I remember well my first class in graduate school, now 10 years ago, because I was only somewhat prepared for it. My pencil pouch held a full canister of lead, but, when our creative writing professor asked us to go around the octagonal seminar table to sign up for our workshop dates, I had to ask, “What’s a workshop?”
“Well,” the guy next to me said, “you sit in the middle here, blindfolded, and we all take turns -- ” He held up his fist as if to throw a punch.
There is a kernel of truth in his humor: the cloth covers not your eyes but your mouth. On the days you “are workshopped,” as it is said, the class discusses the merits and faults of the writing you submitted the week before, and you’re not allowed to talk during this discussion. It’s called the gag rule. The main reason for this rule is that ungagged authors are too compelled to defend their writing -- but a workshop is not a defense. There is no passing or not passing the workshop. You simply gather feedback, take what you’d like and disregard the rest.
The stakes couldn’t be lower, in other words, so why is it commonly such a bruising experience?
“It’s just … not … good,” a student said in my second class, the first workshop of the semester. Ouch. The most infamous comment I heard in my years in graduate school was, “When I read something like this I think, ‘Oh, he must be writing in his underwear.’” I’m not sure what he meant, exactly, but we all caught the drift.
There’s another kernel of truth in my classmate’s comment: there’s something about a workshop that allows fists to fly, and I’m not above reproach. I regret once saying a page of dialogue was “like a soap opera script.” Another time, when I was workshopped, a classmate said, “I don’t see the point of reading this.” Afterward he came over to me and said, “That came off way more antagonistic than I meant it to.” I said bitterly, “You’re not a good reader.”
Is this how one becomes a master of fine arts?
Many say we can do better, for reasons personal (flying fists) and pedagogical (lack of evaluation of what students actually learn -- and tacit permission of flying fists). Sum it up in the title of a book by writers and teachers Carol Bly and Cynthea Loveland that came out in 2006, Against Workshopping Manuscripts: A Plea for Justice to Student Writers.
After graduating, I began to teach creative writing classes, and, resolved to do justice, I tried alternatives to the workshop. I taught forms and principles and assigned exercises. I modeled how to write like a good reader -- which is to say, how I imitate writing I admire (and try to conceal this imitation). We studied “how to write” books -- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, and On Writing Well by Howard Zinsser. I wanted to scrutinize the methods and techniques of producing writing, rather than student writing itself. The closest we got to workshops were small groups in which students shared their work -- with no gag rule.
It was OK. Not great. The students seemed to like the class, but as a teacher, I felt like I was trying to cook on a feeble campfire, the water never getting to a full boil.
There is something valuable, I’ve since realized, in turning up the heat on students. In other classes, this heat comes in a term paper or a final exam, a culminating moment that tests student mettle, that makes students do the best they possibly can. In a creative writing class, this heat comes in a workshop.
Meanwhile, something else occupied my teaching life: I began teaching some of my classes online. My classes are asynchronous, meaning that while there are deadlines, there is no live interaction. The weekly conversation between students and myself happens on the discussion board, on which students respond to prompts I give them and comment on each other’s ideas. In my first-year composition class, they also review and edit fellow students’ drafts.
I love the discussion board as a teaching tool for several reasons, including how I can manage the occasional flying fist. The weekly, graded discussion board assignment asks students to give thoughtful feedback -- in agreement or disagreement -- and a nasty comment almost always stands in place of thoughtfulness. So, if a student writes something offhanded, snarky or just plain mean, I can get ’em where it counts: I take off points.
For doing so, in my anonymous student evaluations I once took a jab myself: “Taking off points for something the teacher took personally is crap.” I’m all but certain I know who wrote this, and it delights me to mention that, after my reprimand earlier in the semester, his discussion board participation was excellent, not to mention civil, and he got an A in the class.
As for his parting shot, well, I suppose I did take it personally: no one is going to be mean in my class.
With this capability, I’ve now returned to teaching creative writing workshops -- this time online. After a few weeks of preliminary exercises, much like I did in the classes I taught after graduate school, students spend the rest of the semester workshopping each other’s poetry, fiction and personal essays on the discussion boards. Students get full scrutiny of their peers -- the heat is up -- and when the time comes to administer student justice, I’m ready.
I’m surprised to say I’ve even instituted the gag rule, something I loathed as a student in workshops myself. It’s valuable for authors to see how little they control their readers, so long as I can control the readers from doing their worst. I have also been surprised to realize that, as it is often said of online education, students are welcome to come to class -- and write -- in their underwear.
Brian Goedde has an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches writing at the Community College of Philadelphia.
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Most of my faculty colleagues agree that Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), in which the task of teaching writing is one assigned to all professors, not just those who teach English or composition, is an important academic concept. If we had a WAC playbook, it would sound something like this: students need to write clear, organized, persuasive prose, not only in the liberal arts, but in the sciences and professional disciplines as well. Conventional wisdom and practical experience tell us that students’ ability to secure jobs and advance in their careers depends, to a great extent, on their communication skills, including polished, professional writing.
