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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

This afternoon I went to a talk by Noah Richler about his book What We Talk About When We Talk About War. He provided a taxonomy of different kinds of stories (myths, epic tales, and novels). He associated each of these types of story with the form a society might take at various times.

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In honour of the start of research time:

Sir Reads-A-Lot

Sir Reads-A-Lot

From here.

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One common reason given for the absence of female characters in video games that are set in the past is that the portrayal is supposed to be historically accurate (see for examples these discussions at the Border House). This great post by Juliet McKenna suggest that excuse is not legitimate.

McKenna notes that much of ‘history’ as it was studied did leave women out of the discussion, but as she puts it, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Instead of accurately representing the role of women in history, McKenna suggests that the absence of women reflected Victorian beliefs about the importance of great men. It was not the case that women played little role in history, instead it was the case that Victorian historians focused on what men did and neglected what women were doing. And since the rise of women’s studies in the 1960s, writers can no longer use the “historical accuracy” excuse.

Women’s influence and significance is now apparent, even when they were effectively denied financial and political power by the cultures of their day.

So a fantasy writer can no longer point to a few exceptional women in fantasy narratives, such as Galadriel, and hide behind a claim to reflect historical accuracy because the only significant women in history were exceptions such as Good Queen Bess. Not when I have books on my study shelves about the women who sailed with Nelson’s navy and built his ships in the royal dockyards, about the role of so many women in the scientific developments of the Enlightenment and a whole lot more besides. (From “The Representation of Women in Fantasy“)

So the alleged historical accuracy might not be so accurate. If only this were enough to convince people to stop using the excuse…

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Re: Please refrain from writing “who cares?” “so what?” and other similar statements when grading student papers.

The writing centre gets busy at this time of year as the term draws to a close and essays and assignments are nearing their due date. Many students are coming in with earlier assignments to seek advice on improving their next assignment. A number of these assignments from a number of different disciplines have words such as “who cares?” written across the top of a page or in the margins of the assignment. This is poor marking practice for at least two reasons: 1. It is not an informative means for the marker to make their point. 2. It is really discouraging to students.

First, the point that I believe markers are trying to convey by these phrases is something like: “explain further…” “what are the implications of x for y?” “What do you mean by x?” “why is x important to your thesis?” and so forth. These points are precise and inform the student how to go on; that is, they offer information about what to improve for the student’s next paper. They give a well-specified means of identifying precisely which expectations of clear writing have not been met. In contrast, “so what?” or “who cares?” do not specify which elements of clear writing have been violated. A student who receives this latter annotation is not likely to understand how to improve their next paper. The great irony of writing “so what?” on a student paper is that the marker intends to convey to the student that the student has been insufficiently clear either in the description or in connecting the description to the thesis. But what the marker has written is itself unclear and imprecise. Do not model in your grading the very same writing characteristics you are trying to dissuade your students from using.

Second, students find comments such as “who cares?” and “so what?” to be very dismissive and insulting. These comments are discouraging because they do not offer instruction on how to improve the next time around, but they are also discouraging because they imply that the student’s point is unimportant or uninteresting. Rather than encouraging further development (as the comment, “explain further” would do), the comment “who cares?” discourages further development because the marker is conveying that no one would care about this point. The student is unlikely to interpret this phrase as an invitation to elaborate, and is instead more likely to interpret this phrase as a suggestion that the point should be erased. The marker intends the phrase to be asking for further elaboration, but the phrase in fact conveys the exact opposite: that no elaboration is needed because the point is unimportant (or worse, “stupid”).

Few students cry at the writing centre, but of those that do most of them have “so what?” or “who cares?” written somewhere on their paper. It is bad marking practice because it makes the marker recapitulate the very error they are asking students to avoid. And it is bad marking practice because it makes students feel like they are dumb and should give up on the subject. We can do better by students. Writing “who cares?” or “so what?” on a student paper is a lazy way of marking. “Explain” is just as concise and does a better job of informing students of their error.

Here are some phrases that markers can use in place of these terrible short-hand phrases:

  • More…
  • Omit
  • Explain
  • Explain further…
  • How do you know?
  • What is the connection?
  • What is your evidence?
  • What do you mean by x?
  • What is the reason for x?
  • Why is x important to your thesis?
  • What are the implications of x for y?

Another way to save ink and time is to make a marking code key and share this with the students:

  • RV = relevance?
  • EF = explain further
  • CS= comma splice

This method is even more concise than writing “So what?” but will also be more informative.

Related Reading

Wielding the Red Pen in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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