Express Yourself . . . in a Composition Class?

At the beginning of each semester, I give my students a questionnaire, asking them, among other things, what they like and dislike about writing. About 70% respond that they like writing because they can express themselves, their ideas, their opinions, and their feelings. About 40%, however, say that they don’t like writing about topics that don’t interest them. One student wrote, “I like writing when it’s not boring or on a boring topic. I don’t like writing long essays on a random book or a topic not interesting. I have to be interested in my writing and reading.”

Students are motivated to write, yet many teachers fail to tap this reservoir of motivation. In fact, most writing classes frustrate students’ desire to express themselves. Instead, instructors should assign topics that seem relevant to the students and allow a range of choices in essay topics.

Even the most backward student comes to the class with highly advanced intellectual skills (or else they never could have survived in a dangerous world and complex society). Gerald Graff, now a professor of English and head of the Modern Language Association, hated school when he was young but loved sports. He disliked most books, yet he would read Sport magazine (later called Sports Illustrated), sports novels, and autobiographies of stars like Joe DiMaggio.

Although he thought  he was a “typical teenage anti-intellectual,” he would carry on debates with friends about who was the toughest in the neighborhood, which sports teams were best, and who were the top players. In these debates, he learned “the rudiments of the intellectual life: how to make an argument, weigh different kinds of evidence, move between particulars and generalizations, summarize the view of others, and enter a conversation about ideas” (Graff 201). In short, he was carrying out the basic moves of academic discourse, but not in school. His preference for sports was not anti-intellectualism, he realized but intellectualism by another name.

Rather than discouraging students from reading what they like, Graff recommends that teachers use popular works in the classroom to get students reading: “If a student cannot get interested in Mill’s On Liberty but will read Sports Illustrated or Vogue or the hip-hop magazine Source with absorption, this is a strong argument for assigning the magazines over the classics” (Graff 204). He says that if students get hooked on reading what interests them, they will later switch to more sophisticated reading. However, even if they don’t, “the magazine reading will make them more literate and reflective than they would be otherwise” (Graff 204). In other words, even if students do not move on to more scholarly texts, they will still have become better readers, learned vocabulary and information, and challenged their minds.

After teachers have gotten students’ interest with popular subjects, they should allow students to choose articles or books that interest them. Students could form book clubs and select, read and discuss works based on mutual interest. The advantage of book clubs is having like-minded peers to converse with (once they have learned how to discuss works in an academic way, that is). The disadvantage is that some students will not share interests with any students, so some groups will have to compromise.

With writing, teachers should assign many low-stakes writing assignments, such as freewriting and journals in which students are encouraged to express themselves without fear of grading. Nevertheless, teachers must grade at some point. As with reading, assigning paper topics that interest students and allowing them choice motivates students to write.  Picking topics students tend to like works well, but allowing some leeway on essay subject will ensure that everyone is writing about a subject of interest. The tricky part about allowing choice in writing topics is making the essay prompt specific and clear enough that students know what to do.  Some of my earlier essay prompts were too open and vague. On one assignment, I asked students to “respond in a personal but academic way” to the texts we had been reading. Most students seemed to know what to do, but others floundered.

My recent prompts allow flexibility, but make the task more clear. For example, my latest assignment, called “Finding Your Hidden Intellectualism” for English 848 at College of San Mateo (a pre-transfer level class) asks students to describe a hobby or interest through which they or others show hidden intellectualism (which of course we have explained and explored through reading and discussion. The thesis should answer the question “How do participants in the hobby or interest you have selected demonstrate academic skills, such as making arguments, supporting an opinion with evidence, summarizing and responding to the views of others, challenging one’s mind, preparing for life and career, developing morality, or building community?”

Assigning readings that interest students and allowing them choice in reading and writing topics does not guarantee academic success, of course. As college professor Ned Laff said, students must learn to see their hobby or interest through academic eyes, or as Graff puts it, they need to be trained to “think and write about cars, sports, and fashions in a reflective, analytical way, one that sees them as microcosms of what is going on in the wider culture” (204). Popular subjects and choice do not ensure success in composition, but they do build a bridge between the reading and writing students are doing in their everyday lives and helps them transport it into a new academic world in enjoyable and motivating way.

Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism.” “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2010. 198-205. Print.

2 thoughts on “Express Yourself . . . in a Composition Class?”

  1. I wish I could take your writing class.
    In my elementary & middle school, writing class was “English” class.
    In 8th grade, I had to ask my English teacher to recommend me for 9th grade “Honor’s English”. I remember her raising an eyebrow, when she looked up at me. She was busy, it was Sandy, Utah and the re were too many kids under her guidance.
    She had probably already summed up my natural abilities and effort in my writing assignments, and to her, I wasn’t a candidate for an honors class.
    She probably didn’t anticipate my bold request.
    I don’t even know if I was that good at writing, or English. My current grammar skills are questionable. (I want to go back to school to learn more.)
    Despite any doubts, my teacher saw my ambition and granted my request and recommended me for Honors English in 9th grade High School.

    So- I finally get to my anticipated Honor’s English class, so excited…! And immediately we are basically left to Romeo & Juliet. Not much interaction with the teacher, all the students were basically reading 1 book in class. To get a grade, you had to write a report of the book.
    I think I copied my report from someone. Never had I been so bored. Boring!
    I instantly hated Shakespeare, and I still do.
    And I hated my new English class. All the assignments were like this. Yawn.

    I dropped out of high school in 10th grade and my English writing skills super-suck.
    But I love writing and am a professional songwriter.

  2. Your story shows, Robbie, just how badly many teachers handle reading and writing. You are an awesome writer, as this post and, even more so, your songs show! Teachers need to encourage, not kill the dream. But give Shakespeare another chance. Try “Midsummer Nights Dream” with Michelle Pfeiffer and a load of other famous blokes.

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