Over the past year, I’ve had a number of conversations about teaching writing with faculty members teaching courses ranging from Intro to Methods to Senior Projects. These courses require different kinds of writing and different modes of thinking. Intro instructors are most concerned with description, that is, teaching students how to describe sociological patterns they observe in the world, or to describe the sociological significance of some concept from the course. In Methods, instructors add a focus on synthesis, that is, bringing themes or strains from existing literature together to point toward a research question that the student can write a proposal to investigate. Methods courses also often require critical writing, especially when assignments ask students to identify strengths or weaknesses in the methods of studies they read. Senior Projects instructors combine synthetic and critical summaries of existing literature with descriptive analysis of data students have collected by themselves.

It might be surprising that with the different kinds of writing being taught in these courses, and the different kinds of assignments they use, there is one instructional tool has proved useful in all of them. But there is. It’s called a reverse outline.

Image from www.paperravenbooks.com
Image from www.paperravenbooks.com

Many of us teach our students to write outlines before they try to write papers, but this is not always effective. Outlines only work well when students already have some idea of what they want to say. They presume that before sitting down to write, students know what needs to be described, synthesized, or critiqued, and that the problem separating them from a good finished paper is one of organization, not content.

Experience across the Minnesota sociology curriculum shows that this is not usually the case. For better or for worse, students often sit down to write having no idea what they’re going to say. In this situation, writing an outline is no easier than writing a paper, and it can actually be counterproductive, because it gives students the idea that they have to have full command of their argument before they begin writing. This is not helpful, and for many, it’s intimidating. It prevents students from engaging in the descriptive, synthetic, and critical analysis of course materials, and makes them think instead about things like paragraphs and sections.

This is why I recommend something else: a REVERSE outline. The reverse outline is conceptually the same as an outline – it highlights the main points of an argument and charts how they are structured in a paper. The difference is that the reverse outline isn’t written until after the student has begun to draft their work. Whereas an outline asks students to organize their thoughts before they put a single thing down on the page, a reverse outline invites them to take risks with their writing, knowing they’ll be able to come back later to structure their arguments. It asks them to be adventurous early in the writing process, and only later to apply rigid requirements for style and organization to thoughts that they have now been able to develop fully. This is extremely effective for teaching the basic skills of descriptive, synthetic, and critical writing, because it allows students to think about content and organization at the same time. Unlike an outline, which presumes that content has been mastered before writing begins, it acknowledges that the content will be revised and improved through the process of organizing it.

The reverse outline is a good way for students to transfer their unstructured thoughts on course concepts and materials into organized writing that follows a logical flow. It’s also a great intermediate assignment between first and second drafts of a paper. But most importantly, it’s an extremely useful way for students to develop their own writing skills through evaluation of others’ work. Particularly in upper level courses, students often have a hard time writing literature reviews that synthesize thematic areas and broad ideas from existing work. Asking them to read a simple journal article and write a reverse outline of it is a great way to help them see how an effective literature review points toward a research question. Likewise, students in introductory courses can learn a great deal from reverse outlining short think pieces from sources like Contexts or Sociological Images, or from popular press sources.

As with the five-minute workshops I discussed in an earlier post, the idea with reverse outlining is to integrate writing instruction with course content that an instructor is already using. If you have a multi-draft assignment coming up, give it a try. If you don’t, ask your students to write a reverse outline of an upcoming reading. Either approach should help with teaching the integration between content and organization that students so often struggle with.

Most sociology teachers want to teach writing. The problem is they don’t have time. With dozens or hundreds of students, meeting one-on-one with even a small fraction of those who need help is impossible, and since students’ writing skills vary significantly, it’s difficult to draw up in-class lessons that will help students at all levels. Given these structural impediments, it’s hard to blame instructors for de-emphasizing writing skills in the classroom.

