On teaching, writing, and teaching writing

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.

About rglw

Sociologist mom writes for work and for pleasure.
This entry was posted in academia, higher education, lessons learned, reading, students, teaching, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to On teaching, writing, and teaching writing

  1. Great insights! I especially agree with your comment that some students think of writing as “some sort of special event in our education” where if they are not taking a course specifically designated to the art of writing, they should not have to do much writing at all. This mentality does students such a disservice because being able to effectively write and communicate is so important. I agree with you that the best way to get to know and understand a subject is to write about it!

  2. kargraham says:

    I’m currently undergoing a teaching programme through my institution for postgraduates and early career academics and I’ve had a similar experience to you with regards to how eye opening pedagogical research can be. Coming to accept that I am, in many ways, a professional writer has been challenging but really worth the effort. I’m glad that there are teachers and institutions who are dedicated to teaching writing. I’m also glad that I’ve found your blog, and look forward to reading more of your writing here.

    • rglw says:

      I never knew how much I cared about the teaching of writing until I served as a teaching assistant and was told to overlook poor student writing on exams. I felt like I was cheating those students of an education that would serve them well after college. Now that I’m in the driver’s seat, teaching writing is a serious priority in every course I develop. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

      • J Leventhal says:

        How can one “overlook” poor writing when the meaning can be totally misunderstood? The recent book, “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” is right on. Great that you’re doing the teaching!

      • rglw says:

        Often professors will assign reflection writing or extra-credit writing and the finished writing is on the weak side. In those cases, you don’t have an opportunity to sit down with every student and give them feedback. I have also encountered students who seem to expect less writing if a course is not designated as “writing intensive.” That part is sad.

  3. L. Palmer says:

    As an undergraduate, I found I learned much more in the classes with full research papers. Writing clearly is learning how to communicate, how to transfer and comprehend ideas.

    • rglw says:

      I could not agree more! Organizing a full length paper takes a set of skills that we assume all students know. Glad to know it is working for you!

  4. revtimbrown says:

    My wife uses “The Institute for Excellence in Writing” (IEW) http://www.excellenceinwriting.com with our grade school children. IEW emphasizes all of the elements necessary for strong writing and uses practices that work well in groups. They have one of the best step by step approaches that we’ve seen to bring students forward in their writing skills.

    Already, we’re seeing HS level results emerge in 7th and 8th grade. While it’s true that tutor-like instruction is necessary, it’s good to know that one may begin with more direction than, “just write a little and we’ll start with where you are.” You would have to evaluate whether or not this would work with college level students, but certainly some principles could be applied.

  5. miladynotes says:

    Writing to me was always a chalenge as was reading, I did not enjoy either growing up. But as years went by, I started reading more and that helped me greatly in my writing, these two go hand in hand. I think many young people do not read as much as their parents did and that effecting writing quality.

    • rglw says:

      Reading and writing are peas in a pod, right? I realized this when I hit some major roadblocks writing my dissertation and then I realized that I’d barely been reading. I took a break from writing and just read anything and then writing was much more fun! Thanks for reading!

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  7. Great insight. When I taught English in public high schools, I was always flabbergasted to find that most of the time the only writing my students did was in my class.

    • rglw says:

      I’m reading Mike Rose’s Why School right now and he touches on the same kind of sentiment. We think kids know how to write because didn’t they learn it in high school English. Nope. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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