I had a productive first meeting with the person I’m working with on the Afghan side here, the acting head of the Languages department, and have started to develop a sense about the specifics of the areas — curriculum development, teacher mentoring — on which he’d like me to focus. The project our American mentor team has taken on feels enormous and a little bit diffuse, with undefined boundaries or limits beyond that of the departure of the American mentor presence from this extraordinarily young institution of higher education in less than three years, and a philosophy that can mostly be summed up as an orientation toward helping the Afghans draw together and perform all these administrative and curricular and pedagogical tasks, literally inventing the university in its entirety as their own, on their own. I still struggle to get my head around how big a project this is and how many moving parts it has and how swiftly and carefully we have to move. Today, on the peeling-paint wall over my corner desk in the office, I scotch-taped up a quotation from T.E. Lawrence’s “Twenty-Seven Articles“: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.”
One thing I know I need to do in order to be helpful here is to step back and get perspectival distance on the assumptions about teaching and writing I’ve built up over the past twelve years or so. So in my meeting, I listened a lot, asked questions, and took notes. After I went back to the office and typed up the notes, I opened two of the books I brought to help reset my assumptions to zero: Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj’s The Elements of Teaching Writing and Cheryl Glenn and Melissa Goldthwaite’s The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. (I’ve re-read Erika Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers too recently to be able to come to it with fresh eyes.) There’s much to commend both books, beginning with Glenn and Goldthwaite’s observation that “The first thing any new teacher must do is gather information” (3), perhaps glaring in its obviousness save that I’ve been working hard to do precisely that in an environment where I’m off-balance and uninformed, where I don’t know any of the ropes or routines. Certainly, I’ve been “mak[ing] inquiries about the academic level of the students [that the Afghan instructors here] will be teaching” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 4) and “[t]ry[ing] at this point to find out all [I] can about the backgrounds of the students [they] are likely to encounter. Until fairly recently, teachers of writing have treated all students as if they were very much alike, but that convenient fiction is no longer feasible to maintain” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 5). The second quotation is perhaps even more true in an institution drawing from a population incredibly diverse in terms of economic status, literacy and previous education, and language and tribal background — Uzbeks, Nuristanis, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and others.
And I like the way Gottschalk and Hjortshoj begin, as well, by posing some fundamental questions: “What is wrong with student writing? … Who is responsible for improving student writing?” (4). Who ought to be able to teach writing (5), and “[w]hat is good writing” (7)? Gottschalk and Hjortshoj then move to big-picture concerns about writing and learning, about philosophies of teaching, and about course design (12-13): this seems smart to me, to orient oneself to the biggest and most important concepts, the overarching frame, before one starts to work on the details. I know which courses and which aspects of curriculum my Afghan counterpart wants the most help with, and I have a loose sense of what pedagogical areas he’d like me to help his faculty work on, but my sense is vague and limited, and it’ll take more time and talk — weeks, I think, at least — to refine and broaden and specify that sense.
Glenn and Goldthwaite take a different approach, focused much less on the big-picture questions: while they devote pages early on to constructing a syllabus, it’s not so much about course design as it is about administrative requirements, which strikes me as odd, or at least as not an approach I would choose. They assert that “The first details you should find out about are the number of credit hours the course carries and the number of times the class meets each week” (Glenn and Goldthwaite 3) and ask, “Must students write and submit a certain number of essays? Must they keep journals or reading logs? Is there an official policy with regard to revisions? peer evaluation? teacher conferences? evaluation and grading? Is an exit exam required?” (4), which are all relevant and important questions, but not the things at the front of my mind as I first beging thinking through the design of a course. Similarly, they focus on the administrivia of teaching writing in their account of the first two days, enumerating “bureaucratic tasks,” syllabus review, introductions, dismissal, more “bureaucratic tasks,” and the clinically characterized “diagnostic” writing assignment.
As I try to stand back from my assumptions and think about the Afghan students and instructors here, I still can’t help but say: this isn’t how I would want to start thinking about a course, and it isn’t how I would want to start teaching a course. Certainly, the administrivia are necessary, elements of a sort of logistical scaffolding that makes other things possible, forms of enabling the work-behind-the-work that does deserve to be at times foregrounded upon, reflected upon (“How do you write? Where are you when you write? For how long at a stretch? What do you need to know or do in order to be able to write? What are the non-writing tasks that make you able to write?”), but it’s not an end in itself, and not something that one should lead with.
