What Good Can We Do In Fifteen Weeks?

As a writing instructor, one of the most challenging aspects of teaching is the limited amount of time I have to spend with my students over the course of the semester. Writing is an incredibly complicated set of practices which takes years of instruction, experimentation, and reflection before a person gains competency to write effectively in a variety of situations. As writers, our students often inhabit a transitional space, moving between educational practices and aspirations with which they are already familiar, this present academic environment rife with new expectations and responsibilities, and an imagined future career for which they are preparing. Given the wide variations of writing experiences and educational preparation students bring with them to the classroom, it can be incredibly challenging to get a classroom full of writing students working together with common goals. Constructing assignments capable of engaging students who are merely working toward a minimum proficiency, while still challenging students with more advanced skill sets can be difficult. For these same reasons, an honest and fair system of assessment encouraging all students in the course to improve their writing can be difficult to negotiate.

In response to these challenges, I have gradually moved away from focusing on the textual products of the class, to encourage students to develop certain practices, habits, and types of attention to writing situations that will allow them to continue to develop their skills and successes as writers. Instead of working with students to produce a polished argumentative essay on a topic in which, at best, they are marginally invested, I challenge students to pay attention to their own writing process. To question why they do what they do. To evaluate the effectiveness of their existing habits. To experiment with alternatives to the parts of their process they would like to improve. We focus on revision not as a sharpening toward perfection, but as an awareness and pursuit of the myriad forms and directions a specific draft might take. We get in the habit of maintaining an awareness of the situation within we write: the expectations and needs of our audience, the material resources at our disposal, the variety of writing technologies available to us and their appropriateness in light of our audience, and what we hope to accomplish with our texts. And we revisit these questions as we revise, start over, or deliver our texts. I am continually challenging to students to keep these perspectives present for each writing situation they encounter during the course, as well as discussing how they might be relevant to writing situations they might imagine for their future career.

To put it more simply, I foreground with students the notion that I can’t “make” them into effective writers, meeting a certain standard of textual quality across any given cross-section of students. Instead, what my class can offer them is a set of practices, habits, and types of sensitivities that will allow them to become, eventually, the sort of writer they want to be.

(Note: I recently completed a set of materials for an award nomination packet. This post is part of those materials. Prompt Question: “In your view, what is the most challenging aspect of teaching and how do you handle this challenge?”)

photo credit: “fifteen-weeks” by Ryan Trauman via Flickr (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ryantrauman/16670265007/)

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