How I Teach College-Level Writing: The Theories Behind the Syllabus

This is part two of my explanation of how I teach first-year writing in college.

The first post introduced the field and posed a number of questions to would-be instructors:

Imagine you are planning your first Composition syllabus. Do you think — I learned to write by reading fantasy and sci fi novels, so I should have my students read a few novels, and discuss them? Or do you decide: they have to write essays, so let’s read some of the world’s best essays? George Orwell, perhaps. Or do you see writing as primarily about communication, expressing ideas and engaging in conversation, and so you plan for debate sessions where the class as a whole will discuss Ferguson or global warming? Do you consider yourself, in such discussions, to have a moral obligation to teach students what you think is true and correct, or do you studiously avoid revealing your own political concerns?

Alternatively, do you decide to help students be creative, giving them writing prompts, encouraging them to put more of themselves into their writing, to find their own voice? Do you focus on the process of writing, requiring students to hand in outlines and rough drafts and post-essay reflections, or do you focus more on the end product, correcting grammatical mistakes, making sure everyone follows MLA citation rules? What about style? Shouldn’t a good essay be interesting? And do you only teach the college essay, or do you help studenrts write blog posts, posters, ad copy, resumes?

That’s certainly a lot of questions. Here are a few theories or deductions that may help you narrow down your choices, help you settle on the kind of syllabus you want to create.

(I imagine that for every study that I cite below, another contradictory study exists: I present here a very personal mental framework — my own — that I use to think about Composition, and the choices I make teaching it.)

1. Expertise is often more narrow than we think.

The whole point of a class like Composition is the transfer of skills. Composition is intended to prepare students to write in other classes. Therefore, if the only benefit of getting better at Composition is a better grade in Composition, students are potentially wasting their time. Clearly, the material of the course can be useful on its own — reading novels, having political discussions — but we probably also want to be helping our students build skills.

The trouble is that many studies suggest that broad skill development is not an easy thing to encourage. General all-round improvement may even be impossible to teach. All those brain-training games that are supposed to improve your memory, your cognition? All they do in reality is improve your skill at those games.

Similarly, although chess grand masters can take a moment’s glance at a chess board and remember the location of every piece, that’s not because they have brilliant recall abilities: they are simply very good at chess. If you show them a set of pieces randomly scattered on a board, their memory might be no better than average.

The best baseball hitters are, apparently, not especially good at returning softball pitches: they’re just very good at baseball.

And that’s actually how many of my students talk. Most of them describe their education as though each of the classes they proceed through is a completely separate experience. They are vocal, of course, about the surface-level requirements of different writing teachers: whether it’s okay to use “I” or how a thesis is supposed to be worded. But giving students in Comp 102 quizzes on what they learned in Comp 101 is frequently a worrying experience. Sometimes it seems like half the students in a given Comp 102 class don’t even remember the name of their professor in Comp 101. It’s as though they approach each class as a separate and individual challenge to be struggled through, not (as you intend) a ladder of expertise to be climbed.

On the one hand, this might sound depressing: teaching skills that transfer is difficult. However, I actually see it as a positive thing.

If, by an unlikely turn of events, a baseball star hitter like A-Rod or Miguel Cabrera were called up to England’s cricket team, and during a competitive Test match with Australia or India, he never scored more than a handful of runs before getting bowled out, it would be crazy to attribute that poor performance to any physical or personal failing. One would never think, “That guy just isn’t sporty. He has terrible hand-eye coordination.” Instead, the explanation would be obvious: the dude just doesn’t know how to play cricket.

In other words, if my students are producing essays that I don’t think are good enough, it’s not they are “bad writers” or lazy or indifferent. They simply don’t know how to do the thing I want them to do. Writing a college-level paper is hard, that’s all. They have been writing and thinking and talking for years, yes, but because skills are narrow, that does not mean they can write this particular way — even if they think they can. As I’ve argued elsewhere about creative writing, the primary problem in teaching is, in the widest sense of the word, about knowledge. Our students may be perfectly interesting, thoughtful people, but they arrive in class lacking the area expertise, context, technique, and practice that they need to write a good essay.

We just have to teach them how to play cricket.

2. Every student body is different.

Your Comp class is merely one of many writing classes that your students have taken and will take. They arrive already having received years of instruction on how to write. They have differing study habits, home stability, expectations of you, ways of being in a classroom. And so a key challenge in teaching is working out what each individual class requires.

When I taught at Rutgers, one professor there encouraged me to think of teaching Composition as an intervention. I am arriving mid-way through these students’ education. What help do they most need, right now? How can I be most valuable to them at this moment?

When I taught in Philadelphia’s Community College, the students were older than I was used to, and they were more talkative. They were eager to learn, because they were old enough to know the value of skilled writing and speech: in contrast, with a class of middle-class nineteen year olds, you might face the challenge that students really don’t know what it’s like to have their resume rejected, or have a memo they sent to a colleague come back covered with red pen. Their main experience of writing has been in school.

On the other hand, however, such students will probably be well-trained at being in school, having gone through years of strict high school education and disciplined hobbies and AP classes. In contrast, in a community college in a big city, you may have to work harder at projecting the “presence” of a teacher, modeling as best you can a respectful, sympathetic, alert authority figure, just to keep the session on topic.

