Saturday, August 29, 2009

What Colleagues Should Know about Composition

I was at a celebration recently, and hung out with some colleagues from the music department. These are friendly, nice folks, and I was grateful to hang out with them between stages of the festivities.

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?


  1. Anonymous1:03 PM

    What a powerful posting! You've made every point I've been trying to make with non-writing instructor colleagues for years.

    I remember once during a candidate's presentation on citing sources, the psychology prof on the hiring committee (we always have one "outsider") responded to the candidate's question to the "class" (we pretend to be students, sigh), what were the strengths and weaknesses of the sample he had on the screen: the psych prof said that the sample he was showing was wonderfully punctuated and cited, so she would give it an A. But the problem with the passage was not with citation formatting: the sample showed several dumped quotations, with very little context or analysis on the student's part. To the writing teachers in the audience, it was irrelevant that the citation formatting was correct. But to the psych prof, who sees good writing as correct writing, the correct use in terms of formmatting of multiple sources in a passage of student writing was more important than what the student was doing with the multiple sources.

    It was a public display of the severe disconnect that often happens when we talk about "good" writing.

  2. chris2:14 PM

    I was fortunate to attend a tiny liberal arts school that had a "clear writing" requirement that first-year students had to pass. Students who needed help with composition would take writing-intensive courses led by instructors committed to helping develop good writing skills.

    Although some of the courses were explicitly composition course, many were not. They included courses in history, psychology, sociology, international studies, as well as English. The entire humanities faculty understood that teaching good writing was not solely a responsibility of the English faculty but was everyone's responsibility.

  3. I like this post a lot. I was a music major in my undergrad years, so I studied voice and piano with the same two teachers for four years. (I was at a SLAC.) If I could teach 20 students writing, one-on-one, for four years -- just THOSE students and no others -- I think I could make incredible progress with them. It's funny thinking how impossible that would be for an English department, yet that's exactly how it was in my music department. Crazy.

    Voice and piano were the only required classes that I had every single semester. I wonder if having writing as a requirement every single semester would do much for English majors? Besides turn them off of the major....

    My verification word is "suchmen." ha.

  4. I think the thing that I'd want colleagues who don't teach composition to know, and something that only became clear to me when I taught a *lot* of writing - i.e., 2 sections a semester for years - is that the range of ability levels and preparedness levels that professors have to account for in a first-year writing course (a random sample of *every single student* enrolled at the university) is far wider than one sees even in introductory courses in a discipline (i.e., than I would see in intro to lit, or than other people would see in intro to psych.) There is no self-selection *at all* in a core requirement that all students must take, whereas there is at least a tiny amount of self-selection, even in a social sciences or science or math course that counts for general education. You can't just teach to the upper quarter of the course and hope that the bottom three quarters catches up. It doesn't work. And students do have individual backgrounds and writing challenges, and as the instructor you have to negotiate students' individual writing needs in balance with the learning objectives of the course. While this is true for other courses that I teach, it is always most challenging in the composition classroom because there is really *no* common denominator that distinguishes students who enroll in that course - other than that they are students.

    And while I agree with you about beginning sentences with conjunctions, ending them with prepositions, and the use of the word "I," I do tend to comment (especially on the first two) about these on students' papers once they master the basics - not in a Never Do This way, but in a "you will get a professor who objects to this, so if you are doing this, you should be doing so consciously and you should have an argument for WHY you're doing it - you shouldn't do it without knowing that you're doing so" way. This is all part of my larger project of helping students to understand that language is something that constantly evolves, and that audience matters not only in terms of content but also in terms of form.

  5. Oh, and I also think your point about regression in writing skills, when students are dealing with new and difficult concepts, is such an important one. And it's important not only for teachers to understand that this happens but also for us to let our students know that this is what is happening to them when it does. Addressing student writing at all levels is important, but if you don't explain the "why" of their writing suddenly going south, they just think that they've ended up with a professor with a vendetta - they don't know that this is a common occurrence for writers, and so they just blame the messenger (which means it take them longer to address the regression).

  6. Please send this to the Chronicle of Higher Ed's insert section, the Chronicle Review. The back page, in particular, called the Observer would be a wonderful place to publish this piece!

  7. What both you and Dr. Crazy said! Really, this pretty much sums it up in terms of what I'd like people to know. (at least, for a start - then we can work on other things)

    I don't know how many times I've tried to explain that a student isn't a biologist after one intro course, so why would s/he be an "expert" in academic writing. It seems like common sense, but so many people just don't understand this very basic thing. They also don't "get" that they were exceptional students (which is why they are now professors). Not every student is going to be the same type of student as a professor was. People also often have a highly inflated sense of what their own abilities were as early undergrads. I wish we all had examples of our writing from that period in our lives.

  8. Wow! Wonderful post. I agree, please submit it to the Chronicle!!

    My questions, not necessarily about composition instructors but about teaching students to write:

    How do you persuade students of the necessity of revision? (Or do you just bludgeon them with it, which is tempting?!)

    How do you help students to identify the "interesting" thing to write about? This question is a result of reading a whole lot of completely bland papers, each of which had a potentially interesting point but the students never identified and followed up on it.

  9. I agree! Publish this! It's what we've been trying to get the rest of our university to hear about writing for the past four years here in Arkansas.

  10. This is wonderful, and really so helpful and lucid. Thanks for posting!

  11. I think that the contrast between teaching different subjects is very interesting. I spent a lot of time thinking about how we teach medical students and residents, and now that I'm responsible for doing education for some of the community based attendings (both ob/gyn and family practice), and thinking about how this differs between the coursework from undergrad.... well, it's just very interesting to think about. Thanks!

  12. ...and I just really want to say how much I admire your ability to maintain an inclusive, nurturing voice on this big topic and one thattends to alienate non-comp teachers ever-always when the never-over discussion begins; yes!, publish, please do--I think this might get read by those who really could use the perspective!