Panel 1: “The Big Picture: Approaches to Teaching Writing”

I have no answers. –Sharren

Our first panel discussion about Issues in Teaching Writing took place on a blizzardy December afternoon in 2013, late in the day. Many colleagues came, despite the dark–they came from English, from Journalism, from the department of General Education, from Public Relations, from Writing and Learning Services. Everyone looked tired; it was late in the term. Everyone was genial.

We sat around a truly massive oval table in a meeting room with fogged glass windows, as the snow accumulated on the roads outside, and listened with interest as four faculty members from English told us how they think about teaching writing. The room crackled: each one was a magician. We almost never get to hear this stuff revealed in any detail. Each one wove such a different kind of magic.

"Fire Writing" by naturalturn (2009) -- CC licensed free to use and share
“Fire Writing” by naturalturn (2009) — CC licensed free to use and share

Sharren spoke first. A deeply experienced teacher who spends hours meeting one-on-one with students to workshop their writing, she described a pragmatic teaching that attends carefully to students’ needs. What she offered recalled, for me, the theory and pedagogy of teaching “basic writing” for university students–a pedagogical tradition that wants to support students in acquiring skills of error-free, recognizably-structured writing–skills that bestow a crucial confidence, and the equally-crucial mark of the mature member of the educated class (see, for instance, the work of Mina Shaughnessy, Andrea Lunsford, or David Bartholomae; see Deborah Mutnick and Steve Lamos’s chapter “Basic Writing”). Her teaching starts wherever her students are: What do they need to know, at the start of a term, at the start of a university career? What do they already know?

Well, not very much–yet. They know very very little about critical reading, Sharren pointed out; they have few research skills. And they know it: “They don’t feel good about their lack of ability, have no confidence. But I can guarantee that they’ll be better at writing by the end of the term.” How does she do it? Sharren offered a musical metaphor: “I believe in a really prescriptive approach. I teach the notes,” so that they’ll eventually be able to play the tune. She teaches basic, useful forms, ones that give students confidence: the 5-paragraph essay; the paragraph itself. But she also introduces them to the rhetorical strategies that are valuable in a university environment, such as the ability to summarize and respond to another writer’s ideas. She uses Graff and Birkenstein’s important textbook, They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing–“it is our duty,” Sharren feels, “to help students enter the conversation. And when we do, they’re very appreciative.”

* * *

My notes from that evening tell me that Ivan spoke third, but I remember his account as following Sharren’s, because it contrasted hers so distinctly. And yet there were resonances between them–harmonies sounding around the idea of the academic conversation. An American literature scholar invested in theory and a critique of the biopolitics of AIDS medicine, Ivan’s approach to teaching composition is influenced by his own story of learning to write for his academic studies: “I learned to write on the job,” he said, without any formal instruction in how on earth to do it. Remembering the rigors of that experience, and noticing how swiftly undergraduate students are asked to read and work with peer-reviewed academic essays, he sets himself the task of preparing them for that work. What do we do with these strange essays?, he asks his classes. How can we identify their arguments and incorporate those conversations into our own writing? Students build their answers to these questions by looking closely at the features that makes this type of writing so stylistically and rhetorically distinctive, Ivan explained, and they investigate why academic writers style their writing the way they do.

Ivan and his students read Canadian researcher Janet Giltrow’s (and her co-authors’) brilliant textbook–Academic Writing: An Introduction (now in its 3rd edition)–alongside academic essays, as they acquire for themselves the quintessential academic genres of citation and summary, and as they begin to identify the connections between different scholars’ arguments, and the gaps in current research where there might be room for a new voice to speak up. His approach, based on Giltrow’s, is evidently informed by New Rhetorical genre theory (see, for instance, Anis Bawarshi and Mary-Jo Reiff’s chapter on “Rhetorical Genre Studies“): Ivan deliberately introduces his students to the university, as distinct social setting and discourse community with its own goals, motivations, and recognized activities; together, they learn how to write in ways that will allow them to participate in those activities as members of that community.

Gradually, the creative writing students started saying, Yuck.– Randy

It was Randy who went second. He too uses Giltrow’s text with his students (who tackle it with him in a second-year Intermediate Writing class). But what he wanted to tell us about was the experiment he tried with one particular class, when–it turned out–every single one of the students identified as being creative writers.

Now Randy is a creative writer himself. He teaches literary theory; he teaches literary genres like science fiction. Like his fellow panelists, he thinks hard about teaching composition. But I remember asking Randy to be on this panel especially because he’s a gutsy teacher. He tries to put his students in situations where they’ll feel things. Where stuff will really happen.

So in this class, Randy told us, he decided to start the term off really straight-faced. THIS is the standard conventional academic essay, he would say, pointing to examples. THIS is how it must be written, he would say, pointing to Giltrow’s textbook. One thing we must do, as academic writers, is soak up all the interesting information you’re trying to convey in your sentence into noun phrases. Big long abstract dense high-level heavily-loaded noun phrases. Writing in such phrases forces you to talk about the world in an academic way: it allows you to categorize and to classify, to prioritize, to place objects in causal relationships to each other. “It gives your writing,” Randy recounted to us, “the appearance of complexity.” THIS is how it’s done. A nominal style gives you power in the academic domain. Write like that.

Eventually his students rebelled. It was beautiful. Their critique bubbled up out of the pressure-cooker of his deadpan demand for conformity. Academic style, his students protested, was “a static, clunky, chunky, constipated form”–and it was untruthful about the world. The world moves, they decided. It is actually a place of momentum: things happen; they don’t just exist to be categorized. The students, Randy told us, decided to place their writerly faith in the verb.

It was marvelous to hear this story, of course. It was a story of the stage being set for students to discover, for themselves, both the constraining contours of academic style and what longstanding wisdom knows about writerly craft–good writers write muscular, active sentences. Randy’s story reminded me of editing theory and of authoritative discussions of writing as practice. (He’s since pointed me to Robert Miles and his co-authors’ excellent textbook, Prose Style: A Contemporary Guide.)

* * *

“I don’t do any of these things,” Richard laughed, as he opened his presentation, the fourth and final one on the panel. He marveled with us at how complicated writing is: how is it that so many of these disparate strategies work?

Richard’s a poet, a literary critic, a reader and theorist of comic books and pop culture and–totally–a teacher of writing. He speaks ringingly, and articulates an astutely postmodern sort of humanism until I find I could march out of the room following him wherever he might lead. It was a good thing he went last.

Richard’s pedagogy fits into what they call the “expressive” tradition, influenced, for example, by the classic work of Peter Elbow, and it’s dynamite: “teaching writing,” Richard reminded us, “is about teaching living.” It’s about encouraging the students into voice. They’ve been alienated from their own voices, reading authorities on the page who sound nothing like themselves–so they don’t recognize how much they know, how much they have to say. Teaching writing, then, is about treating students like writers and allowing them to find themselves on the page. Through techniques of freewriting, of listening to one another’s voices, of workshopping, of hearing non-judgmental responses to their work, Richard’s students learn to hear their own voices as authoritative and knowledgeable. This, he explained, allows them to “become powerful like us.”

…Phew. It was a remarkable conversation.

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