Sunday, December 18, 2005

Writing Basics

I've been reading Ancrene Wiseass's entry about why "Johnny [can't] write a thesis statement" and thinking about teaching writing. I teach writing every semester, not only in my first year writing class(es), but also in pretty much every other class I teach. I continually re-discover that many of my students, even the best of them, need to reinforce writing skills again and again.

When I returned to college after taking a different path for a while, I figured I could write. And, I basically could; having been an ardent, though uncritical, reader, I'd picked up a basic sense of sentence structure in my native tongue. But I'd never taken a writing class in college the first time around, so I really had very little ability to articulate what I was doing when I wrote, and no strategies for writing. If I had to confess one serious weakness about my writing then, I'd have to pick my infallible ability to write everything in the passive tense. Or, as I'd have put it then, if a serious weakness in my writing were to be confessed, my ability to write everything in the passive tense would have to be picked.

At various points in my schooling after that, I learned more about writing. On more than one occasion, peers and professors critiqued my writing, or taught me to teach students not to overuse the passive tense, and why overusing the passive tense makes for bad writing. But I was three or four years into a PhD program in English before a peer managed to teach me about my own overuse of the passive. I guess partly she was just a great teacher, and actually cared enough about me to be critically honest. But partly I probably wasn't ready to actually understand what I was being taught until that moment.

So it shouldn't surprise me that my students, too, need to be taught writing skills more than once, and to practice them again and again. When they don't "get" something, it doesn't necessarily mean they're inattentive or stupid, nor does it necessarily mean I've done a bad job; it may mean that they're just not ready for whatever skill or practice at that point.

As I finish up this semester, then, and begin to think about teaching my classes for next semester, I'm going to ask for some help with the things I teach again and again, and also offer some ideas about what I've found effective when I teach them. I'm not going to go in order, but here are some basic "stuff" I'm thinking about. I hope those folks who read occasionally will pop back to make suggestions and share ideas and resources.

What's an "essay"?
Thesis statements
Paragraphs, especially paragraph analysis and organization.
Essay organization
Peer editing
Using quotations

I'll gladly add to the list if folks want to make suggestions, and we can brainstorm together.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your notion of not being "ready" for certain writing skills--I think it's true, and it's why I gave my own comp students grades on their final portfolios that were somewhat higher than they would have been for an equivalent paper in a lit class: at the beginning of the semester, these students, in many cases, didn't know how to construct an argument. So when they learned how to do THAT--even if their sentence-level skills still needed some work--I saw it as real and substative progress. Passive voice? Irritating as hell, but let's focus on critical thinking first.

    I've wrestled with teaching the thesis statement before. One rubric that I came up with is that a thesis has to have three elements: a WHAT (the topic of the paper), a HOW (in a lit paper, the ways in which this thing manifests itself--through moon imagery, through the author's depiction of a particular character, through dialogue, whatever), and a WHY (the "so what?" factor--why this matters to the work as a whole).

    I think it's a brilliant rubric, if I do say so myself, but I've discovered that it's definitely not self-explanatory to undergraduates; next term I'm going to actually walk my students through some sample theses to show them how what most of them think of as a thesis is really just a topic, and often a pretty broad one ("Chaucer's Pardoner is a hypocrite." "Women in Othello assume many different roles")--and then discuss how that topic can be focused and refined so that it becomes a thesis. Dunno how it will go, but I have high hopes!