FYW Students Respond to Warner’s The Writer’s Practice: Progress, Not Perfection

When John Warner released The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing soon after his Why They Can’t Write, I highly recommended both volumes for those teaching writing (here and here). Of course, a much better barometer of the value of books on how to write and how to teach writing is to put them in the hands of students and teachers.

A bit past midway through this fall semester of 2019, my first-year writing students have just finished reading and reflecting on The Writer’s Practice; the final reflections and our in-class debrief yesterday revealed high praise and key lessons we who teach writing can learn from what my students valued about the book, and how they framed those lessons for them as students and writers.

One student began her reflection as follows:

As I opened up The Writer’s Practice to read the final section, I felt myself experiencing emotions similar to those when I am about to finish a really wonderful piece of fictional writing. This feeling for me is more guttural, and it comes about when I am truly sad or upset to be finishing a piece. Most of the time it is because there is a change in the plot that I didn’t enjoy, or I just truly don’t want the happily ever after to conclude. But I was genuinely confused as to why I experienced this feeling when reading the final few sentences of this piece. Never in my life has I been saddened by the conclusion of reading a book for school, fiction or nonfiction, besides The Catcher and the Rye and now this book. Because of this, I have come to the conclusion that I truly did enjoy reading this book. And I believe it was mostly because of the informal language used throughout. The way in which Warner speaks to the audience is something very intriguing to me, and it made me feel like I was holding a conversation with an actual person instead of reading a boring and monotonous book for school.

In the two sections of FYW I teach, I read in reflections and heard in our discussion some powerful patterns throughout the student endorsements of Warner’s book as an effective textbook for teaching writing. Those patterns include the following:

  • One student expressed relief that Warner encouraged progress, and not perfection. In fact, many students recognized that Warner’s lessons combined with my approach to teaching writing had significantly reduced their levels of stress and anxiety about writing. The overwhelming result of reducing stress and anxiety for students as writers is that they are more eager to write, they produce better early drafts of their essays, and they are also more motivated to revise (and even begin again) in order to produce the essays they want to write. In short, Warner’s messages resonate with and compliment my commitment to having students choose their topics and types of essays as well as my low-stakes approached to teaching (delaying grades, emphasizing feedback and revision, and fostering a writing and learning community among students and with me as a mentor/teacher).
  • Several students responded directly to Warner speaking from his own humble authority as a practicing writer, an authority grounded in his recognition that becoming a writing is a journey, and not a destination. Here, I think, was one of the most powerful aspects of how students praised Warner’s book: students valued that Warner did not speak down to them; they felt respected and appreciate the casual and empathetic tone Warner maintains throughout the book. A common response was that teaching and textbooks can too often be condescending, and students have found that this book and some of the different aspects of my teaching and writing instruction honored their basic human dignity.
  • In terms of nuts-and-bolts writing lessons that were effective because of Warner’s text, I would highlight that students almost universally came to recognize and value the role of having a clear audience at the center of their work as writers. I have always struggled with helping students move away from writing for the teacher/professor (working mostly as compliant students) and toward thinking and working more as writers (drafting for real audiences). Students reading and engaging with Warner’s text while completing my second essay assignment, a public essay that incorporates hyperlinks for citation, was mentioned as very effective experiences for a number of students, especially in terms of writing with an audience in mind and writing by choice about a topic that interests and even invigorates the writer/students.
  • Broader and foundational lessons (ones that are essential for students making the transition from high school to college, from writing like a student to writing as a scholar) include students rethinking what essay writing entails (different disciplines have different expectations for essays), students moving away from rules-based thinking to conventional awareness, and students thinking and working more purposefully through their writing process. The one-size-fits-all effect of the five-paragraph essay (which all of my students bring to the class in some form) and the tyranny of grammar rules and writing mandates definitely were at least strongly confronted if not entirely debunked through the combination of students reading Warner and receiving similar messages in my class.

As a teacher, specifically of writing, this experience with assigning Warner’s The Writer’s Practice has reinforced the importance of the relationship among the teacher, students, and the textbook. When the messages and learning environment are cohesive, like a good piece of writing, everything is more effective.

My initial recommendation for this book is now strongly supported by actually incorporating it into my FYWs, but I must hasten to add a final word of caution as well.

This really positive experience with teaching writing and with students showing real and  often observable learning as writers also exposes one of the most challenging aspects of formal writing instruction and learning in formal schooling: Even as first-year college students, these young writers are at a very early stage of development as writers, and thinkers.

Once again, placing too much emphasis on evaluating my teaching, evaluating the students’ writing, or evaluating the effectiveness of an FYW course is quite dangerous and likely very misleading.

