COMING SOON: Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means (IAP)

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NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Find all the PowerPoints for the presentations below HERE.

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.


(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

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

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics


(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.


(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

Investigating Purposeful Writing: From Poetry to Essay

One of the first activities I share with my first-year writing students is a writing exercise based on Sandra Cisneros’s “A House of My Own,” a chapter from her The House on Mango Street.

A key lesson I am reaching for involves recognizing that each sentence in this chapter is a grammatical fragment. It is here that I introduce my students to the problems they have faced in being taught rules (that fragments are errors and should be avoided in their writing) instead of being guided into purposeful language.

The difference, I explain, between Cisneros’s fragments and most of the ones they have included in their writing for school is that Cisneros constructed these with purpose—and the students likely were completely unaware of the fragments, and thus had no real purpose for them in the writing.

Purposeful writing is an overarching goal in my writing instruction—notably focusing on the craft of word choice and sentence formation as they drive tone. Most novice writers are composing carelessly. The result is that the reader couldn’t care less about the product.

As I have examined before, poetry is an ideal text for helping students grow as essayists.

Here I want to walk through January Gill O’Neil’s “The Blower of Leaves” as a model of purposeful writing.

For poets, the economy of language often required by poetry drives well the need to labor with purpose over word choice and sentence formation (although I often have to stress to misinformed students that poetry is almost entirely driven by complete sentences, even as they carry over for more than one line).

As I anticipated, discussing O’Neil’s poem spurred students to notice a variety of effective examples of purposeful writing.

We highlighted the powerful use of “fall”—signaling both the season and the motion. Here I stress that writers often look for layers of meaning carried in the fewest words possible (the power of concision) as well as reaching for ambiguity (this contrasts with most students believing writing is mostly about making grand certain statements).

The poem draws together simple yard work (and we also noted the effectiveness of the accessibility of language throughout the poem) with a grounded but ambiguous condition: “the hard work/of yard work made harder without you.”

Readers know someone is missing—but not the who, why, or how. That phrasing (repeating “work”) emphasizes a key element of the poem (possibly what we would call its meaning) through repetition, which in this case is a bit clunky, possibly jarring the reader.

I emphasize here that students often come to first-year writing having been cautioned against repetition. But the lesson they have learned is mechanical and works against purposeful writing that seeks key works to repeat for effect. “Hard work”/”yard work” comes not from a careless and lazy writer, but embraces the sound devices common in poetry in order to make the central message cohesive with the literal scene.

Here we may be drawn to discuss emotional labor, in fact, but not because it is explicitly stated—the emotional labor of loss.

Sound, I note moving them back to the beginning, gives the poem cohesion throughout—sound as that is combined with the visual:

A million brilliant ambers twisting into

the thinning October sun, flooding my eyes
in a curtain of color.

The rhyme of “million/brilliant” that is not end rhyme, and then the series of words with double letters—”million,” “brilliant,” “thinning,” and “flooding.”

In some ways, poets play word games, but rarely are they games for games’ sake; in other words, these games lend cohesion through patterns. Patterns, we must recognize, create meaning.

O’Neil’s poem is also driven by imagery, concrete language and details. Augmenting the concrete nature of the discourse is the use of analogy (and personification), a powerful but dangerous strategy in purposeful writing.

“My yard is their landing strip,” “the stiff kiss of acorns puckers the ground,” “the gaping mouths of lawn bags/with their remains,” and the final line, “Dependable as a season”—the comparisons, we examine, help emphasize the concrete—becoming more vivid—but those comparisons must also resonate accurately. In other words, purposeful writing does not make analogies simply to make comparisons; they must be true and then must elevate the ideas being addressed as well as working with the tone established.

This poem raises a complicated aspect of purposeful writing, however, since it demonstrates the effectiveness of specific and concrete details along with craft (comparison, personification, rhyme, etc.) in order to create an ambiguous message.

