyzing limits to specialized knowledge of periods and genres when so many law and literature scholars, working out of different traditions and trained in supposedly autonomous disciplines, arrive at the same or similar generalizations regarding human experience?

One such generalization, interestingly enough, is that complicated relationships between people—whether based in race, gender, class, or whatever—ought to be understood in terms of ambiguity and contingency rather than certainty and absolutes, and that simple answers will hardly ever suffice to illuminate the nuances and contradictions of any given phenomenon, especially law.  That law is too often reduced to blackletter, blanket rules is not lost to writers of imaginative literature, who, many of them, have used law and legal institutions to enable critiques and explorations of complex social and philosophical problems.

It is little wonder, in light of the compatibility between literary and legal rhetoric or hermeneutics, that a Maryland appellate judge recently wrote in his concurrence that “[t]his case is E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India all over again.  Something happened up there at the Marabar Caves.  Was it an attempted rape?  Was it some form of hysteria triggered by strongly ambivalent emotions imploding violently in a dark and isolated catacomb?  Or was it some unmappable combination of the two as moods and signals shifted diametrically in mid-passage?  The outside world will never know.”  Here is a judge employing a work of literature to demonstrate a point about the limitations of human knowledge.  Law provides topoi in countless works of literature, and works of literature, as this judge apparently recognizes, can supply context and profundity to the deforming routines and desensitizing rituals of everyday law practice.  Without following the judge through to the end of his reasoning, one can sense in his lines a stark awareness of the incapacity of human faculties and hence the perspectival nature of what the philosophers call “justice.” Read the rest of this entry »

How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching Audience

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on October 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Allen Mendenhall

The following post comes from a journal entry I wrote to myself in the fall of 2010.  The post addresses the importance of audience to writing, and more specifically to the teaching of writing.  Other posts on this site have addressed this topic: see here, here, here, here, and here

I’m sitting here at a small wooden desk in my hotel in Destin, Florida, beneath a window that overlooks crowded parking lots, ivy-lined tennis courts, swaying palm trees, and beyond all these, white sand and an emerald-blue ocean.  I haven’t shaved all weekend.  I’m slightly sunburned.  I feel refreshed, except that Giuliana keeps insisting I get a haircut before I head back to Auburn and she to Atlanta.  Instead of walking the beach with her, I’m reading The History of the Kings of Britain and considering what I’ll teach my college freshmen this week. 

I’ve skimmed my syllabus and revisited each underlined phrase and barely legible marginalia from my teaching notes, and now I’m considering a line by Douglas B. Park.  It says, “Locating and discussing the audience for a given piece of prose can be frustrating.” 

Indeed it can.  Just this week I gave my students an assignment that I hoped would teach a thing or two about audience.  I handed out two pieces of paper on which I had copied and pasted three articles about Cancun, Mexico.

I had drawn the first article from the website of a tourist agency, the second from a newspaper, and the third from a literary journal.  I asked my students the same question that Park posed to his students: “Who or what. . . is the audience for this piece?”   

My students replied that tourists—surprise, surprise!—were the targeted audience for article one (perhaps “brochure” is a better term than “article”).  But they couldn’t name the audience for the second and third articles.  They responded with things like “the general public” or “the average reader,” categories so broad as to lack any clear referent.  So I tried, without really knowing what I was doing, asking something like Park’s next question: “How does audience manifest itself to writers writing?”   

I think I put the question more simply: “What’s the point of each piece?”

Perhaps stuck on the first brochure, my students answered, “To persuade you to go to Cancun.” 

I was making progress, but not enough. 

“How,” I asked, “does the article accomplish that?”

One student said, “By bolding words like ‘vacation,’ ‘beach,’ and ‘fun.’”

“What could make this article more effective?” I said.

One student, in so many words, said, “More adjectives.  Some pictures.  Maybe a story or two.” 

The students seemed to “get” article one.  But articles two and three were harder to pin down.  When I repeated my question—“Who is the audience for this piece?”—the students said something like “smart people.” 

Not until this weekend did I realize why my exercise failed.  The failure had something to do with Park’s claim that in the “case of unstructured situations where we would call the audience ‘general,’ where no simple, concrete identifications of audience are possible, the whole concept [of audience] becomes much more elusive.”

Articles two and three were elusive.  Or maybe my exercise for articles two and three was elusive because it created an unstructured situation. 