To address this problem, I’ve recently incorporated a tool called the five-minute workshop, developed by Pamela Flash, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Minnesota, into my teaching. Using five-minute writing workshops enables instructors and TAs to quickly and efficiently teach writing skills that benefit all students, regardless of their current writing abilities.

The basic concept is simple enough. Give students five minutes to either write something or revise something that connects to work they are already doing, or to content you are already teaching. Then move on. Do it again next week. And the next. And so on.

This works because writing is more than putting words on a page. Minnesota sociology faculty report that what holds our students back the most is not crafting prose, but struggling to identify and communicate sociologically important concepts and arguments, or to effectively juxtapose competing arguments from readings and lecture. Five-minute writing workshops focus on these kinds of skills: the conceptual and analytic part of the writing process, more than the art of phrasing. Give students five minutes to either write something or revise something that connects to work they are already doing, or to the subject matter you are already teaching, and then move on with the rest of your content for the day.

To design a five-minute workshop for use in your course, start by identifying a core writing skill that you think your students should work on. For instance, I often find that my students need practice describing the role of media in transmitting cultural scripts. During discussion of gender, culture, or media, I display the image below and ask students to take three minutes to write one sentence about the role of perceived physical attractiveness in the cartoon. We then discuss their ideas for a couple more minutes, and move on. This develops students’ abilities to recognize cultural frames and narratives as depicted through visual media and to distill broad ideas into sharp, debatable statements.

The possibilities are vast. To practice thesis development, put a characteristically problematic thesis statement on a slide and ask students to write a version that improves it. To work on style, project a sloppy, overwritten paragraph, and have students write a version that conveys the same meaning in half the number of words. If students are struggling to identify theoretical tension, display a concept map of a recent reading and have them describe the relationship between two of the central elements. And so on.

These workshops are designed to be brief, fun, and stress-free. If you’d like some help designing a few to get you started integrating writing instruction into your course, drop me a note. I’d be happy to help.

write or be written off
At Contexts and TheSocietyPages.org, we spend a lot of time thinking and expounding about how, for social science to be effective outside the academy, it simply has to be accessible. That means writing rigorous science in an approachable way and allowing for skillful editing to help make our points clear and concise for all readers. Doug Hartmann and Chris Uggen have been addressing these issues recently, both in their Letter from the Editors column in each quarterly issue of Contexts and in their Editors’ Desk posts here on TheSocietyPages.org. They’ve written about science-in-the-vernacular and the art of being edited, along with the nuances of presenting scientific knowledge when, well, “It’s Complicated.” What we haven’t talked about is how good writers become good writers.

Sure, a few excellent authors were born that way. Silver-tongued and fleet-fingered, these stars of social science naturally present the insights of the ivory tower in the language of the people. Show-offs.

But, as a recent essay submitted by one sociology student points out, the rest of us need a little help. Kate Parker says, “For many undergraduate students, the writing life of a professor is pure mystery,” and pleads, “Teach students about the process of writing… Better yet, tell them about your writing process.” Below, her essay in its entirety and, in the comments (with any luck) you can share your suggestions on making writing itself a key pedagogical function.

“Out of My Shell,” Kate Parker

I used to be notorious for refusing to let anyone but professors read papers I had written.  My mother?  Nope.  My partner?  Not likely.  My fellow sociology students?  No way.  Each time I turned a paper in, I was convinced it was awful.  My writing process involved a steady flow of anxiety, punctuated with moments of pure panic.  I paced around the room, consumed sweets as though they were pure intellectual fuel, and stayed up all hours of the night.  In the end, I was sure that I had missed something critical.  I was certain that my thought process was not sophisticated enough or that my writing style was average at best.  So when a professor suggested I take her class on writing for sociology students, I nervously jumped at the chance.

On the first day of class, I took a look at the requirements for the course and came across one of my biggest fears: peer reviews.  Not only did I cringe at the thought of my fellow students quietly laughing at my writing, I felt extremely uncomfortable with the idea of criticizing their work.  Who was I to judge someone else’s writing?  We started reading Howard Becker’s book Writing for Social Scientists and discussed our fears in class.  Our professor explained that graduate students and professional sociologists depend on their peers for feedback.