Readers are compelled to believe the speaker of the poem has experienced loss, and that speaker’s hurt over the loss is somehow triggered by doing lawn work. Yet, we cannot be certain of the who, why, and how—although those details help nudge us in some credible directions.

Maybe the speaker has been left by a lover, or maybe someone close has died?

“Forgive” and “forgiveness” sit near “refuse,” “dying clover,” and “weeds.” Readers may be drawn to reading “leaves” darkly (a double meaning as with “fall”), yet the reader is also left with only informed speculation.

“Nothing is ever easy or true” may serve as a ironic line against the poem’s ambiguity, but the poem becomes effective and compelling because of the power of purposeful writing—moves students can make their own as they grow in the writing of essays.

Teaching English Is Teaching English?: Not Really

In the mid-1980s, I was offered a position teaching high school Advanced Placement English after my first year teaching English in the school where I had graduated only about 6 years earlier.

I called my principal, who had been principal there when I was a student, and explained I was tempted by the offer since I wanted to teach AP but also because my first year had been overwhelming; my load was four different preparations of English and journalism, saddling me with five different curriculums and 13 different textbooks (as well as supervising the student newspaper and literary magazine).

The principal, who always called me by my first name since I had been friends and teammates with his two sons (one a year older and the other a year younger), simply replied: “Paul, English is English.”

No effort to address my early-career struggles, no words suggesting the school wanted me to stay, or even respected my work—just a very bored statement brushing aside my concerns for asking way too much of me as an English teacher charged with teaching both British and American literature as well as writing (my student load was about 125 at that time).

I hung up discouraged, and conflicted about my career. Fortunately, I called my former high school English teacher and mentor, who worked at the district office. He talked me off the ledge, and I stayed at the school, hoping something would change about this misguided understanding of what it means to teach English, and writing.

Almost two decades later, however, I sat as a new faculty member and listened as my university changed its curriculum, including a debate and eventual decision to practice a similar misguided belief—teaching writing is teaching writing, and anyone can teach writing.

Teaching some combination of high school English, writing, and teacher education courses for over three and a half decades now, I faced with a great deal of trepidation Special Report: Literacy in the Workplace (Education Week).

While there is lots here to challenge, I think it is worthwhile to focus on a passage from Is Professional Writing the Missing Link in High School English Classes?:

“The assumption is typically that writing is a single skill, and that’s not really a correct assumption. I might be good at writing scientific articles, but God help me if I had to write a novel or poetry,” said Steve Graham, a writing education expert and an education leadership and innovation professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s pretty clear there is not a strong match between what businesses are looking for and what schools are doing. [Writing in school] really has more of an emphasis on what might happen in college than in the workplace.”

Exactly—writing itself is not a single skill, and literacy is not that simple either.

What we fail to do often, however, is to pull back and admit that teaching literacy (English) and writing, as the principal I mention above believed, is not monolithic endeavors either.

High school English is too often tasked with being both survey literature courses and writing courses. As the EdWeek article muddles, high school English must prepare all students to read and write in the discipline of literature, in preparation for the workplace (another oversimplified domain), and in preparation for college (yet another oversimplification).

We have overstuffed high school English—especially in this never-ending era of standards and high-stakes testing—and as a result we do way too much way too badly.

Let me note a few alternative reforms that may serve us better than yet more hand wringing about all the failures of teaching literacy:

