Assignment by Daniel Libertz, Bedford New Scholar 2018
This activity addresses two things about academic writing:
- How certainty and doubt at the sentence level are rhetorically deployed.
- How we can look at sentences to see writing as a knowledge-making activity and use this perspective in revision.
Sometimes, students are too certain in their writing, trying to will their way toward knowledge rather than write their way there, typically by using words like: really, very, clearly, obviously. Or, sentences become overloaded to fit in information that needs to be expanded upon. Sometimes, also, they are not certain enough and need to be more direct and confident about what they know.
Having students try to find sentences in published writing that is on a spectrum of certainty and uncertainty helps them think about how they communicate confidently—whether they are certain or unsure. Being purposefully uncertain, for instance, is different from being unconfidently certain.
And, perhaps most importantly, having students think about where they are certain or uncertain can be generative for future revisions that allow them to further refine what they are attempting to know through their writing. By the end of the lesson, the hope is that students—via a notion of certainty—begin to see how the ways they choose words and arrange sentences can have an impact on the way they are makers of knowledge.
Homework. For homework due before this lesson begins, have students select a text from another class (preferably their major, if they are declared) and ask them to find two sentences: One sentence that, to them, feels like the writer is communicating certainty, and a second sentence that, to them, they feel expresses doubt. It could be any text as long as it has to do with the class’s discipline: textbook, journal article, blog post, etc. Have them write a rationale for their choosing those sentences; typically they might point to specific word choice, sentence structure, rhetorical devices.
Discussion of Homework. In class, build a discussion around what moves writers make to signal certainty or uncertainty (example question: “what aspects of the sentences you chose made you think they were attempting to appear certain or uncertain? Let’s list them up on the board”). You might also do a think-pair-share or some freewriting prior to discussion to warm them up before a large-group assembly of your class list based on the homework assignment results. While comparing responses among the class, you could use this time to talk about different conventions of different disciplines, and why those conventions might exist (e.g., statistical writing has to include many qualified statements [or should] when dealing with samples that cannot be generalized to broader populations).
Here are the sorts of things that tend to come up during this activity:
- Frequently writing words like ‘really,’ ‘very,’ ‘obviously,’ etc. actually makes someone sound less certain.
- Adding a clause that qualifies a statement may make writing feel more uncertain but it also might be a confident argumentative move that anticipates and acknowledges counter-claims.
- Adding sentences or clauses that admit lack of complete knowledge or need for more research can add credibility to a writer.
- A punchy simple sentence can feel much more certain than a wordy, modifier-laden sentence trying to do the same work.
Looking at Student Writing. After the class has finished a list characteristics of what communicates certainty and uncertainty, and why, then next step is to have them look at an in-progress draft they are currently working on.
Before digging into their own writing, start to discuss how certainty and uncertainty in a draft of writing might signal places for revision. Are these purposeful rhetorical moves or are they signs that more work needs to be done? For instance, does the use of “really” or a sentence with three dependent clauses tip us off to anything we are struggling with knowing as a writer? Sometimes the use of the word “very” or “obviously” is used for stylistic emphasis. Sometimes a sentence with a series of qualifying dependent clauses adds necessary context for a complicated topic. Sometimes, too, these moments at the sentence level are a “tell” that there is more to work through in our thinking on the page.
During the remaining time in class, ask students to make these considerations while looking back at their in-progress piece of writing. Have them find one sentence that they feel shows certainty or uncertainty and ask them to rewrite that sentence or expand on it to make it more or less certain, followed by partner discussion about how it does or does not fit into the ecology of their larger paper. Ask them to be ready to explain why they made changes they made, and if time, have a few people share.