Thursday, January 11, 2018

On teaching writing

First, a warning.

This is not a formal, silver-tongued treatise on composition pedagogy. This post is based purely on personal observations and experiences. I have no data to offer. I am also aware there are many counterpoints to what I'm about to write. I will try to address a few of them, but by no means all of them as there are no doubt many I have yet to consider. What follows is just a snapshot of my thinking at the present time. In other words, this isn't headed to Cross Talk in Comp Theory anytime soon. Here goes...

I am now a mechanic.

"See what you got there is a comma gumming up your flow. It's conjoining two independent clauses into what we in the biz call a 'comma splice.' Now, there's a couple things I can do, like pop a conjunction in there. Oh and this whole paragraph needs to move up to the top of the second page. See? Now it fits. So we're going to go ahead and take a look at your APA style now..."

In a "straight out of the can" template for a First Year Basic Composition class, one instructs by giving grammar drills, model essays to read, and then working through a sequence of standard academic genres. Usually that means a softball personal narrative at first, maybe a little compare and contrast, then moving on to argument, and finally research and citation. At times it's like a math class and it's a rather tedious experience for both professor and student.

I am reminded of something I once heard said about Zen. "You can't teach Zen," they said. "You teach Zen by teaching something else, like archery or changing a car's oil."

That is my current thinking on teaching writing.

When I taught at Saint Joseph's College, I felt that I did my very best teaching of writing not in English, but in the Core Program. For the uninitiated, I might be here for a while trying to explain Core, but the TL;DR is that Core was an interdisciplinary humanities curriculum. Each semester of Core corresponded to a different era in the human story. Freshmen year was one class on contemporary issues and then a class linking those issues to revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment and the 19th Century. Sophomore year started out with the Sumerians and went up until the Renaissance. In these classes, there was a constant cycle of read, discuss, and write.

The discussion of readings generated ideas. Students would then respond to writing prompts by thinking through those ideas ("prewriting") and then express them in written word. As part of writing instruction, we would of course pause to take a look at, say, "how to argue a point." The student would then follow the method and write out her ideas.

I did my best teaching of writing when I taught something else.

My gut is telling me that when essay form and function are the focal points of a semester-long class, everybody just starts to check out. I am thinking that it is more pedagogically effective to have the student focus first on a topic or issue and then see writing as a tool with which to engage that issue. Now, for the objections.

"But don't students need to know the format and discourse of an argument or a research paper or (fill in the blank)?"
Of course they do. We did that in Core, but in a sort of "backdoor" way. In the course Contemporary Situation, for example, students would generate their own opinions on a subject such as poverty, racism, or climate change via reading and discussion. They would then offer these ideas supported by evidence. To do this, we went over the form of argument. But the mechanics of that genre were not the focus of the class. The students' minds were focused first on bigger, weightier issues and the form and function of genre were covered as a tool with which to express those ideas, not as the subject of entire semester of class time.
What sounds more interesting...
"I'm taking a class on Humanity in the Universe"
"I'm in a Basic Comp class"?

"What about grammar? Isn't grammar important?"
As much as I have become a proponent of descriptive grammar, it does of course go without saying that to successfully navigate academic discourse, one must adhere to a standard of grammar. It is indeed important. I believe this can be addressed contextually. Any good writing curriculum has the essential component of revision. Rather than worksheets and going through rote grammar (yes, it still happens at the college level), get after the grammar issues by working on them through revision. In the "living laboratory" of revision, common grammar errors will show themselves and you can work through them together as a class. Show grammar correction as a tool in revision, not simply something to be memorized and spat back out.

"If the writing class has a pre-determined subject, doesn't that take away the student's ability to write about whatever she wants?"
Up until now, I believed that allowing students to select their own writing topics would enhance the learning process. Wouldn't you be a more engaged writer if you were passionate, or at least interested in, the subject? Sometimes, this does indeed work.
I have been surprised at how often it doesn't.
"Can't you just assign what we're supposed to write about?" I invariably have had a student ask. "I have no idea what to say."
"Don't you have interests?" I'll counter-ask.
"Not really."
So what ends up happening, especially for arguments, is that students Google "essay topics" or "controversial issues." Then I get deluged with the same, repetitive essays on vaccines, gun control, steroids, and legalizing marijuana.
What if we required the students to engage their mind differently and think about big ideas, cross-disciplinary ones, and still taught good writing? To me, that's a big win all around. Plus, it would still be possible for students to write about their own interests. It just takes a somewhat flexible writing prompt. Besides, "interdisciplinary" study should allow for students to connect their interests with the subject at hand, no matter how "frivolous" or "pedestrian" the interests might seem to the tweedy jackets of academia (that's a whole other subject for another time.)

I'm probably not saying anything all that revolutionary. After all, SJC had this approach, so there are undoubtedly other higher ed institutions doing the same (though not quite the same as SJC as no one had what we had).

Anyway, those are my pedagogical thoughts at this late hour. They will undoubtedly undergo revision with time...just like any other writing.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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