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.

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“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?

Making Writing Instruction Work: Conferencing

Here’s an open secret about teacher education: While politicians and pundits have been criticizing teacher education intensely since the Obama administration (think VAM), we in teacher education are disturbingly aware that many (if not most) of our candidates do not and cannot practice what they are taught once they enter the classroom.

Let me focus here on writing instruction as an example of that conflict.

Applebee and Langer’s most current and comprehensive research revealed some disturbing conclusions about “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (LaBrant, 1947, p. 87):

Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face. (pp. 15-17)

As I explain in my review of their research:

This gap between research and practice, reaching back to LaBrant (1947), is highlighted again and again throughout this volume—in ELA, social studies/history, mathematics, and science. Applebee and Langer emphasize that the negative consequences of high-stakes testing distinguish this study from their earlier work and that accountability has essentially stymied the influence of writing research (Graham & Perin, 2007; Smagorinsky, 2006), professional organizations, and teacher professionalism.

Teacher education struggles mightily against the persistent “considerable gap,” in fact, but the stalemate between informed practice and the realities of day-to-day classroom teaching can be alleviated.

Recently, I was again reminded of this problem when an early career teacher who completed my program was struggling with student-teacher conferences.

One of the greatest benefits I have experienced by moving to higher education (teaching first-year writing) from secondary education is the ability to require conferences from my students and having the time to make these conferences highly effective.

Since I have de-graded courses (as I did when teaching high school by the way), I include minimum requirements for student participation (see my fist-year writing syllabus). Those minimum requirements for writing-intensive courses include submitting full initial drafts, conferencing with me, and submitting at least one revision based on the strategies we identify in those conferences.

My feedback on writing has shifted significantly away from marking essays (using track changes and comments in Word) and toward more and more face-to-face conferencing.

I have, however, far more time available for conferencing than secondary ELA teachers, and my student load for my writing-intensive courses hovers around 20-24 students (a dramatic difference when compared to the 100-150 students most secondary teachers have).

Now if we confront that many K-12 teachers do not practice what they are taught as research-based best practice, we must also address that this gap is driven by the impracticality and inefficiency of effective writing instruction in the so-called real world of secondary teaching.

The early-career teacher mentioned above was exasperated because she had spent a couple days conferencing with students about their first essays of the academic year but had many students still to conference with. This amount of time and energy for conferencing was, she admitted, overwhelming and impractical.

She simply cannot sustain this over the semester weighed against all the other responsibilities she faced as their teacher.

As we discussed how to make writing instruction work, I mentioned I had addressed these problems in her methods course—although we both had to realize that here is another paradox of teacher education: Much of learning to teach cannot and will not happen until teachers are in the classroom, and that learning is an ongoing journey, not something to be acquired and then practiced.

Teacher educators too often oversimplify teaching during teacher preparation (the art of teaching tends to be framed as the science of teaching—rubrics, model lessons, etc.), and then practicing teachers feel they enter the classroom unprepared once the complexity and unpredictability of teaching become a daily reality.

Here, then, let me focus on the conferencing dilemma noted above.

First, when teaching students to write, we all must do less better. Teachers at all levels should decrease how much they mark student writing and then must narrowly target the time and content of face-to-face conferences.

I mark about the first quarter or third of student essays, and then add a few additional comments throughout the rest of the essay. When I conference with students, we create a two-to-three-point revision plan.

Less is more effective, and we must all resist the urge to martyr ourselves. (The lamenting in the teachers’ lounge or on social media about how much of our lives outside of school is spent lugging around and marking student writing is something we should all stop—the lamenting and the time, by the way.)

So, yes, face-to-face conferencing with students learning to write is a powerful research-based part of effective writing instruction, and conferencing is incredible time intensive, nearly unmanageable in the real-world of secondary teaching.