After realizing that everyone else was as nervous as I was, my fears started to lessen.  We reviewed each other’s work several times throughout the semester and I began to (brace yourself) enjoy them.  Reading my classmates’ work exposed me to new styles of writing.  Finding both effective and ineffective aspects of their work helped me focus on what was effective and ineffective in my own.  They gave me fantastic suggestions and helped me work through specific areas I was struggling in.  I even found myself continuing to discuss assignments with other students after class.  Most importantly, I realized that letting others read and comment on my writing made me a better writer and this skill will be extremely useful when I graduate.

Peer reviews were not my only fear, however.  We were also expected to write multiple drafts of each assignment.  Like many undergraduate students, my idea of paper writing consisted of sitting down at 10pm the night before an assignment was due and writing the entire piece at once.  No drafts, minimal revisions.  I thought writing and revising multiple drafts were irritatingly tedious.  Now, in hindsight, it’s very easy to see why I was so anxious about my papers.  I felt that I had to have it perfect the first time.  And by waiting until 10pm the night before, I sort of did.  As I wrote and rewrote drafts for my writing class, I enjoyed how it managed to quell a great deal of the anxiety I felt during the writing process.  I stopped pacing around my room and eating a steady stream of sweets all night.  Realizing I didn’t have to create perfection the first time around was a huge relief, and I have taken that knowledge to other parts of my life.  I used to avoid risk in any situation, fearing humiliation if I didn’t do something correctly.  Now, I am comfortable with the fact that nothing is perfect the first time and sometimes I need to just go for it.  This has led me to start running again with the goal of finishing a half-marathon within a year, regardless of the fact that some people may think the term “running” is a bit of an exaggeration due to my tortoise-like pace.

Finally, I had to deal with my worst nightmare.  Even the mention of public speaking was enough to send my heart racing and make my palms sweaty, and now I had to endure this horrible process twice.  The first would be a practice presentation of our final research paper in front of the class.  The second was far worse: presenting at an undergraduate research conference.  I had grudgingly participated in the conference last year, and it was not an enjoyable experience due to the feeling of my nerves being wrapped around my stomach.  A class I had taken in public speaking ended in disaster after disaster.  Why would this be any different?  Luckily, I felt very comfortable with my classmates by this point in the semester, so I did not feel overly anxious during the practice session.  The conference presentation loomed in the back of my mind, but I began to notice that I wasn’t feeling the deep, overwhelming sense of dread I had previously experienced.  This, however, made me nervous.  There was no logical reason for me to feel this calm.  Surely a massive panic attack was just lurking under the surface, waiting until I made my way in front of a room filled with people.  But then this fear of my lack of fear suddenly disappeared as I made my way to the podium.  I presented my research loudly and clearly, without my face turning the unnatural shade of burgundy that had accompanied all of my previous public speaking experiences.  The confidence that had been built in my class transferred to my presentation, and if I had not been forced into the experience I would still be terrified of talking in front of people.  As a committee member for a local charity event, this confidence in front of a crowd was a great asset when I had to address volunteers, and I’m extremely grateful that I have this skill for my future career.

I’d like to finish with a little advice for Sociology professors: please teach your students how to write.   I’m not just talking about how to write a great topic sentence or how to use correct punctuation.  Teach students about the process of writing, that it’s ok to ask for help, that you don’t have to get it perfect the first time.  Better yet, tell them about your writing process and the anxieties you have experienced.  For many undergraduate students, the writing life of a professor is pure mystery.  It seems intimidating, foreign, out of reach.  Your students may have made it halfway through college, but it is very likely that no one has truly challenged them to face their biggest fears associated with writing.  If you give them this challenge, they will be much more confident and prepared for graduate school and professional life.

