Teaching Writing Remotely in a Time of Crisis

My students and I are in our last couple weeks of remote learning and teaching due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As I have examined, the transition for me was facilitated by many of my philosophical/theoretical commitments and practices—most of which are non-traditional and tend to cause tension in traditional circumstances.

At the root of these commitments, I think, is that I am essentially a teacher of writing. Therefore, I am prone to creating classroom experiences around workshop formats, open-ended discussions, and text-based examinations that are seeking goals beyond simply summarizing or analyzing the texts for meaning.

Most of my teaching career—almost two decades each at the high school and higher education levels—has involved teaching writing to students who are not trying to become writers. My writing instruction is primarily grounded in fostering the power of writing as that is valued within academic and scholarly contexts.

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

One of my best assignments, I think, is that I ask my first-year writing students to interview faculty at my university about how they conduct scholarship and research as well as about their lives as writers. Much to their surprise, students discover that most faculty are begrudging writers if not openly antagonistic to writing.

I work much of the time to balance my commitment to the field (and career) of writing with the reality that the vast majority of my students are attempting to navigate academia well, but may be as resistant to being and becoming writers as many of those professors.

My university now has only two writing-intensive courses for students—the first-year writing seminar and an upper-level writing/research course (intended to be taken in a student’s major department if offered).

I teach the upper-level writing/research course for my department, and we are currently navigating that remotely.

This is my third time through the course; therefore, I have continued to revise and better focus my goals for the course and the assignments. Teaching this course remotely has been another, and unexpected, way to rethink what works when teaching writing.

First, a fortunate accident of the move to remote learning/teaching is that it occurred in the middle of the course, which I have designed to be text-based and direct-instruction focused in the first half and workshop oriented in the second half (see the schedule). As a result of the shift to remote, all of the major assignments in the course have been submitted without our having traditional face-to-face class sessions.

The assignments have included annotated bibliographies, a cited scholarly essay, and a public commentary. Students have been invited to choose a topic in education that is being covered significantly in the media, conducting scholarly searches for what the research base shows about that topic, and conducting an informed analysis of how well the media is covering the topic.

I have now received at least the first submissions of all of these assignments, prompting me to email my students about the public commentaries this morning (since it was due yesterday). A key point I made was that the course is designed so that they are experimenting with how different writing purposes have different submission formats, different standards for citations, and different stylistic concerns.

Students are provided several documents to support producing and submitting the assignments. Those materials include a sample scholarly essay with notes and a sample public commentary with notes.

The challenges students face include preparing separate writing assignments and documents with those differences—APA format v. submitting a work of journalism, in-text scholarly citation v. hyperlinking, writing for a scholarly audience v. writing for the general public.

This writing-intensive course, I think, is both quite challenging for students (and the teacher) and a perfect model for helping students move beyond a rules-based or template-driven approaches to writing in academic, scholarly, and public contexts.

The scholarly essay and public commentary force students to see that writing is grounded in purpose and audience—not a simple set of rules demanded by the teacher.

Since workshopping the assignments remotely is not fundamentally different than when we have in-class sessions, I am recognizing another layer of stress because the remote is occurring during a health crisis and the unusual experiences of isolation many of my students are experiencing.

When I have been charged with providing faculty development for faculty teaching writing (as disciplinary professors without backgrounds in composition beyond their own experiences as writers), especially first-year writing, I have highlighted the problem with cognitive overload—asking students to write about new or challenging content while also focusing on being better writers.

If students are overwhelmed intellectually, they often do the multiple expectations poorly (or at least less well than if they could focus on only one) or prioritize by doing one thing well at the exclusion of the other(s), typically choosing to address content and fumble the writing itself.

One of my refrains is that when we are primarily teaching a class addressing writing instruction, we must be careful not to detract from that focus on writing well (or better) by engaging students in new or challenging course content (such as reading a highly technical, complex text to write about).

However, as we move into upper-level writing course, that problem is essentially impossible to avoid. Even in so-called normal circumstances, students have struggled with this upper-level writing/research course because, to be blunt, it is asking a great deal of undergraduate students.

I am accustomed to responding to initial drafts with “Did you look at the sample?” and “You are not doing the assignment.” But during this remote experience compounded by a pandemic, I am giving these responses far more often, nearly to the point of frustration on my part.

As I continue to interrogate my own role as a teacher of writing and a writer/scholar, I have a few key elements of my teaching that need careful consideration:

  • Increasing the tenuous value of providing students with models of writing in academic and public writing.
  • Fairly balancing writing assignments with supporting students making autonomous decisions as writers/scholars.
  • Providing feedback that supports effective and efficient revision (and learning).
  • Disrupting student misconceptions about drafting, written products, and performing as a student instead of as a writer or scholar.

I am not certain that a course shifted mid-semester into remote learning/teaching because of a pandemic can be anything other than a pale version of the original course, but I have witnessed that my courses are providing many if not most of my students quite valuable learning experiences.

The negative consequences of teaching remote during this pandemic are not quite clear yet, but I am certain the added stress of the situation has worked against many of my course goals.

I worry that many of us teaching fail to consider the demands of writing and writing well while students are simultaneously learning and navigating new content. It ultimately may be far too much to ask of students forced to remain in their homes and rooms for weeks on end with a newly uncertain world around them.