Critical Objectivity and Sentence Style Improvement

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Monica Gehlawat, English

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2007

In R1B, Reading and Composition, I developed a new strategy to help students recognize and correct problems on the micro-level of sentence structure. My class was large, over thirty students, and I had to think creatively about how to address individual writing needs. The main problem I identified in the students’ essays and revision process was their failure to approach their own writing objectively. They were so focused on the key arguments that they were unable to isolate the writing itself, address its particular weaknesses, and convert it into a tool that could enhance rather than confuse their ideas. While their thesis statements and paragraph outlines developed, the sentence level errors and awkwardness remained. Consequently, they grew frustrated with the gap between the growing sophistication of their ideas and the limited tools they had to articulate them.

I developed a three-part solution to give them critical distance from their writing and approach it with technical rigor. First, I gave a lecture on sentence-level technique, providing a docket of ten to twelve drills such as avoid nominalization, use active rather than passive verbs, locate concrete subjects, or weed out long prepositional phrases. These rules are usually considered merely stylistic cues, but adherence to them qualitatively improves the intricacy of one’s argument by eliminating generalization and ambiguity. Next, I asked them to look over their last paper and email me a “problem sentence” and an explanation of what was wrong with it. Some students already showed an improved ability to recognize errors since I had given the lecture. Others identified bad sentences but still felt overwhelmed and apparently too close to their work, writing, “I don’t know… it’s just bad.” I compiled all the problem sentences on a worksheet without the names of their authors. These sentences represented a wide range of mechanical problems that made the activity inherently adaptable. In class, we covered the worksheet on an individual and group basis. First, each student had a chance to identify and correct the problems he or she found in a particular sentence. Because all of the sentences came from essays written about books we had read together, the students could grasp the argument each sentence was trying to make even though it was not their own. Consequently, they could see the big picture of the idea while maintaining detachment and turning a purely clinical eye to the sentence. Each sentence was also addressed by the class as a whole after the individual student had taken a stab at it. Many times, the students came up with not one but a variety of strong, new sentences that expressed the intended argument, in the process making it more advanced and subtle. Occasionally the authors were so excited by these improvements that they spoke up and thanked the class.

I was thrilled by the success of the activity on a number of levels. First of all, the students received and practiced a set of drills to take with them for future writing. Second, the individual and group work kept the class interesting and provided the necessary distance for students to see their writing anew. Although their writing problems did not disappear, their frustration did. They had discovered a way to open up the sentence and turn it into a strategic tool to make their argument stronger. I also value this exercise for its incredible simplicity. This activity is all about perspective. By creating a new way for the students to look at their writing, I was able to empower them to see how to change it. Tackling the sentences on the board all together with a clear set of drills transformed the debilitating immediacy of one’s writing into a liberating problem-solving experience.