  • Create robust programs and degrees in education that provide all teachers of literacy with holistic experiences as students developing their own literacy skills. My primary concern is that even today, most teachers of literacy—notably high school English teachers—have very weak grounding as students in the best practices we expect them to somehow cram into their bloated obligations as English teachers. How many teachers of English have come through courses rich in writing workshop and drafting original essays in a wide variety of genres and for a diverse range of purposes?
  • Re-imagine the curriculum so that literature and composition/writing have their own dedicated spaces that can allow us to better prepare and assign teachers. Of course, this new curriculum is not about artificially separating reading and writing since students will continue to write (and learn to write) in literature courses, and read in composition/writing courses. This new way of organizing curriculum allows composition/writing to be better addressed as a nuanced set of skills across different disciplines and for many different purposes in school and beyond.
  • Reject the culture of standards and especially high-stakes testing since both feed into simultaneously overstuffing expectations for English teachers and students as well as reducing literacy to what can be measured efficiently—a key culprit in assuring students will not be prepared for anything, much less college or careers.
  • Rethink teaching students for the Next-Thing by allowing teachers of literacy, including high school English teachers, a more clear and manageable purpose for whatever course is being taught and a more nuanced and accurate perception of exactly what the Next-Thing is. As one example, traditional high school English over-emphasizes literary (fiction, poetry) analysis and discipline-specific content such as MLA citation. As a result, students acquire a warped perception of literacy that impedes their transition into college and careers.
  • Admit and then address the very real need for any teachers tasked with teaching literacy to have reasonable student loads. Currently, best practices in literacy are often not implemented because teachers cannot manage them with so many standards and testing obligations combined with excessive student loads. As a high school English teacher, I was teaching literature and writing to 100-125 students a year for five periods a day all week; as a college professor of writing, I teach only writing to 24 students (two courses) over a semester, meeting 3 days a week. Guess which context better serves my students? Teaching conditions are learning conditions.
  • Place literacy acquisition, and especially writing, in a healthy relationship to technology. First, I offer this as a practical skeptic about technology. Next, however, in 2018, I witness daily college students who have virtually no real skills with word processing. Literacy has a symbiotic relationship with technology that too often is either blurred by a careless pursuit of technology-for-technology’s sake or failed because we make baseless assumptions that contemporary students are somehow tech savvy.

Teaching English is no simple task but there is much we can and should do to remedy that problem.

As I approach 60 and the end of my fourth decade teaching, I still cringe at my principal’s “Paul, English is English,” and shudder at the realization that little has changed for my field, my colleagues, and most students in the intervening years.

Aliens in Academia: Teaching Writing from the Margins

One of my earliest and most vivid experiences with being an alien in academia happened many years before I entered higher education. I was teaching high school English in the same English classroom of the high school I had attended.

One day, exasperated, a tenth grade student exclaimed during class, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write, read and write!”

For her nine or ten years of formal education, she had come to view “English” as plowing through grammar text books, worksheets, and tests. That my class was solidly grounded in teaching them to write—even the reading was mostly about reading like a writer more so than traditional literary analysis—transported her and other students to an alternate universe that was at least disorienting.

A bit past midway into my 18 years as a high school English teacher, I entered a doctoral program and developed a more cohesive awareness of the source of my status as an alien in academia—critical pedagogy.

I remained in my high school classroom for four years after my doctorate, but the move to higher education, I must admit, was in many ways a search for belonging. The alienation I felt for nearly two decades of public school teaching reached a saturation point (some of which, I think, manifested in my panic attacks and realization I was a life-long sufferer of anxiety in the year after I received my EdD).

However, I have to report that 17 years into higher education I am possibly even more aware of being an alien in academia.

Recently on Twitter, John Warner, Paula Patch, and I wrestled with a thread started by Warner:

While the three of us are joined by expertise and experience in teaching writing, we all have different degrees and backgrounds along with different higher education fits.

Several aspects of this discussion highlight that teaching writing at the college level is its own unique kind of being an alien in academia. Here are some of the issues worth considering:

  • Tenure-track and full-time teaching at the university level tends to require faculty with terminal degrees. The word “terminal” implies that this is the highest degree a person can earn in a field, but it also suggests the stress of achieving the degree (the experience could kill you, if it doesn’t necessarily kill your spirit) and, as the points raised by Warner and Patch reveal, represents the unspoken reality that the degree kills your opportunities beyond a very narrow band of “fit.” Too often, it seems, advanced degrees are alienating instead of being one of many possible ways to enter and grow in higher education as faculty.
  • The fine and performing arts, for example, offer a counter-model to how the teaching of writing often exists on the margins in colleges and universities. Fine arts and performing arts professors may not have terminal degrees, but do have expertise; notable, though, is that the fine and performing arts are not viewed as discrete skills that can and should be taught across the curriculum. In other words, the teaching of writing has experienced two contradictory and corrupting characterizations: (1) all students and academics need the essential skill of writing, and thus, (2) all disciplines and professors should and can teach writing (seemingly without any formal understanding of pedagogy).
  • This writing-across-the-curriculum has worked to push the teaching of writing even further to the margins by seeking ways to integrate it everywhere. Composition exists as an independent structure in some colleges, but more often than not, writing is diluted as something to be taught by everyone and even worse as something students should have already acquired (or can acquire in one or two first-year seminars)—thus, the teaching of writing is mandatory drudgery, a low act of remediation.
  • The teaching of writing, extremely well highlighted by Warner’s experiences, also labors under limiting and limited constraints, tensions among remediation, first-year composition, writing-across-the-curriculum (and among the disciplines), scholarly writing (citation and concerns about plagiarism), and so-called creative writing (fiction, poetry). These tensions highlight the common failure for colleges and universities to consider who qualifies to teach writing, how to structure writing instruction and programs, and how to recruit, support, and foster expert faculty of writing.

Teaching writing suffers from its diversity, its need for faculty who either have some generalist leanings or seek ways to grow and develop beyond the narrow expertise of a terminal degree. Teaching writing is about both pedagogy and content expertise—the teaching of writing requires expertise and experience in the teaching and being a writer.

My journey as an alien in academia has many facets; my credentials mean I belong in teacher education, but I do not fit there because my soul is somewhere that fits better with English and composition as well as sociology, all of which are places I do not belong.

Being working-class and critical do not help things either.

The conversation among Warner, Patch, and me raises a powerful question about the essential nature of teaching writing in higher education where those of us teaching writing are mere aliens, pushed to do our work at the margins while struggling within the paradox of writing as essential and something any professor can teach.

This may, of course, lead to another paradox, the community that is formed by our status as aliens teaching writing at the margins that in some ways hold everything together.

“If you read this story out loud”: Carmen Maria Machado’s Stories

A former first-year writing student who has transferred to another university to become a writer shared Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch” with me.

I fell in love with the story and the writer almost immediately, reading the story so quickly I had to throttle myself repeatedly—pausing and then looping back to re-read. I recalled the first time I read Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We,” my gateway into her An Untamed State.

Machado’s stories are more than compelling; they are precise, incisive, and disturbing.

Fortunately, Machado has collected eight short stories in Her Body and Other Parties, a volume that has garnered praise and awards but also establishes her gifts for storytelling, blending and blurring genres, and making the lives and terrors of being a woman central to the universes she conjures.

The stories weave together deftly meta-fiction (the volume begins parenthetically, “If you read this story out loud…”), horror, science fiction/fantasy, and experimentation (although this isn’t an exhaustive list) while also remaining true to the art of storytelling. The reader is always compelled by what John Gardner called a “vivid and continuous dream.”

Melissa Febos’s examination of “Intrusions” steers quickly toward literature, John Cheever’s “The Cure.” Throughout this haunting personal essay, Febos returns again and again to fiction—film and TV specifically as well as literature.

As she navigates her own disturbing experience with a voyeur, Febos confronts the reader with the perverse normalcy of other women’s stories against the backdrop of fictional recreation (Brian DePalm, Alfred Hitchcock, and “[o]ne of the many friends and acquaintances whom I began interviewing a few months ago about being peeped on”):

It is also a narrative that exonerates men. The more plausible it seems that women are always performing, the less indictable the watching. If we want it, where is the crime? Better yet, make us seductresses, inverting the men’s role even more extremely: They are our victims! One of the most shared qualities of all predators is their self-conception of victimhood.

And then:

Women are bombarded not only with suggestions that we are always performing for men but also with prescriptions for doing so, from the moment we are able to take direction. “A man’s presence,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “is dependent on the promise of power he embodies . . . A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.” Conversely, “How a woman appears to a man can determine how she is treated. To acquire some control over this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.”