These are pragmatic compromises between best practice and reality that serve teachers and students well while remaining committed to the effectiveness of conferencing:

  • Regardless of how we conference, we must set realistic time limits and then not break those structures. And we must recognize that a few minutes can be more effective than marathon sessions that overwhelms teachers and students. I schedule my student conferences in about 20-minute blocks but we use less than that most times. Conferences of 4-5 minutes can be very effective in the secondary classroom—if well planned and targeted.
  • Another essential element of responding to student writing, whether by marking or in conferences, is to frame that work within students being required to address what is marked. If there is no structure for required revision and editing, and if the amount of revision and editing is unmanageable, then the time spent marking and conferencing is just more martyrdom.
  • While responding to student essays, and remaining committed to marking less, keep notes on common issues among most of the students to drive whole-class instruction (a companion to conferencing*, in fact), and group students by less common patterns to facilitate small group conferences as an alternative to individual conferences. This last practice allows teachers to manage 5 or 6 small group conferences of 5-10 minutes each (one class period if you are on a block schedule) versus trying to conduct 25-30 individual conferences of 5-10 minutes (several class sessions).
  • Create a schedule over your grading period that guarantees each student at least one or two individual conferences by targeting a handful of students for each major writing assignment, but not conferencing with all students for every writing assignment. Here I want to stress Henry David Thoreau’s “A [hu]man has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong” (“Civil Disobedience”).
  • Related to the point above, and significant for all aspects of writing instruction, teachers must have identified goals for each writing assignment, and again, the fewer the better. Responding to student writing either by marking student drafts or conferencing often suffers from teachers marking too much (wasting their time) and overwhelming students to the point of paralysis. But that targeting should also consider levels of importance to that feedback. Elements of revision addressing content and organization as well as word choice and sentence formation should be emphasized over basic editing (not to be ignored, but to be positioned at the end of the writing process once the writing deserves editing).
  • Student-teacher conferencing should work symbiotically with peer conferencing. In fact, student-teacher conferences should have the goal of making students more autonomous so that peer conferences and individual drafting become more and more effective, the role of the teacher gradually reduced. Teacher time and energy, then, more pronounced early in a course but relieved throughout the course. Also, student-teacher conferences can gradually focus on revision while editing can be gradually shifted to peer conferencing.

An irony of how we can close the gap between research and classroom practices is that effective writing instruction grounded in workshop methods requires a great deal of structure and organization. Many falsely see workshop as haphazard and traditional teacher-centered teaching as structured, if not rigid and authoritarian.

However, teaching writing well does not require that teachers martyr themselves. In fact, writing instruction greatly improves once we learn to do less better.


* Another way to make best practice practical is to step back from the practice and understand the concept. One of the key elements of conferencing is that it is based in student artifacts of learning. If most students are struggling with endings in their essays, a whole class session on endings is nearly as effective as meeting each student one-on-one. Here, whole-class teaching grounded in evidence of student needs is honoring a key aspect of conferencing without creating the stress of time.

Teaching Writing in the Absence of Expertise

For about the last third of my two decades as a high school English teacher, I served as the varsity soccer coach, at first for both the girls and boys squads and then just the boys.

Soccer was new to the high school, and the athletic director/ head football coach was actively antagonistic about the sport; he basked in calling soccer a “communist” sport, in fact.

The coach before me had played college baseball. He typically arrived at practice in his softball cleats and prompted the team to scrimmage, virtually every practice.

The team’s success was built almost entirely on the expertise of the players, although there was little success.

The dirty open secret about my agreeing to become the coach was that, although I was an active athlete (cycling) at the time and had played team sports in high school and college, I had never once played any organized soccer. My experience with soccer was grounded entirely in having come to the sport through my daughter, who began playing at 4 and within a few years became an elite youth soccer player.

Despite my lack of expertise as a player, my teams soon became the dominant team in our conference, and we posted back-to-back years of 15-4 and 14-5 records at one point.

