Getting Better at Teaching Students Writing: Work With What They Know
To write well, you need to work from knowledge. Students know stuff.
Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. Joseph R. Teller asks “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?”
"Wrong?" I'm not so sure. Wrong suggests there's one right way, which I am suspicious about. Could we do better? Without a doubt.
I think the we face a challenge because of a K-12 education system where the push towards standardization and the concomitant high stakes testing exposes students to a very narrow conception of writing largely divorced from a comprehensive rhetorical situation.
In college, when the focus is on “academic” writing students see the work as an extension of those K-12 processes, and students learn techniques to pass assessments, rather than engaging with authentic, meaningful, writing-related problems.
The result is many students graduating without a deep, flexible knowledge of how writing works across different contexts, and when engaging different audiences.
I am sympathetic to a number of Prof. Teller’s troubles. He laments that students don’t revise, and that they have a tough time translating something they can argue in discussion into a clear and coherent piece of writing.
Their writing lacks focus, and perhaps most importantly, according to Teller, they just don’t know much. It’s hard to write effectively if you don’t have the knowledge necessary to respond critically to what you’re reading.
Teller illuminates the issue: “In a recent course, I gave students a set of readings on liberal education and its role in a democratic society. Now, class discussion had been interesting, and students had struggled productively to understand Seneca, John Henry Newman, Mike Rose, and Rabindranath Tagore; they had even produced essays with some refreshing insights. But few of their essays contained a clear and unifying argument, and many students seemed unable to focus on one point for more than a paragraph.”
I think Prof. Teller correctly identifies that we often ask too much of these courses, particularly when writing instruction is confined to a single semester, and he wants to scale back to something doable, which for Prof. Teller, is focusing on structure and form.
“So as much as I want to teach my students to love justice, be passionate about politics, and to think deeply about the future of humanity, they are not legitimate outcomes of a writing course. Neither are fostering a fetishistic love of the writing process or trying to teach "critical reading of difficult texts.”
“My job is not to save my students from cultural impoverishment. It is to teach them how to express themselves effectively in writing,” he declares.
I couldn’t agree more with the purpose of the course being to teach students how to express themselves effectively in writing.
But I believe there’s a different route to achieving that goal, and the first step is to stop viewing students as “culturally impoverished.”
It’s true, that when it comes to “academic culture,” students are largely without a clue because of lack of exposure. The primary reason for this, I believe, is because we have divorced school from learning. The pleasures of academic culture - starting with an initial curiosity that gives way to sustained inquiry and takes form in an argument presented to others - are largely absent from contemporary K-12 schooling, which is instead, an exercise in passing successive credentials.
For many of our students, the purpose of school is school.
I believe the mistake many of us make (me included) is believing that when students are finally exposed to deeper academic pleasures in college, they will recognize them instantly. It is a hubris similar to supporters of the Iraqi invasion who believed democracy would flourish in the Middle East, as if by natural process.
But the scales do not fall from student eyes upon first exposure to Seneca. I think we forget how long it takes to really fall in love with grappling with difficult texts that seem beyond our abilities. First, students have to want to understand Seneca, and that want has to come from a deeper place than desiring a good grade.
But as long as we view students in their natural state as “culturally impoverished,” we will run into these difficulties.
Focusing on the “current-traditional” approach to argument mode and structure will likely result in improved student artifacts for the purpose of assessment. But it won’t make them writers, and it won’t make them interested in learning and critical engagement.
Here’s what I’ve come to believe: Students know stuff.
When I talk with students, I realize that they know lots of things, often about subjects over which I have little knowledge.
If I want them to engage critically, if I want them to research deeply, if I want them to revise so their arguments are understood, I must allow them to write about their domains of knowledge.
Sometimes it can be hard to make students believe they have expertise, that they can contribute to an ongoing critical conversation. This is why I start the semester with an argument in the form of a review. They’ve eaten food, watched movies, listened to music, and they have opinions.
Later we move towards more academic modes, summary and response, rhetorical analysis, researched arguments, but I try never to refer to anything as “academic writing.”
By the end of the semester, the goal is that they feel sufficiently empowered to write a researched argument rooted in a subject of their own choosing. These are some of topics from last semester:
The portrayal of LGBTQ characters in House of Cards
Pay equity for female professional soccer players
The use of the “white savior” trope in Marvel films
The art form of profanity in contemporary hip-hop
Epigenetics and obesity
The effects of hashtags on social structures and peer relationships
Tommy John surgery in little leaguers
Police training for dealing with mental illness
I could list dozens of others. For the most part, I knew very little to nothing about their topics which is great because I was incapable of offering them help with content. Ninety-five percent of my interactions with them are me asking them questions.
The “success” of the end products varied, as it always does, but at the least I felt good about pushing them to wrestle with the questions that confront writers. What should I write about? Am I convincing? What else do I need to know?
I understand Prof. Teller’s frustration. I’ve never had a semester where I didn’t think there must be a better way to go about this work. But that's the point. That's how you know you're doing it right.
To me, the path towards improvement isn’t smooth, but it’s straightforward in principle at least. Students want what I want, to consider and write about subjects of interest. They need the same freedoms I do to explore their curiosities. Along the way, I can introduce them to the academic tools that will help them deepen those interests. When we treat students as something other than individual human beings, we turn them into cogs, and are unlikely to produce work that inspires either themselves, or their teachers.
I'm never going to get it right, but the attempt is worth it.
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