05 December 2010

Teaching composition: How do we make students conceptualize themselves as writers?

At the risk of a very boring lead-in to this post, here's a thing I wrote for class! We had to write a kind of "what I learned this semester" assignment for my pedagogy class, after teaching according to the prescribed syllabus. So I thought I'd share it with you guys and get your thoughts, especially since I haven't been posting lately. So enjoy!

The main goal of a writing teacher is to improve her students' writing, but in order for this to happen, an instructor must convince her students that they are writers, not merely students, engineers, scientists, or mathematicians taking a writing course. By doing so, she can be more confident that her students will get something more meaningful and lasting from her class than a passing grade. In the worksheets that my students filled out at the beginning of the semester, most students indicated that what they would gain from my class was a basic competency in writing for their future professions. Those that find the class relevant only think it is relevant for their future professional life (and perhaps for the rest of their undergraduate careers). One student wrote, “My boss one day will expect me to write well, and will judge me on my writing ability, so I hope to improve my grammar and writing for my future job.” While there is nothing wrong with this personal goal, nor is it problematic for a writing teacher to indicate to her students that professionals are often expected to write in the course of their jobs, students will be more successful and will get more out of a writing course if they see writing as a skill they will use, and already use, outside of the classroom and the workplace.

Almost all students are writers before they enter a freshman composition course. They write emails; on a myriad of internet sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, and blogs; in the margins of books; in notes, letters, and birthday cards; in diaries and journals; in school newspapers or yearbooks; and some even write fiction or poetry. They belong to discourse communities before they enter academia; they attend church, belong to clubs and organizations, volunteer, belong to service or social justice groups and communities. While students often think that a composition course will only help them to participate in the discourse communities to which they are newly inducted (academia and their respective professional fields), relating a composition course to the discourse communities to which students already belong should be a responsibility of a writing instructor, and doing so will help students to invest in the course beyond their commitment to learning grammar or getting a passing grade. Many of my students have told me that they do not see the relevance of my class to their lives, usually in response to my comments on their essays asking them to be engaged and interested in their writing. Indeed, how can I expect them to be engaged when the assignments are easier for them to complete successfully if they do not care about the topic at all? Assignments that ask them to be objective and without bias are difficult enough at their age, but I also think they are counter-productive when made high-risk major grades. There are ways to teach our students to summarize fairly and without overt bias, but basing a major assignment on those skills made my students feel as though their positions did not matter. After the first two assignments, which explicitly forbid students from making their positions their arguments, many of my students were cautious about sharing their positions in the third paper. More than once I heard in class: “So, we're allowed to state our opinions?” Because I had been teaching them to make arguments that could not reveal their positions, my students did not know how to conceptualize their positions as positions, supported with reasoning and argumentation, as opposed to opinions, mere statements of unsupported preference.

Further, these two assignments forced me to ban the word “bias” from my students' papers. All semester, I have struggled to convey to my students that everything written includes some bias, and thus to use the word as a weapon is not in good faith. Their use of the word “bias” in this way is partly a result of a cultural preference for objectivity, but our emphasis in ENGL 104 on objectivity in the first two major assignments does not help. By demanding essays that refrain from stating positions, and calling this objectivity, I produced students that believed arguing for a position is biased and illegitimate. And because my students did not argue for a position until the fourth paper, I was only able to talk with them about being fair, as opposed to objective, in arguing for a position for a few weeks. They did not receive almost any practice in this, despite the fact that this skill is just as important as avoiding overt bias when necessary. In fact, in most discourse communities, arguing for positions in a fair way is far more useful than summarizing objectively or analyzing without overt bias.

Another way that writing courses often do not position students as writers outside the classroom is by not allowing for revision. In most discourse communities, revision is an important part of the writing process, and if the community does not allow for outright revision, then it allows for responses, dialogue, qualifications, and corrections. Only in academia (and then only at the undergraduate level) is the draft turned in on a deadline a final one, graded with no chance for discussion, revision, or correction. This process decontextualizes student writing, and makes assignments unrelated to the discourse communities in which our students participate, where most texts are not utterly final and finite. Further, not allowing for revision does not encourage (or, as is sometimes necessary, force) students to draft multiple times, a process necessary for successful writing.

The solution to these problems is assignments that allow my students to participate in different discourse communities. In such a project, I would elicit from each student a discourse community to which they already belong (a church congregation, a blogging community, a school newspaper, an activist community) and have them work with me to produce a writing assignment positioned within that community. The first part of this project would be a fair, researched summary of the characteristics of the discourse community, while the second part would involve making an argument within that community. Because I think students should participate in and take responsibility for their own education, students would be responsible for working with me to create a rubric for assessing their assignment, based in part on the first part of the assignment. Both portions of this assignment would allow for revision after the draft is turned in. If students are unhappy with their final product (or their grade), they would have the option to revise.

This type of assignment would result in several positive outcomes. First, by having students identify discourse communities to which they already belong, it would position my students as writers outside the classroom. They would be encouraged to be invested in the assignment and in themselves as writers within a particular discourse community outside of a professional or academic sphere, which would likely result in their greater commitment to improving their writing beyond the desire for a good grade. Second, it would reduce the emphasis on objectivity that the current syllabus has, and introduce my students to position arguments, those arguments my current students have called “opinions” and “biased” all semester, much earlier. Third, it would allow for and encourage revision, indicating the vital role this part of the writing process plays. This would also allow for a discussion of how texts in other discourse communities allow for revision, discussion, response, and correction, and thus position students' writing as not merely anchored in academic or professional discourses. Last, this type of assignment would position other discourse communities as comparable and just as legitimate as the academic discourse community, to which the remaining course assignments would be written. The course would thus avoid the preference for privileged discourses, and the delegitimization of underprivileged discourses, that is found in both the university and in our larger culture.

It is the responsibility of the writing instructor to teach students to write, but to what end? Students who enter a freshman composition course should not be given only the option of becoming a better academic writer, but also a better writer within the discourse communities to which they already belong. The composition course should be an opportunity to become a better academic writer, a better blogger, a better editorial writer, a better Twitter-er, a better activist writer, a better newspaper column writer. Without that opportunity, what a student does in a composition classroom is unlikely to stick with her, unlikely to translate outside the walls of the university, and unlikely to give her the sense that she is capable of creating change through her writing.


Anna B said...

On a similar vein, I wrote about encouraging teens to see themselves as readers earlier this fall:

It's a concept that gets lost, teaching a mindset instead of a subject.

Courtney said...

Thanks for the post, Anna. When we label specific types of reading and writing as illegitimate, it's important to see why we do so. I'd argue that it's because there is greater access to the discourse communities that we find illegitimate (like blogging or magazines), and thus the process of labeling something "real" reading or writing is a process of limiting that to a privileged class of people.

Gayle Force said...

Oh, I always told my middle schoolers at the beginning of the year that my job was to make them Readers.

I can't believe people talk about objectivity in writing still. There was this thing, it was called "postmodernism." Objectivity is a myth, an illusion - I remember the beginning of my senior year AP English class, when our brilliant teacher said, "Don't act like you didn't write it. You have to own what you do. Don't pretend you're not present in your paper. If I don't see a single "I" in your paper, I will fail you, because you're either trying to lie to your reader, or you're being cowardly."

And anyway, students have a much harder time finding their Voice. Better to cultivate that than anything else.

Courtney said...


Yeah, I don't know what the fuck they are thinking telling us we need to have our students write objectively. It is beyond stupid.

I encourage my students to write with we's, because I like them to think of themselves as part of a community. Being in a community means respecting its rituals, taking responsibility for your writing, while also developing a unique voice particular to that discourse.