12 Beliefs About Teaching Writing

As the XO for our first-year composition course, I’ve been drafting the staff syllabus, which serves as something less than a template for new instructors and as something less than a guide for veteran instructors. Textbooks and due dates for the major graded assignments are shared requirements, and there are a few readings from the handbook and the rhetoric that we ask all instructors to assign, but beyond that, it’s perhaps not as regimented as one might expect at an institution like ours.

Still, in drafting a staff FYC syllabus and preparing to sell it to incoming faculty, I’ve found myself needing to articulate to myself my core assumptions about the teaching of writing. They follow, and I’d welcome additions or arguments.

  1. The course starts and ends with student writing, quite literally: writing is the first thing they do upon entering the classroom for lesson 1, and the last thing they do before leaving the classroom after lesson 40.
  2. Writing is first a verb and second a noun: the activity is always foregrounded before the product.
  3. Three or four major writing projects, with time taken to engage the diverse components of the processes of writing (generative writing, developing, drafting, seeking and receiving feedback, revising, editing, proofreading, publishing, reflecting) feels about right for a semester. Five feels like too many; two like too few.
  4. In working with the classical canons, invention and organization always come prior to style and delivery, both at the project scale and at the semester scale. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.
  5. The course requires both a handbook and a rhetoric. The rhetoric often best serves the earlier functions (invention and organization), while the handbook often best serves the later functions (style and delivery). This tends to set up a rhythm in assigning readings.
  6. Revision always leaves portions of writing behind. Students, like all writers, will produce writing that they do not publish. That doesn’t mean that such writing should be discarded: save it, come back to it, maybe not in this class, but later. Get students used to setting aside portions of their work.
  7. Difficulty is productive, and should be acknowledged as such. When a student says, “This challenges me and I don’t know what to do,” we should take this as a point of entry rather than a roadblock. Respond: “How? Why? At what point?” Then respond: “I’d like to hear more about that. Can you write about it?” The worst writing often comes from what is taken for granted; from what is easy. The best comes out of complexity.
  8. Don’t mark error at all on early drafts. (No: really: don’t.) On later or final drafts, don’t mark every error. For each essay, talk to students before they turn in a later draft about the two or three or four errors they want help with. Go to the handbook for those errors at the later-draft stages.
  9. One learns to write by writing. The core focus of a course on writing is writing. The direct method of instruction seems self-evident; from those who would advocate alternative methods, I would require supporting evidence. I am suspicious of any syllabus that seeks to privilege a third text — a reader — over a rhetoric and a handbook. Such privilege indicates to me both a belief that the material of a writing course is not writing, and a belief that the writing course is a proper vehicle for indoctrination.
  10. Publication is essential. Writers must have the opportunity to see readers — not just the teacher — reading and reacting to their writing. Writing has value, and the value of students’ work must be acknowledged, must be celebrated. Point blank: publication makes writing better.
  11. Major assignments must have links between them. A project begun in an earlier essay should lead in some way to a later essay. Students’ written reflections on their projects should foreground those links, and instructors’ written responses to student writing must acknowledge and foster those links, as well as acknowledging students’ writings as trajectories rather than as strings of individual performances.
  12. Students should self-assess, repeatedly: metacognition is essential to knowledge transfer. Ask students to write reflections about their essays on the days they turn them in. They’ll like being able to call your attention to the ways they’ve improved, and what they think is best about their essays. You’ll like the guide to grading that their reflections offer. Ask them, though, to be not only evaluative but descriptive: understanding how they write, and putting it in writing, will help them as well as you. Take their reflections seriously, and show them that you do so by engaging them and responding to them.
12 Beliefs About Teaching Writing

12 thoughts on “12 Beliefs About Teaching Writing

  • June 11, 2009 at 12:47 am

    These are great. They wouldn’t all work in my classes of developmental at a community college, but I agree with them at this level. I particularly like #6 and #12. Being empowered is what I see is important for many of my students, and that comes from the learning.

  • June 12, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks, Michelle. I’m curious: which ones wouldn’t work, and why?

  • June 12, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    I’m guessing maybe 10? Perhaps Michelle’s cc doesn’t have the resources to support a student publication (after the fashion of the one U Mass does or did). I guess it depends on what you mean by “publication,” though.

