Teaching Writing: My Philosophy

Basically, writing should be integrated, process-oriented, collaborative and authentic. Writing and teaching can delight, as well as instruct. Above all else, students must know why writing is important.

Unless students understand what effective writing can do for them in their real lives, writing assignments will remain little more than busy work, artificial assignments to prove that they have read and understood a text or mastered a particular form, and compositions courses will be just another hurdle on their way to graduation, instead of one of the most important classes in their careers. Student writers must experience firsthand how clear, exact, detailed, persuasive writing can give them power, yes power, in their academic, professional and even personal lives.

An integrated writing class should bridge out-of-class and in-class literacies. Most young people are reading and writing more than ever before (in emails, text messages, social networks, video games and blogs) and yet teachers are complaining of a drop in basic literacy skills. How do we as teachers bridge the gap between academic and everyday writing? Instead of invalidating what many young people are producing daily, teachers should help students identify and develop the skills they already have: awareness of audience and purpose, the ability to write in various tones and registers, techniques of description, narration and persuasion.

Here, in the intersection of old and new literacies, instructors can demonstrate that control of tone is as important in a text message as in an academic paper, and clear, detailed writing is as important in an email inviting people to a birthday party as in a professional business report. Teachers should continuously remind students that the skills they are developing are applicable to many modes of writing. (It is a serious mistake, however, to assume all students are “digital natives,” some do not have regular access to computers, others choose to avoid technology for personal reasons. Writing teachers must always keep their approaches and methods open to include all students.)

Research and writing are no longer separate activities which take place in divided spaces at different times, but must be fully integrated so that reading leads to immediate response and writing engages the reading, if not directly altering it, as in shared, communal sites such as wikis. The trend toward user-generated content will only become more pronounced as the internet expands and matures. In a very real sense, there are few passive readers these days; everyone is a writer, a researcher, a teacher and a critic.

Some bemoan the loss of academic authority, yet knowledge is becoming more open and democratic, and not a commodity hoarded in isolated college departments by specialists who cannot be understood outside their field. Thus, critical thinking and evaluative skills are more urgent than ever. We cannot hold back the change, we can only help students cope with the explosion of information, and, in some cases, improve its quality. Most significantly, integration of reading and writing shifts the focus from consumption of knowledge to production of knowledge, the ultimate goal of the composition teacher.

A writing teacher should make students aware of the widest range of approaches to writing because students do learn — and write – differently. The writing process has been central to composition classes for some time and should continue to be so. Techniques such as brainstorming, cluster-graphs, free-writing, Aristotelian topics, Kenneth Burke’s pentad, and loop writing (to name a few) are just as important as ever.

Now the digital age offers the writing teacher more tools: message boards, class forums, wikis, and blogs (again, to name a few). What has changed is that these new forms of writing are not only a means to an end, steps along way to produce a paper, but valid forms of writing in themselves. Some of these pieces should later be gathered together to make up a larger piece of writing, emphasizing the continuous nature of the writing process; the final paper does not replace what came before but adds to it and reshapes it.

Many ideas have arisen from my experience with a blog as part of an independent course on metafiction and as my new media project for Teaching Writing in the Digital Age. I have invited people to join me in discussion groups and through long-distance participation over the blog and people are getting involved, the class and the blog are taking off. Teaching and writing for an authentic audience has become something that is happening now, rather than a distant goal after graduation.

My most significant realization from the blog has been the importance of writing for a real audience with a real purpose, the social, collaborative nature of writing, and the interconnectedness of research and the writing process, as each stage informs the other.

(For more on the revision process, see my posts, “The Draft is Obsolete” and “Multiple, Simultaneous Drafts.”)

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