Friday, December 12, 2008

Let's Talk about Something Else, Shall We? Like Student Writing and Commenting on Student Writing

But before we do, thank you all SO SO much for all of your support and kind words and commiseration and everything. You don't know how much that has meant to me over the past couple of days. The next while promises to be hard, and I'm still really emotional about lots of parts of it, but I woke up this morning feeling more myself (probably in no small part due to talking to my mom, who while jerky, really always makes me feel better at the end of the day, in her own special jerky way), and the sun is shining and the kitties are frolicking and well, things are as right in my world as they can be. I am thinking that I'm going to get myself into therapy when I'm done with finals and the holiday travel, which I've never done before but which I think would be a solid move in these circumstances.

But so anyway, what shall we talk about? I know. My fabulous students.

So yesterday in my Best Class Ever, I had my students workshop their drafts of their papers. This was in part an effort to get them going with the papers (which they were way behind on getting a start with) before the deadline, but it ended up being a way to end the semester that made me pretty happy. I know their writing well enough now that I was able to pair people up who would really gain something from working with one another (my favorite pairing was with a student who tends to write in a terribly expansive way with a student who writes in a way that is so spare that ideas don't tend to get as fully developed as necessary). But I also paired two students who will be in my theory class next semester (who I really did think would gain from knowing one another better), BES with a potential new BES, etc. So anyway, it was a relaxed and relaxing way to end the regular semester, and they all worked earnestly on responding to one another's writing. It was a treat to watch them, really.

Also funny was the fact that they started kvetching about my commenting style, for apparently I'm the only person who has ever written on their papers that a sentence is "lame." I think I've written here about my commenting style before, but if not, the short version is that I do tend to be direct and somewhat blunt. Now, this is not to say that I'm not helpful. After I say something like "this is a lame sentence with which to open the paper" I give suggestions about what would have made it better, but still, submitting writing to me is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, apparently I'm the toughest commenter on papers that they've ever seen. (This may say more about the other professors they've had than about me, or it may mean that I'm a bitch on wheels. It is hard to say.)

Now, when I first started teaching, I will say that I tried to be more... I don't know. Diplomatic? Warm and fuzzy? I still was direct, but I fought my natural impulses, always translating what I really thought into something more innocuous. This made grading take way longer, as I was trying to comment in a voice that wasn't natural to me - that didn't feel like me talking to them. I also think that it wasn't terribly effective. As I've taught many, many classes, graded thousands of papers of all stripes, and as I've taught longer, I've done away with trying to comment as if I'm a different person from the one that I am. On the one hand, this means that some students are put off by my style. On the other, the students who are looking to be pushed beyond the typical things that they do really tend to respond well. They never have to wonder what I think about their writing. Students who really want substantive feedback respond well to that.

One thing I realized though was that commenting in this way really depends on developing a rapport with my students by assigning a lot of writing throughout the semester. You can't just blind-side them with this sort of commenting on one major paper. You need to prepare them for it with smaller assignments and really let them get to know you so that they don't feel attacked. And you know, this is one of the reasons that I am so happy to have gotten comp off of my schedule and one of the reasons that I don't feel guilty about having done so. I realized (kind of without realizing it) a couple of years ago that I needed to give students in lit classes writing instruction, and I felt spread so thin by switching back and forth between comp and lit classes that I did justice to neither in terms of writing instruction.

This is where I find the whole "more tenure-track English professors need to be teaching writing" thing kind of weird, not because I agree that we should rely primarily on adjunct labor for lower-division classes like comp, but because the reality is that I'm a better writing instructor within my discipline - literary studies - than I am in the discipline of composition and rhetoric, and I teach writing consistently within my discipline across all levels - to incoming students through graduating seniors. Not teaching comp does not, in my situation, imply that I don't teach lower-level students or that I don't teach writing. Reports like the MLA one on the adjunctification of English set up a binary that implies that people who aren't teaching composition aren't teaching writing at all (which does a disservice not only to English faculty but to faculty in disciplines outside of English who care about facilitating good writing in their classes), and that they are, rather, living high on the hog and just Thinking Great Thoughts and chatting about the content of their courses while adjunct labor allows them that luxury, as if a freshman comp sequence does the job in terms of writing instruction. This is just so far from my experience that once again I find myself wondering how one actually ends up having a voice in the MLA, because as far as I can tell, the perspectives represented tend to be those of people at colleges and universities that resemble mine not at all, which seems weird since there are a lot more of my kind of institutions in higher ed than elite research institutions or elite slacs.

