Writing Obstacles

by Gene Hammond

My favorite thing about being Director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric here is walking through the halls hearing the many one-on-one conversations spilling out of offices about writing, and seeing students sitting or standing or texting in the halls waiting to begin such conversations. There’s no doubt in anyone’s minds at that point that important work is taking place. The seriousness of purpose in the students is evident whether they are conversing, waiting, and or asking where to find a room they have never been to before.
When I hear your conversations, sense your open-mindedness as well as your determination to raise students’ standards, I think of Donald Murray, whom among many terrific teacher/scholars of the past 40 years in composition I consider the absolute most sensible. His brief article, “The Listening Eye: Reflections on the Writing Conference” (College English, Sep 1979) offers a typically Murray-like unpretentious (on his part) and life-changing (for his readers) account of the experience of talking with students about their writing. We are by nature hard workers on behalf of our students, but Murray repeatedly reminds us that we don’t have to work so hard if only we work smart. And smart for the most part means to ask some good questions, and to be as quiet as you possibly can. It’s not easy to get many of our students to start talking about their writing, but once they get rolling, they can usually tell themselves what they need to know, with our role primarily being to get them back on track when they have generally erroneous ideas, a list of which I’ve been compiling for a while:
Writing Obstacles
The hardest part of teaching writing is not teaching writing; it’s dispelling deeply and fervently held misconceptions that students have about writing, such as

1) The idea that it’s stodgy to give away too much in your thesis

2) The idea that it’s safer to be vague than to be specific because if you’re vague enough you can’t be wrong

3) The idea that the best way to achieve word count is to circle around and around the points I want to make

4) The idea that the second best way to achieve word count is to quote and quote and quote

5) The idea that writing is not a thinking process, but a translation exercise, a process of converting some mass that’s already in one’s head into words

6) The idea that summarizing will pass for analysis

7) The idea that invented drama will earn a much higher grade from a teacher than a careful look at real life

8) The cuisinart idea that a research paper is just the right smooshing of sources into a 10-page format

9) The idea that a sentence or two of transition at the end of a paragraph is just what the teacher is looking for

10 The idea that the best time to print a paper is during the first 20 minutes of class

11 The idea that big or esoteric words will club the reader into admiration

12 The idea that “I” can’t make an appearance in any paper, and that no sentence can start with “and” or “but” or “this”

13) The idea that grammar is a fixed, tight system invented by some legislature of English teachers, and not a natural product of the human brain

14) The idea that anything found in a book, in an article, or on the internet is gospel truth

15) The idea that anyone who has published anything is so much smarter than I am that I have nothing of value to contribute to the conversation

16) The idea that “participle” is a scary word that could not possibly be understood by anyone less intelligent than Einstein

17) The idea that topic sentences are for goody-goodies

18) The idea that from the first sentence I write down I must sound brilliant or else I shouldn’t write it down

19) The idea that the impressive vocabulary that others have and that I don’t would make me sound intelligent if I can squeeze it in

20) The idea that I have to be dramatic and profound, particularly in my introduction and my conclusion

21) The idea that I write best in the middle of the night on the evening before my paper is due

22) The idea that in the conclusion I should just restate what I’ve already said

23) The idea that I’m good at “creative writing” but that academic writing is inherently dull

When these ideas come out of students’ mouths, we need to interrupt, but otherwise our job is just to get them to listen to themselves.
Which is why I like to use group or individual exercises in class as often as possible rather than explaining how to do things.
My sense that we need to try to be quiet until we correct misconceptions was reinforced yesterday when I guest taught a writing class in the Public Health Program. I decided at the last minute to begin by asking the students to itemize what they appreciated in writing that they liked and what annoyed them in writing that they didn’t like (I had never done precisely that before). In 5 minutes we had a list on the board of everything that I might have taught if I had carefully planned the class. I told them that they clearly didn’t need me, and that I was going back home (but I did compromise, of course, and do some exercises with them about facts and inferences and about grammar as a tool).
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6 Responses to Writing Obstacles

  1. MaryAnn Duffy says:

    Thanks for these reminders. My biggest challenge as a teacher is to keep my mouth shut and not be afraid of silence while the students think, to stop teaching and allow some breathing room for the students to guide me. Thanks for reminding me of how important that is not just in the classroom, but also in the one-on-one sessions.

  2. Cynthia Davidson says:

    1, 2,and 3! But that is a great list; I may laminate it and hang it somewhere in my office….If I could create my own version of number 1, it would be, “A clear and explicit thesis is stodgy and will stop people from reading the paper because then there will be no surprises.”

  3. Linda Josephs says:

    I think #9 and #12 are so common because that is exactly what high school teachers are telling them is true!

  4. Cynthia Davidson says:

    High school writing teachers (and they are usually high school “English” teachers, which means they are responsible for the entire language and literature) do not have easy jobs. Like us in the university, they are trying to teach for the moment as well as for the long haul. It’s as much “how do I get this student to college” as “how do I teach this student about the richness of written communication.” I’m comfortable with the fact that we will not so much be “undoing” what they teach as helping their teachings to evolve into something more flexible and situationally adaptable.

  5. Shyam Sharma says:

    I brought printed copies of this post to my WRT 301 class last week, distributed them, and asked who was willing to do me the favor of reading the numbered part out loud. As a volunteer read the golden pieces of student wisdom one by one, I found myself laughing out loud a few times. I could have never conveyed some of the ideas that Gene has (in very precise and powerful language) so effectively in any other way.

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