The article that I found most compelling was John Maguire’s “The Secret to Good Writing…” which argues that students often need help making their writing less abstract and more concrete. This is not necessarily a contentious issue, but I imagine that it is relevant to our situations teaching both creative and expository writing at Queens College. Actually, in my own teaching, I aim to teach students some hybrid of the two: creative expository writing that demonstrates a knowledge of academic writing conventions but it also textured with stylish prose and exciting insights. I agree with Maguire that we need to teach students how to move between local, specific, descriptions and more abstract, theoretical concepts: “abstractions are what you get when you pull back from (or abstract from) concrete reality — from the world of things” (3). One exercise that worked well in my classroom was a college version of show and tell called “Demonstrate and Explicate.” Because our course is framed around theories of creativity, I had them bring in artifacts–“things you can drop on your foot” (4)–and one page typed descriptions of how their artifact exemplified creativity. In class, I had them share their artifacts and responses in groups and then come up with collective theories of creativity based on their artifacts. I designed this activity to explicitly address the problem Maguire identifies. Although this activity generated some excellent class discussion, students quickly reverted to speaking and writing in vague abstractions. In my comments on their writing, I tried to point out the excellent moments in which they transitioned from the specifics of their object to a larger theory of creativity that might apply in more than one context. Beyond this, and thinking alongside Maguire, what can we do to help students be more precise, specific, and object-oriented in their writing and thinking?
I also appreciated the emphases placed on teacher training in both Wallace-Segall’s “A Passionate, Unapologetic Plea for Creative Writing in Schools” and Fecho and Jones’ “Creativity is Not the Enemy of Good Writing.” I chose these essays because the theme of my composition course is creativity, and I’m always looking for ways to incorporate creative writing into our classes (and to get students thinking about that elusive line between creative and expository writing). Both of these essays argue that in order to teach students in a way that effectively combines self-expression and the mechanics of writing, teachers need training in the specific skill of connecting creative and fictive writing practices to rhetoric, argumentation, and grammar: “Empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see in Tyre’s article” (Fecho and Jones 2). Similarly, “If young people are not learning to write while exploring personal narratives and short fiction, it is because we as educators need more training” (Wallace-Segal 2). Beyond my unconditional endorsement of this idea, I would like to ask the less romantic and more pragmatic questions about how we are supposed to obtain the skills we need to be effective reading-writing teachers, in any way besides the “pedagogy of experimentation ” I brought up in my previous blog. Given the constraints of our schedules and the reminders we repeatedly receive to put our own work ahead of our students (the controversial idea of sacrificing your current students for your future ones): how can we learn to teach the interconnectedness of creative writing and critical thinking in a less haphazard way than the frantic self-teaching sessions that (at least for me) occur before each class?
I hope Stanley Fish never steps foot inside my classroom. For both of us. Reading his articles on what should occur in a composition classroom made me aware of how unprepared I am to be teaching college writing, at least by Fish’s standards. Rather than brood on this fact, it’s more generative to reflect on why it is that I’m unprepared: 1) I haven’t been taught writing (I’ve stumbled through figuring out some of the basics on my own, out of a desire to get A’s and a passion for persuasion) and 2) I haven’t been taught how to teach writing.
Though I agree with many of the critiques of Fish that we read, I think he brings up an important tension between the content and form of writing in the classroom. Picking up on the thread I began in my previous blog comment, I both agree and disagree with Fish’s affirmation that “‘Young people who can’t write can’t think’” (Teach 2, 3). I disagree because I believe in my students and the authority of their experiences and voices. They bring unique perspectives to our assigned readings and often notice aspects of an author’s rhetoric that I overlooked. They have thoughts, feelings, and reactions to our readings, regardless of whether they can perfectly articulate them in writing. However, I also agree with Fish (to a certain, highly qualified extent). I think reading, writing, and critical thinking are intertwined. I teach the mechanics of writing and textual/rhetorical analysis as tools for critical thinking. In addition to my belief in my students’ capabilities, I believe that teaching them writing skills will make them stronger critical thinkers.
Keeping in mind the debate over the extent to which composition courses should deal with content, I would like to solicit strategies for getting students to think more about an author’s decisions and less about the content of the essays we read. As a class, we have discussed the relationship between content and form almost every time we meet and I’ve given students specific rhetorical devices that they should be looking for. However, I feel like we keep returning to a debate over whether creativity is biologically-determined or a practiced skill, some version of the unsolvable nature/nurture question. Though this is certainly something to be wary of in a content-based writing course, I don’t think, as Fish does, that thematic writing courses are doomed for failure. Or maybe I just see failure–trial and error–as essential components of the learning process.
Returning to my initial remarks, the truth of my predicament is this: that teaching writing this semester at Queens College is an experiment. On the first day of class I handed out John Cage’s 10 Rules for Teachers and Students, my favorite being Rule #4: “Consider everything an experiment.” Just as I encourage students to learn by imitating the rhetorical strategies they identify in the readings, I am learning to teach by testing out the ideas and lessons of my fellow teacher-peers. Because I have not been taught the mechanics of writing as Fish teaches them, let alone being taught how to teach them, I sit alongside my students, looking to them to teach me what works and what doesn’t. I worry that I am doing them a disservice. I worry that I am not seen as an authority figure (is this even something I want?). I have nightmares in which I am literally sitting next to the students and my colleagues wander into our classroom and are unable to tell who the teacher is. However, given the problem of my unpreparedness, I will have to rely on this pedagogy of experimentation, at least until I get more experience under my belt.
[From “Composing Enthusiasm”]
[From “Orienting Guides”]
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:
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