Friday, September 16, 2011

Flow Torments Me!

Without a doubt, the single most confusing and meaningless phrase I come across is “flow.” This is a word so devoid of meaning that I feel goose bumps even when I hear it in other settings (where it actually means something).

It is, of course, hard to blame the students. They have been conditioned—though I am not sure where or when—to speak in those terms. All they know is that if we tell them, “yes, it flows well,” then they have a good paper and a good chance to get a good grade. This is probably the most dangerous part of allowing “flow” into our vocabulary. It does nothing for a student to tell them that their paper “flows.” It may sound like a compliment, but it does not teach the student anything about writing. In fact, it is preventing them from learning how to even address their writing. I have tried to rid my vocabulary of “flow” in the Writing Center and to help students get rid of the Homer Simpson mentality.

Here is what I mean: Homer Simpsons once said, How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain - remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive? Students often fall into complacency. That is, they feel that because they have learned (somewhere) that a paper must “flow,” they can avoid learning more concrete ways of talking about and addressing their writing mistakes.

When students have asked me whether their paper flows, I have tried to respectfully and kindly move away from that kind of vocabulary. I will often tell them that “flow” is a pretty meaningless and vague concept, and that I would rather help them concentrate on more concrete concepts that will make them better writers. So I try to prod them for specifics. I will ask, for example, whether they are concerned about cohesion, or whether their topic sentences help their ideas transition clearly. That is often what they mean, and knowing how to talk about writing makes them better writers.

I have found OWLs especially lend themselves to questions about “flow” because students have to write even their questions about writing. They cannot talk things out until they find the right words like our face to face students can. I have paid special attention to these OWLs and tried really hard to insert more specific words and phrases into my response to their questions about “flow.” I really hope this is helping, and I hope to see more and most students who come in asking about transitions, theses, conclusions, and clarity rather than “flow.”


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