One syllabus, no matter how carefully designed, might be largely useless with a different set of students. A different intervention might be required.

3. Your students are probably exhausted.

One commonality, however, is that most of the students I’ve taught in America, whether deep in a local college in New Jersey or here in Knoxville, arrive in my classes harried and worn out. Either they are coming from a part-time job, or they are taking five other classes that semester — or both. American semesters are very long, but even by week three or four, many of my students spend a lot of the class blinking at me with that “zombie stare,” the special expression of the sleep-deprived.

In such an environment, I think it’s important to set up various start-of-class rituals and routines, little fun distractions and exercises that signal two things: one, class is starting; two, this is a safe, generous space. When students are exhausted, and you’re teaching a compulsory class in their first year of college, you shouldn’t expect them to show up eager to learn about sentence structure. I picked up from colleagues here at UT the idea of doing attendance not by blandly calling out names, but with a “question of the day” — “What’s one musical artist you think we should all listen to?” “What’s a foreign country you’d like to study in?”

It also means giving students clear goals and reasons for the things you want them to do. Probably the best book on teaching writing that I’ve read is John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas, and from that book, I learned the value of making the tasks I set students, both inside the classroom and for homework, transactional.

For instance, it’s frequently not a good idea to say something like “Get into groups and discuss the homework.” That’s actually saying: “Get into groups and steal a few minutes’ downtime, by dozing, checking your phone, or chatting about yesterday’s Biology test.” Bean’s advice, in contrast, is to give each group a product to create, a mission, and to have them self-appoint officers who are responsible for presenting this end-product to the rest of the class.

Whatever you want to teach your students, you probably want to be quite direct at teaching it to them. They may be too tired to absorb allegories or clever analogies. A long story or parable might be a great way to make them pay attention, laugh, wake up — but then I have to explain exactly what I want them to write.

4. Writing is a physical act. 

One of my frustrations with certain theories of composition, or methods of teaching writing, is that they aren’t inky enough. They don’t get their hands dirty.

When teaching writing, it’s easy to be too abstract, to spend a long time talking about books and ideas and platitudes, when the actual product of the class has to be produced by a student in a dorm room, or a bathroom, at 11pm, the night before the essay is due. When that student comes to actually write, how does she write? What techniques does she use to put words on the page?

This is doubly significant because of muscle memory. If students have spent years writing in the style and structure of the five-paragraph essay, if you don’t want them to write a five-paragraph essay, you can’t simply tell them to do something different. Your assignment sheet with all your requirements carefully typed out will not matter. At eleven p.m., staring at the computer screen, the student will unconsciously reach for what she knows, and will hand in a five-paragraph essay with all the features you said you didn’t want.

I can’t play the guitar. If you’re like me, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of picking up someone else’s guitar and holding it, brushing the strings, feeling kind of cool. But when you actually try to make a proper note, there’s a rush of panic, an absence where a skill should be. Your hands don’t know what to do.

And if I were sitting there with a guitar in my hands, if you were to simply tell me what to do, that wouldn’t help, at least not much. If you were to type out a detailed assignment sheet for playing along to Stairway to Heaven, I would still produce only noise. You’d have to turn off the music, start at a more basic level, adjust my fingers on the strings, explain what a chord was.

The situation is even worse in a writing class. Because I know I can’t play the guitar, but everyone thinks that they can write. So you not only have to teach students the right thing to do, you have to alert them to the thing they are already doing (unconsciously), so that they can stop doing it.

And you will probably need to train their writing muscles over and over again before you see progress. One can’t just give a lecture and expect change. Whatever I want them to get better at or alter, I need to present as a talk one day, a group exercise the next, a homework assignment the week after, and then present again as a talk, this time referring back to the feedback I wrote on their homework.

But saying that repetition is necessary is, sadly, another way of saying that a Composition class can’t try to teach very many things. Maybe there’s no time to teach prose style in your class, or have them set up blogs, if you want to guide them to produce fluent five-page arguments. Or maybe you do have them write blogs, but then you accept that you can’t also teach them how to write very long papers. Unless you’re a very experienced teacher, you can’t do everything.

I see my class, in part, as an opportunity to teach students new muscle memories, new unconscious techniques, ones that will serve them well in college and, hopefully, in real life. This approach involves, I suspect, more repetition and direction than many teachers use.

In the next couple of posts, I’ll explain what I do.

2 thoughts on “How I Teach College-Level Writing: The Theories Behind the Syllabus

  1. I’ve been playing longer than he has, but my 5 year old grandson can beat me at chess in a handful of moves. He knows strategies and understands the board.. Not sure if I’m getting it right, but if you’re saying that aspiring writers can be good at some but not necessarily all areas of writing (and there are many areas) then I heartily agree. I think that a teacher can only enhance the skills people already have not teach them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s impressive! I think my argument would be: skills are narrow. In the case of your grandson, he is obviously very advanced at chess. But we wouldn’t extrapolate, from that ability, that he must also be good at driving a car, or even at remembering passwords to websites. He may simply be very talented at chess. However, when teaching, it’s easy to overlook this issue, and think that a student’s writing problem is evidence of some wider cognitive or artistic deficiency. Whereas, in reality, it may just be that they aren’t experienced at the rules of the particular writing style you want them to write in.

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