What documents could I have used to show how different kinds of writings signal different audiences? 

One problem with my activity was that even I couldn’t determine the intended audience for articles two and three.  Presumably there were several audiences.  The point of advertising, after all, is to appeal to as many audiences as possible.     

To satisfy my students, I lumped together articles two and three and said something like, “Now you see how a persuasive piece is different from leisure reading or newspaper reading.” 

That was that.  My activity failed.  I learned, however, about what Park calls the “elusiveness of audience in written discourse.”  I learned that I needed a better exercise to show my students how to anticipate their audiences.  Read the rest of this entry »

What is a Research Paper, and How Does It Implicate Disciplinarity?

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on September 8, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Richard L. Larson interrogates the “research paper” signifier. He claims that this signifier lacks settled meaning because it “has no conceptual or substantive identity” (218). He calls the term “generic” and “cross-disciplinary” and claims that it “has virtually no value as an identification of a kind of substance in a paper” (218). Despite its empty or fluid meaning, the term “research paper” persists inside and outside English Departments, among faculty and students, at both university and secondary school levels. The problem for Larson is that by perpetuating the use of this slippery signifier, writing instructors mislead students as to what constitutes research and thereby enable bad research.

The term research paper “implicitly equates ‘research’ with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books” (218); therefore, students learning to write so-called research papers inadvertently narrow their research possibilities by relying on a narrow conception of research as library visitation, note-taking, or whatever, without recognizing other forms of research that may be more discipline-appropriate: interviews, field observations, and the like (218). Using the term “research paper” to describe a particular type of activity implies not only that other, suitable practices are not in fact “research,” but also that students may dispense with elements of logic and citation if their instructors didn’t call the assignment a “research paper.” Really, though, research papers teach skills that apply to all papers, regardless of whether instructors designate a paper as “research.” In a way, all papers are research papers if they draw from sustained observation or studied experience.

Having argued that the term research paper is a vacant signifier—vacant of identity if not of meaning (not that the two are mutually exclusive)—Larson argues that the “provincialism” (220) of writing instructors (by which he means writing instructors’ presumption that they can and should speak across disciplines despite their lack of formal training in other disciplines) leads to a problem of territoriality. Some information belongs in the province of other disciplines, Larson seems to suggest, and writing instructors should not assume that they know enough about other disciplines to communicate in a discipline-appropriate setting. Some knowledge, in other words, lies outside the writing instructor’s jurisdiction. I’m ambivalent on this score. Read the rest of this entry »

Teaching Bioethics From a Legal Perspective

In Advocacy, Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Communication, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, Law-and-Literature, Legal Education & Pedagogy, News and Current Events, Pedagogy, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on July 6, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Last fall, I was assigned to teach a course called “Health & Medicine.”  Because I know little about health or medicine, I was concerned.  The subject of the course was writing, so I decided to craft a syllabus to facilitate classroom discussion and textual argument.  Here is the course description as stated on my syllabus:

Forensic discourse is one of three forms of classical rhetoric as defined by Aristotle.  It focuses on the relationship between language and law.  This semester we will explore forensic discourse in the context of health and medicine and consider the relationship of law to such issues as physician assisted suicide, surrogacy, cloning, informed consent, malpractice, and organ transplants.  Readings on ethics and philosophy will inform the way you think about these issues.

Your grade will not depend on how much you learn about law, but on how you use language to argue about and with law.  Because the facts of any case are rarely clear-cut, you will need to understand both sides of every argument.  Your writing assignments will require you to argue on behalf of both plaintiffs and defendants (or prosecutors and defendants) and to rebut the arguments of opposing counsel.  You will develop different tactics for persuading your audience (judges, attorneys, etc.), and you will become skilled in the art of influence.

During the semester, your class will interview one attorney, one judge, and one justice sitting on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

My students came from mostly nursing and pre-medical backgrounds.  A few were science majors of some kind, and at least two were engineering majors.

The students were also at varying stages in their academic progress: some were freshmen, some were sophomores, two were juniors, and at least one was a senior.  Throughout the semester, I was impressed by students’ ability to extract important issues from dense legal readings and articulate complicated reasoning in nuanced and intelligent ways.

