Our students have turned in their first essay assignments, and we’re deep into grading. For me, here, the first essay is all about navigating the rhetorical situation, helping the students figure out how to closely read and respond to the writing prompt. In terms of the grade, it’s fairly low-stakes, and my responses tend to be in the my-experience-as-a-reader mode but also attempt to illustrate to students the alignments and gaps between how they performed and the task they were set.
So a number of us, military and civilian, met at the Officer’s Club yesterday afternoon to unwind over a few pitchers and compare notes. One instructor was upset: he’d had seven Fs in a single section, and didn’t know how to account for it; wondering whether there was something wrong with his teaching or the way he posed the assignment, or how his students could so misread what was asked of them.
Another instructor posed an analogy that I’m not sure whether to like or dislike: people who teach writing, he proposed, like to teach writing for the same reasons that people go to NASCAR races. They love the skill that they see, the persistence and mastery of technique — but there’s also the love of the wreck, seeing something go incredibly and colossally wrong into a huge, end-over-end tumbling fireball. As he was saying this, I wanted to stop him, to interrupt and say no, that’s such a misguided, punitive model of instruction, that’s not what we want — but he took the analogy and made a turn into Mina Shaughnessy territory, proposing that the appeal of the wreck is in investigating its causes, seeing how it happened, how it could have happened, examining its conditions of possibility.
Maybe it’s an old or facile or obvious insight for those of us who teach writing. But right now, as I work through getting first essays back to students, it’s a useful reminder, and I think I can work with that. Reading writing as a way of investigating the conditions of possibility involved in its production.