24 November 2015

On Teaching Writing

Jan Steen, School Class with a Sleeping Schoolmaster

A writer recently wrote a blog post about how he's quitting teaching writing. I'm not going to link to it because though it made me want to write this post of my own, I'm not planning either to praise or disparage the post or its author, whom I don't know and whose work I haven't read (though I've heard good things about it). Reading the post, I was simply struck by how different his experience is from my own experience, and I wondered why, and I began to think about what I value in teaching writing, and why I've been doing it in one form or another — mostly to students without much background or interest in writing — for almost twenty years.

I don't know where the quitting teacher works or the circumstances, other than that he was working as an adjunct professor, as I did for five years, and was teaching introductory level classes, as I continue to do now that I'm a PhD student. (And in some ways did back when I was a high school teacher, if we want to consider high school classes as introductory to college.) So, again, this is not about him, because I know nothing about his students' backgrounds, his institution's expectations or requirements, his training, etc. If he doesn't like teaching writing where he's currently employed, he shouldn't do it, for his own sake and for that of his students. It's certainly nothing you're going to get rich from, so really, you're doing no-one any good by staying in a job like that, and you may be doing harm (to yourself and others).

Most of the quitting teacher's complaints boil down to, "I don't like teaching unmotivated students." I think it's important to recognize, though, that there are lots of different levels of "unmotivated". Flat-out resistant and recalcitrant are the ultimate in unmotivated, and I also rarely find joy in working with such students, because I'm not very good at it. I've done it, but have not stayed with jobs where that felt like all there was. One year at a particular high school felt like facing nothing but 100 resistant and recalcitrant students every single day, and though the job paid quite well (and, for reasons I can't fathom, the administration wanted me to stay), I fled quickly. I was useless to most of those students and they were sending me toward a nervous breakdown.  I've seen people who work miracles with such students. I wasn't the right person for that job.

But then there are the students who, for whatever reason, just haven't bought in to what you're up to. It's not their thing. I don't blame them. Put me in a math or science class, and that's me. Heck, put me in a Medieval lit class and that's me. But again and again, talented teachers have welcomed me into their world, and because of those teachers, I've been able to find a way to care and to learn about things I didn't initially care about in the least. That's the sort of teacher I aspire to be, and, for all my fumbling, seem occasionally to have succeeded at being.

It's nice to teach courses where everybody arrives on Day 1 with passion for the subject. I've taught such classes a few times. It can be fun. It's certainly more immediately fulfilling than the more common sort of classes where the students are a bit less instrinsically motivated to be there. But I honestly don't care about those advanced/magical classes as much. Such students are going to be fine with or without me. At a teaching seminar I attended 15 years ago, the instructor described such students as the ones for whom it doesn't matter if you're a person or a stalk of asparagus, because they'll do well no matter what. I don't aspire to be a stalk of asparagus.

There's another problem, too, and that's the problem of pedagogy. Many colleges and universities are terrible at providing training for teachers. There's an unspoken assumption that teaching is something anybody with an advanced degree can do. This despite the fact that anybody who's spent more than a few days in a college or university knows there are plenty of people with advanced degrees, people who may be brilliant at all sorts of other things, who can't teach at all.

Teaching writing is a particular skill, especially when teaching unmotivated students. I'm lucky to have spent some undergrad time and now some PhD time at the University of New Hampshire, where the teaching of writing is taken really seriously because writing teachers at UNH have long been interested not only in writing, but in the art of its teaching. The ghosts of Donald Murray, Donald Graves, and Robert Connors still haunt our halls. I continue to draw on things I learned in a Teaching Writing course in my last semester of undergrad. In my early years of teaching, I read every pedagogy book I could get my hands on. I still pick them up now and then, because I'm still learning to teach.

If you're struggling to teach writing, have no support from your institution, but don't want to quit, there are resources that can help you. (Though really, you should consider quitting, especially if they're not paying you well. Schools exploit people who they provide little support to because those people feel some sort of obligation to work for crappy wages and in crappy conditions. Say no! Or at least help organize a union.)