Contrarily, I would want the first day of a course to give some idea of the overarching picture, the plan, a glimpse at the big idea or big picture, and a sense of how the work of the class will go, an engaged task as a taste or warm-up for the semester’s work. I imagine myself starting class today, this 26th of January, and I imagine:
“Welcome,” I say. “This is a writing class.
I believe you can write, and that you can write well. I know that you learn by doing, and this class will be in doing writing, in engaging the process, and in learning and practicing how to internalize the habits that will make you a better writer. So we’re going to start by doing today: I’m going to ask you to write.
In today’s 55-minute class, you’re going to produce an essay. It’s important that you try to make it as good as you can, and what you write today will have value to you later on in the course. Your essay is going to be about you and your writing, about you as a writer, what you’re good at and what you’ve done, and what you expect from this class and from your future as a writer. Your audience for this essay is not me–don’t write what you think or guess or expect that Dr. Edwards might like–but is someone who is curious about you as a writer, someone who wants to assess and evaluate who you are and how you write and what kind of writer you are and where your head is on this day, this 26th of January, and most importantly, it’s somebody who doesn’t want to be bored. You need to grab this person’s attention and keep it, and you need to tell them a story with a message or moral; an anecdote that illustrates something important about you as a writer. Don’t be boring: think about what kind of essay would seize your attention and keep you reading. Write like that. That’s your assignment.
Here’s how we’ll start.
On a piece of paper, make three lists, taking about two minutes each. First, a quick list of all the things that come to mind about good writing: what’s it like? What defines it? How do you know what it is? What are examples of it? Anything that comes to mind. Second, a quick list of the events in which you remember yourself as a writer most vividly. This doesn’t have to be school writing, but it can be if you like: the text you sent to the person you liked but didn’t dare talk to, the time you got caught writing on the wall, or the group project you stayed up late doing most of the writing for that nobody else wanted to work on but wound up earning an A. Things like that; as many as you can recall. Third, a quick list of all the ways you would describe yourself as a writer: adjectives, metaphors (“As a writer, the car/animal/musician/movie/etc. that best represents me would be _____, because _____), histories, analyses. That’s it: six minutes. Go through and circle a total of at least three things from those lists that you think you can write about.
Now: from those three things, freewrite about one or two for four minutes. Just keep the pen moving; don’t stop. Generate as much prose as possible. Don’t worry about correctness. Write what comes to mind and get it down as fast as you can without stopping.
OK. You’ve got three lists, three things, and a solid paragraph or two of freewriting. Let’s think about turning this into something that looks like an essay. How do you want to start? Well, you probably want to get your reader’s attention, maybe by saying something provocative, or by offering a vivid description, maybe an anecdote or an event. In an essay this short, you’re not going to have the typical thesis up front, so save that for the end; some sort of conclusion that you’ll draw about yourself as a writer. That’s a start point and an end point. Take about three minutes and draw or scribble or jot down a diagram or plan or outline of what you’ll start with and what you’ll end with and how you’ll get from point A to Point B.
Good. You’ve got a plan. Now it’s time to write it. I want you to save ten minutes at the end for a couple final tasks, so right now, you’ve got 25 minutes: on a new sheet of paper (or two, if you’re good at writing fast), turn what you have so far into an essay, an anecdote that demonstrates and explains something important about you as a writer and your writing, about where you’ve been and where you’re going and maybe even what you expect here and now in this class; something vivid and interesting; something that even if it were about someone else you might enjoy reading.
OK: it’s been about twenty minutes, and you’ve got another five minutes or so left before we move to the last ten minutes of class, so work toward wrapping it up into a conclusion.
That’s it. At this point, you should have something that looks like a essay. Put your pen or pencil down, and don’t pick it up for the next five minutes: instead, just read back over what you wrote.
Good. Now, in the last five minutes of class, I want you to pick up that pen or pencil again and edit out any mistakes or things that don’t sound good, replacing with the appropriate language in the margins or in between the lines.
Now: take the essay that you just wrote — only the essay you just wrote, not the lists or the freewriting or the outline or structure — and fold it up and put it in the envelope I gave you. Seal the envelope and write your name on the front and turn it in to me.
Your homework is to hold on to those pieces of paper with the lists and freewriting and outline and structure and bring them to class next time. I’m handing out the syllabus now; I’ll ask you to read that and bring it as well. Finally, there’s a short essay on the course website that I want you to read and take notes on. Print it out and bring it to class as well. We’ll start by talking about the writing process you just went through and the course philosophy, and then we’ll use that discussion as a way into talking about the syllabus and the reading.