Writing is thinking made manifest. If students cannot think clearly, they will not write well. So in this respect, writing is tangible evidence of critical thinking — or the lack of it -- and is a helpful indicator of how students construct knowledge out of information.
The WAC playbook recognizes that writing can take many forms: research papers, journals, in-class papers, reports, reviews, reflections, summaries, essay exams, creative writing, business plans, letters, etc. It also affirms that writing is not separate from content in our courses, but can be used as a practical tool to apply and reinforce learning.
More controversial — and not in everyone’s playbook -- is the idea that teaching writing skills cannot be delegated to a few courses, e.g., first-year composition courses, literature courses, and designated “W” (writing-intensive) courses. Many faculty agree with the proposition that writing should be embedded throughout the curriculum in order to broaden, deepen and reinforce writing skills, but many also take the “not in my back yard” approach to WAC.
We often hear the following refrains when faculty discuss students and writing. Together they compose a familiar song (sung as the blues):
1. “I’m not an English teacher; I can’t be expected to correct spelling and grammar.”
2. “I don’t have time in class to teach writing — I barely have enough time to teach content.”
3. “Why should students be penalized for bad writing if they get the correct answer?”
4. “Mine isn’t supposed to be a ‘W’ course, so I’ll leave the writing to others.”
5. “There is no way to work writing into the subject matter of my course.”
6. “They hate to read and write and won’t take the time to revise their work.”
7. “I don’t have a teaching assistant and don’t want to do a lot of extra correcting—I have enough to do.”
8. “Our students come to college with such poor writing skills that we can’t make up for years of bad writing.”
9. “They never make the corrections I suggest; I see the same mistakes over and over again, so why bother?”
10. “They’re seniors, and they still can’t write!”
Much has been written about WAC, and I add my voice to the multitudes because I recently came to a realization, watching my students texting before class began: students spend hours every day reading and practicing writing — bad writing. How many hours are spent sending and reading tweets, texts and other messages in fractured language? It made me wonder: is it even possible to swim against this unstoppable tide of bad writing? One of my colleagues argues that students cannot write well because they don’t read. I think that students do read, but what they spend their time reading is not helpful in learning how to write. (That, however, is a discussion for another day.)
I’m not sure that all students can be taught to improve their writing, but I am sure that it is one of the most important things we can attempt to teach. What difference does it make if students know their subject matter and have excellent ideas if no one can get past their sloppy and disorganized writing?
Let us consider (with annoying optimism) those sad faculty refrains.
“I’m not an English teacher; I can’t be expected to correct spelling and grammar.”
But we are college professors; we know more about writing than our students do. What you could do, if you don’t want to make corrections yourself or are stymied by the magnitude of a particular writing problem (where to begin?), is circle areas for revision and require the student to submit the work to the tutoring or writing center before a grade will be given. (You can even allow several opportunities for revision, depending on your tolerance for pain.) You can designate a certain number of points in your rubric to writing mechanics, letting students know that their grades will be affected by their writing; human nature being what it is, students pay more attention when they know they will be graded.
Most important, we can all emphasize that writing is important in our disciplines and that students will be judged in the workplace on the basis of their writing skills. We can all convey the message that polished prose matters to us and to professionals in our field — so much so that we are taking points off for sloppy work.
“I don’t have time in class to teach writing — I barely have enough time to teach content.”
Do you have time to assign minute papers at the beginning or end of each class, asking students to summarize three things they learned, or pose a question related to the day’s work, or answer one question based on the previous reading assignment? These papers are short and easily graded; they help students internalize and reinforce content.. They each can be worth a few points, based on quality. If assigned on a regular or irregular basis (like a pop quiz), you may even get students to keep up with the reading and pay more attention in class. Minute papers encourage students to organize their thoughts; I discovered that students who could not speak coherently in class sometimes produced thoughtful short essays. Writing can be used in many ways to learn content and improve fluency and writing proficiency.
“Why should students be penalized for bad writing if they get the correct answer?”
Bcuz omg in the workplace they will be penalized for it. Ignoring student errors is like ignoring the piece of spinach in someone’s teeth; it may seem kind not to say anything, but no one really benefits. We can assign more writing in our courses, but if it is never graded, it may improve fluency but not accuracy — and confirm bad writing habits. Take a guess: over four years, what percentage of written assignments at your institution is graded for writing mechanics as well as content?
“Mine isn’t supposed to be a ‘W’ course, so I’ll leave the writing to others.”
Leaving WAC to others is like leaving voting to others. If WAC is viewed as an institutional playbook, it implies that everyone is part of the team and plays a position. All courses should be writing courses with a small w if not a big W; that is the only way to convey the message that what students learn in Composition 101 is relevant to success in their upper-level psychology course or business minor. Furthermore, since each discipline has its own rhetoric, it is particularly important for students to practice the specific types of writing they will be asked to produce in their careers. They will not be exposed to professional writing in their first-year seminars and English composition courses.
“There is no way to work writing into the subject matter of my course.”
