I Could Never Teach Writing, by Susan Scarf Merrell

"...I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”
“…I don’t teach writing, even though that’s what my course is called. I teach reading. I teach writers how to read so that they can write better.”

“I could never teach writing,” a literary novelist of my acquaintance said emphatically over dinner the other night.

His reading to our MFA students had run long, and each of the book buyers waiting to meet him had asked additional questions, worshipfully eager to extend their time in his presence. It was very late, and the restaurant was deserted, and I thought, He’s my guest and I’m tired. Do I want to get into this fight? We had just received our salads. I was already tucking in, but he lingered before picking up his fork, fingers stroking the tines, as if what he had to communicate was far more important than food. “It takes too much from you. It destroys your ability to do your own work.” He glared at the busboy, who was already hovering, ready to move our meal along. “None of my friends who teach in MFA programs ever produce.”

I hear this a lot. Continue reading I Could Never Teach Writing, by Susan Scarf Merrell

Round One, by Joseph Labriola

"...in the madness of jazz there is beauty, and an order of sorts, and within this newly birthed form you follow its dancing, jiggling beat to the most effective outcomes for the greatest number of participants."
“…in the madness of jazz there is beauty, and an order of sorts, and within this newly birthed form you follow its dancing, jiggling beat to the most effective outcomes for the greatest number of participants.”

Syllabus drafting, lesson planning, in-class activity organizing, homework plotting— you can spend every heavy blink of your groggy mornings and stretching yawn of your delirious late nights scratching your brain to try and perfect the perfect college class. No matter how much of your already limited time’s spent fine-tuning vital course components, no amount of preparation will ever truly prepare you for that moment you step up in front of a class of ten or twenty or a hundred students, for that moment when all the lights are shining on you, and you’re the star of the show.

Lights, students, and…teach!

This might seem like no problem to anyone with dreams of becoming a movie-star-turned-professor. I have no desire to teach for the egotistic sake of casting myself as the lead role in Writing 102: The First Lecture. What I do desire, however, is the admittedly selfish benefit of feeling good through what I teach—feeling good knowing that the lessons and methods that I’m relating to my students are improving their academic lives, and by extension, their professional and personal lives. Continue reading Round One, by Joseph Labriola

The Effect of Foreign And Native Speakers In The Classroom


One day after class last year two of my students, Sangmin Jeong and Eunjoo Lee, told me they wanted access to opportunities to improve their fluency as English speakers. The classroom was a space they developed their academic voice; they wanted to learn American slang, vernacular, and culture, to enrich their college experience. A few weeks later we’d created a group that met weekly to address these desires: Foreign And Native Speakers (FANS).
We hoped the group would be split evenly among native English speakers and non-native speakers (NNS), since a group of all NNS wouldn’t have the collective fluency in the English language or American culture that had birthed FANS in the first place. Fortunately, the group has maintained a good balance as its grown. Continue reading The Effect of Foreign And Native Speakers In The Classroom

Promoting Students’ Ownership

Part III
Part IV (coming)

. . . of Their Ideas and Their Writing . . .

Shyam Sharma, Christopher Petty

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. –B.F. Skinner

Writing teachers generally tend to be skeptical about technological determinism that rules the academic airwaves these days. And yet, to the extent that they assume that more and newer technologies will automatically improve teaching and learning, emerging technologies can potentially erode, instead of enhance, students’ epistemological agency and ownership of their writing and thinking. In particular, a lack of caution while making the switch from paper to pixel to having students share their writing more and more publicly (both as product and as process) can undermine the very educational, professional, and social benefits for which the technologies are celebrated. It will also undermine our ability to meaningfully adapt new technologies to our specific pedagogical contexts and needs.

In this post, we discuss how and why writing teachers need to take deliberate approaches to promoting students’ sense of ownership of their writing which the shift from paper to interactive/collaborative spaces can potentially undermine. We discuss and demonstrate how writing teachers can promote students’ comfort, confidence, and confidentiality in their expression, and hence their sense of ownership of their work. We continue to build on the central message of the current series of blog posts, which is that it is becoming more and more important to teach the “literacy of sharing” alongside the literacy of reading, writing, and effective communication. We define “ownership” broadly in terms of how students engage with the process and product of their writing and how the tension between support and critique from instructor and involvement of peers enhances or undermines the motivation and epistemological agency of the writers. Of course, these are not only relevant when using technology; but in this series, we are focusing on the use and impact of technology (both its affordances/benefits and its drawbacks). That sense of ownership can be enhanced or undermined in many ways, depending on whether any technology is used pedagogically and ethically responsibly or not. Continue reading Promoting Students’ Ownership

Training Wheels . . .