Many of the students expressing effusive praise for Warner stumbled mightily in the writing of those reflections, and continue to struggle in their formal essay assignments. People evaluating as outsiders those students’ writing would likely find it hard to identify the growth (or quality), especially the changes in attitudes these students have experienced about writing forms and the writing process.

For students as writers and me as a teacher of writing, it remains as issue of progress, not perfection.

Students as Writers and Thinkers: Another Grading Dilemma

A high school ELA teacher who completed the certification program where I teach was telling me recently about one of her students. The student, the teacher explained, had submitted an essay that the student worked diligently on, completing multiple drafts.

The teacher noted that the final essay showed marked improvement in the writing, but grading the essay also posed a dilemma because despite substantive feedback on the content from the teacher, the student simply made very little progress in thinking well about the topic.

person holding ballpoint pen writing on notebook

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Having taught high school ELA and then at the college level for 18 years each, I quipped, “That’s what Bs are for,” adding, “Maybe a B+.”

I wasn’t being as cavalier as it seems because I have navigated this problem hundreds of times since most of my teaching of writing has been situated in the lives of teenagers and young adults. Compounding the concern for brain development—that this age group is still developing the ability to think critically and deeply—is, for me, my own practice of de-grading and de-testing my classes.

In other words, this scenario is one of dozens that highlights why grading is often misleading and almost always harmful to the learning process.

In a reasonable world, this teacher would be allowed simply to express to the student this reality—the writing is exceptional for showing improvement, but the thinking on the topic remains trapped in simplistic and unsupported ways.

And that assessment in the form of expository feedback can be shared in this spirit: This is not a negative criticism of your effort, or your ability, but a fair reflection of your current growth, a snapshot of your journey to writing and thinking more complexly and in more compelling ways.

For teachers of writing, this problem also asks us to face key elements of giving students feedback and grading when required. The challenge revolves around having clear goals for the writing assignment, and then being able to contextualize those goals by student characteristics such as brain development (a really challenging concern).

Here are some of the common issues teachers of writing face when working with teenagers and young adults, problems that occur at the intersection of writing proficiency and thinking well:

  • Students make a large number of extreme claims, rarely offering credible evidence in compelling ways. Yet, the students have a high command of the language and construct effective sentences and paragraphs as well as relatively cohesive essays.
  • Students submit a jumbled draft, seemingly carelessly constructed (surface features, formatting), but includes several strong claims linked to solid evidence. Sentence structure, paragraphing, and essay coherence are spotty at best.
  • Students submit a well structured essay with solid sentence and paragraph formation; surface features are also solid. The essays pose a manageable number of reasonable claims linked to evidence in traditional ways (for example, all claims about a text are connected to quotes from the text); however, that evidence is thin, from sources that are not credible, or doesn’t support the claim (the quote doesn’t support the claim).

Just to name a few common challenges above, but the focus here is that each of these situations is common and made complicated by the need to grade; each is, in fact, not as challenging for offering feedback, especially to support revision.

The evaluation culture of schooling works against both student growth as writers and thinkers, in fact, because summative evaluation de-contextualizes artifacts of learning from the larger realities of human development.

Grades also stunt some of the essential elements of learning, notably that errors are often not to be avoided, but are essential for growth.

For example, many of my students in first-year college writing submit work that is mostly claims, no evidence, or work that is narrowly grounded in the “all evidence is quoting” trap they have mis-learned from writing too much literary analysis in high school (such as in Advanced Placement Literature and Composition).

Less of my instruction is about writing in those cases, although I tend to find that young writers are lazy and careless with word choice, sentence formation, and paragraphing, but more about the substance of their claims and their ability to find, choose, and incorporate effective evidence.

Young people, we must remember, live in experiences outside of schooling where being persistent, loud, or assertive results in simplistic or even false claims being viewed as credible. And young people often have not reached a level of brain development to investigate critically claims and evidence.

To teach writing is inextricable from teaching thinking. Simultaneously, those of us teaching writing can distinguish between something like good writing that can sit next to poor thinking, and flawed writing that includes important aspects of complex thinking.

Much to our chagrin, we almost always have to grade the submitted writing sample—even when we are aware that many of our teenagers and young adults simply will not think complexly for several more years despite our best effort to nudge them along that path.

Ultimately, assigning, responding to, and then assessing/grading student writing requires that we very clearly identify what our goals are for the writing assignment and the students, that we acknowledge the tension between responding to and assessing/grading both the writing and thinking in writing samples, and that we find ways to resolve how assessment/grading inhibits and even deforms those learning goals (such as delaying grades).

