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.

No comments:

Post a Comment