Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Writing style

JD asks: When you read a learner’s writing what makes you pleased? What things do you look for?

I don't want to write a long list; instead, let me tell you about a final-year essay I once marked. It was on a French autobiographical text by Claude Duneton called Je suis comme une truie qui doute ('I am a doubting sow') and was story of a working-class kid made good, who becomes a teacher, but later doubts the role of school system in creating a more equal society. The text is sort of 'Bourdieu lite' and was perfect for my module on post-'68 culture.

My student submitted late, after countless redrafts (he felt early versions replicated my lectures) and requests for extensions but eventually produced an assessment. What a read! - initially I was shocked at his slang and pop cultural references - then read on and I understood what he was up to. He'd created a text that mimicked Duneton in its use of slang, invective, polemic and self-disclosure. He even prefaced sections with quotes from songs - e.g. lines from Pulp's Common People - Duneton does this but the cultural references are 60s-based (e.g. Lennon's w-c hero).

He'd got the book completely - understanding key ideas and the meaning of its style. He'd made a connection between the book and his own life. I gave it 85% - although I could have easily failed it. The external approved the mark in spite of me flagging it as a potential 'problem'.

That's all but the things that made me pleased were not the things that I initially looked for.

There's probably a message about assessment here - don't be too explicit in assessment criteria, license challenges to your assessment regime etc..

Recalling the essay ten years later, as I start thinking about an essay for my MA, it made me realise that writing an essay is an act of ventriloquism, fiction or pastiche; the adoption of a voice that is not one's own but belonging to others that is a requirement of the performance of academic discourse.

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