Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Teaching of Writing

This entry has been a reaction to a writing center listserv e-mail, in which an erstwhile sociology professor pointed out that he would resist teaching his students "the basics of writing," because (if I'm understanding his argument), it's someone else's job: It's the job of the middle school or high school English teacher and/or the job of the Freshmen Writing professor - and something the students should already have learned. Clearly that doesn't always work, for many reasons. (Yet another potential follow up blog entry...) But if for some reason a class of students writes terribly, I believe it continues to do the students a disservice in not teaching them at least a thing or two (i.e., how to fix a comma splice). Trying to teach students what happens if one isn't professional in one's work is a really broad job - and something I do think all teachers should touch upon.

There are a lot of different types of English teachers out there; we come from a lot of different backgrounds. There are the creative writers, the dramatists, the literature folks, the theorists, and the compositionists/rhetoricians, although I'm sure there are other self-defining groups as well. Each group teaches writing based on individual background, interests, etc. I'm part of the last group - the compositionist - being in progress to get my M.A. in English with a concentration of the teaching of writing (although the name of the concentration has officially been changed to writing and rhetoric). 
Having tutored in various writing centers since January 2004 - and having taught since then at a variety of levels (middle school, high school, and college) since then - I've encountered different writing styles from a many different students who study different academic disciplines (the hard sciences, the medical sciences, the social sciences, arts, humanities - really, the entire gamut); I've had students ranging in age and education (middle school, high school, undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral); and  I've worked with students from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds (native English  speakers as well as non-native English speakers).

I've come to the conclusion that the reason students have such a hard time learning to write is that teachers across the disciplines make it complicated, even outright convoluted. I'm convinced there's no one way to teach writing, just as there's no one style of writing. But in order to teach any type of writing, what still needs to be taught is clarity. But students are given so much information as a means of explanation, they become befuddled. I'm not talking about teaching students less; I'm talking about the timing of when we teach students this extraneous information. I'm not convinced it's necessary to teach students how to diagram sentences and names of each verb tense - not right away. (I know that the
pluperfect is the same as the past perfect subjunctive and how to explain it - if I can look it up first. And of course, as a native speaker, I also have the luxury of not needing to memorize the names of the verb tenses. The politics of this is a blog post for another time.) I've had an easier time teaching verb tenses by drawing a timeline than I have trying to memorize the different verb tenses and making my students memorize them. I recognize the value of teaching such specifics in the case of ELL (English Language Learner) students, who might find it helpful to learn the names of the verb tenses, but I question the helpfulness of teaching native English speakers if that's the only method being used to teach verbs. And likewise grammar at large - it's difficult to teach unless students are doing a lot of reading. The hopefully larger vocabulary that a native speaker has is at least as helpful in explaining grammar. (Insert another disclaimer: I know not all native speakers have the same levels of vocabulary. Again, reading will help this.)

Knowing (or not knowing) the names of different grammatical syntaxes is one thing, but I find the inability to explain grammatical and linguistic syntax dismaying. A shocking number of writing tutors and English teachers, I've learned, do not understand grammar and syntax well enough to teach it; I've discovered this firsthand, and I find this disconcerting. I myself have never been taught how to teach grammar, and while I have a solid understanding of how to teach it (I had other tutors come to me to help them teach their students grammar), I still wish I had been made to sit through some training in how to teach it, if for no other reason than to see how others teach it.

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