Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination

You’d think after thirty-four years of teaching writing at both the high school and college levels, I would have a pretty firm handle on everything.

You’d think that, maybe, but not me.

On the last class session of my first-year writing seminars this semester, I asked my students what has worked and not worked over the course of four or so months. They were amazing in what they shared, and as a result, I am now redesigning significantly both my schedule and the time spent on many of my practices.

Their feedback, thankfully, was mostly positive—as this student shared in her final reflection that is colored with a bit of hyperbole:

I will never use any of the writing techniques that I was taught all four years of high school. My high school teachers failed me as a college writer. I am grateful that I got Dr. Thomas as a teacher considering that he was very willing to help you and was understanding that we are freshman and will make many mistakes. Talking to my friends outside of my class who have writing seminars this semester their professors expected them to know everything that needed to make them a strong college writer.

Confirming the gap between how students view writing after high school and the expectations of academic writing for undergraduates and scholars, her feedback also speaks to a truism about learning to write and learning to teach writing: both are journeys, and not destinations.

Here, I want to discuss the patterns expressed by my two seminars, and consider briefly how that will impact my practice in future first-year writing and other writing-intensive courses. Their feedback included the following:

  • Students emphasized the effectiveness of professor/student essay conferencing. I have at the college level greatly adjusted how I respond to essays compared to my previous career teaching high school English (note that now I have about 24 first-year students over two courses that meet M, W, F, and my high school load was 100-125 students over five classes that met M-F). I have all essays submitted as electronic Word files, and I then offer some track change edits/revisions and include comments. However, I now provide very brief, and never exhaustive, feedback on these drafts, and instead require students to conference (at least once after the first final draft submitted and my feedback returned) so we can discuss the essay and create a revision plan. I have always felt this is more effective so when these two seminars overwhelming confirmed the power of conferences, I am now planning more class time dedicated to conferencing since requiring additional out-of-class conferences, they said, would be burdensome (scheduling these now are a bit of a challenge).
  • However, students noted peer-conferencing was less effective as currently implemented. My standard process has been to have students bring hard copies of their first final essay submission on the due date (the electronic version is due by email attachment before that class session) in order to have peer-conferencing in class. These students felt this process was not effective, and instead, want peer feedback after my feedback. I have always struggled with peer conferencing, and this means I have work left to do.
  • Students recognized the value of writing teachers sharing their own writing as models for student writing. One of the most conscientious students shared quickly in our debrief that she appreciated my sharing my writing and talking through what and how I write in order to model for them how to draft their essays. The other students were enthusiastic in agreement, and I feel this was a strong endorsement of the power of teaching writing as a writer. While I am happy with this part of my teaching, I think I can increase the intentionality of this approach—sharing an ongoing draft of a piece, for example, instead of all final pieces.
  • Students valued writing workshop time in class because they could interact immediately with the professor while drafting. My course daily schedule and overarching course pattern tend toward the first half of the course being more traditional (class lessons and discussion, especially reading like a writer with mentor texts), and then the second half includes quite a few class sessions devoted to workshop time for students to draft, research, read, conference, etc., during the class hour. Although I have always valued workshop time for students, the expectations, especially at the college level, that class is about professor-oriented and content-based instruction still weigh on my own consideration about effective use of class time. These students confirmed the value of workshop time in class, noting especially having me there to help.
  • Students appreciated a composition course remaining primarily focused on learning to write and not on content acquisition and traditional practices such as taking tests. A problem for the first-year writing seminars at my university, since switching away from more traditional composition courses anchored in the English department, has been professors outside of English teaching the writing seminar as an introductory disciplinary content course. When talking with their first-year peers in other first-year writing seminars, my students came to appreciate the writing focus of my courses—mentioning, for example, that other students have been taking tests and involved in other activities (such as very narrowly prompted essays) more common in disciplinary content courses.
  • Students asked for more class sessions dedicated to brainstorming for every essay assigned. One definite improvement I will incorporate is providing a more structured class session for brainstorming of all four essays. This set of students noted they very much benefitted from the one intense brainstorm session for the cited scholarly essay, and added that they felt this process would have been effective for all of the assignments.
  • Students both appreciated and struggled with choice in types of essays and topics. I have been a strong proponent and practitioner of allowing students choice in both the kinds of essays they write and their topics. The problem I have encountered teaching college students at an academically selective college is that these students prefer prompt-driven writing, and most of their experiences have been absent any choice. An on-going goal for my practice remains how to help students build the writer’s toolbox necessary for being capable of the choice they deserve as scholars and writers.
  • Students admitted that drafting, and required drafts, were helpful for improving the quality of their essays and thinking. One of the most shocking lessons I have learned with my current university students is their resistance to drafting. But that resistance is grounded not in any sort of laziness or even procrastination (although they bring the procrastination-still-allows-A’s habit from high school); it is mostly their fear of turning in work, in their words, “that isn’t perfect yet.” Because I employ a minimum requirements approach (instead of traditional grades) that emphasizes drafting, most of my students do comply with those minimum expectations; however, far fewer students embrace the unlimited opportunity for drafting essays that would certainly improve their grades and improve them as writers. While I have been fairly successful with students drafting as required, I must continue to find strategies for helping them appreciate drafting more fully (I will touch on this below).
  • Students viewed feedback on their drafts positively and appreciated prompt replies and thorough feedback. The same student I quoted above also embraced one of the foundational jokes of all the classes I teach: I tell students if I do not respond immediately to an email (or text) or if they do not have their essays returned in less than one day of submission, I didn’t receive the email, text, or essay—or I am dead. There is a scene in the film version of Mosquito Coast in which the Harrison Ford character is whipping up the locals in the land he has bought, noting that he wants them to work hard but he will always be working harder. That is a teacher commitment I have always worked by. While I have learned to temper the amount of feedback I offer (but still have some tone problems), I remain prompt in how I respond to students and their work. Students respond well to my standards for myself by embodying higher standards for themselves.

Not directly addressed by my students’ feedback, I have an additional broad concern that I plan to address as I revise these seminars. My minimum requirement technique meets some of my instructional goals, but it fails at helping students develop their own sense of the quality of their work and their deserved grades (which I must assign despite not grading throughout the semester).

I have long rejected rubrics, but I also do appreciate the need for teachers at all levels to make expectations clear for students—both in how the teacher states explicit expectations and how students identify their own expectations.

“Minimum” seems to be less effective for the population of students I teach (the “do all this or fail” is a a deficit approach and does not really match the aspiration of high-achieving students who are mostly in courses for the A).

This is quite tentative, but here are some initial thoughts on how to help students understand the A/B divide in the quality of their essays and their overall course grade:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

Just as my students should come to embrace writing as a journey, I discover every time I teach writing that, yes, teaching writing is also a journey and not a destination.

I have much left to do.