As I was reading both Kerry Walk’s Teaching With Writing and our very own Queens College edition of Learning Through Writing—both full of wonderful, practical suggestions—I came up with (what I think is) a generative tension that forms the crux of my thoughts on teaching: how to negotiate between teaching students in a way that empowers them and yet also teach concrete, transferable skills like argumentation, the grammar and mechanics of writing, citation techniques etc.
Walk’s mention of the “intense intellectual exchange that students came to Princeton for in the first place” (9) prompted me to revisit my own undergraduate experience at Rutgers University, a school that in many ways reminds me of Queens College. I mention this because I’m not sure whether students attend Rutgers or Queens College (or even Princeton) for “intense intellectual exchange.” I say this not to imply that incoming students are incapable of intellectual debate (quite the opposite); rather, I think that for many students their priorities might be otherwise-oriented towards getting a degree and a good job. Let me be clear: I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. I think we need to respect our students’ ambitions and provide them with the reading and writing skills that will honor their investment in a college education. But in addition to this, I want to learn how to teach in such a way that helps students cultivate (if not a love, at least an appreciation for) the intense intellectual exchange that has long been a hallmark of a liberal arts education and is the reason that I’m in graduate school. Rather than assuming, as Walk does, that students pass through the doors of our classrooms excited to dig into the messiness of a text, I prefer to think of it as part of my job. In my teaching I hope to persuade students—we are instructors of rhetoric, after all—that closely reading and thoughtfully writing are enjoyable and rewarding activities. The question then becomes: how to do this? How to share my (hopefully contagious) love for what many students, as they’ve indicated in their diagnostic writings, fear and detest?
I’m excited to use the handouts and activities in Learning Through Writing, and I really liked both texts’ emphases on having students do meta-writing exercises like cover letters. This was something I didn’t experience in my composition class as a freshman at Rutgers. Rutgers’ infamously rigid and standardized expository writing curriculum encouraged students to write formulaic (and to be honest, dull) essays. As a student I remember disliking having to fit my ideas into such a specific format. While I want to teach students the conventions of writing that will help them flourish at Queens College and in their professional lives, I don’t want to do this at the expense of their creativity.
Possible discussion questions:
- How can we teach the mechanics of writing in a way that helps students increase the efficacy of their ideas? Rather than immediately identifying good writing as that which abides by conventions, how do we simultaneously communicate the importance of grammar, structure, strong thesis statements etc. and also get students to focus more on their ideas and that elusive buzzword “critical thinking”?
- To what extent do we need to adapt Kerry Walk’s Teaching With Writing for our Queens College students? Is it better to overlook the differences between our students and the students at Princeton or can we find a productive way to teach writing that draws on all the awesome ways in which out students aren’t Princeton students?