A celebration of tradition or of self? An ethnographic study of teachers' comments on student writing in America and in China
Date of Award
Program or Major
Doctor of Philosophy
Thomas R Newkirk
The study builds a dialogue between teachers of writing in China and America on what "good writing" is, for the purpose of revealing the fact that "good writing" resides not just with student texts, but with the teachers who read and judge student papers.
Writing comments on student papers is a time-honored and widely accepted practice in writing classrooms in most countries. Teachers offer text-specific advice to each student and communicate to the student writer, among other things, the criteria of good writing. A close look at the teacher's comments, therefore, reveals the criteria with which teachers measure student papers.
The study consists of a case study of four writing teachers, two from China and two from the United States, and a survey of sixty writing teachers in both countries. Through extensive interviews, the reader is introduced to the lives of the four unique individuals and their reading of and comments on six pieces of personal narrative selected and recommended by themselves as samples of "good writing". Four of the pieces then were sent to sixty writing teachers (forty-five responded) in both countries, who were asked to rank order and comment on them. The result shows surprising similarities among teachers regardless of their nationalities, but also substantial "national" differences between the teachers of the two nations.
The study then examines some commonly shared criteria of "good writing" among the American teachers and the underlying ideology of these maxims to place the notion of "good writing" in a historical and cultural context.
Teachers are not innocent readers. When they read student papers, they bring to their judgments not only their personal history, but a whole set of culturally defined and prescribed criteria. In a word, the notion of good writing is a cultivated sensitivity, an acquired taste.
Too often writing teachers are portrayed as and believed to be "common readers", whose reading of student texts is no more than "dramatizing the presence of a reader", while in actuality writing teachers have the power to pass final judgements on student papers. To recognize the power is to accept the responsibility that power entails. It is important to recognize the culture bias in our judgement of student papers especially when our writing classrooms are accepting in large numbers students whose culture backgrounds have instilled in them different notions of "good writing".
Li, Xiao-ming, "A celebration of tradition or of self? An ethnographic study of teachers' comments on student writing in America and in China" (1992). Doctoral Dissertations. 1713.