I often think of my own experiences as a coach when I am confronted with mainstream beliefs that anyone can teach or coach anything because these skills (teaching, coaching) have some sort of generic qualities independent of the thing being taught or coached.

As my stint as soccer coach showed, it can be done, even well—but I would argue that my experience was an outlier and ultimately does not make a valid case for teaching or coaching as professions that can be mastered without the context of content (for lack of a better word).

With a recent flurry of discussions on social media about teaching writing [1], I have returned to my own conflicted beliefs about the need for teachers of writing to be writers themselves.

Much of the public debate about student writing quality and how to teach writing well is, frankly, garbled—such as this:

Today, there is a growing consensus that students need strong writing skills to succeed in the workplace and to fully participate in society, but educators passionately disagree on the best ways to teach those skills. Some call for greater focus on the fundamentals of grammar: building vocabulary, identifying parts of speech, and mastering punctuation. Others believe that students need more opportunities to develop their writerly voice through creative expression and work that allows them to make connections between great literature and their personal lives.

Meanwhile, it appears that many of the methods seem to be falling short: Results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that only one in four 12th- and eighth-graders is meeting grade-level expectations in writing. In both tested grades, Latino and African American students scored lower than their peers in other racial and ethnic subgroups.

Historically and currently oversimplified as a debate and framed always by “kids today can’t write,” the teaching of writing remains stunted by some systemic constraints that seem never to be addressed because, well, its always a debate and “kids today” can never write well.

One of those systemic problems is, I think, that those charged with teaching writing are mostly teachers who have never written in any context except for formal schooling.

This traditional pattern means that mechanistic approaches such as templates (five-paragraph essay) and rubrics are somewhat necessary structures to support the lack of expertise and experiences by those teachers.

School writing, as Cindy O’Donnell-Allen explains, is in many ways the anti-thesis of writing:

In school, writing was a closed circuit. The teacher gave an assignment, I responded, then she passed it back with a letter grade at the top of the page. I was good at school, but none of it felt like writing. Writing was what I did on my own time. I composed poetry and song lyrics in secret and hid my journal in my sock drawer when I heard footsteps in the hall.

Teaching students to write as students—and currently that means a significant amount of time and energy spent on teaching students to write to prompts in standardized and high-stakes assessments (from state accountability tests to so-called more sophisticated exams such as those for Advanced Placement)—is a narrow and possibly necessary evil. Yet as O’Donnell-Allen muses about students learning to write as students:

But would she have had sufficient experience writing in varied genres beyond the academic argument that writing a feature for The Atlantic would someday seem possible? And would she have had gained enough satisfaction from preparing for the Regents Exam that she would have hoped for a writing life beyond it? (It’s hard to say.)

Templates and rubrics as the guiding structures of teaching writing are about formal education being a “closed circuit” and mostly not authentic.

How many art teachers are not artists themselves? How many music teachers play no instrument? How many chorus teachers are not singers?

The teaching of writing and then the writing that students do K-12 and throughout college are trapped in a misunderstanding about expertise—both the expertise needed by the teachers and the expertise that students should be developing for themselves.

To teach writing, teachers must themselves have some real and (possibly formal) experiences as writers. Teachers who have only been writing in school as students (typically conforming to templates and rubrics, probably to perform on an assessment) are mostly equipped to pass along that “closed circuit” to students.

In a culture that narrowly identifies student success by “closed circuit” assessments, however, this dynamic may be viewed as very successful. Non-writers as teachers of writing may be able to wrangle most of their students into performing proficiently—or even excelling—on formal high-stakes tests (ones that are not valid measures of real-world writing, by the way; see my Chapter 1 on the problems with NAEP writing assessment).

As a first-year writing professor at a selective university, I can attest that these students who excel at writing as students are not equipped for advanced disciplinary writing within their major or in graduate school; they are also not prepared to be writers who makes their own decisions in sophisticated ways—or to write “a feature for The Atlantic,” as it were.

