Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LSM, Writing Assignments, & You

One of the books I read over winter break was psychologist James W. Pennebaker's The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

Prior to reading the book, I was familiar with his scholarship about therapeutic writing, which I wrote about last year in "The Power of Therapeutic Writing and Freewriting."

The Secret Life of Pronouns distills research he's done over the years, and it'll make you look at your own and others' language use more closely. I won't go into the big intellectual payoffs of the book because there are so many interesting things to say about his research that I could go on and on and on.

However, there's a specific section of Chapter 8: The Language of Love that directly connects to those of us who create writing assignments (professors) and those of us who write papers/documents in response to those writing assignments (students).

In "The Language of Love" chapter, Pennebaker has a section titled "Verbal Mimicking" where he introduces readers to the phenomenon of Language Style Matching: "The matching of function words is language style matching, or LSM. Analyses of conversations find that LSM occurs within the first fifteen to thirty seconds of any interaction and is generally beyond conscious awareness. Several studies suggest that LSM is apparent in some unlikely places" (200).

When I read about LSM, I thought back to the institution where I taught before EIU. I was in a meeting where someone in power, and I'll just call her Rhoda, had a certain hard-nosed way of talking about problems and solutions. In addition, Rhoda loved using the word "expeditiously." She used that term a lot.

As the meeting went on, some at the meeting picked up on using that word to please Rhoda. And then there were all kinds of people talking about doing all sorts of things expeditiously rather using than a simpler adverb, quickly.

I reckon it's fairly easy to see how LSM happens in your own meetings, your home, and elsewhere. Ponder on that, folks. 

But what I want to really hit on is how LSM happens with writing assignments because Pennebaker and other researchers tested LSM in this domain. 

They gave writing assignments that had "pompous instructions" and instructions that were "written in a chatty 'Valley girl' style" (201). The instructions had different styles, but they asked students to do the same task ~ give an example of cognitive dissonance and how that instance of cognitive dissonance was eventually solved.

So, to be clear here, this was the experiment:
  • Same writing task
  • Same instructions (essentially)
  • Two different styles ~ pompous & Valley girl
  • Different sets of students writing in response to the "same" instructions

I'm sure you can guess what happened: LSM in an "unlikely place."

Pennebaker describes the result: "The only difference was that students who received the pompous question answered in pompous ways and those who read the Valley girl instructions wrote in the same freestyle informal lingo. Because everyone responded to four different essay questions, each written in a different style, many students later reported not even noticing the writing styles at all" (201-02). 

Reading that section of the chapter made me reflect on my own writing assignments and the stylistic messages I'm sending because the writing prompts we give frame the responses we get from our students. 

To quote the "Valley girl instructions" in the experiment, "Like, it's [LSM] seriously happening ALL the time, you know??"

When crafting writing assignments, we not only have to clearly communicate what we want, what students need to do, who the audience is, and how we're going to evaluate their responses via rubric or criteria for evaluation, but we also have to pay attention to the style of our prompts.

If we write writing assignments that exemplify convoluted pompous windbaggery, we'll get it back. 

That's, like, you know, really bitchin' info. Totally tubular. OHMYGOD!

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