Faculty Feature: Professor Zak Lancaster
Dr. Zak Lancaster is a professor in the Writing Program at Wake Forest University. He completed his BA in English at Emory University before getting his Masters in Applied Linguistics at Teachers College Columbia University. Before coming to Wake Forest, he taught courses in English Language and academic writing for seven years at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. He then went to the University of Michigan for his Ph.D in English and Education.
Why did you choose to focus on the study of language, especially in relation to student writing?
While teaching English courses at a Korean university, I began to realize that the ability to put together a coherent and cohesive paragraph—especially one that also happens to be fluid, interesting, engaging, contextually-appropriate, and even eloquent—is something of a linguistic miracle. There are so many things that could go wrong. Writing a simple, ordinary paragraph actually requires a very complex command of language resources that, once we figure out how to do it, we tend to take for granted—perhaps especially those of us who write for a living. I started thinking this way during my M.A. training in applied linguistics, when I realized how complex language is. Then after I got my M.A. I went to Korea and read probably thousands of student papers that had problems with textual coherence and cohesion—which is understandable considering I was working with English language learners. The most interesting of these texts were the ones that did not have grammatical errors. These were the texts that were grammatically sound but still lacked coherence. They often read, at least to me, as “odd” or somehow off. I tried to figure out what was going on from a linguistic point of view. And I realized that that there is a whole field of study called text linguistics or written discourse analysis that seeks to understand how texts actually work. When I found that area of scholarship, I knew instantly that’s what I wanted to devote my career to. It may sound dry to many folks, but what I keep coming back to is what an incredible linguistic achievement it is to string phrases and clauses together in such a way that you create meanings that are decipherable to readers. It constantly amazes me.
It’s hard for me to compare “teaching abroad” in general with teaching in the U.S. in general. I can say that living in another part of the world for such a long time really opens your eyes to your own culture. You’re able to get a kind of critical distance from the values and assumptions that tacitly shape the way you view the world. It’s not unlike moving to New York or LA after having lived in Winston Salem your whole life, but just on a huger scale. You get to view the U.S. through others’ eyes. It’s an important experience. I recommend everyone do it — and not just for a short stint. Live in another country for a long time.
I can also say that I was lucky enough to get a job at one of the top three universities in South Korea (Yonsei University), where I had the immense privilege of working with English majors on their English writing. These were amazing people I got to work with. They are not unlike Wake students: smart, driven, intellectually curious. There were clear differences, too. My students in Korea bowed to me. They heaped gifts on me for teacher’s day. They took me out on weekends for Karaoke and drinks. The drinking age in Korea is 18, and it’s an ordinary part of college life to take your professor out drinking. It was nice. We studied together, then we hit the pub and had fun.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Roz Ivanic’s book, Writing and Identity. She uses what she calls a “talk about text” methodology to study how our process of writing in the academy — this thing we call “academic writing” — works to shape our identities. This is a really important concept, fascinating and highly problematic in some cases. It’s not only that we project a certain identity in our texts when we write—what she calls a “discoursal self”—but also that the process of taking on new discourses—new registers, new ways of seeing— actually shapes who we are and who we want to be. Writing is not just writing. Whether we know it or not, the process of writing shapes us, and adds to us. None of these ideas are new, but it’s amazing to see how Ivanic gracefully tacks back and forth between analysis of students’ texts and their explanations of their texts to explore the multiple “selves” that are at work as we write. I must also confess that I’m reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the first time. It’s been on my reading list for half my life and I’m just now getting around to it. I really admire Pirsig’s ability to explain sophisticated philosophical concepts in such accessible ways. I hope to be able to do that in my own writing.
In your opinion, what qualities does an A paper possess?
I can’t generalize what an “A paper” is, of course. An A-level lab report in chemistry will make very different moves from an A-level literary analysis argument. An “argumentative essay” in history will call for different ways of knowing and doing than an “argumentative essay” in philosophy, and these differences will leave traces in the language. But I do love the question. In fact, I devoted my whole doctoral research to the question of whether or not there are commonalities in what high-performing student writers are doing in their texts that cross genre and disciplinary divides. I have spent years researching this. What I have found is that the commonalities that do exist are abstract. Successful writers tend to project personal engagement with the subject matter alongside critical distance from the subject matter — at least if we are talking about academic papers. They are both highly evaluative or “critical” and highly “objective.” It’s a subtle balancing act. We recognize it as “nuance” or “complexity.”
For my own students, I would hope that they could take my writing assignment and somehow make it their own. Really own it and get into it. It makes the whole process so much more rewarding from everyone involved. There is nothing more deadening to read than a student paper where it seems like the writer is just going through the motions, fulfilling the assignment and giving me what they think “I want.” There is nothing pleasurable about reading student papers that do not convey excitement on the topic. Therefore, I would recommend to students that, if they are not personally excited or engaged in the set of questions and problems they are writing about, then they need to try to tweak the assignment or prompt in such a way that they can get excited. Writing is difficult but it can be a “difficult pleasure” if you’re really in to what you’re writing about, and professors just love to read papers that convey this kind of engagement.
What is the most common mistake you see in your students papers?
We all have pet peeves. Many of us have grammatical pet peeves, many more stylistic ones. Going off my earlier comment, I’d say I don’t like reading papers that merely “fulfill” the assignment prompt. I know that may be hard to hear from a student perspective. Students are busy and often want to be told “what to do to get the A.” This is absolutely understandable and I sympathize. I think professors should be explicit about the goals of the assignment and their grading criteria. But, on the other end, I think students should do some work to get enthusiastic about what they’re writing about. If they’re not enthusiastic — and I mean intellectually curious, engaged, etc., not necessarily jumping up and down with glee — then they should try to talk to the professor about bending the assignment. I hope that makes sense. I don’t like rote papers. They’re not pleasurable to read, partly because I feel so bad that the writer is apparently not taking any pleasure in what they’re saying.
But there are a few common prescriptive errors that student writers repeatedly make. I’ll mention two. These are “fused” sentences, also known as run-ons or comma splices. Then there are “dangling modifiers.” I’m not going to explain these, but I recommend students google them up and think about it. These are two of the most common “errors” in writing because they are perfectly natural features of our spoken language. The concept of a “sentence” is pretty irrelevant when it comes to spoken language, and so we fuse sentences together all the time without using just the right conjunction. And when we are pulling phrases and clauses together to form utterances, we don’t think very much about whether the opening phrase grammatically matches the subject. If I say during a conversation something like, “As a reader, your essay is causing me some problems,” we all know what I mean, even though there is this technical problem where the opening phrase, “as a reader,” doesn’t correspond to the grammatical subject, “your essay.” I would venture to say that we all do this when we speak. I certainly hear folks on NRP dangling their modifiers all the time. University professors, too. Technically, though, the written convention is to write something like, “As a reader, I am finding some problems in your essay.” The most common errors in native-speaker student writing result from transferring spoken conventions to the written mode. Writing is not “natural,” at least from a linguistic point of view. There are conventions that must be understood. It is a very different story if we are talking about English language learners. There, the concept of “grammatical errors” means something else entirely.