Templates such as the five-paragraph essay and rubrics are practical crutches for an education system that has failed to recognize the importance of complex expertise in the art and act of teaching.

Yes, some broad skills and dispositions can be identified and even taught to those aspiring to be teachers, but we must never leave it at that. Teaching also requires expertise in the thing being taught.

The teaching of writing is the domain of those who write in authentic ways—not just as students—and have some formal guidance in the moves of teaching broadly and teaching writing specifically.

Being a writer is humbling and it defies simple formulas because it is an unpredictable series of questions, fits and starts, and a journey toward a finished product that cannot be explained well in its parts.

That sort of experience over many years is the ideal expertise one needs to guide students to become writers, and not just to corral them into writing as students.


[1] See John Warner’s new book, and the zombie-like persistence of the 5-paragraph essay as well as the debate about that temple here and here.


See Also on the Five-Paragraph Essay

How the 5-Paragraph Essay Fails as Warranted Practice

Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

John Warner Swears Off Essays, and Students? (Yes, And So Should Everyone)

How to Get Published as an Educator

One of the best and most significant changes for me when I moved from high school English teaching to being a college professor was a blossoming of my life as a writer.

In the spring of my first year of college—almost 40 years ago—I had an epiphany: I realized that I was a writer. Much of my life in my twenties while I struggled to develop my professional credibility as a high school teacher, I was also writing poetry, short stories, and even a novel—all of which I religiously cast into the submission pond for publication.

For more than two decades, I dutifully mailed through the postal system 9 x 11 manilla envelopes including my hand-typed manuscripts and another envelope with return postage. Most of that work was returned with terse and impersonal rejections; a few had hand-scribbled notes of encouragement, and a smattering of work was accepted and published in so-called small or literary journals.

I had a couple professional education articles published before I entered my doctoral program in 1995 (Oregon English and English Journal), but I did not begin to recognize my writer life as less than a writer of fiction and more as a scholar and public intellectual until the late 1990s and especially once I left high school teaching and became a professor in 2002.

Since I was mostly a self-taught writer of fiction and poetry (not a part of an MFA program or the “in” circle of writers) and “only” a public school teacher, my efforts at publishing were almost all very discouraging and fruitless.

So here is my first caveat about publishing as an educator: Create a network and make contacts so that your work has a better chance of being considered and thus published.

Since I became a professor, I have published self-authored and edited/co-edited volumes (20+ volumes), about 30 chapters in volumes, and many dozens of scholarly journal articles and public articles and commentaries; as well, I have co-edited state education journals, edited/co-edited columns for 10 years in English Journal, and edited series for education publishers Peter Lang USA and Brill/Sense.

How did this transformation happen?

As I noted above, once in higher education, I gained access to publishing that I had not enjoyed previously. My affiliation with a university opened doors to public commentaries in local, state, and national newspapers and publications, and quite significantly, I made a connection through a colleague with a series editor (Joe Kincheloe) who believed in my work and started my career as a scholar.

Here, I want to emphasize that I was prepared for these opportunities by the years of mostly unproductive work prior; I had spent decades honing my skills as a writer—despite my lack of publications—and I had almost two decades under my belt as a classroom teacher (practitioner expertise) as well as a doctorate (scholarly expertise), including, of course, the powerful experience of completing a dissertation (which I later published).

As a series editor for two education publishers and as an editor/co-editor for columns in English Journal, I have learned a great deal about how to start and develop a career as a published educator; below, then, are some suggestions:

  • Determine the type of writer you are (or want to be). Essentially educators (K-12 or professors) who want to publish are either writers who want to publish scholarship or practitioners/scholars who need to write in order to publish. This recognition is not about being the right kind of writer (there isn’t a right one), but your attitude about the writing and your path to publishing are quite different between the two types.
  • Commit time to the craft of writing. If you want to publish, you must practice writing—including drafting a significant amount of text that will never be submitted or published. Read books on being a writer and writing well; read authors and scholars writing about being writers. But most of all, create writing time and build a reserve of writing that helps you hone your skill, explore the type of writer you want to be (voice, style, and genre/form), and accumulate texts that may serve you once you begin writing pieces targeted for submission and publication.
  • Begin to read professional published work as a writer. My time editing has included a great deal of energy gently responding to submissions that should have never been submitted; the format is unacceptable, or the piece simply does not match the publication or column. Want to publish scholarly articles? Seek out the journals where you would like to publish and read meticulously. What to publish a book? Explore publishers and read the books like the ones you want to write.
  • Do the due diligence of understanding and then conforming to submission guidelines. Well before actually submitting work, study calls for submissions and calls for proposals. Know the expectations for queries, proposals, and submissions. While some standard guidelines exist, almost all publications and publishers have unique requirements that demand you are meticulous and are willingly to honor the time and professionalism of the editors receiving your work; meet format, citation, and word-length requirements.
  • Join professional organizations and attend professional conferences. The most effective “in” to publishing as an educator is the professional organization, and then the professional conference. Professional organizations at the local, state, and national levels allow you to begin and grow a network, but they also often have publishing opportunities that far too few educators explore. Presenting at conferences is also an outstanding first step to having an article to submit—especially if you present with other educators and then co-author the article. Collaboration, in fact, is an excellent initial route to publishing, especially if you can collaborate with a published educator.
  • Create a social media presence (Twitter, etc.) that is mostly professional. Similar to professional organizations, social media can be a great community for entering the conversations you will want to explore as a writer. The key is to focus your social media time (who you follow, and what you share) on a professional community.
  • Identify your are(s) of expertise and then research to see what has been published, what is being published. As an editor and a peer-reviewer, I have very often had to reject work that simply walks well-worn ground or enters a conversation with no clear awareness of the status of that conversation. Being an educator at all levels can be very isolating, but to publish, you must be aware of what the conversation includes, what the research base has already offered (many call this standing on the shoulders of giants). First-time publishing is daunting, but those initial efforts have a much better chance if you commit yourself to knowing your publication, knowing your expertise, knowing your audience, and knowing the historical and current status of the conversation you wish to influence.
  • Recognize that academic/scholarly publishing is not the same as other types of publishing. Publishing as an educator is a subset of publishing in general. In my own career, the submission game for fiction and poetry is quite different than academic publishing. The “I want to publish” comment or urge must be qualified, and once you recognize you want to publish for practitioners and scholars, you need to understand the process for education-oriented journals and publishers. This is mostly the world of other educators and scholars; many journals, for example, are edited by practicing educators and professors (not full-time editors). And even book series are also edited the same way. Publishing as an educator is mostly entering a very distinct community, a community you are already a part of as an educator.
  • Consider blogging as a pathway to more traditional publishing. Nearly as important as the connections and access that moving to higher education afforded me was my deciding to blog, first at open sites and then on my own WordPress blog. Blogging provides for me a way to think through topics and issues, but it also creates a huge reserve of writing that I can cull from for formal submissions. Blogging also motivates me to write nearly daily (in a way that journaling never worked for me). As well, blogging helps you practice entering a conversation in ways that will benefit your formal submissions. Blogging has gained a much better status in recent years, and as I have done, a blog can be established as a place for your professional voice, and an outlet for establishing and developing that voice.
  • Submit your work. Ultimately, you must draft and finalize a manuscript, and then send it out. As I have detailed above, if you make the right efforts before you do this, you have very good odds of that work finding a home—probably in a smaller venue at first, but eventually in places that you have identified as your larger goals. Due diligence, and baby steps.

And this brings me to a final thought that isn’t so much about how to get published as an educator, but something to expect once you do get published: A sudden sense of terror often follows the thrill of acceptance and publication.

For me, publishing has been a powerful, important, and even necessary aspect of being an educator; I simply can’t see doing one without the other. Once you make the same decision, I think you will find a new level of satisfaction that enhances your life and profession.

