Sunday, March 01, 2009

Thinking about Teaching Comp

Some of the responses to my last post got me thinking, especially one that asked for a book recommendation.

I understand the impulse, the desire to get one book with the answers, or at least a solid background. The thing is, composition studies is a huge field, and there's no book that's going to do that, any more than there's one book that will teach someone what they need to teach Shakespeare at the college level. And really, comp studies is a wider field than Shakespeare studies. I'm not even a comp specialist, just someone who tries to do my job, which includes about 50% comp teaching. (I did a certificate in teaching composition, way back when, which included 1 undergrad and 3 grad courses.)

But even if you asked a really great comp specialist, s/he'd have to know where you were starting.

Do you know about process research, for example? What do you know about brainstorming techniques, or responding effectively, or writing assignments, or any number of other things, because comp is just so huge.

That said, I do have a suggestion.

First, make yourself a list of things you think are important for teaching comp.

My list would include (with no attempt at parallel structures or anything, just brainstorming!):

What do I mean when I say "Writing well." What makes good writing?
What do my colleagues think counts as "good writing"?
Making effective assignments. (What do I mean by "effective" here?)
Making assignments that don't make me want to rip out my eyes.
Teaching writing processes for different learning styles.
Responding and grading effectively.
Organizing the flow of an assignment (readings, pre-writing, etc) over a period of time.
Organizing the flow of the course over the semester.
Helping students read effectively.
Helping students use outside information, ideas, materials ethically and effectively.
Making plagiarism so painfully difficult that students won't likely do it.
Figuring how much (if any) grammar stuff I need to teach my students (passive voice, dangling verbals, punctuating appositives, whatever)
How to help my students proofread.
Using short/informal writing effectively.
Figuring out how to use a textbook, if any, and choosing one (if I want).
Helping students read critically (especially other people's work).
Helping students revise.
Getting students to take revision seriously.

Second, use that list to make up a list of questions. For example, I might want to ask what the relationship is between reading students do in college and writing improvement.

Or maybe I want to ask how to organize a revision process into my syllabus.

Maybe I'm in a really practical mood and I want to learn how to respond more efficiently to student writing.

Once I have a good list, I'd prioritize. Figure out which answers are likely to help you most in your teaching.

Then, find someone on your campus, or from your old grad program, or at the R1 three hours drive away. On my campus, we have a writing person (well, there's a whole big fancy title) who's the only actual comp/rhet phud on campus, and she's friendly, so I chose her. At my former school, which was very tiny, I would have got together with a couple of the adjuncts who were friendly and great teachers. Now, I can also email a former student who's studying for a phud in comp/rhet. You should be able to find someone with more expertise than you have.

Then tell that person that you're working on teaching comp better, and that you'd really like to learn what's what about this question. What do they think? Can they recommend a resource (a book, an article or two, whatever) to help you learn more.

I've never had a comp person react negatively to my asking for help like this, or asking if what some specific thing I'd learned in my comp program was out of date now. BUT, I know that at some R1s, comp directors get abused a lot by TAs and others; they're treated really poorly. So, if you're at a place like that, make sure you approach the question with respect. On the other hand, if you're at a place like that, there are probably comp grad students, or grad students trying to teach comp, who are also trying to put things together, and you could try approaching them.


  1. What she said.

    But there is one essay that I think every comp teacher and every kid/person who needs to write better should read at some point, and that is Paul Roberts' "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words." That is some damned fine writing advice, and I start my course with it, then insist that my students' initial self-review-with-an-eye-to-revision be conducted via the points Roberts makes there.

  2. Wow. This just drives home--in a rather shocking way--how little I know about comp. "Process research"? What's that? And "brainstorming techniques"--you mean there's more than one? (And I couldn't explain that one; it's just what I do when I brainstorm, whatever that is.) I get the thing about assignments that don't make me want to tear my eyes out, and getting students to take revision seriously, but I haven't a clue how to do either (other than to mark them down for inadequate revision, in the latter case).

    We do talk a lot amongst ourselves in my English department, at least, and that helps. But what's truly eye-opening for me is that even the folks who have been doing this for a LOT longer than I have confess to not really knowing what they're doing. We all want to get better, but none of us knows this is some good advice (if I can find someone out there to actually talk to!).

  3. Anonymous6:06 AM

    People do not know what they are doing as they lose focus on basic principles, which we have to understand and communicate. In general, we must understand how students think and build from there. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

  4. In terms of basic writing stuff, I think that Barbara Clouse's A Troubleshooting Guide for Writers: Strategies and Process is an excellent book both for helping students (and not so expensive as some other writing handbooks) and for helping instructors to think about their own teaching. It's very work-book-y, has lots of strategies for practices for brainstorming, research, revision, etc., and it's written in such a way that it's neither too dry nor too dumbed down. Even if one doesn't assign it to one's students, it's a book that gives a good sense of things that happen in the writing classroom, and I've found it useful for helping me to think about how I go about teaching writing.

  5. Anonymous1:11 PM

    I'm particularly fond of Stein's How to Write, but I teach writing within another curriculum, not in a purely composition course. My students are also accustomed to my peculiarities by the time they get to that part of the course, which perhaps makes them more indulgent than they might otherwise be.

  6. There are a lot of fine books out there. If you go to Bedford St. Martin's website, there are all sorts of comp resources. They are really generous about sending free desk copies of their comp resource books to teachers.

    Another good resource is CompPile

    I also like Rebecca Moore Howard's bibliographies. They are amazing!

  7. Thanks for the advice. I think that your comment about comp studies being bigger than Shakespeare studies is warranted, but I also think that that statement also proves the point that some people make about not being prepared to teach comp. If we college profs (or adjuncts as the case may be) are supposed to be competent (at least, expert at best) teachers in our subject areas, and we are given comp as a sort of toss-off course that "any English major can teach," aren't we being set up to fail? My field is Shakespeare, and I finished my degree last year, but what I learned in my PhD studies is that I'll never know all there is to know about Shakespeare's works. I feel like I know more about Shakespeare's works than any other area of literature, but since I've only been studying Shakespeare for a mere eight years, I only know a fraction of the sea of knowledge out there. I think I teach Shakespeare well, despite this fact. However, I also get to choose what plays/poems I'll teach, what the students will write, what critical essays they'll read, etc. I therefore can tailor the class to my expertise and interests, which means I can avoid the areas I'm somewhat less informed about. In my comp class (at a different school), I have virtually no choice about texts the students will read and no choice about what they will write (except for the diagnostic essay assignment, which I'm planning to change next time). I've taught comp at three schools over the years, and the format is always the same -- follow the script; here's what you're teaching. How am I supposed to be a good teacher with no control, no support, and no training? I might as well be asked to teach a class on sewing. Yeah, I could do it if my life depended on it, but I barely can thread a sewing machine. I'd be faking it the whole semester -- just like I do with comp.

    To me, writing is a very, very important skill, but I've always been a fairly intuitive writer. Because of that intuition, I have a hard time explaining writing to my students. I keep slugging away, but as time goes on, it gets more and more frustrating. Perhaps all of this is indicative of the mess that is the adjunct system, and not all about comp, but I wonder if having classroom agency would really make much difference if I didn't know what textbooks were worthwhile. I guess I'll try contacting a rhet/comp guy that I'm acquainted with and see what he recommends -- if I ever do get to choose.

  8. Anonymous7:56 PM

    If anyone is looking for some great books about teaching comp,I would recommend Erika Lindemann's A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers and, for the even more adventurous, Irvin Hashimoto's Thirteen Weeks. Peter Elbow's Writing With Power is also helpful (I've even had students read that as part of the course reading, and they loved it).