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.

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