• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


If You Want Students to Learn to Write...

...they need more time in writing courses.

April 28, 2015

The longer I teach first year writing, the more convinced I become that if we’re serious about wanting students to write well, we need to require two semesters of composition that students take in consecutive semesters, cannot be “proficiencied” out of, and feature curriculum that inextricably ties the two courses together as an instructional sequence.

That groan you just heard is students, who can’t imagine having to take another composition course, and department administrators, who don’t have the money or staff to cover them.

But if we really want students to be able to write, we can’t treat writing as just another item on the general education “checklist.[1]

Evidence that we could use more writing instruction is abundant both inside and outside the academy. Professors outside English often lament about the poor skills of students in their classes.

Industry complaints about the substandard communication skills of graduates are now ubiquitous.

Mostly, my belief rest on my experience. Even as I work through my end-of-semester grading, as I consider the progress my students have made, I often think that now, just as we’re getting ready to part ways, we’re ready to get down to some real work.

But most of my students will never take another writing class. They may become the graduates industry complains about.

For a time, though, I was part of a different – dare I say, better – model.

During my three years at Virginia Tech (2002-2005) I taught a course called Comm Skills[2]. It was a two-semester sequence housed in the Communication department, combining first-year writing and public speaking.

In the first semester, we covered the principles of communication (group, interpersonal, etc…), weaving in writing assignments like an introductory letter, a goals memo, and a critical analysis of a public speaker. Students were introduced to fundamental concepts like writing for specific audiences and occasions.

My favorite assignment from the first semester, one I’m hoping to resurrect in my current work, was a “conflict letter,” in which students were asked to write directly to someone they were currently fighting with (parents, roommate, significant other). First drafts were often brutal assaults on the intended audience, filled with accusations, sometimes bordering on cruelty. We would then discuss what we’d been covering about effective listening, and consensus problem solving, and how to engage in rhetorical sensitivity.

I remember many “a-ha” moments as students realized the power of communication, not just to be heard, but to be understood, that to improve their own situations might require a step back and to empathize with the person who had done them the most wrong.

The second semester was geared around research, the centerpieces being a group informative project (a great tool for teaching collaborative writing), and a persuasive speech and essay.

I have digital copies of many of those final Comm Skills essays. When I compare them to the work of my current students, they are undoubtedly better.

Some of this is likely due to the fact that many of the Comm Skills students were Communication majors, and were therefore predisposed to engagement with the material[3]. But there was an equal number of Business majors in the course, and looking back, I cannot remember, nor tell from their work, which was which.

Mostly, they’re better because they’re the product of a year’s sustained instruction, and because the course wasn’t treated as just another hoop to jump through on the way to the “meaningful” courses.

It was viewed as foundational to success in the major and beyond. By keeping a cohort of first-year students together for two consecutive semesters, we also achieved many of the goals of First Year Experience or College 101 programs in successfully integrating students into the ways and wherefores of college.

In my Facebook feed, I can see how many of my Comm Skills students remain enduringly important to each other 10+ years after graduation, appearing in photos at each other’s weddings, and now the baptisms of their children.

So it’s not just about requiring two semesters of writing, which only adds one more item to the checklist, but designing a two semester sequence of writing courses that meets the needs of particular institutions, and then empowering faculty to teach them well[4].

Now that I am familiar with my students’ work, and their interests, and their strengths and weaknesses, I look at my outgoing class and think about the amazing things they could achieve if we had more time, if I could set up the exact right challenges for them.

But we will never see each other again, except in passing. Many of them are grateful because they will never take another writing class, but that’s only because they don’t know what they’re missing.

But I do.


[1] I think we need to stop treating general education as a checklist period, but that’s a different column.

[2] I have written in the past about my indebtedness to Prof. Marlene Preston, who developed and implemented the Comm Skills curriculum.

[3] I think there is also some evidence that students ten years ago, prior to the ubiquity of standardized testing may have also been better prepared for college-level writing.

[4] This means all kinds of things. Not overburdening instructors with too many students is probably the most important requirement. This may actually make such a thing impossible in today’s university, though I note that Comm Skills continues to chug along at Virginia Tech. Also, I can report that teaching different courses in Fall and Spring played a considerable part in reducing instructor burn out, even as Comm Skills was the only course I taught.


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