As I approach forty years of teaching teenagers and young adults to write and think, I have remained fairly vigilant in my demands for their ability to grow as writers while also becoming more and more patient with the time it takes for them to become the critical thinkers I hope they will be.

Hall Pass

I noticed I had been tagged by a former high school student on Facebook a few days ago. “While looking for pictures of my Daddy in some old memory and picture boxes that I forgot existed,” she began, “I came across this WHS [Woodruff High School] artifact that became the deciding factor on whether or not I was punished with demerits for a week out of every month.”*

She posted these pictures of the artifacts, hall passes from my class:

No photo description available.

Image may contain: drink and indoor

The high school where I taught English for 18 years was the same high school I had attended. By the time I was reaching the end of my time there, the school had morphed into an extremely authoritarian environment—demerits issued to students for being late to class, simply going to the restroom during class (for any reason), eating in class or chewing gum, and the usual assortment of what most people would deem disciplinary issues such as fighting or causing a disturbance during class (“holding court” and talking back being the major offenses).

These strict rules meant some students found themselves issued in-school suspension (ISS) for nothing more than very minor infractions, such as needing to use the restroom several times.

As this student noted, and as is typical of school dress codes, for example, these policies were very harsh and disproportionate for young women during their menstrual cycles:

I was 15 years old and hated getting demerits for needing to use the restroom. (you know——that unfair rule that is a blatant disregard for females and the needs we biologically have zero control over. The one that punishes females because periods refuse to schedule themselves around a 12 minute break or that 4 minutes we were given to change classes.) 

Early in my career as a teacher, which began in the fall of 1984, I recognized that teaching English was often about far more than reading, writing, and literacy. My classroom, my teaching, and the school environment—all of these projected daily lessons to students about who they were and who they should be.

Frankly, I found those lessons to be extremely problematic.

One principal allowed prayer over the intercom and boldly announced that he would be proud to be punished for flagrantly breaking the law—all while expecting students to meticulously follow every rule imposed on them by the administration and teachers.

The first decade of teaching, in fact, taught me that formal education is often a way to reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of sexism, racism, and classism grounded in a community. In my doctoral program, I came to recognize I had been thinking and practicing critical pedagogy without any real awareness it had a formal name and philosophy.

But the restroom pass, I think, and how I navigated school and classroom rules with my students stand today as (using my former student’s language) powerful artifacts of a more basic grounding for how formal education and teaching should be guided—maintaining an awareness of and respect for basic human dignity among all students.

While the school policy for restroom visits mandated that all students were turned in for any trip during class, I initiated a policy that allowed students simply to take a prepared pass (see the artifacts above) and go to the restroom if needed, no demerits issued. Students did not need to ask and were expected to leave and return with a minimum of disruption to class.

I explained my policy and stressed to students that it was their responsibility to honor what I was offering—that using my policy to sneak a smoke, vandalize the restroom, or simply to wander the halls would put them at great risk of being punished harshly if caught by another teacher or an administrator. In other words, I could offer grace from embarrassment and demerits, but I could not control what happened once they left my room.

Throughout much of those 18 years, I was almost daily reprimanded by administration for not issuing demerits for students coming late to class, using the restroom during class, and eating or chewing gum in class. This was stressful (and petty, I felt) and genuinely helped bring my career as a public school teacher to an end.

Human dignity and professionalism also cannot be partitioned.

Another aspect of how I managed my class in opposition to school rules I found dehumanizing and (using every chance to teach) draconian included that I always explained to my students that I was not sneaking or hiding my practices as a teacher from anyone. I was openly challenging these rules and I was also willing to pay the consequences.

Once the assistant principal and athletic director/football coach stood at my door and began to yell at me since several students were eating while working on their essays. That day, I walked out of the class, past him, and to the principal, explaining what happened and noting it needed to be the last time it did.

How can we, I asked, expect students to maintain a level of behavior, tone, and deference to authority that the people charged with authority in the school flaunted daily?

I simply have never been able to separate my personal aversion to hypocrisy from my roles as teacher, coach, or parent. As I have noted in posts before, I had a sign on my wall that read: “Any fool can make a rule and any fool will mind it” (Henry David Thoreau).

The more I taught, the more I recognized that my role as a teacher of literacy was about power and human autonomy. I could not compartmentalize classroom discipline, interacting with students, and the so-called ELA curriculum from each other.

Ethically and philosophically, all of my behavior as the teacher and as a person had to be consistent with the ideals I believed in—central to that being the need to respect the human dignity and autonomy of the students assigned to my class, and all of the students in our school.

Of course, over 18 years, I made many mistakes in both how I treated students and in my teaching; I failed students from time to time as people, and I did occasional great harm to reading and writing (sigh).

