Teaching Writing

I’m in the middle of reading my sixteen writing students’ final papers for this semester. In general, I think the predominant 20th century model of higher education—students gathering in one location at a designated time to listen to a lecture—is hopelessly obsolete. When I was an undergrad I had the good fortune of having several professors who inspired me to read, think, write, and in the end learn more than I ever would have on my own. Despite that admission, I did my most important studying and learning in the Powell or Undergraduate library stacks. Head buried in book, analyzing others’ ideas, noting patterns, grappling with abstract concepts, mulling over papers I’d later write on a typewriter.

My first class, on the first Monday in October 1980, was memorable. Dude, I said to myself since I didn’t know anyone, that’s Kenny Fields (Milwaukee Bucks). And Don Rogers (Cleveland Browns before he overdosed) and Kevin Nelson (USFL). The best first year bball player and two of the best football players in my small writing seminar, what are the odds? Coolest full-length mink coats I’d ever seen. Wait a minute, did she say “Remedial Composition?”

I had been a mediocre high school student and I figured someone in admissions had made a mistake by accepting me, but damn, “Remedial Composition?”

Long story short, I had a great teacher, a no-nonsense, hands-on editor who taught me to write succinctly. Through hard work and a healthy fear of failure, I made genuine strides in just ten weeks. I wrote lots of papers throughout my first year since I was in a three-course Western Civ sequence. I was catching up to my peers pretty quickly. Early in my second year, in a 150-200 student Latin American History class the prof, who was pretty famous for getting under Ronald Reagan’s skin on the U.S.’s Latin American policy, read my name aloud for writing one of the most outstanding papers during one unit. In terms of my confidence, that was more significant than anyone could have realized.

But I digress. The class size at my university for writing seminars is about fifteen students too large. Teaching writing requires intensive one-on-one work. In their last paper, the students were asked to summarize what they learned about the course theme (Teaching’s Challenges and Rewards) and to describe the ways in which their writing did or didn’t improve. Most improved a lot and became more confident. I was disappointed when one admitted to me he was less confident. When I probed why he said because he had never had anyone read his work as closely as I had, and as a result, he learned he had a lot more work to do than he had previously realized. I can live with that.

Unfortunately, I learned too late in another students’ final paper that, despite always concluding with three strengths and three next steps, my careful reading and extensive commenting overwhelmed her and left her discouraged. I feel as if I failed her. She earned her best grade on that paper because it was an authentic, courageous, semi-subtle skewering of her professor.

We need more hybrid higher education models where students spend some of time interacting and learning on-line and some interacting and working on group projects in person. Writing is a process that will prove exceptionally difficult to teach on-line at virtual universities. It requires a student and what the Brits refer to as a tutor sitting shoulder to shoulder, reading, editing, talking, revising, and repeating, over and over.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Writing

  1. Learning to write, preferably in several languages, is probably the single most important skill that people can obtain. It astounds me that 1) it seems to be put in second place in the educational debate after math, and 3) on the national scene it is divorced from reading. Schools need to show annual yearly progress in reading but not writing. What??????

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