Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

August 25, 2009

How NOT to Teach Writing

I did not understand Stanley Fish’s assertion on today that “unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.” If students taking so-called “writing-intensive” courses are not learning how to write, obviously something needs to be corrected. But I’m not convinced that a course focusing “exclusively on writing” is the best way to fix that. Mr. Fish thinks that courses in composition should teach “grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.” First of all, it is a waste of time to drill nearly-adult students in grammar. Most native speakers of English instinctively know the grammatical rules governing the language. If they fail to translate correct spoken English into correct written English, I think that goes beyond simple ignorance of grammar and into the territory of fear of failure and murky thinking.

If I were in Mr. Fish’s position, faced with all these incomprehensible essays, I would ask, “Why haven’t these students proofread their papers?” No native English speaker that proofread their paper would overlook a sentence that didn’t make any sense.  As a former writing major, I know there were plenty of occasions when I didn’t proofread a paper because I knew I had done a bad job. Sometimes I had too many projects due and not enough time, and sometimes I just couldn’t understand the question. For whatever reason, the essay would become just another task to slog through, another milepost on the academic marathon. Basically, I resented every minute I spent working on those assignments. If I had taken the time to read back through them, my pride would have forced me to try to improve them. And I would have ended up feeling frustrated and humiliated if I couldn’t. The curriculum designers first need to address surrounding circumstances like these when trying to solve the mystery of “why Johnny can’t write.” Poor grammar skills are merely a symptom, not the disease.

Secondly, I don’t think you can teach writing in a vacuum. You cannot coerce people into becoming good writers just because it’s a valuable life skill everyone needs to have. That would be like forcing a senior citizen to become proficient and skilled on a computer. Writing is, like a computer, a tool. The computer can be used to store music and photographs and to keep in touch with loved ones. These useful capacities motivate the technologically illiterate to learn how to use a computer. Similarly, writing can be used to persuade others, to introduce a new idea, to entertain, or to try to express the very essence of your soul, if you’re going to be poetic about it. I don’t think most students realize this. They tend to think of writing as something somebody else is trying to get them to do, rather than something they want to do for themselves. So of course they do a half-assed job.

Our culture actually has played a large part in the demise of the craft of writing. As John Taylor Gatto wrote in Dumbing Us Down, “We are a land of talkers; we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most and so our children talk (Reluctant Teacher’s note: or tweet) constantly, following the public models of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach the “basics” anymore because they really aren’t basic to the society we’ve made.” I don’t think Mr. Fish’s proposed solution, moving the art of writing even further away from things students are actually interested in, will help them to master, retain, or even learn this craft.

I seem to have a lot to say on the subject, so I will take the rest of this week, and probably some of the next, to explore the art of writing. I’d like to share the story about how I finally began to learn to write. I might also talk about some of my experiences as a writing tutor. Please leave a comment if you have a story about being a writer, learning to write, or teaching others to write. I’d love to hear from you! (Yes, YOU!)


1 Comment »

  1. […] communication, Kafka, cheating, engaging students, how to write (This article is part of a series about writing, inspired by a column written by Stanley Fish on […]

    Pingback by How I Learned to Write, Part 1 « Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher — August 28, 2009 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

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