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CASLL-L  January 1995

CASLL-L January 1995

Subject:

Re: Testing: Untold Stories

From:

Doug Brent <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 4 Jan 1995 11:09:58 MST

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (134 lines)

>
> Actually, Doug, some of us--me at least--would like to hear the story
> of the U of C writing test you're trying to overhaul.  In fact, I've
> a story I'd like to swap for it, which I will tell here soon.  (Crose
> my nose and hope to cry.)
>                                 Rick Coe
>

Okay, here goes, while I'm trying to put off finishing a course outline
that I should have had done a while ago...

The U of C Effective Writing Test has the dubious distinction of being the
first in Alberta and one of the first in Canada.  It was started in 1977
as a response to the literacy crisis of the 70's, and has survived as a
response to the literacy crisis of the 90's.  Its outlines should be
familiar to most:  unless they are exempted by good marks in High School
English or various other reasons, students must write an essay test and
pass it within 12 months.  If they don't, they aren't kicked out but can't
take any more credit courses until they pass.  After fiddling with various
kinds of remedial courses (shudder) we settled on a voluntary drop-in
Writing Centre to help students with various matters literary, including
but not limited to learning how to pass the test.

The Effective Writing Program has danced around in circles with the
English department for many years.  It is entirely separate from English,
which gives it a healthy interdisciplinarity, but to prevent the obvious
problems of students who pass English and fail EFWR, various English
course grades have been used for exemption.  When the grade was C, the
English dept was choked with students taking their courses solely to "get
around" the EFWR requirement, so not it's been raised to B.  As a sign of
the times, the English dept. has dropped its composition half-course
altogether, partly for the (I think) legitimate reason that it's hard to
teach "composition" in isolation from all other "content," and partly for
other reasons that are considerably less pure.

Several years ago the university decided that since EFWR is remedial, it
shouldn't be supported out of general revenue, and instituted a $40 fee
for writing the test, since increased to $50.  This was done over howls
of protest from us, for obvious reasons.  It has its good side, I
suppose.  Since the program is revenue-neutral, there is no incentive to
chisel away at its budget.  But of course, since the entire composition
infrastucture is totally dependant on test revenues, there is a strong
disincentive to get rid of the test in favour of a more humane system.

So you see what I'm up against.  I can fiddle with details, but if I try
to get rid of the test I have to be sure to have something very secure
ready to take its place at the exact moment of abolition.  Otherwise the
whole composition apparatus could disappear without trace.  I think that
this would be a bad thing, although the opposite is certainly arguable.

The good news is that the same report that established the test fee also
recommended a WAC program with writing-intensive courses etc.  The
committee that tried to implement this recommendation rejected it as too
difficult to administer--they didn't have a very secure definition of a
WI course, and were hoping to be able to identify existing courses that
fit the definition.  Of course that proved difficult--even if a course
fit the definition one year, would it the next, or when taught by a
different instructor?  The U.S. model of a "certification board" that
would approve and inspect WI courses, and the idea of making WI courses a
commodity that departments would fight to get, was apparently never raised.

Well, maybe that wasn't the good news.  The good news is that the
committee, while rejecting a top-down WAC program, endorsed in principle
the idea of WAC on a department by department or faculty by faculty
basis.  Endorsement in principle is a recipe for inaction, but that's
where I am trying to come in.  I've collected a motley crew of people
interested in writing and formed a Writing Across the Curriculum Interst
Group.  Of course most of them are junior--the senior people, with a few
notable exceptions, are not much interested in writing--and a lot of
the rest are still in the "let's fix up this appalling grammar" mode.  But
it's better than nothing, and has been getting small teaching development
grants to do some interesting things.  In March we hope to have Laurence
Steven and Cathy Schrier come out to give a day-long workshop in using
writing to help students learn.

So my strategy is to make the test become gradually more redundant with a
bottom-up approach.  The alternative would be to weave the test into a WI
program, a la Laurentian's program, but after seventeen years (seventeen
years!) of involvement with the test I would really like to put it put to
pasture.

(No, I haven't done nothing but mark EFWR tests for seventeen years--I
teach credit courses in rhetoric and communications studies--but the test
has, like an old wart on the back of my hand, been a constant companion
for all those years.)

As for the political stuff that's being said about tests on this list--

Yes, I agree that tests tend to be self-perpetuating and to have more
political than pedagogical value.  The self-perpetuation tends to be
structural, however, not the result of individual evil designs.  They are
a convenient way to Do Something about entry-level writing, and serve to
keep writing instruction on deck--though they also tend to erect a
Somebody Else's Problem field around it (as Douglas Adams fans will
remember, a Somebody Else's Problem field is a cloaking device that makes
things invisible by making them appear to be Somebody Else's Problem.) As
Laurence points out in his TSC article (vol 1 #1), a writing test can also
be "the grain of sand in the oyster" that prompts the creation of better
things, such as WAC programs.

On a different but related subject...

And what _about_ basic writing surface?  There has been some discussion on
this list about the irrelevance of surface errors.  I agree that "writing"
is far more than the elimination of surface errors.  I've been fighting to
get that point across for years.  But I can't agree that they are
irrelevant.

Dammit, university students _ought_ to be able to move
into a stylistic mode in which they write in complete sentences in which
the subject is a noun clause and the predicate is in a verb clause,
unless they have a good reason not to.  They deserve to have control over
their writing, not to have it control them by erecting a This Person Is
Illiterate field around their ideas and thereby make them invisible.  Jow
WIlliams may think he's proven that minor surface errors are
phenomenologically irrelevant, but only in the context of a generally
well-written argument.  Students who have serious trouble forming a
sentence are handicapped in all they do, not just in writing essays for
English professors.

I do tend to agree that schoolmarm grammar instruction is not the best way
to help these students, and herding them into giant airless rooms and
asking them to produce an essay on demand is even less helpful.  But,
despite my non-traditional pedagogical style and my belief that many of
the insights of the rhetorical tradition are irrelevant to performance (I
can meet Knoblauch and Brannon about half-way here), I think that _writing
can be taught_ and that _students can control surface errors better when
they are knowledgable agents_.

(I may be preaching to a converted audience.  But it's the new year and I
felt I had to get that credo out.)

So there's my story of continual grunting, trying to excrete
mother-of-pearl around the grain of sand.  What's yours?

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