Who Can, Who Should Teach Writing?

My transition from public high school English teacher to university assistant professor overlapped with my university debating and then voting to change its core curriculum and academic calendar.

I sat in many contentious faculty meetings mostly listening as faculty held forth about the pros and cons of both the established core/calendar and the proposed core/calendar. One thing that I witnessed was that faculty are quite protective of their own disciplines—but are apt to step carelessly on disciplines outside their area of expertise.

For example, the faculty were considering dropping the traditional first-year composition approach that is taught exclusively by English faculty for a first-year seminar approach that allowed and required faculty across all disciplines to teach the writing-intensive seminars for first year students.

As someone who taught high school English for almost twenty years—most of that time spent learning the complex craft of teaching writing through trial-and-error and dedicating much of my own energy to learning how to teach writing by studying the research against my own practices—I heard faculty repeated trample the field of composition, in terms of speaking as if the field doesn’t exist as well as stating directly and indirectly that “anyone can teach writing because we all are scholars.”

Let’s jump ahead about ten years. The faculty did adopt a new core and calendar, including the first year seminar structure.

Currently, we are reconsidering the first year seminar model, and much of the motivation for that reflection is that who can and who should teach writing have become a significant problems—ones not anticipated well or addressed adequately.

A few academic years ago, due to my interest in the first year seminars and teaching writing, I was named Faculty Director, First Year Seminars in order to help provide the sort of faculty support that had been lacking.

We have a First Year Oversight Committee, but that oversight has focused primarily on approving new courses and monitoring funding for seminars—although the committee has managed faculty workshops over the summer to address course development and teaching writing.

This summer we have implemented the initial year-long Faculty Writing Fellows seminar, including 12 faculty and three seminar facilitators to begin building a purposeful approach to supporting faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.

Just as I remain in search of how to teach writing well to students of all ages (there is no finish line), I also can attest that teaching faculty at any level how to teach writing is a perpetual and nearly overwhelming struggle.

First, then, I want to highlight a couple foundational issues and questions that must be addressed when any school is considering who can and who should teach writing:

  • Initially, acknowledge that composition is a disciplinary field that is not the same as English as a discipline. In fact, many K-12 teachers and college professors with credentials/degrees in English are skilled in literary analysis, not teaching writing. As well, even when we acknowledge composition as a field, we should also recognize that it is typically a marginalized field. That marginalization includes assigning new/beginning teachers to teach composition and so-called “remedial”writing as a sort of gauntlet they must endure to earn better course assignments. In higher education, adjuncts and teaching assistants are disproportionately staffing the teaching of writing also.
  • The larger questions of who can and who should teach writing are much more complex than many schools admit. All educators at every educational level have attained a degree of literacy that equips them for the ability (can) to teach writing, but flipping that can to should is where schools often make a fundamental mistake. Faculty charged with teaching writing purposefully but without a formal background in composition must want to teach writing and then must receive sustained and organized instruction and support in how to teach writing.

If schools committed to writing across the curriculum, expanding writing-intensive courses, or embracing “anyone can teach writing” manage the two hurdles above, however, several new problems are sure to exist:

  • Faculty without composition backgrounds tend to view “teaching writing” as correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage “errors.” This dynamic requires establishing common language among faulty teaching writing (for example, do not say “writing” to mean “grammar”) and then couching that common terminology in a robust examination of linguistics that confronts the tension between prescriptive grammarians and descriptive grammarians. That tension typically can be predicted in that the general public and educators without composition backgrounds skew toward prescriptive grammar (rules-based) while composition best practices tend to be driven by a descriptive grounding in linguistics (conventions-based).
  • Without addressing that tension above, then, I am convinced the process to expand who can and should teach writing is doomed to failure. How to accomplish that, however, is another matter entirely. That tension is likely to manifest itself in a trap: Faculty without composition backgrounds will often note that they feel unprepared to teach “writing” (which is code for correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage), but when they are introduced to best practice in teaching writing and descriptive linguistics, they balk. The result is: “Teach me how to teach writing, but I don’t want to hear about how to teach writing, I want to correct my students’ horrible grammar.”
  • That trap means the first step to learning how to teach writing is giving faculty the opportunity to investigate their own attitudes toward language, and then to invite them to set aside, as Connie Weaver calls it, the “error hunt.” Teaching writing begins with having a rich and healthy attitude about language, and then coming to understand that teaching writing is not simply teaching grammar and that the question is not if we address grammar, mechanics, and usage, but how, when, and why (and that the why is to foster students as writers, not grammarians).
  • Even those of us with formal backgrounds in teaching writing face a significant hurdle shared with many educators without that formal background: It is very difficult to teach writing in the context of best practices (for example, writing workshop) if the teacher her/himself has not been a participant in best practices such as a writing workshop. One of the most powerful elements of the National Writing Project’s professional development model has been summer workshops that provide just that experience. Faculty designated for teaching writing must be provided some extended opportunities to examine themselves as writers, participating in writing workshop and the practices they will bring to their own students.
  • All of the problems above should also be within a formal mission and concurrent goals for writing shared within the school/college and among faculty. Both faculty and students are likely to be more successful if everyone has core goals to maintain a manageable focus for teaching writing. However, that mission and those goals must acknowledge that teaching writing is never a fixed outcome. In other words, no single course or teacher/professor can or should be expected to produce a “finished” writer. Even so-called “basic” skills of writing are nearly impossible to identify and master at predictable points along formal education.