I thought about this “Health & Medicine” class this week when I came across this article published by the Brookings Institution.  The title of the article is “The Problems and Possibilities of Modern Genetics: A Paradigm for Social, Ethical, and Political Analysis.”  The authors are Eric Cohen and Robert P. George.   Cohen is editor of The New Atlantis and an adjunct fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals & Institutions, and a fellow at the Hoover InstitutionRead the rest of this entry »

Adam’s Rib and the “Two-Worlds” Problem

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Film, Humanities, Information Design, Law, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, Teaching on June 29, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Directed by George Cukor, the film Adam’s Rib tells the story of Adam (Spencer Tracy) and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn), New York attorneys whose marriage smacks of “tough love.”  The couple square off when Adam is assigned to prosecute a woman (Judy Holliday) who has attempted to murder her philandering husband—a bumbling dweeb—in the apartment of his mistress.  Amanda, who approves of the woman’s act, which she views as resistance to patriarchal society, takes up the case as defense counsel.

Genesis tells us that God fashioned Adam from dust, Eve from Adam’s rib.  Adam’s Rib tells a different story.

If anything, Amanda, or “Eve,” is the starting-point—a source of controversy, inspiration, and curiosity.  Adam’s Rib isn’t the first production to render gender contests in comedic tones—it’s part of a tradition dating back at least to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew or Fletcher’s Tamer Tamed, and probably much further—but it is one of the more remarkable of all twentieth-century productions, especially in light of Amanda’s advocacy for a doctrine that, in American family law, came to be known as “formal equality.”

What, exactly, does Adam’s Rib offer law students?  What does it teach law students, and why should law professors bother with it?

A film that’s in no way after verisimilitude is unlikely to teach law students how to file motions, write briefs, analyze statutes, or bill clients—tasks that we assume are requisite to becoming “good” lawyers.  So what’s the point?

In his cunning way, James Elkins, during his Lawyers & Film course that I took in law school, responded to questions of this variety by drawing two boxes on the blackboard: one representing law, the other film.

“We’ve gotta get from this box to this box,” he explained, retracing the diagram with the tip of his chalk.  “One place to start,” he suggested, “is with the movie scenes depicting lawyers or the courtroom.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Writing, Workshopping, Emulation

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Legal Research & Writing, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on May 13, 2011 at 9:49 am

Allen Mendenhall

I remember trying to write a paper for my high school English class and sitting in the library for what seemed like hours, looking at my blank sheet—we didn’t use laptops in those days—and thinking, “How am I going to write six pages about this book.”

The book was Wuthering Heights, and I was, I think, sixteen.  I had written papers before, but never one this long.  I was stuck.  I had writers’ block.  All I could think about was thinking about finishing the paper as soon as possible.

Eventually, I jotted down something that led to something else that led, in turn, to something else, which became the bulk of my paper.  I don’t remember what my paper was about, or the grade I received for my efforts.  All I remember was the panicked moment in the library when that blank-white paper stared back at me and seemed to demand that I fill it with words.

I was angry because I felt helpless.  My high school “not-gonna-do-it” attitude was much like the attitudes I sense in my college students.  Frustrated, I convinced myself that I didn’t need to write about Wuthering Heights because the book was old or for girls or whatever.  The problem was, I liked the book and wanted to write about it.  I just couldn’t.

“If we are going to teach our students to need to write,” remarks James A. Reither, “we will have to know much more than we do about the kinds of contexts that conduce—sometimes even force, certainly enable—the impulse to write.”

Reither is spot on.

Today, I can hardly restrain my impulses to write.  I write all the time.  I feel that I’m always learning how to write—and to write better.

What happened between my junior year of high school and today?  I can’t reduce the explanation to a single cause.

The best answer is probably that many things happened between then and now, each of them influencing me in some way.

As Reither claims, “writing processes and written products are elements of the same social process,” by which he means the social process of immersing ourselves in discourse communities and becoming fluent in the language and cultures of our audience.  Writing is not easy.  It involves repetition, experiment, experience, and mimesis.

Reither submits that “[m]ost of us learned to do what we do on our own—perhaps in spite of the courses we took—and some students continue to do the same.”

In college, I read unassigned essays just to get a feel for how authors conveyed their thoughts and feelings, for how they punctuated their sentences and toyed with syntax.  I underlined vocabulary that I wanted to use in my own papers.  I suppose this method of learning could be called emulationRead the rest of this entry »

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