Recommended

How to Write a Manuscript

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

These may have seemed petty or just pet peeves to my students, but I would not tolerate this sort of framing in student essays about literature:

Emily Dickinson says, “Because I could not stop for Death – /He kindly stopped for me –.”

William Shakespeare is often quoted as saying “brevity is the soul of wit.”

In the first example, I would note that poems have speakers, some personae that may or may not be the poet. I encouraged students to take great care to identify “speaker” if a specific voice isn’t identified in the poem along with nudging them to avoid the lazy “say” verb choice.

The second example is far more vexing since it makes the same error (the line is spoken by Polonius in Hamlet, and is not Shakespeare expressing a pithy idea); however, it is far more flawed since the phrase absent the context of the character speaking and the play itself allows people to completely misrepresent the line as a truism—instead of acknowledging that it is a hollow claim of a blowhard.

What I was teaching students included a couple of broad and narrow lessons about writing: one, broad, captures the need for precision in writing that is far more nuanced than what many expect in speaking, for example, and two, narrow, teaches some of the nuances of writing in the discipline of literary analysis.

It is at that second and narrow lesson I want to focus on some of the strategies connected with helping students develop a toolbox as writers that supports them shifting gears among different disciplines.

For example, let’s think about how students must navigate (too often without explicit instruction) the conventions of the humanities (writing in English or history courses) and the conventions of the social sciences (writing in psychology, sociology, education).

Two ways we fail students in those contexts include laying almost all of writing instruction at the feet of English teachers (K-12) and first-year writing instructors (as a one-shot inoculation), and then focusing too narrowly on the mechanics of citation style sheets (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) instead of the broader approaches to writing in the disciplines that those styles support.

In all of my courses—first-year writing, foundations education, upper-level writing/research, graduate—I require extensive writing assignments, and students consistently demonstrate a lack of awareness about disciplinary expectations for writing. Primarily, they come to writing assignments with literary analysis and MLA “rules” that they impose on all types of writing.

Therefore, some of the nuances I must address include the following:

  • In the humanities, source-based writing tends to focus on textual analysis of a primary source supported by secondary sources. Writing in the social sciences rarely involves textual analysis (except when including critical discourse analysis), but asks the writer to synthesize bodies of research to address key topics or questions.
  • Therefore, writing in the humanities often explicitly identifies authors and titles directly in the flow of sentence and discussions: “In her ‘Vesuvius at Home,’ poet Adrienne Rich explains, ‘But of course Dickinson’s relationships with women were more than intellectual.'” As well, writers in the humanities may explore one source at a time (both primary and secondary) to make a larger case about the primary source being addressed (for example, Rich examining the poetry of Dickinson).
  • However, writing in the social sciences synthesizes patterns of claims and conclusions across several sources, and thus, authors and titles rarely appear in the flow of sentences with attributions mostly parenthetical or in end/footnotes: “For this volume on comic books, then, interrogating the medium in the context of race is extremely complex because comic books are a significant subset of popular culture (increasingly so with the rise of superhero films based on comic books throughout the late twentieth and into the early twenty-first centuries), which necessarily both reflects and perpetuates all aspects of the culture it serves—including bigotries such as sexism, racism, classism, jingoism, and homophobia (McWilliams, 2009; Rhoades, 2008a, 2008b; Singer, 2002; Thomas, 2010; Wright, 2001).”
  • In the context of the second and third bullet, then, students must confront that writing in the humanities often requires direct quoting, but writing in the social sciences prefers synthesis (often oversimplified as paraphrasing*). Here, there are disciplinary contexts for how a writer supports claims that contradicts most students’ belief that all writing requires quoting.

These problems for students as writers and for teachers of writing also complicate my argument against templates and my commitment to students choosing their type of essays and topics.

