Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Writing: Part Three

One of the real challenges is trying to get students to think of writing as more than an academic exercise.  They see writing papers as tied to getting a grade, and that is tied to writing to show a professor what you (kind of) know.  Summary is a big part of this.  They are tuned to demonstrating that they have read the material.  They are not very keen on the idea of showing that they have thought about the reading.  That part of writing is alien to many and intimidating to most.

How DO we try to get students to think differently about writing.  This week I have tried to re-introduce them to the process of writing and suggested that writing is an heuristic task, one that gives you a chance to try out various ideas and pushes you to think and even change your mind as you watch your ideas gain shape.  I talked to them about purpose and tried to complicate their understanding of purpose to take their own learning into account.  I spoke to them about the need to consider how they want to present themselves, what kind of persona do they hope to adapt.  To be honest, it seemed at times, that all of this was more than they wanted to think about.  Finally, I suggested that writing is a collaborative act.  The act of writing may be solitary, but the preparation to write and constant evaluation of your draft (another word that many did not want to hear) is more effective when you talk to others about what you are thinking and writing.  It's not cheating to talk to others while you are trying to write.  It's actually how writers find the value in their work and find and tune their voice.

But none of this seemed to crack their approach to writing as purely academic.  They weren't particularly comfortable (let alone confident) in using writing to find out what you know, what you don't know, what you think you know, what you have to say, to whom, and how.  Rather, it was all rather new and mysterious to (many of) them.  To crack some of this resistance, I tried to use small peer groups as a starting point.

But what do you say when a student asks you what it means when an instructor in the writing program tells him that his paper received a grade of LP?  What happens when students are more interested in conforming to the format of thesis statement and then body of a paper (again, the 5 paragraph theme model)?  I suspect that some of my students are facing a new model for writing, and these question show the limits of their experience (so far, anyway).  What they want is to get the damned paper written.  For many of them that means starting with hours and not days left to deadline and pushing through to the end:  writing is utilitarian rather than reflective.  Maybe that conflict is a place to start.

Changing our institutional focus is another.  The college needs to join the 20th century (let alone the 21st) and create a full and dedicated writing center.  With that, and with an appropriate focus on training tutors and staff to handle writing in varying disciplines, it could be possible to set aside the overly prescriptive and stodgy writing class to introduce students to writing as exploration rather than regurgitation.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Writing: Part Two

"Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work."
                                                                                    Ezra Pound, "A Retrospect"

Last time I suggested that teachers of writing bring authenticity to a lesson when they write on their own.   Being engaged in the work of writing gives those who teach experience navigating the difficult relationships that exist among writers, their subjects, and their audience.  That rhetorical triangle is basic whenever we sit with pen and paper (or keyboard and screen -- in any size or shape).  Anyone listening to advice from a writing instructor has a right to expect that that instructor knows something of the writing process.  Writing instruction is very different from interpreting literature.  At times reading and writing are related and work together, but the act of writing introduces and requires different strategies and expectations.  We can summarize a plot and talk of symbols and metaphors based on our experiences reading and our (often learned and, therefore, artificially developed) ability to interpret texts.  That is very different from sizing up an audience or trying to create a full argument that will somehow be accepted by a variety of readers. 

So.  I am arguing that teachers of reading bring a very different skill set to their work.  And it's not reasonable to believe (or to suggest by how we hire and promote individuals in the academy) that interpreters of literature can teach writing or, for that matter, that a content specialist is able to teach with nuance and sensitivity the requirements of writing to a peer or general audience).  Unless, of course, they write.  Therein lies a complicated (and sometimes too simplistic) argument for the link between scholarship (here meaning writing for an audience of one's peers) and teaching.

One part of this argument is that writing forces a "scholar" to fine tune an argument and arrange clear and useful discussions into a full essay.  That pushes an individual to understand content and then translate that content for a wider audience.  Unless you are trying to create something to be read by peers (or by those who know more and better things than you do) it is likely that you are not sufficiently challenged.  If you are writing to an audience of novices, it's easier to get away with less than stellar thinking and less than complete control over material (I understand the snottiness in that remark:  a specialist who writes for a general audience faces a whole other set of demands).