But much of the time, my classroom was a safe haven for young people to be honest and genuine, for learning to be a community experience, and for lessons that were healthy and fair but not simply about Nathaniel Hawthorne or writing literary analysis.

And my classroom was a work-in-progress, searching for ways to meet Paulo Freire‘s idea of teacher/student working with students/teachers as well as creating my teaching role as authoritative, not authoritarian.

Reading the Facebook post from a former student, written 20 years after the fact, helped me understand that the hall pass was more than a loophole or a pass to use the restroom. It was a pass for a student to be fully human as a 15 year old young woman.

How often as adults, especially in schools, do we deny children and teens access to their humanity as if they need a pass for that? As if each of us is not born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

When we as adults are charged with roles of authority, our first directive should be always to see and to hear the humanity of those assigned to that authority.

It has been two decades since I left teaching high school, and one of my students reached out with kindness and once again taught me a lesson.

And a reminder for me as a person and a teacher: “But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.”

* The full post reads:

While looking for pictures of my Daddy in some old memory and picture boxes that I forgot existed, I came across this WHS artifact that became the deciding factor on whether or not I was punished with demerits for a week out of every month.

I feel like I need to make this confession——20 years later. When you were my teacher in tenth grade, I accidentally brought this hall pass home in my coat pocket on like the first or second day of school. I had every intention of returning it and apologizing for the accidental theft, but I was 15 years old and hated getting demerits for needing to use the restroom. (you know——that unfair rule that is a blatant disregard for females and the needs we biologically have zero control over. The one that punishes females because periods refuse to schedule themselves around a 12 minute break or that 4 minutes we were given to change classes.)

I wasn’t searching for a loophole, but a loophole found me. I held onto to this hall pass for my entire sophomore year. I went from having to attend Saturday school regularly to have demerits erased to stave off ISS to never getting another demerit.

This hall pass did the same thing my junior and senior years. I used to look at it and remember there was at least one teacher at WHS that refused to enforce such bullshit. Tonight I looked at it and saw a symbol of how indoctrinated and conditioned we are/were to the archaic rules and punishments that infringe on our very basic needs.

Thank you for being a teacher that absolutely refused to punish girls for having functional ovaries.

From Thesis to Focus: In Pursuit of Coherence

Having spent nearly four decades teaching high school and college students to write, I have also during that time talked with and listened to many colleagues also either teaching writing or assigning writing in their courses.

As teachers are prone to do, these teachers often complain about their students; I am apt to argue that teachers of writing are even more prone to complaining because teaching writing is labor-intensive work that often fails to produce short-term evidence that the teaching has been effective.

If we don’t complain, well, there simply may not be enough wine to buoy us through the weekends and stacks upon stacks of essays.

While I have a great deal of compassion and empathy for all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, I often shudder at the usual complaints about “students today”—complaints that often are grounded in deficit views of students and misguided perceptions of what teaching writing means, much less what sorts of writing outcomes we should be expecting of teens and young adults.

Howe Professor and Director of Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Elizabeth Wardle offers four important challenges to the most common complaints about students as writers:

First, students are what they have always been: learners. There is no evidence that student writing over all is any better or worse than it has ever been. What is true is that faculty members have been complaining about student writing for as long as students have been writing….

Second, to improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut….

The third point: All writers struggle with new genres and conventions; learning to write in new situations always requires instruction and practice because there is no singular “writing in general” and certainly no singular “good” writing in general….

Which brings me to a final point: Teaching writing is everyone’s responsibility, but it’s not any one person’s responsibility to teach all kinds of writing. We are each responsible for helping students understand the written practices that we use in our fields and professions.

These are powerful broad challenges to some of the most common complaints I hear. Therefore, I want to focus here on her third point by addressing a persistent refrain from teachers of writing—students can’t (or don’t) write effective thesis statements.

While many K-12 and higher education teacher and professors uncritically view the thesis statement as an essential aspect of what Wardle refutes (“singular ‘good’ writing in general”), I do not teach students to write thesis sentences (within a broader effort to have them move beyond the introduction/body/conclusion template of the essay), but instead, we seek writing that develops a focus over the opening paragraphs (usually about 2-5 paragraphs) and an essay that has coherence.

This approach is grounded in helping students develop essay awareness along with a broader awareness of the many conventions of essays across academic disciplines as well as writing beyond the academy.

What guides this practice is, first, my experiences as a writer, and then important challenges to the negative consequences of thesis-driven writing offered by Duxbury and Ballinger.

But I also have students move away from the thesis sentence and toward focus and coherence because I witness in every course that most students have been misguided by the tyranny of the thesis sentence. Students write badly trying to accomplish the very thing many teachers complain they cannot do.