To begin, check out the National Writing Project, Teachers & Writers, and the NCTE.

Seek out books for ideas and inspiration. First, put everything aside and read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary. Then maybe a practical book like The Elements of Teaching Writing, The Handbook of Creative Writing, or Being a Writer (which is overpriced; its predecessor, A Community of Writers, is easy enough to find used for much less money).

If you're determined that you must fix your students' grammar, then start with Teaching Grammar in Context and/or Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing by Constance Weaver. (But a caution: Make sure you're not promoting myths. Educate yourself. Read Stephen Pinker's A Sense of Style, Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars, and, if you're especially determined, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Or, better yet, make a study of grammar ranting part of your pedagogy — see Grammar Rants by Patricia Dunn and Ken Lindblom.) If most of your students seem to lack much preparation for college-level work, then investigate pedagogy for developmental writing.

Don't just be a writer who shows up in a classroom. You've been hired to be a teacher who also knows something about writing. You need to see yourself in that role, or else you're just grossly stroking your ego in public. Develop a vision of yourself as a teacher, and read the works of writing teachers who inspire — Peter Elbow is my go-to guy whenever I'm feeling bad about my teaching, with Everyone Can Write as the key text (though I'm fond, too, of Writing with Power and Writing Without Teachers). Read Lynda Barry. Read. Talk. Listen. Plenty of people have had all the challenges and disappointments and frustrations that you've had. Learn from them.

And yes, of course there are lots of frustrations along the way. Even the best classes will have bad days, and sometimes you'll have an entire bad term. That's the world of teaching. Analyze what isn't working and try to figure out ways to fix it; seek out other people's ideas when you're stuck. I hate the feeling of having been a bad teacher, but it also invigorates me, because it makes me determined to fix the problems the next time around. (It's when the problems seem utterly unfixable that you know you're the wrong person for the job. If nothing looks like it will get better and again and again you find yourself dreading the next class, the next term, then quit if you can. It's okay. You don't need to spend your entire life as a bad teacher. Create an exit plan before you kill yourself or one of your students. Seriously.)

I've been meaning to write about the most successful writing course I've taught, and so this gives me a bit of an excuse to do so. By "successful" I mean that the students' work and reflections on the course at the end of the term consistently met my goals for the course through multiple sets of students, both in face-to-face classes and online. The course is called Writing and the Creative Process, and I taught it at Plymouth State University. It's the lowest-level creative writing course the English department offers, and it fulfills a general education requirement, so typically it is taken by students will little background in writing and often not much interest in it. They arrive to the course because they need the credit, and many assume a creative writing class is an easy A or B.

My goals for the course are not for the students to become great writers. That's out of my control. Great writing is a mix of talent, practice, experience, circumstances. My goals are more about helping the students to overcome some assumptions about writing and creativity.

Most students arrive to my classes, whether writing classes or otherwise, with an idea that writing is about following rules and not making mistakes. They've lost all sense of play. I want them to be less afraid of playing with language. I want them to be less afraid of the unfamiliar. If I can do that, then a lot of what matters in writing will take care of itself. Of course, there are rules and conventions. Writing is (usually) a form of communication, and communication requires some rules and conventions. But they can be learned, and if learning them is still beyond you for whatever reason, you can probably find friends who will proofread your work for you. (Many excellent writers are rotten with commas. And plenty else. Proofreaders exist for a reason. Research the manuscripts of well-known writers and you'll be astonished.) I love the intricacies of grammar, usage, and style, so I pay a lot of attention to it myself, but for me it's part of the essential play that makes writing a worthwhile activity for me. I try to impart that to students, even in the Writing and the Creative Process class, but I also don't expect them all to be like me.

After teaching the class a few times in a way that didn't thrill me, I finally came upon this progression of material, which seems to work (each unit is roughly 2 weeks long):
Unit 1: First Things
Unit 2: Shaping Raw Material
Unit 3: Images and Senses
Unit 4: Words
Unit 5: Sentences and lines
Unit 6: Paragraphs and stanzas
Unit 7: Revision
Final Exam week: Portfolio
Lots of people teach the course by going through major genres, but I don't care for that approach because in my experience it's highly superficial to write essays for a week or two, poems for a week or two, stories for a week or two, etc. I sprinkle different genres throughout the term, but we never stick with any particular one. Learning different genres is not the goal. I want the students to play around, and I want them to think about similarities in different ways of writing rather than differences.

