With classes starting soon, we got to talking about campus stuff.
You might think that all professors do the same thing, basically, and so know all about each other's lives. You'd be wrong.
Music profs, for example, spend a lot of time giving private lessons to college students. And that's not just a matter of a kid walking in and you teach them the next note, as I understand it, but about teaching the student all sorts of stuff about the music, choosing music for them (or helping more advanced students), helping them build related skills. And if you have ten violin students, that's five to ten hours a week of close contact with each student. And maybe then there's group work, too.
Then there's recruiting. The trumpet prof probably doesn't have to go far and wide to recruit, but I bet the viola person does, and the bassoon prof certainly would.
And they hold auditions, because not every student who plays the flute in high school gets into the flute studio.
For me, I just take students as they come; we welcome high school visitors in my department, but it's not like I go looking for a potential Shakespeare student. For one thing, that's just not how an English lit undergrad looks (at least not in any places I've been), nor are high school students self-selected to work on certain areas the way they are to practice clarinet. (The ones who really don't want to be clarinet players either don't join high school band or don't practice much and certainly don't push to do it in college.)
Inevitably, we get around to questions about how frustrating it is when these folks give writing assignments and the students turn in really poorly written papers, papers full of grammar errors and whatnot.
So here's what I'd like my colleagues to know about teaching composition at NWU.
1) For most NWU English folks, teaching writing is more "outside" our field than teaching intro biology or whatever is in most fields. Intro to lit is way more like intro biology. Teaching writing is a stretch for most of us, something we had to figure out or get trained in separately from our phud field.
This has implications. One is that profs in other fields can learn to teach writing some, too, and should. The other is that teaching writing is way less fun than teaching intro lit for those of us who love lit enough to get a phud in that field. The third is that academic writing for lit is what I know best, and to the extent that your field's needs are different, I'm going to have difficulty teaching them. But you should be able to teach them your field's practices.
2) I can't teach a student to be a brilliant writer in one semester any more than you can teach your best incoming tuba student everything s/he needs to learn about playing the tuba in one semester. A really promising high school student has probably learned a fair bit about writing by the time s/he gets to college, and I can (one hopes) help him/her improve. A less promising incoming student should also improve. It's worth noting that I'm teaching all of these students in a class of 20, so I don't have the one on one intensity of your trombone studio private lesson.
3) What worked for you as a student might not work for others. So the fact that someone learned to write well enough to succeed in college by reading "great literature" and then writing about it, doesnt' mean that works for everyone. One of the difficulties of changing anything in the academy is that the people who are running the academy did well the way things were, and don't really "see" the people that way didn't serve well because they didn't succeed or enjoy it enough to stay in for grad school or whatever.
Which is a long way of saying, I'd love to teach "great literature" in my writing course, but research shows that it doesn't work well for a lot of students, and that there are better strategies. High school students, remember, get a lot of lit in their English (or language arts) courses; the ones who learned to write well did well in that system. The ones who didn't come out of that system writing well need another approach.
4) Yes, I hate misplaced commas as much as the next person, but teaching grammar for the sake of teaching grammar teaches grammar, not writing. Writing is way more than proper punctuation.
A caveat: a lot of people think they "know" correct grammar, but they know some weird rule that they've internalized, which really isn't about correctness, but about the weirdness of some rule. When you want to correct a student's grammar, make sure you're correcting grammar and not enforcing a regional practice or some 19th century weird rule. You CAN start a sentence with "and," and you CAN end a sentence with a preposition. And no, using "I" in an essay shouldn't result in an automatic F.I'm way more cautious about correcting grammar after having taken a grammar course and worked with some linguists than I would have been before that.
5) When we teach writing, we run into the same overwhelming problems you do. I focus on big issues first, and then, if there's time and so forth, on a small issue. So, I worry about an essay being an essay, making a point, being logically organized, and focus on those things in my response to a student's writing.
I worry about grammar and punctuation primarily when they're repetitive (the student makes the same error over and over) and even then, I may mention try to help the student learn one correct usage in responding to a paper. If I list twelve grammar problems, then the student isn't going to "get" any of them; it's simply too much for someone to grasp all at once. If I see the same error repeated, then it's not actually twelve errors, it's the same error made twelve times, and maybe I can teach the student to correct that one thing. If I see the same error repeated across many papers in a class, then I might try to teach the class about that one issue.
6) Writing well usually involves a writing process. We try to teach students that process in our writing classes, and if they get it, then they'll use it again later. But they may not really get it until they bomb a few other papers by turning in a one-off draft. So, if you can build some process practices into your writing assignments, then you'll help the students develop their writing processes, and you'll probably get to read better papers.
7) Student development isn't linear. They don't enter college and steadily improve in all areas. It's like music in that way. Say a student is at X level in tone, and Y level in technical proficiency, and Z level in interpretive practice. S/he doesn't move smoothly to X+1, Y+1, and Z+1 and so forth, step by step. In fact, the student's tone may go all kablooey while s/he's working on a particularly difficult technical piece, and the interpretation may be just dismal. But you work through it, and once the technical stuff is in place, you refocus on tone, and bring that back up, and so forth.
Similarly, when a student is grappling with really difficult ideas in your upper-level classes, his or her basic grammar writing about those difficult ideas may just wither. When I first tried to write using a more theoretical approach, every sentence I wrote was totally stilted and horrible, but I had to write through that to get a better grasp of the theory. Only once I grasped the theory better, could I use it more fluidly. (That's one reason grad student writing in English tends to be so utterly horrid at some points.)
That's a normal part of how we people develop. You've seen it in two year olds, where suddenly they're dealing with the world in a way more complicated way, and they have really irritating behavior that you thought you'd gone beyond when they were 16 months. But then they get the complication and things get easier for a bit, until they reach the next complication, when things get tough again. It doesn't stop with being a four year old, alas. Most of us don't throw tantrums the way a two year old does, but our grammar might go to the devil.
For those who teach comp, what else would you want colleagues to know?
And for those who don't teach comp, what sorts of things do you always want to ask your comp-teaching colleagues?