A few years ago, our university decided to have a “Developmental Day” where those of us who taught developmental classes (Math, reading, writing) would meet with the people who provided support for them (advisors, tutors, and other support services). We each had time during the day to talk about what we did. Of course, the administrators came in the morning, telling us how important we were (instructors off the tenure-track, all) to the university’s mission of retention of completion. When it came time for the instructors to speak, there was nary an administrator to be found.
I was nominated by my peers to speak on behalf of the developmental English instructors. I spoke last. The first two sets of instructors spoke about their automated programs that guided the students (and also provided valuable statistics on improvement and completion). I was feeling a little leery about what I was going to say. I knew the writing was on the wall; there was intense pressure for us in the English department to automate the developmental writing process. Heck, one of the publishers was testing a machine-grading assignment. But I knew what I had to do.
I opened by asking the group who could explain how to use a comma, or when to start a new paragraph. I went on to explain that each of our students come into Basic Writing with different issues, many which extend beyond the mechanical act of writing. I have had students who have simply given up on writing, firmly believing they have been told about their abilities. Each student needs support and encouragement as much as they needs to learn comma rules and paragraph structures. They need just-in-time help as they struggle to write their essays,
I was reminded of this day when I read this piece that so wonderfully explains and expresses what it takes to teach developmental writing. Going through my old blog, I had forgotten just how much I had written about teaching my own developmental writing classes. I wrote about my own experiences with the agony and ecstasy of teaching these classes while wondering if I am making enough of a difference. The class size may be smaller, but it is a class that is more mentally and emotionally taxing than regular Freshman Writing.
And, as always, it is often the least compensated faculty who are teaching these courses (adjuncts or non-tenure-track instructors), and usually with zero specialized training in dealing with the this particular population of students. But, I think the best ones always take it personally to a certain extent, the ones who take that time to work with each of the students to figure out what each of them needs. It’s just too bad that so many of us just are an afterthought within the administrative structure, not to mention often lacking the time or support to do their best.
I didn’t teach Basic Writing this year. In a lot of ways, I miss it. And to all those of you who are in the trenches teaching these courses, trying to give these students a second chance, my hats off to you. May we all take the time to thank our developmental instructors and what they do.