The First Things unit is focused on introductions, starting out, and beginning to forget the "rules" you think you know about writing. I think of it as the deprogramming unit. Especially given the mania for standardized testing in schools over the last 15 years, students arrive to my classroom with great anxiety about "proper" writing. They mostly assume they're bad at it, and they're terrified of losing points. So I make a point of getting them to pay attention to themselves, to do things like stare at an object for 10 or more minutes and then write about the experience, to write a list of rules for good writing and then violate them all, etc. The basic theme might be able to be boiled down to, "Who are you? What do you know? How do you perceive things? And how might we expand/broaden/explode all that?"

The Shaping Raw Material unit is exactly what it says. The exercises have the students write 5 versions of a short piece of writing, try out different points of view, rewrite a folktale, rewrite a partner's piece of writing, etc. Some of it is similar to Kenneth Goldsmith's "Uncreative Writing" ideas, some of it isn't. The goal is to look at the different ways writing can be shaped, and the effects of different shapes. Again, it's about breaking out of a narrow way of thinking about writing, because narrow ways of thinking only lead to anxiety about "getting it right". Again and again, I say: There are no right answers, so stop looking for them.

The other units are exactly what they sound like: close attention to senses and images, to words, to sentences and lines, etc. It's good to be deliberate about these building blocks. Too often, we take them for granted. They're all fun to play with.

The Portfolio requirement at the end is this:
What your portfolio must include, at a minimum:
  • Your own artist's statement / portfolio intro.  Length: 114-119 words.  (Yes, this number is arbitrary.  Most rules are.)
  • Examples of 3 different types/genres of writing, each with at least one revision included. (You will have done a lot of this work for previous units. Now you’re collecting it and polishing it.) Include all drafts along with a final, polished, proofread draft.
  • A reflection of at least 500 words.  This should be the last thing you write.  After you've put the portfolio together, read it, then write this reflection.
You are welcome and encouraged to include more than this in your portfolio, but this is the absolute minimum.
All grading before the portfolio is purely on whether the students follow the guidelines or not. For instance, here's an assignment:
1. Go to the index at the website Worldwidewords.org.
2. Read around on the page. Click on words that grab your attention. Look for weird words.
3. Once you are familiar with the site and how it works, write a piece and use as many unfamiliar/weird words from the Worldwidewords.org list as you can -- at least 20.
GRADING: 6 points = 600+ words; 5 points = 500-599 words; 4 points = 400-499 words; 3 points = 300-399 words; 2 points = 200-299 words; 1 point = under 200 words
(Each exercise is worth a certain amount of points, and I just add them up for their exercises grade, so 95 points = a 95 (A), 84 points = 84% (B), etc. They have a number of exercises to choose from in each unit. All of the exercises together add up to more than 100 points, but I've rarely had students try to go beyond 100 points because I don't count anything above 100 and, in any case, most of the exercises are more complex and take more work than the one above, so if you do them all at the highest level, it's quite a lot of work.)

I don't  evaluate their writing until the portfolio, and even then it's light evaluation of their progress more than anything. This has been crucial. The point of this course is discovery and play. That's what I want to encourage. I don't much care if their writing is great or terrible. I want them to improve, though, so we spend time at the end of the course working on revision, but only after we've spent the majority of the course playing around. I want the students to become more flexible thinkers and writers.

My paying no attention to whether they are writing well or badly is liberatory, and the effects are remarkable. The students discover skills and interests they never knew they had because they were so terrified of writing badly and getting low grades. They often struggle against the class in the first weeks because they think I'm going to trick them. They are conditioned to be graded and ranked and evaluated at every turn. They don't know what the freedom from grading, ranking, and evaluation feels like. It's terrifying at first. I must be a bad teacher, I must be a dishonest teacher, they must be doing something wrong. It isn't until a handful of exercises have been graded and they realize they really are just being graded on output that most students begin to free themselves.

