What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

Over the past decade, my home university has adopted and implemented a new curriculum that is, in part, built on shifting to a first year seminar (FYS) concept (instead of the traditional first year composition model commonly known as ENG 101 and 102).

In the most recent three years, I have chaired the First Year Seminar Faculty Oversight Committee and been named Faculty Director, First Year Seminars—all of which has led to my role on a newly formed Task Force to consider how to revise (possibly significantly) our commitment to two first years seminars with one being writing intensive (FYW).

While the university is addressing a number of curricular issues related to the FYS program, a central concern involves the teaching of writing in the FYW—specifically issues related to direct writing instruction (including direct instruction on scholarly citation) and the consistency of the writing-intensive element across all FYWs.

Several elements impact these issues and our possible resolutions: (i) the university does not have a formal writing center/institute, (ii) the university doesn’t have an explicit or formal writing program or stated goals/commitments, and (iii) the commitment to the FYS program included the assumption that all faculty across all disciplines are equipped to teach writing.

I have been teaching writing and researching what that means for over thirty years—the first 18 as a high school English teacher and then at the undergraduate and graduate levels over much of those years, including teaching future teachers of English to teach writing. A number of my scholarly articles, chapters, and books also address teaching writing.

And while I learned how to teach writing painstakingly over those wonderful and challenging two decades of teaching high school, I cannot overemphasize what I have learned about the challenges of supporting quality writing instruction in the last three years—highlighted, I think, by coming against the range of insufficient to misguided understanding of what we mean when we call for teaching writing.

What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean?

At the risk of oversimplifying, I can answer this question by how I address students who want to learn to write poetry, a wonderful and impossible task that is a subset of the wonderful and impossible task of teaching writing (to which you should read the glorious and hilarious Teaching the Unteachable by Kurt Vonnegut).

Step one, I explain, is read, read, read poetry—preferably immersing yourself into entire volumes by poets you enjoy and want to emulate.

Step two, I add, is to write, write, write poetry.

And then, step three is to share those drafts with a poet/teacher who can give you substantive feedback—wherein we find ourselves at “teaching writing.”

If those students follow my guidelines, and then send me poems for my feedback, what do I do?

Central to teaching writing, I must stress, is both the authority of the teacher as well as the attitude of that teacher about writing, which I have proposed for the Task Force as follows:

  • Faculty who recognize that all aspects of writing are a process and that undergraduate students continue to struggle with and need guided practice with formal written expression (including the conventions of the disciplines, citation, and grammar/mechanics).

To teach writing, then, you must not be caught in the trap of thinking anyone can be finished learning to write and the concurrent trap of thinking that direct writing instruction is some sort of remediation (since that implies a lockstep sequence of skills that must be acquired).

For example, one challenge we are facing at my university has been brought to my attention by a librarian who works with FYS/W faculty and receives student referrals from the Academic Discipline Committee. She noted that a number of students were being labeled academically dishonest because they lacked the background in proper citation and that faculty were not teaching citation, but simply labeling it incorrect.

This issue with citation, again, is a subset of not understanding that teaching writing is ongoing for all students (and any writers)—not something to master at a set point during formal education.

The teaching of writing includes, as I note above about teaching poetry, creating the conditions within which a student can learn to write and then managing the sort of feedback and opportunities to revise/draft that leads to growth as a writer.

Creating conditions includes reading and examining a wide variety of texts by genre, mode, and media—and that examination must be not only traditional literary analysis but reading like a writer. Reading like a writer entails close consideration of what a text says and how, while navigating the purposeful relationship between the genre and form the writer has chosen for expression and then how the writer has and has not conformed to the conventions of those genres/forms.

Students and the teacher read an Op-Ed from The New York Times in order to confront what Op-Eds and argument tend to do as texts and how in order to determine if the claims in the Op-Ed are sound and how successful the piece ultimately is.

These conditions also include that students always use reading like a writer as a foundation for drafting original writing.

Feedback, then, becomes the element of teaching writing that is both often only what people think of as teaching writing and then the most misunderstood phase.

The primary problematic view of responding to student writing is “correcting,” which overemphasizes and misunderstands the role of conventions in writing (grammar, mechanics, usage).

What many think of as “correcting,” I would argue is editing, and thus, its priority in the teaching of writing is after we have addressed much more important aspects of text, as Lou LaBrant argued:

As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing….I would place as the first aim of teaching students to write the development of full responsibility for what they say. (p. 123)

And it is at this implication by LaBrant—responsible and important writing—that I think we must focus on what it means to teach writing.

As teachers of writing, we must give substantive feedback that encourages awareness and purpose in our students as well as prompts them in concrete ways to revise. That feedback must address the following:

  • The relationship between the genre/form students have chosen for their writing and then how effective the piece is within (or against) those conventions.
  • Purposefulness of sentence, paragraph, and form/mode creation.
  • Appropriateness and effectiveness of diction (word choice), tone, and readability (in the context of the designated audience).
  • Weight and clarity of claims (notably in the context of disciplinary, genre, and mode conventions). [As a note: novice writers tend to be claim-machines, overwhelming the reader with too many and often overstated claims, and almost no evidence or elaboration.]
  • Credibility and weight of evidence (again, tempered by the conventions of the disciplines and thus the expectations for citation).
  • Effectiveness and weight of elaboration—achieving cohesion through rhetorical and content strategies (such as detailed examples or narrative) that support the reader’s need for clarity, subordination/coordination of ideas, transition, and one or more unifying themes/theses.

