Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The magic box of writing talent

Bardiac has a great post about teaching composition, and I was with her right up to the point where she suggested driving somewhere and asking a comp specialist for suggestions about how to approach teaching certain things. While I respect the field and the research in rhet/comp, and I enjoy being in a group setting (like a conference or a meeting) in which such ideas are discussed, I'm a little wary of this approach. Over the years, I've had some great advice coming out of such one-on-one meetings, and I've also had some less-than-inspiring advice. To wit:
  • A venerable Mina Shaughnessy-inspired exercise that would have had me counting the numbers of errors and keeping a chart of them so that I could then comment on papers by saying things like "Great job! You have 4 fewer apostrophe errors than before!" At least I think this was the idea, because I never followed through with it, because here (although no one asked) is my philosophy of teaching writing: You and I are working together to make you, the student, a better writer. Any exercise that makes me spend more time on your writing than you do by keeping such charts on your writing makes me the owner of your writing, not you. But successful writers have to own their writing, warts and all, or it isn't theirs. If you want to be a successful writer, you have to take responsibility for your writing, and this kind of record-keeping (which I'd find a little creepy and humiliating if I were the student) makes your writing my responsibility and undermines your success.
  • An opposing philosophy that said, in effect, don't pay attention to things like agreement errors ("his, her, their--what's the difference? The language is changing! Get with the program!"), apostrophe errors ("It's dropping out of the language anyway"), and comma splices. If the students wrote enough, they would figure it out eventually, and, given that explanations that didn't rise out of their own experience were useless, it was best to spend the time on writing rather than explanations. Focus on content, not on style--or, to reverse an old saying, "Count the pounds, and the pence will take care of themselves." I do believe in focusing on content, but I also comment on structure, punctuation, sentence construction, and style.
Here's where the magic box of writing talent comes in. I've had a sense sometimes from my upper-division students that they believed that the composition courses they had taken had absolved them from paying attention to these issues. I am not saying that this is what they were taught; as we all know, it's possible to teach something in depth and have a student claim never to have heard of it when it is mentioned the next semester. (I've probably done the same thing when zoning out in a committee meeting.)

No, what I'm saying is that some juniors and seniors come in as if they have been given a magic box of writing talent that they carry into the classroom with them by virtue of their standing as juniors and seniors. This magic box, or certificate, or whatever it is, doesn't need to be opened and erases the need for comments on grammar, style, and punctuation. They're then shocked, and not in a good way, when they get their first papers back and see that comma splices, misplaced quotation marks, and labored sentences have been marked and do count, along with the ideas in the paper. "No one's ever told me not to do that before," some will say (which may not be the case), or "I didn't know you'd be looking at punctuation."

But the thing I want to convey to them is this: no one ever gets a magic box of writing talent, at least one that doesn't have to be opened occasionally to brush up the talents within. It's in fact not a magic box but a toolbox that has to be used consciously, with additions made throughout a writer's lifetime. The tools are accumulated through contact with teachers and editors and the editorial self, who may be even more attuned than editors to the stylistic tricks that a writer overuses ("not just as . . . so too again!"). It's a toolbox and not a magic box because writing is work, not magic, and it's work we all need to learn how to do.


Bardiac said...

Good point; sometimes the advice is impractical (the Mina Shaughnessy thing you mentioned) or contradictory. I think it's still better to talk to someone who's up on research and such and get ideas, rather than floundering alone or trying to figure out where to start by oneself.

my capcha is quilic, which has something to do with old writing styles?

Professor Zero said...

The hard part of it is figuring out exactly where the student *really* is with both writing and reading, because that's where you have to start. A lot of mine can't really read and are hiding it. This makes it hard to figure out where to begin with writing ... the ones who WILL say they can't read, or who do not deny it when you realize it and try to address it, are a lot easier to teach.

I NEED a course on how to teach reading and writing at the advanced elementary / middle school levels. That's the kind of expert I need to consult. I DO remember learning the things I am supposed to teach but it was in elementary and middle school, so the format was different and there was a lot more time.

My other big goal besides learning how to teach reading and writing at the K-8 level is learning how to *really* grade a composition in a foreign language according to ACTFL standards. THAT would be useful, and it would be college level.

undine said...

Bardiac, I agree that it's better to confer, but the context is everything for me: a group setting where we're exchanging ideas works for me, but one-on-one has led to a couple of condescension moments not unlike those I've experienced with a few librarians. That is, Bright Young Thing has said "you should try X technique," and, when I said that I'd been doing that for years, said something along the lines of "you couldn't have, because Fancy Comp Theorist just discovered X technique"--as if someone teaching comp would never discover something without being told or it wasn't perfectly obvious to anyone with half a brain to begin with. That made me tired, not to say mad, so of course I've steered clear of such encounters since then.

undine said...

Professor Z, that sounds like a big challenge but one that's exciting. So they can read the words but maybe not get the meaning if it's a sophisticated or complicated passage?

And I did not know (as I should have) until this minute that ACTFL had such a standard, but that sounds like a good thing to learn, too.