Febos eventually confronts her “peeping tom,” and even overcomes her hesitancy to seek out the police (having been at that time a sex worker). But similar to other women she interviews, Febos discovers moving as her best option in a world where men in power view women as complicit, a prop, and where her role as victim creates a repeat performance as object, as the intruded, chillingly examined in Adrienne Rich’s “Rape”:

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

Just as Febos’s story and the stories of other stalked women are terrifying, they provide a counter-narrative to fiction:

A big difference between the two cultural narratives about peeping—that of the harmless romantic lead and that of the violent—is that one is much truer than the other. … Many of those television narratives boast of being pulled from real headlines, which gives the false impression that women are mostly murdered by sociopathic strangers. In reality, more than half of female victims are murdered by their romantic partners. … The documented frequency with which women are murdered by their lovers is why the pop-culture narratives in which the line between danger and romance gets purposefully blurred are most troubling to me.

The real-world violence and fear women live with and against pervasively also contrast the ultimate failure of pop fiction’s romance with peeping and stalking: the use of “women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity,” returning to Cheever:

The Cheever story is also interested in women solely as a backdrop for his tableau of masculinity—though in this case featuring conflict rather than collaboration. When the narrator of “The Cure” spots his peeping neighbor with his daughter on a train platform, the apparent purity of the daughter persuades him not to confront the peeper. … We are meant to be impressed by how deeply the protagonist is affected by the neighbor’s violation, and by his impending divorce. Alone in the house he usually shares with his wife, our protagonist’s behavior is weird, but not unsympathetic. Bachelorhood and the intrusion on his privacy seem to have agitated a deep well of aggression whose contents require some receptacle or outlet. He’s not a creep; he is reclaiming the masculine presence that Berger describes as “dependent on the promise of power he embodies,” and passing on the baton of victimhood. The woman’s fear assures him that he is no longer the object, but the subject.

And then back again to the real world:

One of the most common denominators in the stories I heard from women was of other men dismissing the peeping, as has long been done with so many forms of abuse. Freud himself considered the incest reports of his female patients to be fantasies. … We have all fielded this kind of response to one thing or another. We are exaggerating. We are overreacting. We are villainizing hapless men. And besides, it’s flattering.

Febos’s masterful essay ends with “I am still waiting,” chilling the reader the same way I felt by the end of Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.”

Experimental and long for a short story, “Especially Heinous” offers “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” through each episode over twelve seasons, including each original episode title and Machado’s own rendering of that episode’s synopsis.

This story is challenging in many ways, but it also provides a companion to Febos’s “Intrusions” while illuminating how fiction can rise above Febos’s powerful critiques of fiction’s persistent failures about the lives and terrors of women.

“Especially Heinous” builds its own narrative over the course of 272 faux-synopses, simultaneously breathing life into the horrors of inhabiting a woman’s body and dismantling the often trite and lifeless tropes of pop culture:

“DISROBED”: A disoriented, naked, pregnant woman is discovered wandering around Midtown. She is arrested for indecent exposure. …

“REDEMPTION”: Benson accidentally catches a rapist when she Google-stalks her newest OKCupid date. She can’t decide whether or not to mark this in the “success” (“caught rapist”) or “failure” (“date didn’t work out”) column. She marks it in both. …

“GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.

“RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit.

“PURE”; A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit.

Reading “Especially Heinous” and all of Machado’s stories prompt me toward sentiments repeated in Fabos’s essay:

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked. …

“What the ever-loving fuck?” she commented.

Machado and Fabos, through fiction and non-fiction, illuminate and confront the gross negligence of a world in the hands of men who refuse to listen, who persist in driving their words and images over and through the terrors of being a woman as if those men are the only things that matter.

When you finish Machado’s collection, return to the opening parenthetical words, “”If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices,” and then say aloud the last directions as directed: “ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.”

Can you hear it?