And that would be the first day of class for me: a focus on the student’s writing and ideas; a whirlwind tour of the writing-as-process approach; and setting up the work for the next two classes as well as the end-of-semester reflective activity with the envelopes.
I’ll start with the envelopes: I think this is as good a teaching trick as I’ve learned, and it’s especially useful deployed in conjunction with reflective writing and/or portfolios. (I’ve modified this somewhat from an idea I originally stole from Brian Houle, so big props to him.) The envelope essay isn’t graded: that’s why they seal the envelopes. Instead, they unseal it and read it when they’re doing their end-of-semester portfolio reflection with all their graded essays and reflective writing and trying to assess how far they’ve come and what they’ve learned, so to have a sort of pristine artifact of their writing from the very first day of class is helpful to them as a starting point from which to measure. It also makes you look like a super-brilliant instructor having planned all those lessons ahead, and they get a kick out of reading what they had to say about themselves a scant four months earlier.
And then there’s the writing process: in that first day’s activity, the focus is on defining for themselves what constitutes good writing, identifying themselves as writers and focusing their attention on what they do as writers, and going through many of the steps that the rest of the semester will somewhat artifically systematize, with generative writing, developing, drafting, and editing and proofreading. Obviously, there are some significant things missing — seeking and integrating feedback, and revising — which is where lessons 2 and 3 come in.
As I noted, the envelope essay is ungraded: I think that’s important. At the same time, I don’t want the work they’ve done to go to waste, so I have them bring back in their planning work and generative writing. After the discussion of course approach and philosophy I’ve briefly just touched on and clarifying connections between that approach and philosophy and the syllabus, I’ll ask them: what was missing from what we did last time? They’ll key in pretty quickly, and I’ll briefly put them in threes or fours to talk about what they wrote and what they would have liked help with, using their notes and generative writing as guides, and the back-and-forth should sound something like, “What I was trying to do was…” and “Well, what sounded most interesting to me about your essay — what I would have wanted to read more about — was…” From there, they’ll report back to the big group, and we’ll use those reports as a way in to talking about the homework reading — something under ten pages about writing; in the past, I’ve used Anne Lamott, Gertrude Stein, Peter Elbow, Joan Didion, and others, and am thinking that something by or about Khaled Hosseini as a writer might be appropriate and engaging for these students. My students’ homework (I’m not teaching this semester; only mentoring other teachers and developing curriculum) for lesson three would be to then go home and review that reading, taking notes, and to review their generative writing from lesson 1 and take notes on that as well, fleshing it out more fully. They then come to class on lesson 3 and use their notes to spend an entire 55 minutes writing a more polished essay that both revises what they did on lesson 1 and incorporates thoughts about the discussion from lesson 2 and their own insights about the reading, and that graded essay — I don’t much care for the term “diagnostic” — is what I review to get some sense of the students as writers and set up the opportunity to discuss what they might get out of the class.
Finally, lesson 4 would set up further opportunities for revision by putting the reading for the lesson 3 in-class essay into play with another reading on writing, and asking students to start thinking about shifting rhetorical concerns like audience and context through a revised assignment prompt — probably three to four pages or so, enough room to make an expanded argument tying together personal and textual evidence to support a somewhat more complex contention. The work started on lesson 4 would be toward an essay that makes full use of the writing process through seven or eight lessons, and I think it would be interesting for students to compare both lesson 3’s in-class essay and lesson 11 or 12’s turned-in homework essay with lesson 1’s envelope essay at the end of the semester.
All that thinking-through of what happens at the start of the semester comes out of my resistant response to what I see as Glenn and Goldthwaite’s overemphasis on the adminsitrative details at the start of the semester; an overemphasis that seems to me to both distract from a more important focus on course philosophy and design and also position students themselves as interested more in the administrivia and bureaucratic tasks than in the project of learning to write well: “What can I get away with?” it seems to position them as asking; “Do I have to do this? What’s it worth? How late or absent can I be?” To me, answering those questions up front as a sort of defensive move seems to already sow the seeds for a problematic relationship; one that feels privileged, suburbanized, lawyerized, Americanized. And yet maybe I’m picking up on that because I feel myself here to be in a vacuum of bureacratic systems, a place where there are no established procedures and protocols, or at least none that are easily accessible, and I find myself a bit at sea, trying to stitch and sew and tape together an approach and system out of loose fasteners and spare parts and the remarkable goodwill of the people I’m working with here.