The exercises are not small or easy, and numerous students have told me they've written more for this class than for any other. If I were trying to grade evaluatively, it would be an awful paper burden on me, but I'm not grading evaluatively. I'm mostly just counting words.

The students don't need me to read their work in any depth until the revision stage, and even then mot of the work is on them, as the revision exercises are designed to get them to look at their work in new, different ways. It extends the freedom to experiment to the revision process. Then they sift through everything and begin to put order to it and show off the work they're most pleased with, most proud of. They write about how they got there, and that reflection is vital — students need to think about the processes that allowed them to write in ways they see as successful, and reflective writing is key to helping solidify what they've learned. They reflect on what they've done and what they would like to do in the future.

Their final grade is ultimately not about them being a good writer, but being a writer who has 1.) learned how to play around and experiment; 2.) learned how to look at their work with a new and critical eye toward revision; 3.) learned how to extend what they've discovered to other realms of thinking and writing. If they've been able to do that, they do well.

Grades for the course tend to average around a B, a bit higher than my usual B- average for courses. Sometimes, a group really takes to the material and I end up with an A- average. I don't feel bad about that. Because the grade is based on how much they've written, to get an A- average, the students have written an awful lot.

When teaching more advanced courses, I tend to add in a bit more evaluative grading, I tend to do fewer exercises based on playing around and more toward specific skills and goals, then finish the course with one complete and revised piece of writing. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes not.

I don't much like the traditional writing workshop. Maybe it's fine in grad school, but I dislike it for undergrads, as I think it wastes a lot of time and doesn't give them the tools they need. I've never much liked traditional writing workshops, myself, so maybe it's just a matter of my personality. I'm sure there are people who are great teachers within that structure at whatever level. Personally, as both a student and teacher, I prefer exercises, discussions of a wide variety of published writing (and by wide variety, I mean as wide as possible — true variety, not just Lishian stuff), a focus on sentences and paragraphs, etc. There are plenty of ways to meld some of the virtues of the workshop approach with other structures. I haven't hit on a perfect solution yet, but I keep experimenting when I get the chance to teach an advanced course (which hasn't happened recently, as I'm only teaching one course per term as part of the PhD program, and mostly what I teach is first-year composition).

My goal is not to create professional writers. One or two of my former students have gone off to publish things, but they're the outliers. I want to help students gain more confidence in their ability to use the language, and I want them to become more enthusiastic, informed readers. The reading part is important to me — I want more students to be delighted by the weirdness of Gertrude Stein, to be willing to try out complex and difficult and alienating texts, to not just seek out what feels most immediately "relevant" to them. Teaching writing is one path to that goal, because it lets students begin to think about how texts are constructed, and what writers think about. Reading like a writer is a good way to read. Experiencing writing as both and art and a craft helps, I hope, to overcome some of the prejudices that lead to writers and artists being seen as people who don't actually labor.

I also don't want to blame students for the failures of institutions. I'm skeptical of the recent discourse about whiny, overprotected students. I don't think teachers should be against students. I think we should be against the neoliberal university that sees nothing but economic indicators. As teachers of writing, we have a special place in that struggle. I take hope from Steve Shaviro's ideas about aesthetics and political economy, e.g.:
I think that aesthetics exists in a special relationship to political economy, precisely because aesthetics is the one thing that cannot be reduced to political economy. Politics, ethics, epistemology, and even ontology are all subject to “determination in the last instance” by the forces and relations of production. Or rather, if ontology is not entirely so determined, this is precisely to the extent that ontology is itself fundamentally aesthetic. If aesthetics doesn’t reduce to political economy, but instead subsists in a curious way alongside it, this is because there is something spectral, and curiously insubstantial, about aesthetics.
As teachers of writing, we can wield aesthetics as a weapon against the all-consuming power of neoliberalism — we can help and encourage students to revel in the inefficacy of our aesthetic projects.

Or, at least, in my more utopian moments I think we can. Right now I just need to stop procrastinating and go grade a pile of research papers...