The point to writing within a discipline is to comes to terms with what you know and to bring that knowledge to readers with a hope that your work will help create a different understanding of a topic or idea.  It's not really about putting yourself on display.  Nor is it about writing to demonstrate that you have some facility with the topic.  That should end once you complete courses and requirements.

On a deeper level the struggle to put ideas into writing (or the demonstration of a struggle with ideas, which really is a good deal more interesting) is what ties us to our students.  We should bring our experiences as writers to them to show how writing works -- how it works both to demonstrate knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, how to create new knowledge by writing our way to see it.  If we don't struggle with all of that, how can we in good conscience stand in front of them and instruct them on the fine points of writing.  If the last thing I wrote was 5 or 10 or 20 years ago, I have no business teaching writing.  Further, if I haven't really challenged myself by submitting my writing to an editor or editors or to a reading public (which is the only way to demonstrate that you are serious about writing and being part of a discipline's conversation), I have little authority to judge my students' work.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Writing and Teaching Writing

During class yesterday I handed back papers to my students.  These are first year students, and the papers they wrote were tied to a summer reading assignment (James McBride's The Color of Water).  The assignment was meant to get them to think about the book and what ideas it might prompt.  Students were given a set of questions, and they wrote in response to those questions.  We (the instructors) collected the papers on the first day of class and were supposed to give them a close reading and give students some idea of how we would evaluate their writing.

Of course, students wanted to know what grade they might get based on the work.  I didn't give a grade; instead, I did a close reading of each paper and made both corrections (grammar, punctuation, etc.) and asked content-based questions or asked for added interpretation.  I think the students were, in all, fairly surprised by the amount of comments and the close reading.  I did tell them that none of them would have received an "F."  I also told them that none of them would have earned an "A."  So it goes.

As we talked through the exercise, I tried, though, to introduce them to an added dimension -- I write too, I told them, and I often have to take the criticism and commentary of editors into account as I try to work pieces into publishable form.  Writing is not easy.  Ever.  And it's always focused on getting a point across to a reader.  Whether you are a first year student in college or a long-time professor, you are always judged by how well you establish a point and how well you get that across to readers.  "You look for a grade," I told them, "I try to get published.  It's all a version of the same process.  And it's hard work."

I don't know if they believed me.  I told them I would share with them some of my writing when it comes back to me from an editor (I just recently submitted a long review essay on Mark Twain for American Literary Scholarship) so they could see what kind of comments I get.  This could prove folly.  But I want them to understand that writing isn't formula based and it's not going to succeed all of the time.  You struggle to write well at 19; you struggle as hard (maybe even harder) when you are 56.  (As an aside, I often wonder, too, how faculty members teach writing don't put themselves through the process -- how can you teach writing if you don't write?  But that's a subject for another time.)

In the end, I am trying to teach writing as a process.  This is my attempt to counter the lock-step and, I think, misguided attempt to teach all first year students here to use classical rhetoric.  And I want my students to think about writing as a way to communicate ideas and not just summarize some canonical text that they are being forced to read (again, part of our first year writing program).  Not all of my students will be excellent writers.  Maybe ever.  But they might learn the discipline of writing and learn to be self-critical instead of smug.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Deeper Read

For some time now an argument has been going on about what students need to understand the reading they are asked to do (the kind of background knowledge they need -- a la E. D. Hirsch) -- this has become a question because of a course here at Elmira College called Freshman Studies:  When World's Collide (the first of two courses first year students take; each is supposed to offer material that helps students gain some perspective on college-level learning).  The first book that students read for the fall term was James McBride's The Color of Water.  During a discussion with colleagues, some expressed dismay that students were unfamiliar with the history of Jim Crow in the US, a bit of information that would really enhance their reading of the experience of McBride's mother (or of his father and step father) navigating personal relationships during the 1930s.  "What are they being taught before we get them?" was one lament.