Since writing and teaching writing are extremely complicated, then, I want to end here with how I have organized my upper-level writing/research course around commitments to scaffolding assignments, student topic choices, and supporting students as writers confronted with a variety of writing modes and disciplinary expectations.

Students have three major writing assignments—annotated bibliographies (sources that serve as the foundation for their scholarly essay), a major scholarly essay on an educational topic of their choice, and a public commentary incorporating hyperlinks for support and addressing the same topic as their scholarly essay but for a lay audience.

After students gather evidence that an educational topic has been covered often in the mainstream media, they choose that topic to investigate the research base, producing 8-10 annotated bibliographies of high-quality sources. In this process, students practice evaluating sources and also refine their skills in APA formatting (focusing on the bibliographies).

After they submit the first draft of the annotated bibliographies, we discuss how social scientists write, contrasting that to their humanities/MLA assumptions (addressed above). In a class workshop format, I then ask them to revise the annotations (and edit the bibliographies) by focusing on discussing the content of the research, and not announcing authors and titles. For example, a first draft includes: “DeLeon suggests that the archetype of the “urban” criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.” Then revised as: “The archetype of the ‘urban’ criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.”

The major scholarly essay challenges them next in several ways. The recommended structure includes the following: a personal narrative or narrative opening (supported by Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative), a section applying critical discourse analysis to several media reports on an educational topic (requiring them to analyze text and quote, similar to their humanities background), a section that is a mini-literature review of the research on the topic of choice (requiring them to write as a social scientist, synthesizing their annotated bibliographies, and practice the nuances of APA citation), and a closing (introducing them to the concept of framing, in which they return to their opening narrative in order to frame their essay focus—either that the media misrepresent or credibly represent the topic they chose).

The scholarly essay demands that students shift modes and investigate purpose as writers; the assignment is not prescriptive or narrowly prompted, but it is structured while also being demanding (although each student and I discuss how to revise that initial plan if the topic demands a different approach).

After drafting a scholarly essay using formal citation, students then condense what they have discovered into a much briefer (750-1250 words) commentary that incorporates hyperlink support and addresses a lay audience. Here, students must reconsider diction and sentence formation while also being more selective about using evidence. On that last point, we discuss the need to use individual examples that are accurate reflections of generalizations; in other words, focusing on one source but being careful that it fairly represents the body of research they have examined in their scholarly work.

This process, I think, helps represent how complex both writing and teaching writing are. Further, it shows that we serve our students best by avoiding writing assignments and instruction that oversimplifies the writing process and products (not asking students to write a narrative, but inviting them to integrate the narrative mode in service of a larger cohesive essay, genre, and discipline).

Where templates and prescription fail, we must seek ways to provide structure and scaffolding so that students can have multiple experiences shifting disciplinary gears as writers.


* Students admit that they have tended to use a passage from one source at a time and paraphrased by looking up synonyms one word at a time in that passage.

The Writing Center Dilemma

In What’s Wrong with Writing Centers, Rose Jacobs reports on Lori Salem’s “quantitative analysis of Temple University’s writing center, which she has directed since 1999. The assistant vice provost wanted to understand its role by investigating who doesn’t visit as well as who does.” Salem discovered:

[T]hat practices that are near-orthodoxy in writing centers — such as nondirective instruction, in which tutors prompt students to come up with the right answers themselves; and a resistance to focusing on grammatical errors — cater to individuals who already have a strong grounding in grammar and composition, the sort of students who never turn up. That leaves the most frequent visitors underserved: female students, minority students, and those who grew up speaking a language other than English at home.

Salem admits her study is just a beginning since it focuses on one center at one university, but as someone who has been teaching writing for almost four decades, both as a high school English teacher and a college professor of first-year and upper-level writing courses, I can confirm that many of the dilemmas uncovered by Salem ring disturbingly true.

