The Challenges of Teaching Writing

Rachel Toor, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, discusses a common problem with the teaching of writing in academe:  everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job.  You can read her article here:  Professors in departments other than English often feel writing is outside their area of expertise.  Many of us in English departments (I’m generalizing here) feel that students should have gotten rudimentary skills and grammar in high school, so that we can focus on ideas and critical thinking and mastery.

In larger universities, graduate students teach writing, though they seldom are trained in the teaching of writing.  I always felt that writing came easily to me, so it should be easy to teach.  The problem with that is that I, probably like many others, wrote almost automatically, and the task of understanding what I did when I wrote so that I could pass it on to others was difficult.  Figuring out how to teach writing took a metacognitive approach that took me years to develop.

Good writing is the type of thing that most people know when they see it.  Evaluation is also subject to all kinds of personal caprices—“I hate dangling modifiers,”  “It drives me crazy when students don’t know how to designate a title,” “Doesn’t anyone know the difference between further and farther?” The problem is that even when a writer gets all of this perfectly, the text may not be well written.  The ideas may not be insightful or the style may not be engaging, or the argument may not be fully developed—even in a paper with perfect grammar.

Teaching writing is not an impossible task, though. If it were, my entire career would have to be classified as a failure.  It does require a balance of guiding students through the process of writing and helping them to understand and evaluate the products of writing.  It requires that students buy in to the importance of writing—and that means that they have to see writing valued in all classes.

The best thing a Writing Across the Curriculum program can do toward this end is to train professors how to evaluate student writing.  The best thing a teacher of writing can do is spend one-on-one time with students, guiding them and helping them to shape their ideas.  I know that once my students were able to see how rewarding it was to articulate an idea or gain an insight, they became excited about writing and even surprised themselves.  To me, that is what education is all about.

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