Teaching writing, then, is a monumental task, one that may rightly be called impossible (as Vonnegut somewhat tongue-in-cheek claims); however, we who are tasked with teaching writing should understand the first directive above—learning to write is a process that no one can ever finish—and find solace in Henry David Thoreau (excusing the sexism of his language):

A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.

No single writing-intensive class or individual teacher should be expected to accomplish any prescribed outcome for students as writers.

Instead, the teaching of writing must be guided by the basic concepts I outlined above for teaching a student to write poetry—creating the conditions within which writing can be explored, conditions that include reading like a writer, drafting original writing, and receiving substantive feedback from a mentor.

Teaching writing has a long history of being a challenge, one recognized by LaBrant in 1953:

It ought to be unnecessary to say that writing is learned by writing; unfortunately there is need. Again and again teachers or schools are accused of failing to teach students to write decent English, and again and again investigations show that students have been taught about punctuation, the function of a paragraph, parts of speech, selection of “vivid” words, spelling – that students have done everything but the writing of many complete papers. Again and again college freshmen report that never in either high school or grammar school have they been asked to select a topic for writing, and write their own ideas about that subject. Some have been given topics for writing; others have been asked to summarize what someone else has said; numbers have been given work on revising sentences, filling in blanks, punctuating sentences, and analyzing what others have written….Knowing facts about language does not necessarily result in ability to use it. (p. 417)

Any student taking a seat in our classes deserves the patience and time necessary for teaching writing, something extremely difficult to do but possible if we can embrace its complexity and offer students, as LaBrant argues, ample opportunities to practice being writers.

Recommended

Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest, Ann M. Johns

Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms, Arthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

Inducing Students to Write (1955), Lou LaBrant

Teaching High-School Students to Write (1946), Lou LaBrant

Writing Is More than Structure (1957), Lou LaBrant

The Individual and His Writing (1950), Lou LaBrant

8 comments

  1. Pingback: What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean? | Teaching First Year Seminars
  2. Russ Walsh

    Beautifully stated, Paul. I think teachers fall into the trap of teaching the “stuff” of writing because teaching the substance of writing is so labor intensive and hard to quantify. Teaching writing is truly about helping the writer find his/her voice and then helping to shape that voice in a way that communicates effectively to others. This can only be done through the kind of intense guidance you recommend and by learning to read like a writer.

  3. Drew T.

    This is just wonderful! My first year of teaching (first years, actually, but specifically that first year) was filled with very vague guidelines, very little feedback, no conferring, and no mentor texts. I’d been lucky enough to be a good reader and even luckier to have enjoyed it enough to do it often; thus, writing felt natural to me in a way it doesn’t to everyone. Because of this, I was truly an abysmal teacher of writing. After my first year of teaching, I participated in the Spartanburg Writing Project, and over the next few years discovered authors such as Kelly Gallagher who helped me understand how those writing workshop principles–namely the principles of the mentor text and the importance of writing, writing, writing–could be grounded in the high school classroom. I’m certainly not a great teacher of writing, but I’m improving, and my students are improving along with me. I have found no greater two gifts to writing instruction than models and conferencing. No rubric, no checklist, no revision strategy, and no quick fix from a textbook can compete with those two things. We must take time with students and remember that mistakes often arise simply because they weren’t addressed preemptively. It’s so easy to fall in the trap of assessing students based on what WE know and can do rather than what they know and can do; it happens, as you said, at all levels of writing instruction, unfortunately. We must continue this push toward sound writing instruction. Thanks for writing this great piece!

  4. Ish Stabosz

    You raise some great issues here. I am particularly challenged by this statement: “No single writing-intensive class or individual teacher should be expected to accomplish any prescribed outcome for students as writers.”

    I’ve only been teaching writing for about five years (at the college level) , so I can’t say that I have your same experience, but I’m very curious to hear more about how this theory takes shape practically in a writing curriculum. Practically speaking, I have trouble imagining what the list of learning targets in a syllabus would look like if no single class can be expected to accomplish any prescribed outcome. It’s not that I disagree with you, it’s just that I have a hard time seeing how this will take shape in a structured college environment.

    I’ve got three kids, and we home school them. In particular, we are unschooling them, so I can completely agree with the fact that I don’t need to set age-dependent benchmarks for my kids’ skill development. But it seems that in the typical higher education structure of course prerequisites and curriculum maps, there has to be a point where you say before students can take course Y, they must pass course X, which requires them to be able to form a logical argument in an extended essay.

    I guess my question is have you or your task force reached a point yet where you have sketched out how this will take shape practically in real classrooms and course sequences?

  5. Pingback: What Does “Teaching Writing” Mean? | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

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