Early in the semester I ask my first-year composition students to write the instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Because they have been conditioned to be compliant to authority, they don’t really balk, but I can see in some faces that they’re a little put-off, that they feel they’ve moved beyond such a trivial exercise.
I withhold a key bit of information, the audience. Some of the sharper students ask me this before they start, and I pooh-pooh them so as not to ruin the (my) fun.
After collecting their efforts, I reveal to them that the audience is a space alien of the insectoid (think Independence Day) variety standing in the student’s kitchen. When followed, most of the instructions would prove to be a great annoyance to our extraterrestrial visitor, as they fail to specify things like the amount of peanut butter or jelly to be spread on the bread, or what might be used to do the spreading.
I paint a scenario where the alien thinks that the family-size container of chunky is single-serving (not having been told differently) and that in trying to jam the resulting eight-inch thick sandwich into his mandibles, he chokes on the excess and dies. His compatriot alien enters the kitchen, sees his buddy dead on the ground, assumes we’re hostile, and calls up to the mother ship to order the incineration of the nearest population center.
Cue interplanetary war.
Maybe that sounds kind of dumb, but in class, it’s usually pretty fun. We have some laughs.
The purpose of the exercise is to indeed get students thinking about writing for specific audiences with specific needs, attitudes, and knowledge. I use a task they’ve long ago stopped thinking about because I want them to recognize that we should be thinking about everything, that the smallest unexamined assumption could result in our extermination by a technologically superior alien race.
This semester, while doing the exercise in class, something clicked in my brain and I began to think about how for me, teaching first year writing was a lot like being asked to write instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a space alien.
Prior to my arrival at the College of Charleston in Fall 2011, it had been six years since I taught a 100-level writing class. For my own writing, I’d long ago internalized the lessons about communication I want my students practicing, and so when I was engaged with my own work, I was not particularly mindful about the process. I wouldn’t say writing is as simple or straightforward as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but it had become something like automatic.
I guess you could say that I’d been taking it for granted.
What I’ve found is that returning to teaching a class as elemental as first-year writing has forced me into a state of greater mindfulness about writing in general, and my own writing in specific. When trying to consider how to best help my students learn and then internalize the principles and practices of effective writing, I’ve been forced to deconstruct my own approach to the task.
As a result, I’ve learned about as much as anyone. I’ve been reminded that writing isn’t something that “just happens” or is something that we’re naturally good (or bad) at. I’ve become much more conscious of audience, who I’m talking to and why, what I want them to walk away with from my writing.
My writing process is more sound. Based on advice I routinely give to students, I’ve incorporated discrete steps for pre-writing, drafting, and editing, each separated by some period of time. Weekly, I’m writing at least one blog post plus a column for the Chicago Tribune book section, and the improved process makes this work much less burdensome.
We take it as a given that research and scholarship informs teaching, but how often do we acknowledge the reverse?
I’m sort of wondering if instructors in other disciplines experience the same thing, if a Biology professor sees benefits to their more sophisticated research when they teach one of the introductory lab courses. Do engineers find themselves re-engaged with their field when they teach a basic principles and practices course?
I teach first-year writing because I am contingent faculty with limited say as to where I’m assigned. I’m required to go where I’m needed. In all honesty, prior to this renewed experience with first-year writing, if given the choice, I probably would’ve steered clear, remembering only the time-suck parts of the job, i.e., grading.
But teaching the dreaded “freshman comp” has been a very positive thing. I may even be so bold as to recommend that everyone do it sometime. Being forced to teach something I’ve long known how to do has been very instructive.
I’m not sure I’d want an exclusive diet of English 110, but I hope that I keep it as part of my well-balanced instructional meal for the rest of my career, however long it lasts.
(Did I mention that I’m contingent?)
Twitter is still new enough to me that it never feels automatic.
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