Writing a better paper

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NATE LEMEN | OPINION COLUMNIST | nlemen@butler.edu

Amongst the most visceral memories of my high school English classes is a frequent repetition from my teachers that starting a paragraph with “I” is a dangerous writing misstep and, under any circumstance, unacceptable.

This rule always struck me as arbitrary, in large part because I failed to see how my papers were so irreparably damaged by such a small detail.

And when I think about it, this is a common theme I have found upon coming to college. Many of the writing lessons I learned in high school, lessons that were taught to me to be infallible, are in fact rather flawed.

Often, it seems as though the rules you learn are very niche and hard to justify. A common example of this that I have heardboth from my own experience and from talking with my peersis to avoid using adverbs.

Much like the first example stated, the rule seems to be pulled from thin air, and I never received an explanation as to why adverbs were so unambiguously evil. Many students feel the same way, but despite this, they still follow these rules, much to the chagrin of their professors.

As it turns out, this is not just a strange coincidental idiosyncrasy in secondary-school instruction. There is a name for it in academic theory: negative knowledge.

Negative knowledge is a form of a knowledge transfer, which is essentially exactly as it sounds: it is how students carry over what they learn as they advance. While “negative knowledge” may sound inherently evil, it is not always a bad thing.

According to Martin Gartmeier, a German academic who has studied teaching theory, negative knowledge is “experientially acquired knowledge about what is wrong and what is to be avoided during performance in a given work situation.” In simple terms, negative knowledge is the collection of little lessons you pick up throughout your life about what is acceptable and what is not.

And while those lessons can sometimes be true, they are often not when it comes to this specific case study.

But the issue here is not simply that I learned some ridiculous lessons in high school; it is that when I came to college, I brought these lessons with me and relied heavily on them.  

For a good chunk of my freshman year, I stuck rigid to these rules, holding on to a belief deep down that they were not the reason I was struggling to write my papers. I would rewrite assignments over and over, never satisfied with what I was producing, but failing to see why that was.

I do not think I can count the number of times my FYS professor had to leave comments on my papers about breaking my two-and-a-half page long paragraphs into smaller ones. I was so convinced the five-paragraph approach was the right one that I made the same mistake over and over.

I was not alone in this struggle, however. Andres Salerno, a sophomore biology and music major, finds the flaws of negative knowledge to ring true.

“In high school they taught there was one very general way to write a paper,” Salerno said. “Every paper I’ve had to write has been in a totally different style. Whether it’s for a GHS, a scientific research paper or a music theory paper, none of these have followed the rules that were taught to me in high school.”

Sunny Hawkins is the director of the Writer’s Studio at Butler. She has extensively studied academic theory and after talking to her about this subject, she is clearly well-versed. She has seen plenty of new students fall victim to remaining rigid in their defense of  old habits.

“What sometimes happens with knowledge transfer is that someone transfers knowledge in a way that actually impedes the development of the writer,” Hawkins says. “For example, if you had a high school teacher that told you that you always needed an outline and didn’t explain that an outline is intended to help writers organize their ideas, and not every writing tasks requires that you write an outline, then that becomes a negative transfer.”

Bryan Furuness is an English professor who teaches, among other classes, a literary editing course. Furuness also agrees that the ingrained rules many students come to college with are not based in fact.

“I think that any one of those rules you just mentioned could be countered by dozens of examples from literature that break those rules to strong effect,” Furuness said. “You should question those bits of received wisdom… Five-paragraph essays do not exist out in the wild, because nobody wants to read them.”

As much as there is to say about the damaging effects this negative learning has on college students, I do not think I need to belabor the point anymore. It is an issue; how can it be fixed?

Predictably, everyone has a different idea of what can and needs to be done to stop this worrisome trend. Hawkins says she places a lot more weight on the instructor to help “retrain” their students, but she also says there are ways for students to take the initiative.

“I would say the best advice I could give to students is to get curious about themselves as writers and just start experimenting with what works,” Hawkins said. “Because there’s no single correct way to write a paper and if the strategies they were taught in high school aren’t working for them, then come into the [Writer’s] Studio or someplace like that and sit down with people who write all the time and let us introduce them to some strategies that will help them with the process of writing and then to stay aware of how that process changes from task to task.”

Furuness, similarly, thinks that there are things that students can do to help ail them of their struggles. At first, he advice seems almost too simple, but that does not mean it makes any less sense.

“I think the biggest cure is just to read a lot of stuff that exists out in the wild,” Furuness says. “If you read essays that are published, you’ll see a lot of the rules “rules” that you learned are being broken, to good effect.”

He also gives advice that airs on the side of specificity, offering some help in not frustrating your professors.

“Be authentic,” he adds. “Nothing is more boring than a fake or safe essay from a student. Students sometimes think they’re getting away with something when they write the fake, safe essay, but professors can see right through it.”

I agree with Hawkins’ viewpoint quite a bit. I think it is is sensible and logical. But I must admit, in my own, short collegiate career, I have found the advice Furuness gave to be most applicable.

Perhaps I have a bias; as an English major, chances are that I have a natural predisposition to reading expansively and excitedly. But I think it is advice that makes a lot of sense.

This does not mean, however, there is a “wrong” way to learn to improve. As cliche as it is, the old adage still rings true: practice makes perfect. Whatever form that practice takes, it is all about finding what works for you.

I do fear of toeing the line of sentimentality here, but writing this story has shown me, more than anything else, that everyone who chose to attend Butler with the hope of forming close and helpful relationships with their professors will not be let down. They are aware, at least on some level, of the struggles you face, and they want to help you.

Perhaps that is the meaning of the Butler Way: turning negative learning experiences into positive ones.

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