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Amateurs want algorithms, but pros use heuristics

Yesterday, over at As a Linguist, Leonore Rodrigues pointed out an interesting writing challenge for international students studying in the US. What do you think the greatest obstacle is for non-native English speakers who must write academic essays at US colleges/universities? It is NOT use of idioms, vocabulary, or English grammar.  It relates to cultural genre differences in content development and in organization of the thesis statement (what I would call the bottom line of an academic essay).

[Note: Skip to the end of today’s post if all you want is the bottom line on algorithms versus heuristics for workplace writing.]

Leonore helps her international students understand cultural differences in academic writing by asking them to read a two-part article from the Tufts University student newspaper about differences in the academic essay genre across national cultures. Differences in content development include:

  • US students should “re-state people’s ideas in a different way and draw our own conclusions from them, whereas in Spain, it’s acceptable to just rearrange the ideas without adding a personal take on them.”
  • US students should paraphrase or quote experts, whereas “in a lot of East Asian cultures, students are taught all through elementary school, high school and even into the undergraduate level, that what they’re supposed to do is memorize, word-by-word, verbatim, what experts and authorities say.”

Differences in organization include:

  • “The Americanized essay will often begin straight to the point, with the thesis in the introductory paragraph, while the French version may deem that style to be too abrupt, and instead choose to place the thesis in the concluding paragraph.”
  • US students are expected to follow the five-paragraph format, while the Chinese are expected to compose the eight-legged essay, “this extremely ancient, complex form in which you as a writer are supposed to explain to the reader why you chose this topic, why it’s interesting and what past scholars have said about the topic, etc. To an American reader, it may seem like ‘Where’s your point?’.”

Leonore’s post got me thinking about cultural differences in workplace documents and their consequences for teaching workplace writing. Researchers who compared cover letters for internship positions found that, compared to Taiwanese students, Canadian students presented more of an argument that hiring them would benefit the company.

In an attempt to write an unfamiliar genre, Taiwanese students tended to want to see a finished product. i.e. writing samples in textbooks, and try to emulate it. This shortcut approach could hinder their potential to write a successful piece, which can better reflect their qualifications. (Hu & Li, 2011, International Journal of Linguistics)

Frankly, my experience with US students suggests they’re just as likely to use a sample document in this situation. I would, too, if I had never written one. Maybe cultural differences explain how willing the different nationalities were to explicitly state their value for the company. I presume the Taiwanese students succeeded when they learned what is expected in application letters to North American companies. And I also presume they will write somewhat different application letters to companies in East Asia because they have not learned an “application letter” algorithm.

Those writers who are doomed to remain amateurs fail to understand that there are no algorithms for successful documents. After receiving my evaluation of their writing performance, many students complain that I should have told them what to do before they wrote the document. I should note that we always discuss document samples, and I always provide a rubric for assigned documents in advance. But these are heuristics for making judgments about ill-defined problems, not algorithms for solving finite ones. (See this article for an expanation of the difference between the two within education.) It’s not that I won’t supply my students with an algorithm for writing “the application letter” because I like to see them make bad guesses about the secret algorithm. It’s that I can’t supply one because it doesn’t exist.

Think about the differences in genres across companies. The fact that you can write an effective project proposal at one company — say, where a summary schedule is supposed to appear in an executive summary — does not guarantee you can write one effectively at another organization — where, for instance, schedule information should appear only near the end of the document. Your knowledge of the genre conventions in one company probably does mean you can learn those in another company. But that’s different than knowing an algorithm.

Genres differ across cultures (whether national or organizational) because documents are cultural artifacts. So it follows that I can teach heuristics for “how to write a proposal,” but I can’t teach “the proposal” algorithm. At a minimum, pro writers know genre knowledge is culturally determined. And they have learned heuristics for adapting their genre knowledge to a new culture. They are able to consider the information available and make good judgments about messy problems. This is why you may have heard some writing teachers say what they actually teach is thinking.

Before I end this post, I want to say that, although heuristics are less precise than algorithms, they are different from platitudes. But that explanation will have to wait for another day.

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  1. hey, thanks for this post…i’m talking a teaching college comp class right now and we do a lot of discussion about what the role of composition teaching is…i think that role gets a bit more complex when l2 writing is involved, and that heuristics (which your post has introduced me to) are useful and applicable in the classroom. anyway, thanks again! i’ll be checking back!

    1. I’m not sure where you’re coming from here. I hope you’ll visit the link I provide above explaining what these terms mean within an educational context.

  2. I never really thought of it in terms of algorithms and heuristics, but this does seem to explain the patterns of behavior that I see in students and their writing. When doing placement tests, we often come across essays that do everything ‘right’ but still contain next to nothing in terms of actual content. When they come, we feel like we have to let them place out of developmental writing because there’s nothing technically wrong. They clearly learned the algorithm, plugged in appropriate sentences in the right places, and knew enough to check spelling and punctuation. And yet, the essays are, without fail, vapid and boring.

    My lower level students have so much to learn and they all beg for ‘the formula” and to an extent, I need to give them one. But in almost every class, I tell them that they are learning a very basic structure now so they can then learn how to manipulate that structure later as they get more advanced. Some students respond to this well because they feel a little stifled by the patterns of organization or types of introductions that I’m teaching them. Others get really frustrated because the “it depends” response I give to a lot of their questions is an anathema to them. They want to know the way, the one way, the right way so that they don’t have to think about it too much.

    I think this is such a useful distinction and I’m excited to find a new angle for my teaching. Thanks for the article, and thank you ever so much for referring to my post.

    (Could I beg one small favor, and then you can delete this part of the comment if you’d like? My last name is spelled with a final -s, not a final -z. This is because my family is Portuguese, not Spanish. Many names, such as Fernandez/s, Gomez/s, Hernandez/s follow the same pattern. Thanks once more!)

    1. I’m glad the distinction is useful to you, Leonore. It helps me feel better about my students’ frustration 😉 My sincere apologies for misspelling your last name! I’m fixing it in my post right now.

      1. No worries! It’s a distinction that most people don’t know about – including most of my Spanish-speaking students who can’t figure out why I’m spelling my name ‘wrong’ 😉

  3. Iím not that much of a internet reader to be
    honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road. Many thanks

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