Information Sheet # 86

February 14, 1995


During those few sweet days between J-Term and Spring Term, I spent one afternoon digging through mounds of unopened mail.  While many items were either thrown away or reassigned to fresh piles, I did skim through the Modern Language Association's Profession 94.  I'm puzzled about why I continue my MLA membership.  I never attend the MLA conferences, and my issues of PMLA are rarely read.  I joined in graduate school at bargain membership rates; but, even though the fees have increased six-fold, I always seem to return one of the renewal reminders.  I do enjoy the annual Profession series, and this year was pleased to find the following article--which I have substantially abridged--on teaching composition.  Despite the unwieldy title, "How Composition Scholarship Changed the Way I Ask for and Respond to Student Writing," Prof. M. Elizabeth Sargent Wallace's article neatly summarizes some useful pedagogical advice for those of us who occasionally ask students to transform their thoughts into writing.

Wallace begins with an excerpt from a paper submitted by a freshman in one of her composition classes:

Preparation. that word, as a witness and of a person who has experienced both sides of it, I can attest to the necessity of it.  Most things in life, if someone wishes to excel in a particular field, they must prepare themselves.  Case in point is the fact that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team and through constant preparation, he is now the best player to ever compete at the professional level of the game.  As Confucious said, "To lead an untrained people to war is to throw them away."  Meaning that to be unprepared is to throw yourself away.

Composition research often reminds instructors to be attentive to the complexities in any student's writing.  Rather than castigating her student for all the text's infelicities, Wallace notes that this young man is a reader who likes quotations and knows how to integrate them into his work.  He shows a desire to be taken seriously, cluttering his prose with phrasing that comes from educated writers:  "attest to the necessity," "case in point," "the fact that."  Her response was also affected by having seen previous writing from this same student, writing done as journal entries when not attempting to impress a reader:

What kind of writing is necessary for today?  Most people simply write to pay bills, maybe write someone a letter and fill out job applications.  Maybe they even write up their own résumé, yet that is still standard without much creativity.  It appears that people just do not write for pleasure anymore.  Myself, I must admit, am included in that bracket.  I've been working on a book for the last three years, yet I'm less than three chapters into it.  I suppose my excuses are not much different than anyone else's--but what it really comes down to is procrastination.  Then again, if everyone were to be writers, there would be too much to read and too little time to do it in.  Another case of supply and demand.

As Wallace reconsiders the different writing voices revealed by these two texts, each written by the same student in the same month, she shares ten reminders about writing assignments--and how we can best respond to them.    --Bob Marrs

1.  I've learned to put off formal papers, grading, and evaluation as long as possible, to wait and listen and gather baseline data, written under conditions of safety where errors don't matter yet (except as opportunities for learning).  We need enough writing of different types written under enough different conditions to give us a sense of each student's mind and voice and relation to language.  Regular, nonstop pieces of writing are like voice prints, each one distinct.  The student has been using language to survive for sixteen years or more before wandering into my classroom; the least I can do is gather enough samples of unguarded writing to get a sense of that lifelong relationship before I make inaccurate assumptions based on one piece of high-stakes, graded writing.

Conditions of safety need to be established before students will reveal their unguarded voices--to the teacher, to other students, even to themselves.  They've somehow been taught or have learned not to trust their natural sentence-making abilities, their ability to think in language.  They've instead been putting their energy into how to sound smarter than they are, how to convince teachers they understand or know something they don't (or think they don't).

2.  I've learned from composition scholars that we can help not only with prewriting and rewriting but also with writing itself, that we can and should go into the black hole of composing.  I allow time for composing in class and write with my students.  I've learned to break up students' non-productive composing processes in as many ways as possible with bursts of nonstop exploratory writing heedless of errors and typos, with pen and paper or at a computer keyboard.

3.  Scholars in composition have taught me to intervene at other strategic points in the writing process--for instance, the moment before students select passages from their exploratory writing to shape into a draft, discarding the rest.  Again and again students edit out the best things in their freewriting.  I want to read that early exploratory writing before students have a chance to take the best things out.  Oddly enough, a teacher can be authoritative at this stage and students don't resent it.  I can write violent things in the margin like "KEEP THIS--if it doesn't show up in your final paper, I'll shoot you," and students are pleased and encouraged.  The sensation is one of giving them back their own ideas, their own telling details or great lines; they aren't trained to recognize them yet.  Who wouldn't rather influence the process at this formative stage, tell them what to keep and build on, than complain about what they haven't done or what they've done wrong when it's too late?  Also, reading this exploratory writing is like eating candy and goes much faster than reading polished essays; I don't have to correct or grade it.  I skim through it, highlighting passages that the author should save.

