Fostering the Transition from Student to Writer

Just past midterm in my first year writing seminar, I asked my two sections of students to brainstorm about what behaviors that worked for them in high school have failed to work for them in the first semester of college—focusing specifically on their roles as academic writers.

Part of this exercise has been supported by my adopting Keith Hjortshoj’s The Transition to College Writing as well as my instructional commitment to providing my students overt opportunities to set aside their student behaviors and adopt writer (scholar) behaviors.

The responses were illuminating about both how often high school fails students and that many of my students have in fact begun to understand the important transition from high school to college. Several students confronted the need to start their essays much earlier, spending more time on drafting their work (and adding not to write the night before the work is due), but one student offered an excellent recognition about the need for writers to have a primary audience and then to shape their purpose with that audience in mind; he framed that response against the superficial ways in which he had been allowed to consider audience as a reader in high school.

Just a few days after this exercise with my first year students, as a co-leader of a year-long faculty seminar on teaching writing, my colleagues had an equally enlightening discussion about our experiences with learning to write throughout our formal education, reaching from K-12 through graduate school.

Some key patterns included that many of us had our writing graded, but received little feedback designed to prompted revision, and that many of us had some of the best direct writing instruction during our graduate school experiences, notably while writing a thesis/dissertation.

Ultimately, we noted that many professors were attempting to teach courses (first year composition) that we never took ourselves and teach pedagogy that we had never experienced as students.

And then came a really key discussion: We acknowledged that our own writing—and especially our own engagement in writing—was at its best when we had authentic audiences and were working with topics of our choice. Of course, we then moved to recognizing that these are the qualities our own students need (even deserve) to become the sort of young writers and scholars that we envision.

These discussion pushed me, after over thirty years teaching writing, to think about a recent conference I had with a first-year student whose work/writing and classroom behavior remain trapped in high school. He is not engaged in class, and when we conferenced about his essay 2—I was compelled to note in my comments on the paper that few professors would accept the essay since the formatting was shoddy and the work did not meet the basic requirements of the assignment—I first asked if he had read the sample essays I provided for the assignment. He immediately said that he had not, and seemed completely unconcerned that he hadn’t.

I have no desire to ascribe blame, but this student (and most of my students about whom I have concern for their success this semester) is almost completely disengaged from the course except to comply and move on. In other words, the quality of his writing and behavior in class are not necessarily representations of his ability but are reflections of the absence of what we discussed in our faculty seminar—he doesn’t see anything authentic about his audience or purposes as a writer in this class.

Here I must stress the warning I often share with teachers-to-be and current teachers in my graduate courses: We must not require 100% success in order to embrace a practice.

Now, that said, here are the strategies I have developed over those 30-plus years that are designed to foster the transition from student to writer/scholar:

  • Balance giving students choice with providing them the sort of structure that builds toward the larger writing goals of the course. My first year writing seminar is a semester-long course that requires students to submit four original essays of about 1000-1500 words each. For several years, the essays were all open-ended assignments with students deciding the type and content of each essay. That was a failed approach. Now, I move the student from a personal narrative (see the essay assignments on my syllabus) to an on-line essay that uses hyperlinks for citation and incorporates images and/or videos to a disciplinary-based traditionally cited (APA, MLA, etc.) essay and then to a final essay that we determine the type based on the student’s needs once we have the first essays to consider.
  • Focus investigations of texts in class on reading like a writer (see here and here) so that we always acknowledge the primary audience of the text and how the writer shapes the purpose of the writing to that primary audience. Students are provided many authentic models for the types of writing they are writing (see my daily schedule as well as posts on the main page of our course blog). Both our class sessions examining text and then the essay assignments are anchored in real-world essays (including published academic essays) that we mine for how writers write.
  • Provide feedback on essays and in individual conferences that support revision strategies that are actionable and manageable. Increasingly, I have reduced markings and comments on essay drafts, and then dedicated individual conferences to asking students about their essays while working toward making sure the student has a clear revision plan once the conference is completed. It is during these conferences that I can confront whether or not the student is authentically engaged in an essay—and seek ways to make sure the student has a genuine reason to write and revise further.

Again, nothing in teaching will be 100% successful, but I believe we are doing our students a great disservice if we simply give into fatalism and continue to allow writing to be assignments that student dutifully complete in order to receive course credit.

My commitment as a teacher of writing is to foster a transition from student to writer that serves my students well as young people on a journey to their own autonomy— and even happiness.

That means I am on a journey as well as a teacher of writing.

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