Hey. Yeah. Hey. Come here for a sec. Let’s chat real quick.
Here, have a seat. Want something to drink? Got this drip coffee going. Sure beats Kcups. Want some?
So here’s what I gotta get off my chest. Are you ready?
I don’t really know how to teach writing.
Sorry you couldn’t hear me. Let me whisper just a bit louder. Bon Iver is hollering away in the background. Stop stirring your coffee for a moment.
I don’t know, I don’t really know how to teach writing.
Yea, yea. I’ve done it for ten years. I’ve done it at the middle grades, high school, and college level. Yea, I know I’m a writing tutor for a tenth grader and oversee over 200 sections of writing classes at the college level. I don’t need you to recap my cv for me.
This is just me speaking honestly, to you, in this quiet space, over a cup of coffee.
Let’s keep this between us. Don’t put these thoughts online.
My first college writing class was back at Auburn around 2008. It was a section of first-year composition. I taught a themed course on animation. We had fun but there wasn’t much quality writing instruction. We spent too much time thinking about animation and not enough time thinking about rhetoric. I remember spending a whole class talking about cels—and not the kind with two l’s.
I fumbled my way through an expository writing class when I was in the PhD program at Oklahoma, and I fumbled my way through a honors section of composition, also. I did a lot of fumbling. But I also did a lot of reading, writing, and thinking about how to teach writing. I attended the conferences, read the journals, tried the best practices.
There’s more to say about my teaching past: a student in one of my sections committed suicide over spring break; one semester, inspired by Karen Kopelson’s 2003 CCC article, I decided to be open with students about my religious, political, and sexual beliefs. That bombed as several students directly told me that they believed I was going to mark them down becase of contrary beliefs. One semester, I had 20 of the 25 send me Facebook friend requests at the end of the semester. One semester ended and there were still students who I didn’t know in my class. I never knew their names. And they didn’t know mine.
As I was preparing to graduate with my PhD in writing studies, I read through Geoffrey Sirc’s review essay in CCC while sitting on a sofa in the writing center. He opens brazenly and pessimistically: “Teaching writing is impossible.” Oh, yes, Dr. Sirc.
But I persisted. And here is where I am now. I’ve been teaching Wardle and Downs’s book Writing About Writing for the past five years. I taught the first, second, and now third edition of the book. I’m all in with this idea of introducing students to the field of writing studies and exploring what writing is and how it is accomplished across various rhetorical situations.
And to this WAW pedagogy, I’ve added some elements of the writing-transfer pedagogy. I’m all in with that, too. Sure, I know the nuances between Teaching for Transfer and WAW. I’ve published and blogged on transfer. I’ve read the books and attended the workshops. I’ve even led professional development workshops on transfer for my first-year composition teachers.
For the past three years, I have cruised along nicely. I’ve believed that how I teach is grounded in research and national consensus documents like the WPA Outcomes Statement, v 3.0 and the Framework For Success in Postsecondary Writing.
I’ve been of the mind that if we can point to this research and these documents, then the Powers That Be will understand that what we are doing in FYC is important, rigorous.
But there is always the counter-argument lurking. And I found it.
In the Feb 17 issue of CCC, Eli Goldblatt writes, “the contemporary conversations about teaching to transfer . . . have oriented the discussion about writing instruction too narrowly around school success and professional preparation . . . I am suggesting that when we focus so much on professional and theoretical understandings of writing instruction . . . we can forget the importance of two impulses that compel writers: the desire to speak out of your most intimate experiences and to connect with communities in need” (441-442).
Hear that? That is exactly what I am doing with my words right now. I am not talking to you in hopes of preparing to Enter the Work Force and Make American Great Again. I’m talking to you out of this innate drive to communicate, to form words, to form community.
Man, this Bon Iver track is good.
Do you want a refill? They’re free. No? Ok.
Huh. I read that Goldblatt piece just a few days ago over a cup of coffee. I was meeting a buddy for a 7pm run and was burning some time. Nothing like swigging some coffee and reading composition pedagogy work.
And I remember leaving the coffee place—it’s Inman Perk in Gainesville—and walking to my car and thinking, well, crap, now what? As if my commitment to WAW and Teaching for Transfer is suddenly shot and I gotta rethink my own classroom and I gotta rethink the curriculum I am crafting for the 8000 students who take FYC at UNG and I gotta rethink the professional development workshops I am running and I gotta rethink my political and social outlook and I gotta rethink rethink rethink.
The last was a stretch, but I was doing some serious rethinking. And I brought this rethinking with me along 7 miles of running.
But here’s the thing. Let me say this one thing and we can get out of here. I know you got a family to get back to.
That’s the thing with learning, right? Not to sound all Confucius on a Mountaintop, but that is the thing, right? The ongoing learning and relearning and learning and relearning. We ain’t ever going to get there but we keep on keeping on. Right?
There’s not The Way to teach writing.
Every time I walk into a classroom with twenty or so people with full lives and full life experiences, I can’t default back to The Way To Teach Writing.
We do messy, recursive and discursive work together. We learn together. We change together. We think together. And we talk about audience, purpose, exigence, and kairos.
Maybe I become a better teacher when I confess to you, over this cup of coffee in this place here and now, that I don’t know what I am doing. Maybe it is this insecurity that pushes me to be vulnerable. And in that space of vulnerability, I reach to get better.
Maybe I am learning, too?
Let’s go. Some one starting playing Mumford and Sons. I’ll leave the tip.