It's important to separate this practice--of saving radiant pieces of freewriting--from the practice of commenting on drafts of papers.  While the notion of allowing, in fact insisting on, multiple drafts is one of the central contributions composition studies has made to our teaching practice, the first draft of a paper may be too late:  students may already have thrown out or set aside their most striking language and ideas, thinking them inappropriate for the "academy."

4.  I've learned that instead of teaching modes or genres (compare and contrast or definition papers) as set forms into which students' final papers must be forced, I can encourage my students to use such forms and modes as heuristic devices.  These "forms" are ways of thinking, learning, and discovering.  I can push them to write-to-learn by using these structures as strategies to deepen their reading, to develop and extend their thought early and throughout the process.

It's often the A students who resist exploratory writing:  they want closure.  They've figured out the mechanical forms, how to get the grade with minimum effort, and don't see the point of pushing their thinking through what they see as throwaway writing.  Used as heuristics to complicate one's thinking, as "inquiry strategies" to explore and assimilate a wealth of material, the traditional genres or modes can dynamite students out of mental blocks and reinforce the student writer's "obligation for substantive knowing."

5.  Composition scholarship has taught me that writing is social and collaborative.  Writing with my students; setting up classrooms where they regularly write to and for each other, not just for me; orchestrating effective peer editing groups--all are essential to deepening our relation to language.

6.  It's a truism that writers need to read voraciously, but research in composition has helped us appreciate how much our students specifically need to read books about writing, books in which accomplished writers talk about their own ways of working.  [Wallace mentions books by Murray, Goldberg, Stafford, and the Paris Review interviews.]

7.  Analyzing patterns of student error and diagnosing writing problems based on that analysis are axiomatic in the teaching of writing.  Error is the path into the student's mind, the way to learn what choices students are making and why.  Penalizing students for taking risks with language--because the errors will always increase when students try to do something new or more complex than they have done before--is counterproductive.  Students need to try out cognitive moves to a higher level of difficulty in conditions of relative safety.

8.  What we ask for and how we ask for it have everything to do with what we get.  Simply announcing that a paper on a given topic is due at the end of the term begs too many questions.  Sequencing assignments (some of them low-risk and ungraded, perhaps?) to lead up to a final paper may be necessary, as might be reflecting with students on how scholars develop significant questions, set up and test hypotheses, process data, and write up their findings.  Janet Emig has helped us see how writing is a unique mode of learning, using the hand, the eye, and the brain (and thus, unlike any other form of learning, being simultaneously enactive, iconic, and symbolic), but many others are helping us see how different disciplines have different modes of learning and different conventions for sharing that learning.

9.  Research in composition has taught me not only to teach the writing process but also to have students reflect on that process.  Real strides are taken when students become conscious of choices, conscious of processes previously mysterious and out of their control.  Writing will always remain a mystery and require moments when they give up control and accept gifts from language itself, from the generative power of syntax and from the layered histories of words.  But if they become reflective practitioners, they have strategies to choose from, strategies for getting started, for composing, for cutting and adding, for pushing their thinking farther, for reseeing and revising, for proofreading.

10.  Finally, I've learned that it's important to me to teach the whole process, including the preparation of final copy.  After all, proofreading is a learned skill; we have to devote some class time to teaching students the "slowed down form of reading" they'll need to proofread successfully. 

Composition studies in the past thirty years has had an important impact on pedagogy:  it's all about how knowledge is produced, transmitted, consumed and valued in our culture.  These epistemological issues are about power and who has it, who doesn't, and how to get it--but they're also about truth:  who defines it, whether it exists, how we go about discovering and creating it.

In the end the goal is not just to evoke from students the kind of writing we most want to read but change their relation to language so that more of their own intelligence is accessible to them and to us.  How do we help students see, through writing, that they have ideas, that they have an evolving intellectual life?  How can they come to feel that writing helps them think their thoughts and live their lives instead of obstructing them?  How can we help them push against their limits and resist the desire for too-early closure?

These questions are much more important than simply "What do we teachers most want to read?"  More important is that students and teachers both have a relation to language that frees the intelligence--deepens and extends our thinking and living--so that more of us can be brought into thoughtful conversation with one another and with our own minds.

This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.