. . . What a Writing Tutor Can Bring into the Classroom as a Writing Instructor

Michael Reich

There are many different approaches to both Teaching Writing and Tutoring Writing, but how do they intersect, where do they intersect, and finally, does a Writing Teacher have anything to gain from these intersections? In this post, I hope to lay out, through some examples in my classroom this semester, how and where they intersected for me, having the experience of being both a Writing Tutor and a Writing Teacher. I also hope, in this post, to describe some situations I’ve encountered where it seems intersections should happen between the tutoring and teaching environments, as well as the places where they can be deliberately brought together.

My example stems from an in-class experience. We were looking at “Telling Facts,” and trying to find out what the meaning of a telling fact was using Gene Hammond’s Book, Thoughtful Writing. Let me first lay out some of the theory in my mind before I explore the example.

In a Writing Center environment, I was advised that wherever possible, I should be hands off, and mind off when it comes to the student’s ownership over his or her writing. The mantra was, “let the student come to their own conclusions.” I should ask them questions to draw out their feelings and ideas. This method was not like the Socratic method where Socrates would ask questions leading the crowds to “his” answer, ora “directed” answer (Socrates believed he was leading the crowd to the “truth.” Everyone found out that they knew nothing from his style. That won’t help us in writing). Using leading questions was not my job as a Writing Tutor because I had to try to let the students do as much of their own thinking as possible. I started to wonder as I stood in front of my class, “Could I and should I follow the same methods I followed as a WC tutor here in the Writing Classroom?” The students knew things, or were constantly on the brink of knowing things on their own. Was it my job to lead them to something I thought of, which seemed easier than allowing their own thought processes to develop? Continue reading Training Wheels . . .

Commenting Conundrums . . .

Part II
Part IV…

. . .  Teaching Students the Levels of Sharing

Christopher Petty and Shyam Sharma*

“I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think –” (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) “– yes, that’s about the right distance – but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” – Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

One of the great desires of writing teachers is to help their students write for “real” audiences, to connect students to “real-life” communities that might respond to their ideas. On top of engaging students in peer feedback/interaction about their writing, we also want to bolster their confidence in their own voice by finding ways to share ideas “about” the real world and “with” the real world.

The good news in this situation is that we now have access to more and more venues; there are now applications that allow students to do peer review/interaction and sharing/publication of their ideas in more and more convenient ways. However, in order for us to make educationally, pedagogically, and ethically good sense of that good news, we must start by recognizing that the paradigm shift from paper to screen and from personal screens to public display of one’s writing on the web is not an all or nothing deal.

As we ask our students to share their writing–their unformed thoughts, the process of their writing, and any of the products of their writing that they may not be comfortable sharing with anyone beyond the teacher because they wrote it to “learn” not “publish”–with broader and broader audiences, we are responsible to let them decide how far they want to go beyond the attention and support of us as teachers and the additional support of their peers in class toward the center of attention and access on the world wide web. As writing teachers, we are best equipped and most responsible to teach our students the “levels” and tradeoffs of risk and reward by teaching/promoting the “literacy of sharing.” Continue reading Commenting Conundrums . . .

Why are they so quiet? 

 by Liz Kotseas

“Why are they so quiet?” is a common question from teachers who want to encourage English Language Learners (ELLs) to collaborate with peers or participate during class discussions.  I, too, wondered why some of my students in ESL writing classes were quiet and why they waited until after class had ended to ask questions.  It wasn’t until they began to share details of their educational experiences that I fully understood the impact of how the elements of communicative competency were factoring into their verbal and written participation.  Known as sociolinguistic competence (Canale), this ability to understand social protocols in various settings is one element necessary for ELLs to achieve academic fluency.

When teaching my classes, I like to begin the writing process with a topic students can easily connect with and hope to eventually spark discussion and/or debate.  At the start of this semester, students in my ESL Advanced Composition course were asked to respond to “China: The Educated Giant” written by journalist Nicholas D. Kristof.  Students analyzed and evaluated the pedagogical differences between their home country and the US.  Please note, while both educational models have their flaws and benefits, I share the following student’s observation because it adds credence to the weight and need for understanding of sociolinguistic competence:

China’s education does not train students in critical thinking.  However, students of US often share their opinions about articles with no fear of right or wrong.  Therefore, there are no right or wrong answers. In the US, good answers are always correct.  In China, students are given answers and their opinions don’t matter.  When I was in China, my teacher explained a poem in her words.  When I shared my opinion by telling her this poem can be understood in another way, she was mad.  She said her answer is the only correct answer to the test.  After that, I never shared my opinion anymore.

