Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

hating to write

This morning my daughter told me that she hated writing essays as she was sitting at the dining room table finishing some piece about a "memorable event." This comes from a kid who is brilliant (he said immodestly, straight A's in the top-ranked school in the region, skipped a grade, etc.), reads voraciously, has pages of her own poems and songs, makes videos with her brother, and has two English professors for parents. My point is that it is unlikely that one could find a kid who is better set up in terms of academics, social/cultural context, family and such to be positive about school writing. And in this case, we aren't even talking about "academic" writing. This is personal narrative: a "memorable event."

Of course as writing instructors we hear this all the time. It is exceedingly rare to find a student in a composition class who likes to write. In the professional writing major when I was at Cortland, it was common to find students who enjoyed writing (poem, stories, screenplays, comics, nonfiction, blogs, etc.) but few, if any, entered our program saying that they enjoyed academic writing.

What about graduate students in English? I'm not sure. Do they enjoy the writing we ask them to do? The dissertation is such a long and stressful process, though it does have its enjoyable moments. Maybe "enjoyment" is the wrong word to counterpose to hate here. Anyone who writes a great deal will experience all kinds of emotions while writing. 

Still, it seems to me that there is a systematic, institutional problem when students, like my daughter, who otherwise enjoy writing, so regularly have negative experiences with school-based writing. The experience is so pervasive that one would have to hypothesize that there is something fundamentally flawed going on. 

Here are some speculations:

1. Assignment. It's not that there is some "magical" assignment that kids will suddenly enjoy. Probably some assignments are more likely to produce more positive experiences than others. The fundamental problem with "the assignment" is that it is arbitrary. It lacks any real exigency that the student writers feel and fails to connect with any intrinsic motivation that students might have available to them. We tell our students all the time that writing is important for people across professions, as well as for citizens. Despite this claim, we continually struggle to find a situation where it is important for students to write, beyond the arbitrary, transactional grade of the assignment itself (and as we know, that kind of carrot/stick motivation is not sufficient).

In a classroom, one might always start with an assignment of some kind. The new TAs in our program have a common syllabus that includes an interview about education or literacy, a proposal about improving a public space, and a feature article on social media. But rather than holding students to the particulars of an assignment, I would look to see how students might use the assignment as a point of departure toward something that does interest them. Honestly, I think it is better to offer a starting point, even if it doesn't immediately inspire.

2. Teacher/writer. I imagine it must be difficult to teach writing if one does not think of oneself as a writer. And I'm not sure how many K12 English/ELA teachers or postsecondary English profs and instructors think of themselves as writers. Certainly English profs are published writers and many instructors, including graduate TAs, write regularly. But do they think of themselves as writers? Is writing itself a task to which they give much attention? Maybe. Maybe not. One of the great things about the National Writing Project is its focus on encouraging teachers to be writers.

As a writer, when you create an assignment, do you see something that you would want to do? Now understandably you could say that's an unfair question. Why? Because, you might say, my interests are so specific that if I created an assignment that interested me as a writer my students wouldn't be interested in the topic. Fair enough. But then, if you're not interested in composing the text you've assigned, you can understand how your students might feel the same way, right?

Sure, in the professional world we are called upon to write things that aren't all that exciting. But we are all grown-ups, supposedly. I may not be super-excited about writing a three-year strategic plan for the composition program. But that's an important document for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which being that maybe some of those requests for support might be met. However, that's not the kind of writing I would start with in the classroom. 

3. Serial Deadlines. I suppose they can be great motivators. They do get me to finish things. I can't say that they always inspire the best work. The one thing I can say about my writing though is that I find it to be connected. That is, one project leads to another as part of my intellectual trajectory. They also persist over months, and one project can bleed into the next.  Student writing rarely has that quality. The assignment periods are generally short. One thing doesn't lead into the next.

It's a fundamental problem not only with the way writing is assigned but with the structure of curriculum. As has been said a million times, it feels like the factory floor of which it is a deliberate analog. Who wouldn't hate writing if it were a monotonous, mechanical, uninterested, disconnected chore performed as a transaction with a teacher whose interests in the text were not really about what you were trying to say but rather with the formal elements of how you said it?