Professor Levy Paluck, Writing Center Hero
Interview by Adam Mastroianni '14, Writing Center Outreach Fellow
Professor Betsy Levy Paluck is an assistant professor of psychology known for her large-scale studies of conflict resolution in Africa and bullying in American middle schools. She teaches PSY400: Social Psychology and Social Change and begins her class by reading from George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” an exhortation for academic writing to be accessible and clear. She assigns weekly reading responses and works with students closely on making motivated arguments. For her close attention to writing and passion for writing pedagogy, we’re proud to honor Professor Levy Paluck as a Writing Center Hero.
What led you to prioritize writing in how you teach your class?
In graduate school one of my professors did a reading response seminar in which she actually read reading responses and read them for our writing quality and style. Notably, that was a graduate course; no one had ever done that for me as an undergraduate. I would have really liked that in one of my seminars! I also did a lot of peer editing in graduate school, and that was a big turning point. I realized I need to focus on my students' writing because that's such an important part what you do.
Even if you don't go to graduate school you can use these writing tools in so many different ways. What if you blog, for example? So many people blog in so many different professions. Being a good writer and a good communicator is so important in whatever you do.
How do the challenges you face in your own writing affect the way you teach your students about theirs?
My experience in writing is all about figuring out my process, so I like to talk to students about their process, and not just about the product that comes to me. I like to give different kinds of assignments: sometimes they put time pressure on you, sometimes they give you a longer period of time, sometimes they allow you to draft and sometimes they ask you to just spit one thing out. I like that because those different kinds of experiences have helped me to figure out my process, and once I did that, things got a lot easier.
Do you think your focus on writing in your seminar changes how your students learn your material?
I think so. It's not just that people are sure to read it, which is one effect, but the other effect is when we discuss, people will bring up what they've talked about in their reading responses, so I know that it's crystallized something for them that then they want to bring to the table. That's one way that writing changes class discussion. It improves the quality and allows people to contribute something that they've thought about and something they really care about. Of course, I don't have the comparison teaching this class without reading responses, so it's not a randomized controlled trial [laughs].
In your experience, what do your students find challenging about the writing you ask them to do?
They’re very anxious about getting graded. I'm trying to get them to see their progress, but I think that's really hard for them to think of it as progress and not just a good grade for them to get each week. Sometimes people struggle with how much to summarize, how much to argue, and how to find their voice in a paper like that. It's only two pages, so it's pretty short and it forces you to get to the point pretty quickly.
What helps them overcome those hurdles?
I’ll point out where I see them assert their voice. Some summary is important, of course, but I always try to bracket those parts, and say, "I want you to tell me a little more about that" or "tell me why you think that". They're very responsive to that feedback.
What sort of writing skills do you see as transportable to other disciplines?
I harp on staking a claim, writing with clarity, avoiding jargon, and making this something that anyone could read. And so many areas inside and outside academia need that kind of good, clear writing.
At the end of the semester, what improvements do you see that make you really proud of your students’ writing?
I find it takes me less time to read their responses because I'm not stopping so many times to help them fix a sentence or think about restructuring. What I like the most is that people say they're less afraid of writing because they've had this semester where they've had to keep writing all the time. That makes me proud.