Most students in K-12 writing experiences have been required to submit an introduction and thesis before they can draft an essay. This practice ignores the power of discovery drafting but it also suggests that very young writers must always write from the perspective of making direct and fixed claims, to assume a stance of authority they simply do not (and cannot) have.

Conversely, especially for young writers still developing their awareness of writing craft, their understanding of conventions, and their content knowledge, writing that raises questions or interrogates ideas is far more compelling and effective than students making grand pronouncements beyond the scope of their authority.

And nearly all writers come to understand their focus while drafting because the best drafting is a form of thinking.

As a teacher of writing, I more often than not while responding to early drafts point to a sentence or two late in the essay and respond, “This is your opening,” because the student has wandered into a strong essay focus.

Focus and coherence, while both are complex concepts, prove to be better guiding principles than thesis sentences as well as stilted introductions and conclusions (the template approach found in the five-paragraph essay and its cousins).

Warner and many others note, however, that template writing (the five-paragraph essay) is both very bad writing and really lazy thinking. Few topics worthy of discussion, especially in formal education, can be neatly reduced to three points.

In the 1990 edition of Style, Joseph Williams dedicates two chapters to coherence because, as he explains:

All of us have stopped in the middle of a memo, an article, or a book realizing that while we may have understood its words and sentences, we don’t quite know what they should all add up to. …[W]e will offer some principles that will help you diagnose that kind of writing and then revise it. …No one or two of [the principles] is sufficient to make a reader feel a passage is coherent. They are a set of principles that writers have to orchestrate toward that common end.

Williams speaks here to the third point Wardle is making—that writers achieve “good writing” in many different ways to fulfill many different purposes.

As teachers of writing, we are left with helping students “orchestrate” the many and varied conventions, forms, and purposes that they face. But templates cannot and do not serve those needs.

Like the five-paragraph template, the thesis statement is a pale and flawed way for writers of any age to create and achieve focus and coherence.

Moving away from thesis sentences and toward writing that establishes focus and coherence can best be achieved by inviting students to draft as an act of discovery and allowing students to interrogate ideas instead of seeking ways to make fixed claims that they then must support.

All of this must be supported by helping students understand achieving coherence conceptually (principles) and then connecting those principles to craft and strategies that students mine from mentor texts and then apply (through experimentation) in their own original writing expressing their own original (and evolving) thinking.

Teaching First-Year Students Includes More than Disciplinary Content, Skills

I have two vivid memories of my father—one when I was an older child, the other when I was a teen.

Walking down Main Street of my hometown, my father and I stopped to talk to an adult, and when I didn’t respond with the obligatory “yes, sir,” my father slapped me hard across the face.

Years later, my father was playing in a pick-up basketball game on our home court with my teenaged friends and me. During the game, I crossed the respect line with him and he turned to once again hit me hard across the face—in front of all my friends.

I was raised that children were to be seen and not heard, and all child interaction with adults had to include “sir” and “ma’am.”

Eventually as I grew into roles of authority—teacher, coach, and parent—I took on a much different lesson than my father had intended; I am extremely informal in my clothing and speech, and I avoid formal situations like the plague (because they literally make me feel ill, triggering my anxiety).

Especially as a teacher and coach, I have always worked very hard to treat children and young people with full human dignity and respect; that is something I always wanted as a young person, and those adults who showed me that respect remain important in my life.

In short, while I think all people regardless of age should treat each other with something like respect (for our collective humanity, but not roles such as authority), I also believe that anyone in a position of authority should earn the sort of trust that comes with that authority.

I don’t want students to respect me as their teacher simply because of my status, but because I have the qualities that position represents, characteristics that they in fact respect.

As the academic year is beginning again for many of us in all levels of education, these thoughts were triggered by a Twitter thread and a powerful piece on inclusive teaching.

The thread began:

And some of the replies include:

And then I added:

This exchange, I think, fits well with Sathy and Hogan’s framing of inclusive teaching:

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Since I currently teach two first-year writing seminars and typically have several first-year students in my other courses—and I have been working directly in several committees on diversity and inclusion at my university—I see a strong connection between every professor’s role in teaching beyond what the academic obligations are in each course and the discussion of students emailing professors.

This is especially true for helping students transition from high school into higher education.

My university is a selective liberal arts college with a relatively homogenous student body, often white and relatively affluent.

Although I came from a working-class background, my students tend to function in ways that would make my father proud; they are quite deferent and formal with professors.

Unlike my own upbringing, their ways of navigating adults and people in authority have more to do with spoken and unspoken rules about social capital; none the less, they tend to do the face-to-face “sir” and “ma’am” routines flawlessly.

