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Education: Teaching of Writing Essay

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Updated: Jul 29th, 2022

First-year college students receive mixed messages about writing. Consider some mutually incompatible phenomena they observe. They might infer that writing is important because it is almost universally mandatory. Simultaneously, students might infer that writing is exceedingly unimportant, taught by ‘mere’ graduate students and adjunct faculty teach it, and with so few resources? (Crowley 241)?

Freshmen may thus be excused for confusion why they take freshman composition, and how it will pay off. The benefit a freshman extracts from a writing class depends to some degree on what they bring to the class. It may, for example, depend on their socioeconomic class, and their high school.

What they get out of a first-year composition class may also depend on the personal baggage their instructor brings to the course, including the instructor’s training, experience, and proclivities, as well as their institution’s attitude towards this endeavor. A clearer common orientation towards what individual students need from a writing class could help to make this element of education more useful and less frustrating for all stakeholders.

From the student’s perspective, much depends on their background. Their major writing exercise may have consisted of their admissions essay. Formal grammar study may have consisted of middle school worksheets.

They may read minimally, and largely from anthologies of misleadingly excerpted (and sometimes modified) texts, assessed by Scantron-graded exams.

Their home conversation may have been stereotypical, TV-inspired, perhaps even non-English, with no voluntary writing or reading except printed forms. Downs’ and Wardles’ students acknowledged this early impact of socio-economic status on writing by researching variation in literacy activities between day care centers (Downs and Wardle 562).

Advantaged freshman, on the other hand, may have studied twelve or more books annually, some, perhaps in another world language. They may have been taught to identify, obtain, and use primary sources. (However, detailed correction of grammar and style is luxury everywhere.) They may inhabit a completely different language arts world, with the substantive home conversation, public radio membership, discretionary reading, and writing.

They do share other characteristics, however. One shared item is incessant social media use – largely text-based. If the volume Facebook/Twitter text is any measure, today’s freshman ‘write’ more than their parents ever did. However, texting ‘wassup?’ does little to prepare freshmen for writing about literature, business, history, or science.

What they also share is how much their lifetime success will depend on reading and writing, of a variety of sorts and purposes. Any job beyond flipping burgers will require good reading comprehension, even if only for machine directions and software. Almost any job will also demand writing skills. To refrain from vigorously so preparing students seems almost irresponsible.

The authors covered in the present course all are concerned about these problems. Their concerns seem to stem from professional pride, professional pique, and disappointment at the results that they observe, judging from the essay by Crowley (Crowley passim). They want their work respected.

They want to have the resources and institutional support to accomplish what they know how to do – teach all the elements of effective writing. They want to see their students succeeding in writing, not just in their courses, but also in future writing they will confront in school and life.

Downs and Wardle discuss the sadly scarce evidence that writing skills learned in a freshman composition course will ‘transfer’ to the specialized genres in which they will work as they move on to other courses (Downs and Wardle 555-557) d. Does Freshman Comp teach them how to write up a chemistry lab report, a biology research paper, an analysis of an accounting problem, or a social sciences essay (Downs and Wardle 557)?

While Downs and Wardle recognize that assigning topics for reading and response that are relevant to the student might help, they do not mention writing a lab report or an accounting analysis as an effective classroom exercise. This may be due to a lack of content expertise needed to assess and grade such an assignment, as well as the lack of familiarity with “the specialized discourses” of other disciplines (Downs and Wardle 556).

Instead, the course that Downs and Wardle propose involves substantial reflection and asks students to research and write about topics related to the writing of their choosing (Downs and Wardle 560-564).

Miles, et alii object to the limitation of Downs and Wardle’s “first-year focus” (Miles, Pennell, and Owens 504). They identify a logical error in assuming that “the field [of writing} then equals the course [of freshman composition].”

(Miles, Pennell and Owens 504) Rather than assuming that everything must be taught within the FYC, they propose the “the major or the vertical curriculum” as a focus (Miles, Pennell and Owens 504)- (Miles, Pennell and Owens 507).

They urge avoidance of “using first-year courses as a means to recruit and enculturate new majors” in favor of “teaching transferable procedural knowledge aimed at helping students make connections across disciplines” (Miles, Pennell and Owens 507). They suggest instead the alternatives of a recursive degree program (all in writing), common core courses somehow shared with non-writing disciplines, and contextual writing courses.

The most useful to non-writing majors seem to be the last two. The idea of courses that “embed both specialized classes in the discourse of the field” (Miles, Pennell and Owens 506) might suggest to some readers the possibility that, for example, the biology department might offer ‘Writing for Biologists.’ This is perhaps akin to ‘Statistics for Biologists/Anthropologists,’ offered elsewhere.

This is interesting, but what about an undecided freshman, or one with inadequate writing preparation? Earlier, it was suggested that the needs of the individual student should shape writing instruction. How can academe achieve this? Critically, students at all levels should be permitted to review exemplary peer writing as a reality check. Better pre-admissions placement assessments could better target students’ deficiencies or strengths.

Perhaps repeat assessments should occur before students enter upper-level coursework, allowing remediation of specific problems before students flounder. (This should include filling in the gaps in reading a wide variety of classic and scholarly literature that often plague incoming freshmen.) This will help to mitigate the sad individual inequalities in student preparation.

To introduce the specialized discourses of other disciplines, perhaps mini-courses could feature top departmental researchers. They could thus commit a manageable slice of time to share their expertise. Perhaps each department’s ablest writers could team-teach course segments from a semester-long course on specialized writing techniques, thereby sharing the extra workload.

The notion of writing in one’s discipline with mentoring from an expert writer seems very appealing. Perhaps a final paper in, for example, biology, could get a critical reading for structure, at least, from a writing major ( the idea being that if a peer outside one’s discipline can understand one’s point, it must be fairly well presented). This way, the individual career writing needs of varied students are better addressed.

The scholars cited above have long been admirably concerned about writing program effectiveness. The approaches suggested herein, address inadequate student preparation as well as their long-term need to learn how to write for a specific discipline. This would require a commitment on the part of the college and flexibility on the part of instructors. The goal, to prepare students to write for life, is worth it.

Works Cited

Crowley, Sharon. “A Modest Proposal.” Crowley, Sharon. Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. 241-243. Print.

Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’.” College Composition and Communication (2007): 552–584. Print.

Miles, Libby, et al. College Composition and Communication 59.3 (2008): 503-511. Print. 2014.

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