  • June 15, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Clancy’s partially right about #10. We do have two publication (one creative and one non-fictions), but the essays that are included are usually from Comp 2 level students (or creative writing students). I teach primarily the developmental class before Comp 1, and my students are not at the level necessary to compete. You have me thinking, though, about how nice it would be to have some sort of publication for just developmental students. My department members and I co-wrote a writing workbook for the fall, and the students who were asked to give permission for use of essays for examples were so honored.

    Primarily, though, it was #8 that I think I was alluding to. I have *tried* to limit markings as it often feels like I am editing their work, but so many of my students have intense problems with grammar (think 15 fragments in a paper, five instances of subject/verb disagreement), and we just really have to acknowledge it from the first paper and pinpoint the weak areas to work on. It’s rarely about style in my classroom and almost all about getting the thoughts organized, clarity, and conquering the grammar. I am very non-invasive about the way I mark the papers though, using abbreviations like FR for fragment, etc.

  • June 15, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    PS, it was also #3. We are required to have six essays, so although I try to review drafts, in a typical fall or spring semester, it’s not always possible with my teaching load. This is why #12 is so important to me.

  • June 16, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    A friend in the New York textbook publishing industry forwarded me to this page, in re #10 — and I have to agree, publication is crucial. I began a literary journal for college writing at Boston College and now we receive submissions from coast to coast. It’s one more place to send your students for that extrateacherial publication avenue: http://newcommave.com

  • June 16, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    Michelle, one thing that works for me with correctness concerns is to *not* tackle the errors all at once, because that tends to overwhelm my students. When we get to the proofreading and editing phase for Essay 1, we review all the editor’s marks (frag, cs, fs, pn agr, mm, dm, det, et cetera), and figure out which three we have the most trouble with or are most confused by. We work through the exercises in the handbook related to those three errors, and then we do peer proofreading and editing based on those three errors, with me telling the students that those three are what I’m going to focus on when I look at surface-level correctness in grading: in other words, I’m not going to worry as much about dangling modifiers if we’ve focused most of our work on comma splices and fused sentences, but they need to make sure they proofread carefully for those comma splices and fused sentences. (I also have peer proofreaders write their names at the tops of their partners’ papers, for accountability.) Then when I grade, I identify which errors I’m seeing most often beyond those three, and direct students in my end comments to focus on those errors in the future. For essay two, we then take on the next three most common errors, so by the time we get through the semester, we’ve devoted explicit attention to at least 12 surface-level correctness issues.

    I’ve also found that it helps to ask students to explicitly address their own error patterns as one component of their after-essay reflections; to look at which errors they’re learning how to avoid and which errors they persistently struggle with.

  • June 16, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    But six essays in a semester? That’s crazy. That’s an excruciating grading load on teachers, which makes for poor feedback to students, and that’s also not nearly enough time to sufficiently engage in the stages of the writing process, and a pace like that also prevents students from internalizing feedback and applying lessons learned from one writing project to the succeeding one.

  • June 17, 2009 at 11:28 am

    Yes, we are required to assign six. That’s actually a reduction, too. It was seven until last semester when we underwent a course redesign. We are required to follow the lead of the English Department, and that’s what they assign. The last one is the final, so there are five spread out over the semester.

    I think I do well with the feedback.

    We also teach 5:5 and most people teach overloads. Such is life in the CC.

  • June 21, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Michelle, We did that, too, but I think it was two years ago.

    One of the things with having 6 papers is that ours tend to be shorter. I look for 3 page papers rather than 4-5 pages. The research paper is 5-7 pages, not including outline and Works Cited.

    And, yes, at my CC they teach 5:5. I have 6 this fall, though I was offered 7.

  • June 22, 2009 at 12:11 am

    This is completely ridiculous.

  • March 21, 2011 at 4:21 am

    I like your post. Thanks for beautiful and targeted advise, its really a good work. There are certain procedures that you need to be familiar with when it comes to essay editing.

    Actually, the writing process of the research papers does not end without proofreading the pages of the document. That is why you must have an idea how to proofread articles from simple essays to thesis papers.

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