However, these students often have limited experiences interacting with teachers through email so the concerns raised in the Twitter thread are elements of my teaching I have had to develop once I moved from teaching high school English into higher education.

Here I want to emphasize that something seemingly as superficial as teaching students how to email professors can and should be a central lesson in fostering student awareness about diversity and inclusion.

As I noted in my Twitter response, I have been properly checked in the past about my own tendency to be informal. For women, people of color, and internationals, academia often remains a constant reminder that anyone not white and male exists in marginalized spaces.

Women faculty report often that students and others seeing them in their department spaces assume these women professors to be secretarial staff; people of color have reported equally erasing experiences with similar interactions.

The micro-aggressions of sexism and racism accumulate and overwhelm over time; these experiences do not envelope the profession and lives of white males, who receive immediate deference and assumptions of “Dr.” and “professor.”

The casual email to an early-career women professor sits in these moment-by-moment micro-aggressions while white men of academia can foster low-key and informal relationships both face-to-face and through email with their students; but the latter is one more example of the advantages of privilege.

Yes, I will talk to my first-year (and all) students about emailing their professors. I will couch that in discussing, for example, that student evaluations of teaching (a process first-year students also have little or no experience with) have been shown to perpetuate sexist and racist attitudes by students and then to further entrench sexism and racism (as well as xenophobia) in the academy through tenure and promotion processes.

We will address as well respectability politics and how to navigate that against the norms of student/professor interactions.

Class session will also include exploring “Ms.” versus “Miss/Mrs.” and the rise of gender neutral, singular uses of “they” and people’s pronoun preferences.

My broad goals as a professor in all of my courses attempt to meet Sathy and Hogan’s charge that our teaching is about more than disciplinary content and skills, and that our teaching must be for all students, not simply those who already match our biases and assumptions.

For me, then, I seek to raise my students’ awareness, as opposed to seeking ways for them to acquire a set of skills that I mandate for them.

I want my students to recognize that they are always political beings, interacting with and negotiating a world driven by power dynamics (many of which are historically and inherently inequitable).

Women, people of color, and internationals—whether students or faculty—cannot take vacations from who they are and how that status fits into a world normalized as white and male.

Those of us white and male, unless we make efforts to do otherwise, can function as if our privileges do not exist; they can be invisible to us.

I have deep and personal reasons for wanting my students to interact with me in informal ways that include all of us treating everyone with dignity and kindness. I still shudder a bit at “sir” and even “Dr. Thomas.”

Ultimately, I am not asking my students to adopt some mandate or even to take on a veneer with their professors. I am introducing my students to greater awareness about how all humans interact and how those interactions conform to (or resist) conventional assumptions—norms that are likely to be inequitable, likely to perpetuate sexism, racism, and xenophobia unless everyone becomes aware and actively resists those norms.

All of this, I think, speaks to the first “common question” about (resistance to) inclusive teaching answered by Sathy and Hogan:

I don’t teach about diversity. What does diversity have to do with my course, and why should I care? 

Some instructors make the mistake of equating inclusive teaching with introducing current events or “diversity issues” into, say, a math course. Of course you should offer diverse content, texts, guest speakers, and so on, where they’re relevant, and there’s been plenty of talk about that in academe. But when we talk about teaching inclusively, we choose to focus on the teaching methods that apply to all courses.

In short, all students and their teachers are always navigating political spaces in the formal classroom, and all teachers at every level are obligated to teach inclusively because of that reality.

The first-year student often walks, speaks, and writes through their lives thoughtlessly. My role as their professor is to give them the opportunity to pause, step back, and begin again with purpose and awareness—as a human who wants and deserves their humanity dignity and as a human seeking to live their lives in ways that honor that in everyone else.

Keeping the Why of Writing Instruction in Mind

While many, including myself, have focused on Jennie Young’s provocative argument that “that we stop teaching [academic citation] entirely” in first-year writing, Young builds to an important and broader point by the end: “Writing instruction is a messy business, and there are few simple fixes for any aspect of it.”

I certainly agree there are no simple fixes, but here I want to consider a foundational need if we are in fact concerned about writing instruction—the “why.”

Writing in 1946, Lou LaBrant asserted, “There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach.”

Here, I think, LaBrant is calling for any teacher of writing to understand both the “what” and the “why” before coming to terms with the “how” of teaching writing.

At the K-12 and higher education levels, I suspect there are far more teachers assigning writing than teaching writing, and far more teachers grading writing than giving substantive feedback on writing.

I also would anticipate that too few teachers have investigated the “what” and “why”—in part because they are teaching in a curriculum that is absent a cohesive writing program, some guiding principles for why any teacher is assigning or teaching writing to students.

