Thinking about Writing (Instruction)

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing — more specifically, writing instruction — this week. So when this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education came across my radar, I read it carefully. Barrett claims we’re not focusing on writing enough in the college classroom; I’ll respond to that argument in a moment. First, a little background: why I’m thinking about writing so much this week.

This week (actually, today), I will turn in my prospectus to my committee, so I’ve been doing a lot of writing.

This week, my English teaching methods students will enact writing mini-lessons in class.

This week, my tutoring students have brought me many examples of their writing for various classes in school and in response to prompts I have assigned them.

With writing instruction — how to do it best, how to respond to students, where to start in a one-on-one conference — coming at me from all sides of my life, this article made me pause for a minute. My first reaction came from the gut. Berrett’s first sentence:

Too many students aren’t learning enough.

Whoa there. Whoa. If you read this blog regularly, you know how I feel about the crisis rhetoric. See here and here. I was immediately on the defensive, because this sort of talk has, I believe, had a negative impact on our nation’s portrayal of and understanding of the teaching profession. However, I respect both Chronicle and the friend who posted this article to facebook, so I read on.

The arguments that followed resonated with me.

…if academe and its critics want students to leave college with sharper thinking skills, writing ought to gain a higher priority, says Paul V. Anderson, a professor of English at Elon University.

He likens writing’s effect on students to the recently observed subatomic particle the Higgs boson. Just as particles gain mass as they move through the Higgs boson field, he says, “student learning gains heft as students interact through writing with the subjects they are studying.”

The article goes on to argue that writing is a way of capturing thinking, and is one of the best “tests” of student learning a professor can use, if they’re willing and able to sit down and respond to student writing. Agreed. By the time I was done reading, the only issues I had with the article were the opening sentence and the fact that Barrett makes the evaluation of writing sound relatively simple — which it’s not. Responding to student writing in meaningful ways takes time. A lot of it. Just ask my buddies over at The Paper Gradersor any English teacher you know, for that matter. Doing this with large college classes — even when it’s a “small assignment” of only one or two pages as Chronicle suggests, is nearly impossible and would require a lot of training in writing instruction and response. The temptations of the red pen, I’ve found, are strong, and it takes training and support for teachers to learn how to respond meaningfully. Lack of writing instruction in college classes isn’t the easy problem to fix that I think Barrett makes it here, but his point is taken — students need to do more writing, more often.

Speaking of which, I need to go do a little more writing before I pass this prospectus off to my committee, so time to sign off. Happy writing, everyone.