Those two distinctly different teaching experiences have shaped me within a broader unifying way: I have mostly taught myself how to teach writing, having only one real formal experience with learning how to teach writing through the National Writing Project’s summer institute. I don’t have any degree in composition, and didn’t formally study composition in any undergraduate or graduate courses.

As a high school teacher for almost twenty years, I learned mostly by trial-and-error, and then was saved by my regional NWP affiliate, the Spartanburg Writing Project, where I also was a co-lead instructor for a few summers before heading to higher education full time.

But the last decade has been an incredibly fertile and difficult journey with how writing is taught in higher education. I have been teaching first-year writing, along with an upper-level writing course, and I briefly held a small administrative role in guiding our first-year seminars.

Over that time, my university has (finally) formalized a writing program by naming a Director of Writing Programs and seeking ways to make the writing and media lab and program more cohesive (adding the upper-level writing/research requirement to the curriculum, for example). The teaching of writing is also being more directly addressed by creating Faculty Writing Fellows, faculty who participate in a year-long seminar addressing writing instruction.

As I have participated in and witnessed these recent growing pains at my university, I can offer some anecdotal, but I think credible, observations that match well with Salem’s research:

  • Writing instruction at the course/class/individual faculty level suffers from a lack of purpose and cohesion without a school/college unifying mission and set of shared goals. In other words, how does any class/course contribute to some set of outcomes related to writing all students should have experiences in as integral to graduating?
  • Class-level writing instruction and writing centers/labs must guard against two corrosive but alluring perspectives: (1) viewing writing instruction as remediation, and (2) seeing any course or session on “how to write” as some sort of one-shot inoculation against “errors” (a deficit view).
  • Both learning to writing and teaching writing are journeys, and must remain grounded in clearly defined contexts. Disciplinary writing in high school and college is much different than becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. For example, composition faculty and K-12 English teachers define “writing workshop” differently than creative writing faculty (think MFA).
  • Teaching writing always involves tension among concerns about craft, content, and correctness. A writing program, and writing center practices, must address how these elements will be taught as well as how each is weighted (not if, but when, how, and why). Many who come to teaching writing from disciplines outside English or composition are over-concerned with correctness (teaching writing is correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage) and significantly focused on disciplinary content and the logic of student claims, evidence, and elaboration in writing.
  • Teaching writing is enhanced by those teachers being writers themselves, but this expectation must be navigated carefully since few faculty are writers and some may write mostly out of necessity, not out of a drive to be writers.
  • The inequity unmasked by Salem’s study often presents itself in the teaching of writing through which students receive what instruction. So-called reluctant or remedial students (disproportionately black, brown, and/or poor) receive instruction on correctness (grammar, mechanics, usage) often in isolation (worksheets on skills) and are allowed or required to compose very little or not at all. The so-called advanced or gifted students (disproportionately white and affluent) compose more often and are allowed to venture into “creative” writing, experimentation, and choice. These instructional choices perpetuate inequity.

Writing centers and programs, then, are necessarily integral parts of equity and academic goals in any school, college, or university. Students must be better served at the class/course level as well as over the entire school/college experience through a cohesive writing program that rejects seeing the teaching of writing as remediation or an inoculation, but embraces authentic purposeful instruction.

Just as Salem’s data show that students view writing centers as ineffectual, thus unimportant, faculty often marginalize the status of teaching writing—something to be done by someone else or not relevant to their discipline.

Writing, however, is an essential tool of not only students and academics, but also being fully human.

Learning to write and teaching writing are both being mis-served in formal education, with the shortcomings of writing centers as one example, and as a consequence, so are our students and those charged to teach them.


For Further Consideration

Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?, Lori Salem

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education, Ann L. Mullen

Differences in College Access and Choice among Racial/Ethnic Groups: Identifying Continuing Barriers, Sylvia Hurtado, Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, Charlotte Briggs and Byung-Shik Rhee

Minimal Marking, Richard H. Haswell

Why Senior Faculty Should Teach First-Year Students, Randall Smith