In a recent conversation with my mother-in-law, I discussed my frustration with teaching writing. She lamented that students really learned to write in high school and many secondary schools were failing at that task. I wondered [aloud to her] whether writing is something that we learn only once or at one point in time. I challenged her to think about “writing” as an ongoing practice, as something that can be constantly improved.
As much of our interpersonal communication takes place via email or text messaging, writing could not be more important. Yet, I’m unsure if my students understand or care about the stylistic and structural differences between writing an email and writing a research paper. Sure, on the surface, they understand that colloquial, “texting” language is not going to fly in a formal essay. That does not prevent their laid back tone in a research-based assignment. We are so focused on teaching content that we forget our responsibility to enhance other skills students need to be successful in the classroom and beyond like writing. I hardly think we’re teaching students to be readers and writers.
At my graduate institution, I taught courses classified as “writing intensive” (or W) and generally, this meant that students could expect more writing or a long-form research style paper as a final assessment. The classes were small to allow for one-on-one interaction between instructors and students and to ease the burden of grading on the instructor. Other grad students (and many faculty members) hated teaching W-classes because of the extra work grading student essays. I was most frustrated listening to colleagues lament the skill-level of their student writers as though there was nothing that could be done with the particularly “weak” writers.
I preferred the writing intensive course, but truthfully, I treat all of my courses like W-courses. Assessing knowledge in the social sciences is subjective and writing tests students’ knowledge in a way that multiple choice exams simply can’t. So, no matter how many students enroll in my courses and whether or not my courses are designated “writing intensive,” I always include writing as a form of assessment. When students complain that the course required “too much writing,” I have to wonder how we silo writing as some sort of special event in our education. If there is anything I have learned in graduate school, the only way to improve your writing is to practice writing.
To prepare graduate instructors and faculty members to teach these W-courses, our campus writing center offered a one-day tutorial about how to handle the writing intensive expectation. In one day, the very enthusiastic writing center director (an English professor) communicated ideas, strategies, and best practices for writing instruction. I have heard some colleagues lament the teaching of writing because it comes at the expense of teaching content. I simply do not understand this perspective because in my experience, the content knowledge deepens when students write about them.
When I attended my “W-training” a few years ago, I bumped into my advisor. She was teaching a W-course for the first time at the institution during the same semester I was teaching my very first course. The training opened my eyes to a new pedagogical ideas and styles. Our graduate training never addressed writing as a practice that you work on, that you refine, or that you develop. I didn’t start to connect with my writer-self until much later in my graduate training, well after I started teaching. It should come as no surprise that as scholars, we know strong writing is important but we struggle to teach writing.
This summer, I’m reading about teaching writing. It’s as meta as it gets, but it’s time I need to devote to developing my own writing practice and to enhancing my pedagogical approach to teaching writing. I should not find it hard to believe that even after I have earned my doctorate, there is still more to know. It is reassuring to find that after so many years of aspiring to be a writer (it really is the only thing I dreamed about “when I grow up”), I am finally a writer. Now, to convince my students that they are writers, too.