The problem with composition and writing across the curriculum programs as I see it is that they assume anybody with an advanced degree in English has the skills to "teach writing" in a general, amorphous way at a high level of excellence. Now, I think that I'm a strong writer, and I think that I'm a good teacher of writing. But I also think that I'm a more effective teacher of writing in the field in which I myself write, and I know that I'm not an effective teacher of writing for disciplines whose methods and approaches differ widely from my own (say, the sciences). Further, most people who teach composition are not specialists in composition and rhetoric. So in order for the MLA's recommendations to really make sense, we'd need to be hiring like 30-40 composition and rhetoric specialists at minimum into tenure-track positions for each university, in order to support the needs of general studies composition requirements that apply to all students in a university. That's just not going to happen, folks. And I wonder why we think that one or two classes are supposed to be the last word on writing instruction, because again, my students seem to need that consistently throughout their college careers.

But so anyway, I assign a lot of writing, and I have to grade a lot of writing. Even though I don't technically at the moment "teach writing." Funny how that works, isn't it?


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

At least your course sizes probably facilitate teaching writing -- I assign and grade a lot of writing in my Ethics and Intro to Philosophy courses -- this semester ethics was 27-38 pg/student depending on their choice of project or paper -- and some bozo 15 years ago decided those weren't 'writing' classes and I have 50 students per section.

Dr. Crazy said...

This does make a HUGE difference, IPF, and is yet another way that the false distinction between "writing classes" and "content classes" hurts professors outside of English. I'll say this, though: my class sizes would be bigger if we had the classrooms to support that. Of this I have no doubt. This is the one and only way that the inadequate space/classroom facilities at my campus actually works for me. You can't make a class enroll 50 students when the only room available to house the class can only can hold 25.

clio's disciple said...

Yes--I'm a historian. Historians write a lot (who knew?). So I assign a lot of writing, and grade a lot of writing, and I have read up a little on how to teach writing so I can do it better. But really I can only teach students to write about history. I'm not sure why literature professors are so often assumed to be able to teach writing generically.

Susan said...

Like Clio's Disciple, I teach history and assign lots of writing. And what I'm struck by is that whatever my students are learning in their comp classes has a hard time translating to my class; or else the comp classes are really bad. Given what little I know about composition theory, I think the former is the problem, and is a common problem. I keep trying to imagine taking a three credit comp class and attaching it to three separate other lower division classes so that writing assignments addressed disciplinary challenges. If I could figure that out logistically, I think it would be great -- not the old 'writing intensive freshman seminar" model, but writing allied to a disciplinary course.
Alas, my university seems to have gone the route of a writing program and courses that are their own track. And no writing instructor has spoken to me about writing for history...

I got an "A" in Crazy Beeyotch said...

"This made grading take way longer, as I was trying to comment in a voice that wasn't natural to me - that didn't feel like me talking to them. I also think that it wasn't terribly effective."

I appreciate this sentiment, because it is one that, until recently, had me boggled. Then I just threw out what they taught us in the TA seminar about comments (i.e. don't write things like "lame" or "awkward" etc) and used my own voice, as you put it. Turns out, it works, and students respond to it.

As far as writing in the different disciplines, that is precisely the comp section I'm assigned to teach next semester, so I'll be sure to keep clio and susan in mind. I'm not even necessarily sure which disciplines to cover--I can't fit all of them into one semester!