Physicists, pathologists, geologists, mathematicians, dentists, lab technicians, engineers, architects, web designers, curators, forensic anthropologists and others have to explain things in writing; in an algebra course, for example, students could explain their reasoning on a given problem. No matter what the field, the ability to organize information in writing is a key professional asset, whether writing is used in a patient history, business contract or gallery brochure. We can invent ways to bring theory into practice by creating opportunities for students to write in the language of their careers.
“They hate to read and write and won’t take the time to revise their work.”
Yes, for many of our students, academic reading and writing seem to be unnatural acts. Some students, for example, seem much more themselves, much more authentic and engaged, on the soccer or football field.
One day in late autumn, on a perfect, still, golden afternoon, I stopped to watch the football team practice. The camaraderie, the sense of purpose, the sheer joy were poignant, as I pictured these young men paying mortgages and sitting in cubicles. Our job is to coach them safely into their futures, into different green pastures. Part of the playbook for that is to insist that they improve their writing skills so that their writing does not undercut their potential — even if they are not there yet, not fully ready to commit to academic work.
My other thought that afternoon was, can we make learning as engaging and authentic as sport? We each have to answer this question in our own way. In my law classes, for example, I ask students to write legal memorandums using the IRAC method: “You are a junior associate in the firm of Flake, Moss and Marbles, and your senior partner wants you to research and write a memo on the case of Madame X, who… .” The IRAC method not only structures the memo for students (they summarize the facts of the case, Identify the legal issues, cite the relevant Rules of law, Analyze the problem based on the facts and law, and draw a Conclusion on the likely outcome of the case), but allows them to role-play a real-world situation. They complete a series of these short writing exercises, with a rubric to guide them, and have several opportunities to revise their work.
For a formal or high-stakes writing assignment, scaffolding is essential; students will perform better when the structure of the writing assignment is broken down into components, which, when assembled, produce a coherent whole. The IRAC method has a built-in scaffold, but other writing assignments can be structured into a series of elements or steps. It is a mistake to assume that students know how to organize a paper or report; let them know what you are looking for, break down the structure into elements, and if you have a good sample of what you expect, hand it out. (Save your students’ work for this purpose.)
In my mediation class, students are asked to draft an agreement based on a mediation role-play they have participated in. The agreements follow a structured blueprint. They are peer-edited, revised by the student (with a writing tutor, if necessary) and then corrected by me. Students are given model agreements from past years and have three opportunities to revise their work prior to grading. Last semester, 18 of 19 students revised their work and received As on the agreements. The agreements were polished and professional and reinforced the content taught in the course.
I believe that we can devise meaningful and engaging ways for students to write in all courses; the challenge is to explain to students why they are doing it. Writing should be like driver’s ed in students’ minds -- a practical skill that is essential to their future success. Without that connection, writing will seem more like juggling: nice if you can do it, but not an essential life skill.
“I don’t have a teaching assistant and don’t want to do a lot of extra correcting — I have enough to do.”
Most of us don’t have teaching assistants, but we do have students for peer editing, and writing or tutoring centers with support staff. Some degree programs have upper-class peer mentors who can help students with writing in the discipline. Consider ways to form a writing partnership, using the resources available to you. Personally, I prefer that students take responsibility for their revisions by seeking out support services. Somehow, it doesn’t seem kosher to make all these corrections, have students incorporate them into their next draft, and then grade my own language, saying “good word choice,” “nicely written,” or “well organized!” I like to circle areas for improvement, making general comments, not specific corrections.
“Our students come to college with such poor writing skills that we can’t make up for years of bad writing.” Some students will make little progress in improving their writing, for a variety of reasons. But if we accept students into our institutions, we should provide opportunities for them to improve their writing skills, even if some students are the proverbial horses who won’t drink. If students practice and are graded on their writing in only a few courses, they learn: 1) that in most courses they can get a decent grade without decent writing, and 2) that writing is relevant only in a few contexts. If we insist that career preparation includes the process of writing and revision, and we all assign meaningful writing exercises that students can revise and improve, the rest is up to them.
“They never make the corrections I suggest; I see the same mistakes over and over again, so why bother?”
When students start losing points, they tend to sit up and take notice. I’ve found that many mistakes are careless ones — what I call a document dump, turning in a first draft with no proofreading. If you hand back a draft and deduct points for writing errors, you will see more effort to correct those mistakes. Why should students devote time to an ungraded exercise when they can spend their time on something that will affect their grades? If sloppy writing has no impact on their grades, it makes sense for students not to internalize your corrections or prioritize revisions.
“They’re seniors, and they still can’t write!”
If we can agree about the value of a WAC playbook, not just in theory but in our daily practice; find ways to weave writing into all of our courses, not as busywork but as a meaningful part of the content we teach; assess student writing and promote it as an essential career skill; and allow students to revise their work, since revision is the heart and soul of the writing process, we are less likely to encounter seniors who have not practiced or improved their writing skills over four years. Our playbook should read that all courses, from now on, are writing courses with a small w.
Ellen Goldberger is director of the Honor Scholars Program and teaches law, leadership and conflict resolution courses at Mount Ida College.