Who can teach writing? Nearly any educator motivated to teach students as writers and then provided the necessary support to become a writing teacher.

Who should teach writing? See above.

As a writer and teacher primarily focused on teaching writing, I am in the process of both and daily aware that writing and teaching writing are always a process of becoming.

Few human endeavors are as complex and important as being a writer or being a teacher of writing, and thus, asking who can and who should teach writing remains just as complex.

See Also

To Grammar or Not to Grammar: That Is Not the Question!, Connie Weaver, Carol McNally, and Sharon Moerman

11 comments

  1. Joyce Reynolds-Ward

    Yes, yes, YES. I love teaching composition and feel it needs to go hand-in-hand with teaching reading comprehension in the 3-8 grade levels–but composition is SO downplayed. Plus many literacy “experts” don’t know squat about teaching writing. Unless someone’s gone through the workshop process and puts thought into their own writing, then they’re really not a good teacher of writing. BTDT with too many Language Arts teachers as the sped push-in teacher….

  2. Laura Gibbs

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for this blog post; I will be sharing it with anyone at my school who I think might be willing to take a moment to read it. I’ve been a long-term reader of your blog, but I think this may be the first time I have left a comment, so let me also thank you for all your other great posts. You are a great inspiration to me, and I can really connect with this post in particular as I am a writing teacher who became a writing teacher by accident, self-taught along the way… but now I cannot imagine anything more satisfying! Some thoughts on my practice here:
    The Shift from Teaching Content to … Teaching Writers
    http://anatomy.lauragibbs.net/2015/04/the-shift-from-teaching-content-to.html
    Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: Who Can, Who Should Teach Writing? | deanramser
  4. deanramser

    Excellent! I too experienced the disconnect between high school and college courses when I transition from teaching English to teaching composition. Thank you for articulating the challenges.

  5. sethkahn

    I’m a PhD in Composition/Rhetoric (with no degree in English otherwise) who works in a university English Department. This post is one that everybody should see. Teaching writing isn’t just another annoying thing people have to do, and neither is it something people should expect to be able to do without any training at all.

    Thanks for saying it.

  6. Marilyn J. Hollman

    I like the clarity of the assertions.
    This has implications for the preparations of English teachers whether elementary or graduate school.
    So, every freshman at Furman has the writers workshop experience.?.

    • plthomasedd

      Several common experiences are recommended, but we have no mechanism for “requiring” them or monitoring if all students have those experiences (including workshop).

  7. Mary Wendt

    Well said, except the answer could seriously be simplified: at the university level, only those with an expertise in any field should be teaching, and that goes for writing as well. Only those with degrees in some kind of composition/rhetoric/writing degree should be teaching writing. Period. My PhD is in Rhetoric and Writing, my masters in Composition and Communication, so I should be teaching writing. The Shakespeare scholar should not be teaching writing any more than I should be teaching Shakespeare. Could I fake my way through teaching Shakespeare? For sure. I have a bachelor’s in English and took several courses in Shakespeare. But there are experts in Shakespeare–and they will teach it better. Being able to write well does NOT qualify someone to teach writing any more than being able to sing well qualifies someone to direct the choir.

  8. alice

    I think you all might enjoy “Dear Committee Members” by Julie Schumacher. She just became the first woman to win the Thurber Prize. She teaches creative writing at a mid-western university. And she’s a fantastic writer.

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