Kate Parker graduated from Indiana University of South Bend in 2010. She wrote this essay for Dr. Gail McGuire’s course “The Social Practice of Writing.” Parker can be reached at kate[dot]parker4[at]gmail[dot]com.

A few weeks back, Jay Livingston posted about using blogs in sociology classes. He points to two examples:

  • a group blog Jenn Lena created for a class project, My Sociological Imagination. Each week, different teams of students were responsible for posting to the blog and for commenting on one another’s posts.
  • Mrs. Castelli, a high school teaching outside Chicago, has links to blogs written by her students.

When I taught an undergraduate Political Sociology class a few years ago, I also tried the group blog approach and it was mostly a success. My general experience was consistent with Lena’s experience: blogs encourage a higher quality of writing, but the promise of vibrant online discussions in the comments is mostly unfulfilled. (My hunch on this: students tend to wait until the night before the class to read that week’s postings & this doesn’t fit the asynchronous nature of blog commenting. Scheduled online chats may be one way around this.)

If you’re interested in using blogs in your classroom, here are a few things you may want to consider:

  • There is a traditional blog format (i.e. daily, diary-style postings in reverse chronological order), but the medium is much more flexible than that. Think of blogs as a general purpose online publishing and discussion platform and the uses for blogs in your class may become more apparent. Some assignments fit the traditional “blog post” mold quite well (weekly reactions to the readings, for example), while others may be less “bloggy”: using the blog to share ideas or drafts of formal papers, collecting online resources about particular topics, etc. (Many of us have access to things like Blackboard or Moodle, which have tools for doing these things, but they also tend to be slow, ugly and complicated. Blogs, or wiki’s, often work just as well or better.)
  • Privacy. On the one hand, having a fully public blog has many advantages: it can motivate students to do their best work because they know people will actually read it, it can draw the attention and participation from those outside your class, etc. On the other hand, this may make many students uncomfortable. For example: think back to a writing assignment you had as an undergraduate. Would you want someone to google your name today and have that assignment pop up? One option is to make the blog entirely private: only you and your students can read the blog. Another option is to require/encourage your students to use nicknames on the blog.
  • There are many free services for setting up blogs: WordPress.com and Blogger are probably the two most popular, but there are many options. For example, it may surprise you that even with today’s supposedly tech-savvy youth, technical barriers are still a significant problem. With that in mind, a blogging service like Tumblr, which aims for a super simple, stripped down interface, may be a great choice. Your own institution may host their own blogging software as well, which may be worth looking into. (For example, the University of Minnesota hosts UThink Blogs for students, faculty and staff.)

To close, I’ll just echo Livington’s remarks:

So, at least when it comes to blogging, the kids are all right. And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, these kids have never known a world without the Internet. Putting your ideas about sociological concepts out there in a blog for the world to see isn’t much different from creating and customizing your page on MySpace of Facebook. Now if only they could learn to use their spell-checkers.

Day 317 and Pencil Me In!Indiana University has a fantastic web-based tutorial that outlines how to recognize plagiarism, and even includes an ‘identifying plagiarism’ quiz that provides writing samples and outlines the right and wrong way to cite primary or secondary source material.

The Basics:

  • You use another person’s ideas, opinions, or theories.
  • You use facts, statistics, graphics, drawings, music, etc., or any other type of information that does not comprise common knowledge.
  • You use quotations from another person’s spoken or written word.
  • You paraphrase another person’s spoken or written word.

Recommendations:

  • Begin the writing process by stating your ideas; then go back to the author’s original work.
  • Use quotation marks and credit the source (author) when you copy exact wording.
  • Use your own words (paraphrase) instead of copying directly when possible.
  • Even when you paraphrase another author’s writings, you must give credit to that author.
  • If the form of citation and reference are not correct, the attribution to the original author is likely to be incomplete. Therefore, improper use of style can result in plagiarism. Get a style manual and use it.

Head to the tutorial page…

Identifying plagiarism — 10 items

Take the plagiarism test and print out a certificate…