In a brief exchange with Young, she noted two points from a post of mine grounded in her citation argument. First, Young paraphrases a question, “Is first year writing a service course or a discipline for its own sake?” and from my post, “First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.”

Both of these, I propose, are inherent problems when writing instruction is not grounded in a writing program with clear purposes and goals that are shared by the faculty and the students.

Let me stress now that I am not suggesting there is a singular set of purposes and goals that all writing instruction and programs should adhere to; I am arguing that writing instruction must be grounded in some programatic purposes and goals that are communal (not top-down mandates such as meeting states standards or university mission statements or initiatives) and related to the larger educational purposes and goals of that school.

However, writing instruction in any one course can be greatly improved if—along with insuring that the teaching and learning conditions are conducive to writing instruction—that course and instructor have a clear set of achievable goals. In other words, writing instruction is best when each course has less to accomplish and is also working within a series of courses and a writing program that have overarching guidelines.

A sophomore level high school English class and first-year writing, for example, often labor under the same problems—hostile teaching and learning conditions, an unachievable amount of expected learning outcomes (some of which include writing, but other non-writing expectations crowd the teacher’s and students’ time for learning writing), and a lack of program cohesion or buy-in by teachers and students.

To be blunt, there is little any of us can do about writing instruction being messy and complicated, but one way to help those realities not unnecessarily impede good instruction and robust learning is to be aware as a teacher of the “why” and “what” before designing the “how.”

And for students, less will be more when any writing-intensive course or individual writing assignment in a course is grounded in clear purposes and achievable outcomes.

To return to Young’s specific concern, do all first-year students need intensive academic citation instruction—and more pointedly, is it reasonable to expect all or most of them to understand and apply academic citation well before they have determined their major, the discipline that will dictate what citation stylesheet and writing conventions matter?

When I was briefly directing my university’s first-year seminar program, I argued (without as much success as I intended) that first-year writing needs to be transitional (from high school to college) and foundational (for the needs and expectations of whatever major any student may choose in college, and eventual career).

And as I have repeated often, I dissuaded anyone from thinking first-year writing (or any writing-intensive course) could be an inoculation, somehow “fixing” students for whatever future teachers or courses expected of them.

Decades of teaching and writing and also writing myself have proven to me, humbled me, to the reality that both teaching writing and writing are journeys, often without any ultimate finish line. And I must stress, as Young did, that the messy and not simple are the realities we as teachers and our students must mostly accept.

For writing instruction to work, schools and universities must first design a shared vision for a writing program, and then develop a series of courses that work together to meet the needs of that program in the service of students. With that framework, teachers must be allowed and encouraged to address the “why” and “what” of the courses they are charged to teach.

With their students in mind, next, teachers can begin to fashion the “how” of writing instruction.

Without this purposeful and communal approach, we are likely left with writing being assigned and graded—and writing itself being as poorly served as the students laboring under those assignments and grades.

See Also

LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to writeEnglish Journal, 35(3), 123–128.

The Weaponization of Academic Citation, Jennie Young

First-Year Writing and the Gauntlet of Academic Citation

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

The Right Remains Wrong about Teaching, Learning, and Critical Thinking

Everything about Williamson M. Evers is politically conservative, right-wing. Evers is a research fellow for the conservative Hoover Institution, explicitly dedicated to market economics and antagonistic to “government intrusion into the lives of individuals” (a libertarian strain of conservatism in the U.S.).

Evers has also been an appointee in a number of Republican state and federal administrations, often connected with education despite his academic background being entirely in the field of political science.

So let’s explore for a moment the great irony in Evers’ opinion/commentary piece for the Wall Street JournalCalifornia Wants to Teach Your Kids That Capitalism Is Racist. Two elements of this screed are worth highlighting, in fact.

Over the course of about 770 inflammatory words that repeatedly misrepresent concepts and terminology in order to rush to his central arguments, Evers builds to these sweeping conclusions: “The curriculum is entirely wrongheaded when it comes to critical thinking” and “Teaching objective history clearly isn’t the goal.”

These claims are nested in the larger argument that the California curriculum Evers is criticizing is somehow a veiled left-wing agenda (while Evers carefully avoids making a case about the possibility of “objective” teaching and learning and is entirely uncritical himself in terms of his own conservative agenda).

Ultimately, Evers is resisting, ironically, a critical examination of capitalism and endorsing the free market ideology of his think tank and political party as if those are what counts as “objective.”

The ideological spectrum of the right in the U.S. (which is by far the dominant ideology, especially when compared to Europe) is conservative in the sense of tradition—meaning that an institution such as public education would be dedicated to transmitting a fixed set of knowledge (this, in fact, is what Evers frames as “objective” even though this approach to teaching and learning is also biased since some agent in power must decide what knowledge counts and what knowledge doesn’t).