As international freshmen are just beginning to adjust to their new academic environment here at Stony Brook University, they fear they may upset their peers and professor by saying “the wrong thing.”  Thus, they hesitate to respond to questions or speak up in class.  In contrast to the teacher centered instruction most ELLs have received, they quickly notice their professors at SBU respect and welcome their ideas, and they eventually do feel comfortable asking questions or voicing opinions. Continue reading Why are they so quiet? 

Using Digital Stories in the Writing Classroom

Cathleen Rowley

Sometimes I obsess over writing assignments I create for my classes. Should I use a novel or story or essay for a text analysis assignment? What is the best way to explain the researched argument and how many parts should I break the assignment into? But for my WRT 303, the personal essay class, I know my final assignment is going to be a digital story. The digital story is a short film that can combine videos, photographs, music, sound effects, and narration. It’s an assignment that I think has a lot of value for the student in that it is a new and compelling approach to the personal essay.

In WRT 303, the subject of the course is  the personal essay. The assignments I use in my course include short informal writings, two longer personal essays, a personal statement and a digital story. A digital story can be used for other purposes–such as arguments or informational pieces, but I will be discussing using it for personal essays. In an earlier post on this blog, Rita Nezami provided compelling  reasons to teach the personal essay.  The personal essay itself is a somewhat ambiguous form and can take many shapes. In the introduction for The Art of the Personal Essay, it takes Phillip Lopate thirty-two pages  to try and define exactly what constitutes a personal essay.  One of the points  Lopate makes is that, “the essayist attempts to surround a something–a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation–by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter” (xxxviii). His idea of getting at the subject from different angles ties in neatly to the digital story. The story can include images, text, narration, and music–all of which can help lead to the center or the heart of a story.

When originally planning my 303 course, I was influenced by Cynthia Davidson and Kristina Lucenko who were using digital stories in their classes. They were generous in sharing ideas and examples. There are also links at Writing@Stonybrook  for digital storytelling. which includes a digital storytelling subject guide from the library. To create the stories, students use iMovie or Windows Moviemaker  which are free programs. I schedule library  workshops for sessions on an introduction to digital stories and an introduction to Audacity (a free program for sound). Continue reading Using Digital Stories in the Writing Classroom

The Meta-Game: Focusing on Skills in the Writing Classroom

Katherine Miscavige

There was a discussion earlier this semester on the Composition and Rhetoric listserv about the transferability of the skills we teach in the writing classroom.  To a certain extent, we are valued for and tasked with teaching students a broad skill set that is supposed to support them in the rest of their college careers – and hopefully, as educated citizens, the rest of their lives (a tall order, to be sure!). This is why every student is required to take writing and pass an independently evaluated portfolio. Being a good writer is deemed essential for success in the university and beyond.  I want to suggest that if we teachers of writing keep students focused on the skills themselves—if we get them to play the meta-game—we can maximize the effectiveness of our assignments, highlight the transferability of our teaching, and make the most out of our very precious and limited time with students.

Transferability is one of the things that makes teaching writing unique. Another, closely tied to this idea, is that writing is perhaps the least content-driven class taught at the university.  In biology and chemistry and history and psychology there are facts and theories to memorize and be tested on.  There is, I suspect, a reasonably consistent content taught in microbiology classes the world over.  Not so in writing. We don’t even give exams.

To teach the things that lead to “good writing” there are as many strategies and curricula as there are writing teachers.  There is no set of essays that every budding writer must read – there are multitudes of wonderful and engaging possibilities. There are endless potential topics for assignments and there are even many potential types of assignments.  When I first started teaching writing, the sheer breadth of possibility sort of freaked me out. Where does one begin?! Now when I’m grading portfolios it is a source of wonder and pleasure to see all the different ways in which good writing teachers inspire their students. Continue reading The Meta-Game: Focusing on Skills in the Writing Classroom

Faith as a Foundation of Professoring

Matthew Miranda

 As a second-year professor, I’ve found some of my first-year anxieties were year-one specific.

I’ve come to realize no matter how eager and willing I am to make myself available for each and every one of the living breathing miracles in my classes, no matter how sincerely I stress there’s no reason they can’t all get an A, and that the surest way to an A is to focus on the process of writing rather than the product, they enjoy a significantly greater agency in our mutualistic relationship than I do.

I’ve come to realize that my students enjoy the right to self-determination, just as I did when I was in their shoes (even if some of them can’t imagine that I did not in fact spontaneously generate in the classroom the day the semester started, and that my life actually exists beyond class lessons and office hours). So some of them will care too much about their grades, and some too little; some will worry so much their worry will worry me, and some will only ask for help two hours before their essay is due; some will view college as a springboard to a career, and some will see it as mere counterpoint to the “school of life,” and skip my class because it’s sunny that day, or rainy, or because they get 4 absences, or because…just because. Continue reading Faith as a Foundation of Professoring