In today's class I tried to approach the question by showing students that the "lesson" in the memoir was not so simple as "with hard work anyone can succeed."  Students are prone to reading with that kind of optimism and with that kind of acceptance of the "American Dream."  The reality, of course, is a good deal more complicated.  And it requires that we bring a range of information to their attention.  And we need to do that and not merely bemoan that fact that they may be less sophisticated than we want them to be.

There are two issues here:  first, we have a responsibility to introduce students to the complexity of social and historical context.  I tried to do this by showing my students extreme examples of Jim Crow using Without Sanctuary (a website devoted to the collection of postcards of American lynchings from the early years of the 20th century).  That visual record is truly disturbing and can shock us out of a simple interpretation of the American dream.  The fact of the cards and the history behind them deepens the reading of McBride's commentary of American race relations.

The second issue is that sometimes WE need to provide the background material to help students read carefully and deeply.  That is, in fact, part of a college instructor's responsibility.  If our students arrived knowing everything they needed know, they wouldn't need to be in college and we would not be necessary.  It's our position to teach them and to lead them to a broader understanding.  Simply to complain about what students don't know borders on a kind of laziness.  It is a way to avoid taking responsibility for helping students (and students not only of traditional age but also returning students) see the world.

The first step in any classroom is to figure out where your students are -- what they know that can help them unpack the reading and what they need to know.  It helps to see the whole experience as a process, and it's best to begin slowly to build a foundation of content knowledge and students' confidence that learning is as much about having knowledge as about realizing that there is a good deal more to know.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Academic Juggling

It's not quite keeping balls in the air, but once an academic year begins, the real challenge is to keep multiple demands in focus -- once classes start, the question is how to keep teaching, committee work, reading, writing, editing all going.  This is on my mind since I have just completed a draft of a long review chapter (on scholarship produced on Mark Twain during 2009).  The draft is about 34 pages long.  It needs to be about 25 or so.  And, of course, the sooner this is done the better for the editor.  And for me.

Composing a review chapter is much like building a wall.  Each essay or book takes on a particular shape and size.  My job is to fit the individual parts together to form some kind of integrated whole.  Part of the challenge, of course, is just reading all that stuff (it takes about a summer of consistent reading).  Next is making sure to capture the author's point and writing a solid paragraph or two describing and summarizing and evaluating whether the author has been successful getting that point across.  Next comes the draft, which requires linking similarly themed discussions or at least pieces about the same piece of writing (connecting essays about Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee or a short story, for example) and making sure that there is at least some kind of "flow" between major combinations.  I never worry about length at this point.  It's easier to cut material than to go back and find new material to add.  The final stage is editing.  I will begin that tomorrow.  It will require some time to go through the 30 or so pages and to make sure that the individual paragraphs and links between and among critical works make sense.  I actually enjoy the work of editing.

The key now will be strike some kind of balance so that I can meet all the individual obligations for the start of an academic year -- and still do the necessary editing work.  Juggling is the one metaphor that makes sense here, and I have to keep in mind the amount of time I need and the amount of time I have.

None of this, of course, is ever really part of a public discussion of academic work.  Recent blasts aimed at those with tenure demonstrate a lack of understanding of the kind and extent of work that is often part of an academic career (since recent complaints come from academics themselves there is something strange about this self-indictment -- perhaps a kind of guilt over having a job during difficult economic times).  I will pay more attention to this once the year fully begins -- and, of course, once I get past the editing of the review.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Duels -- Redux

I am searching for a quote to use as an epigram for an essay about Sam Clemens -- searching brought me to this, which brought me back to the earlier post on swordplay and duels.  Here is Clemens in his autobiography:

"I never had anything to do with duels since [his time in Nevada].  I thoroughly disapprove of duels.  I consider them unwise, and I know they are dangerous.  Also, sinful.  If a man should challenge me now, I would go to that man and take him kindly and forgivingly by the hand and lead him to a quiet retired spot, and kill him." (Mark Twain's Own Autobiography, p. 77)

The snap at the end is the key....