Public education in the U.S. has always been mostly conservative and used primarily to perpetuate traditional values associated with the country’s foundational ideals; as such, public education has mostly avoided critical thinking.

And therein lies the great irony of Evers opinion piece.

Critical education and critical thinking do come out of a leftist position, broadly a Marxist tradition. As an academic or scholarly lens, however, “left” in this context is far less about narrow partisan politics and more about how anyone navigates knowledge and human behavior.

For example, a traditional (thus conservative) approach to the Founding Fathers would offer students the ideals and actions taken by the men typically framed as founders in order to establish what makes the United States a free country. In many ways, this traditional approach to teaching is not factually incorrect, but it is misleading by omission.

If we pull back from this narrow history lesson, we must also acknowledge that the teaching of history in U.S. public schools is almost exclusively the promoting of positive and thus uncritical views of U.S. policies, wars, and political leaders.

In other words, the biased and incomplete approach to history that Evers idealizes as “objective” has not only dominated the teaching and learning of history in U.S. public education for more than a century, it remains the norm of how most history courses are taught—except in outlier situations where teachers inject critical history such as Howard Zinn’s history-as-activism or a marginally popular text, Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen.

While Evers and many on the right enjoy demonizing government and government institutions as leftist, the reality is that all formal organizations are inherently conservative in that for any cohesive body to exist, it must maintain its structure. To be critical is to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.

This is the essential partisan political tension between conservative (keeping things as they are) and progressive (seeking change, idealistically for the better).

Many on the right struggle with genuine criticism because to be critical is viewed as always negative (as in “to criticize) and criticism of X is almost always assumed to be an endorsement of Y.

Here is the great flaw of thinking perpetuated by partisan politics in the U.S., a system that is almost entirely divorced of an ideological spectrum and any real range of choice. Republican and Democrats in the U.S. are mostly well right of center ideologically and barely indistinguishable from each other beyond party affiliation.

Academic settings in the U.S.—at both the K-12 and high education levels—are rarely about endorsing either Republicans and Democrats (because the traditional nature of teaching and learning is not critical and thus is endorsing the system that perpetuates both). And any left-leaning elements in formal education, by being critical, are pulling back from that simplistic binary and from the incomplete knowledge base taught in traditional curriculum in order to ask critical questions.

Thomas Jefferson is not simply a great thinker and leader, but a man deeply stained by slavery during the inception of the country. Slavery as well is not simply a scar on the history of the nation, but a key element in how capitalism gained momentum and so-called economic progress flourished in the early years of the country.

And thus, the lazy and misguided approach to critical thinking on the right would be having students investigate which car is the better choice, a Honda Civic or a Toyota Camry.

Authentic critical thinking would be having students investigate who benefits from the U.S. being so invested in car ownership while considering the option of not owning a car at all (seeking better public transportation, for example).

Evers as a conservative ideologue, then, is incapable of recognizing that he is endorsing a curriculum that is biased propaganda (pro-capitalism) and a way of teaching that lacks critical thinking.

In fact, Evers is the one wrongheaded about critical thinking: “Critical thinking is described not as reasoning through logic and consideration of evidence but rather a vague deconstruction of power relationships so that one can ‘speak out on social issues.'”

Critical education and critical thinking in that tradition are entirely about equipping students to interrogate knowledge, to ask “In whose interest is this?” and “Who is in power and why?”

The right in the U.S. is the power class, and Evers is among that power elite.

Those of us on the left, never among the power elites, are not threatened by critical thinking that seeks to dismantle, re-imagine, and rebuild.

Those of us who are critically progressive are capable of seeing that the U.S. historically and currently is good for some while failing many. To be critical and progressive, then, is to seek better for all, not just maintaining the good for some.

As a critical educator and scholar, I have always wondered about the failed logic on the right. If the traditional values the right so eagerly endorses and protects are in fact as wonderful as they claim, why can they not stand against criticism and interrogation?

The authoritarian tendencies of the right suggest a fear of individual thinking and autonomy; the right is deeply invested in power, but the left remains deeply skeptical of all power and authority.

Formal education dedicated to human liberation must be grounded in critical thinking, the ways of calling all knowledge into question and seeking the full story—not simply the aspects of the story endorsed by the ruling elites.

The final irony is that commentaries such as Evers is unintended proof of the ultimate dangers of incomplete knowledge and a failure to think critically.

See Also

CQ Researcher: Does Common Core help students learn critical thinking? No.

More on Critical Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and the Other: “Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom”

Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education