Teaching Diary Day 2: Writing about Writing about Writing

She had the “OK, I get it” gaze. One of my students – I’ll call her “Abby” – sat in the back of the classroom and she just had that look: the set jaw, the arms crossed, the eyes just a little glazed. She got it. She got this “steps of the writing process” lecture. She’s heard it all before. Whether she realized it or not, a score of experiences were reflected in those glazed eyes, all of those bad high school lectures describing these very stages that never helped her and were, in fact, something of a waste of time. I didn’t see this look on anyone else’s face, but I experienced a moment of silent panic the moment I recognized hers. Was this useless for everyone?

I think I’m still figuring out how to be an instructor and not a tutor. I don’t get nervous lecturing (in fact, speaking in front of large groups has never particularly bothered me; I think I’ve lost my concern with dignity long, long ago), but I’m sensitive to my control over the discussion. My training has been in maintaining constant dialogue, in building individual rapport with students and creating an equitable relationship. But the truth is that once I’m in front of the room as the primary instructor, the relationship is no longer equitable. I am not their peer; I am their instructor. I am not a dictator, but I can’t attempt to be everyone’s friend either.

I think my desire to maintain this balance, to be more like a peer and less like an instructor is what made me feel uncomfortable with Abby’s somewhat wearied expression. But perhaps more important than my feeling of discomfort (for I’ll get over this with time) is my impulse to question the efficacy of our course’s approach to content.

Here’s the tricky thing about first-year composition: the content of this class varies significantly from campus to campus. In fact, the content of first-year composition is one of the biggest contentions in the field of writing studies. This is primarily because writing studies have not traditionally been grounded in any one academic discipline. Of course, literature has frequently been the disciplinary focus for writing courses (for reasons that go all the way back to the 19th century), but the trend in the mid-twentieth century has been to push away from the teaching of literature and towards the teaching of a variety of texts from different genres.

For better or for worse, “a variety of texts from different genres” means a myriad of different things to the writing program administrators in charge of first-year composition program development.

UC Davis’s UWP 1 courses use an approach called “writing about writing,” most famously explicated by Downs and Wardle. In theory, I love the writing about writing approach; it makes sense for students to take a writing class where they learn about what it means to be writers. After all, isn’t writing itself an emerging discipline? Why should we treat writing simply as a kind of technical skill when, in fact, the study of writing is a discipline with an increasingly robust scholarly presence?

Yet I felt our discussion going in circles on Wednesday. I gave a mercifully brief presentation on the four major stages of the writing process: invention, outlining, drafting, and revising and, in UWP 1, we give these stages cute names: the “madman” stage, the “architect” stage, etc. The students seemed to like the idea of the names; in discussing which stages they spend the most time completing, they repeated those names back.

But we seemed to keep winding up at nebulous answers: “I like to write in this way first, so I can write better in the long run.” “I think that if I outline sufficiently, I will be a better writer.” Perhaps it’s helpful for students to express these things. After all, most of them probably don’t think much at all about their writing practice. But… isn’t this all very obvious?

I felt like I was some part of a riddle: how do I get these students to pin down and identify what makes good writing?

Once we have some substantial readings to discuss, this problem may be alleviated. But I am a little disturbed by the fact that most students seem to have a very limited vocabulary for how to talk about their work.

Of course, I shouldn’t expect them to have this vocabulary. High school English classes are literature classes; they don’t think metacognitively about their process. They’re told they need to write clearly and thoughtfully and analytically, but somewhere along the lines, no one explained to them what those terms meant.

In fact, I’m not sure I learned what those terms meant until I started working at a writing center and had to read writing pedagogy as part of my training. As someone naturally inclined to writing, formulating “clear” insights came pretty naturally to me. Of course, I still had to revise (nothing comes out perfectly the first time through), but I had a knack for handling abstract thought and could just… do it.

So OK, maybe I shouldn’t be quite so critical. We’ve had two days of class. As a whole, the group is charming and delightful, task-oriented and hard-working. The trick to staying mindful of my pedagogy is to avoid negativity; there’s no point in being judgmental until I’ve seen their writing.


One thought on “Teaching Diary Day 2: Writing about Writing about Writing

  1. great post, jenae! i’m starting graduate school this month and though teaching is not a required part of my program, i will make sure i take on at least 1 or 2 classes. i’m enjoying your perspective on pedagogy :)

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