Teaching academic writing

adult-1868015_1280Ben Brabon of the Higher Education Academy (UK) has recently written about ways to help students master academic writing through creative, consistent support. In his post on “Writing in the Mouth” he writes

By facilitating opportunities for students to read, write, structure, critically analyse and revise together (using collaborative technologies such as Peerwise), academic writing skills can be positively nurtured.


Forget (in order) to learn

forget-to-rememberBenedict Carey recounts the history of memory studies and experiments related to forgetting and remembering – nonsense syllables, snippets of poetry, images. It is a history that leads to what is currently called the New Theory of Disuse, or better, Forget to Learn. According to this theory there are two strengths related to memory: storage strength and retrieval strength.

Storage strength is just that, a measure of how well learned something is. It builds up steadily with studying, and more sharply with use. The multiplication table is a good example. It’s drilled into our heads in grade school, and we use it continually through life … Its storage strength is enormous.

By contrast, retrieval strength has to do with accessibility:

Retrieval strength, on the other hand, is a measure of how easily a nugget of information comes to mind. It, too, increases with studying, and with use. Without reinforcement, however, retrieval strength drops off quickly, and its capacity is relatively small (compared to storage). At any given time, we can pull up only a limited number of items in connection with any given cue or reminder.

What studies on the interaction of these two memory strengths indicate is that, depending on the information to be remembered, our storage and retrieval might be strengthened by intentionally spacing our study and our efforts at retrieval. Forgetting (initially) what we’ve learned might actually help us remember it better in the end.

Using memory changes memory – and for the better. Forgetting enables and deepens learning, by filtering out distracting information and by allowing some breakdown that, after reuse, drives retrieval and storage strength higher than they were originally.

Benedict Carey, How We Learn, 36, 37, 40-41.

Administration and the “fallacy of accountability”


In Bill Reading’s analysis of the “posthistorical” university, it is “the administrator rather than the professor” who is the “central figure” in what is fast becoming a “transnational bureaucratic corporation.” William Deresiewicz calls this “administrative elephantiasis.” Similarly, Benjamin Ginsberg, in the The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, writes,

‘Every year, hosts of administrators and staffers are added to college and university payrolls, even as schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties. As a result, universities are filled with armies of functionaries – the vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, assistant provosts, deans, deanlets, deanlings, each commanding staffers and assistants – who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.’

Particularly striking is Ginsberg’s analysis of universities’ strategic plans which, rather than identifying unique strengths and future directions, are nearly identical. He concludes that the point is “not the plan but the process”: an “assertion of leadership” and the erosion of the power of the faculty. It is the appearance of process that counts. Stefan Collini comments that the “fallacy of accountability” is “the belief that the process of reporting on an activity in the approved form provides some guarantee that something worthwhile has been properly done.”


Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 4-5.

Trust and learn

Let’s dwell for a minute on the role that Polanyi assigns to trust: “You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things.” This suggests there is a moral relation between teacher and student that is at the heart of the educational process. Of course, the student must trust that the trust-1418901_1280master is competent. But he also must trust that his intention is not manipulative. It is the absence of just this trust that we found at the origins of Enlightenment epistemology … a thorough rejection of the testimony and example of others … the original ethic of suspicion leaves a trace throughout. This stance of suspicion amounts to a kind of honor ethic, or epistemic machismo. To be subject to the sort of authority that asserts itself through a claim to knowledge is to risk being duped, and this is offensive not merely to one’s freedom but to one’s pride.

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction (Viking, 2015), 137-38.

The brain makes stories, doesn’t merely store facts


The brain does not store facts, ideas, and experiences like a computer does, as a file that is clicked open, always displaying the identical image. It embeds them in networks of perceptions, facts, and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time. And that just retrieved memory does not overwrite the previous one but intertwines and overlaps with it. Nothing is completely lost, but the memory trace is altered and for good.

As scientists put it, using our memories changes our memories.

Benedict Carey, How We Learn (London: Pan, 2015), 20.

The subject-centered classroom


The subject-centered classroom is characterized by the fact that the third thing has a presence so real, so vivid, so vocal, that it can hold teacher and students alike accountable for what they say and do. In such a classroom there are no inert facts. The great thing is so alive that teacher can turn to student or student to teacher … the power of a subject that transcends our self-absorption and refuses to be reduced to our claims about it.

I can illustrate this essential idea with a humble, even humiliating, example. I am thinking of an awkward moment that I – and perhaps you – have known, the moment when I make an assertion about the subject, and a student catches me contradicting something I said earlier or something from the text or something the student knows independently of the text or me …

But in a subject-centered classroom, gathered around a great thing, getting caught in a contradiction can signify success: now I know that the great thing has such a vivid presence among us that any student who pays attention to it can check and correct me … It is a moment not for embarassment but for celebrating good teaching, teaching that gives the subject – and the students – lives of their own.

Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 117-18.

I have overcome the world


“These things I have spoken to you in order that in me you might have peace. In the world you have trouble; but take courage, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

This is a ringing announcement that [Jesus] has emerged triumphant in the lawsuit with the world, having reclaimed what was rightfully his, and that this makes all the difference for his followers, who are to live in that world and carry out their mission there, willing to accept persecution and pain because they are confident in their knowledge of whose world it is.

Andrew T. Lincoln, Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 262.