On Teaching Writing

Sean McCann at The Valve writes,

Even with these fabulous students, I find teaching writing immensely difficult--like teaching someone to dance. The boxstep is more or less easy. But after that there’s so many, myriad components of craft and talent involved that it seems impossible to systematize. Every case is different, and the only method is to pay attention and do it over and over again. The terrible thing is that for students who love to write and want to be good at it, this is all hugely rewarding. For others, though, I sometimes suspect it’s like being initiated into a weird fraternity whose rules are completely arbitary. There are those great moments when things click, but more often there’s slogging.

In darker moments I think, you can’t really teach writing; you can only aspire to be its Zen master. Am I wrong? I’m curious to know.

I might have to put that in my syllabus.


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Great difficulties & otherness

Hi Clancy, I like your site...I think Sean's onto something that is very important:

We cannot teach writing.

Teachers who try to teach it, actually end up doing for students. We can teach that writing, among all its other qualities, is useful for its "deferral of meaning."

I think, to follow Friere, that writing is always about a doing with. Teachers of writing and rhetoric are always in the midst of things in the classroom, and should never be "at the front."

Two essays I have both my creative and comp writers read:
Harry Mathews "For Prizewinners" (available in The Case of the Perservering Maltese: Collected Essays on Dalkey Archive Press)
Thomas Kent "Paralogic Rhetoric" (available in Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work on Southern Illinois UP)

Thanks for the good reading.

Gary Norris

models models models

I'm teaching writing at the University of Virginia, and have the same dark moments... grading revisions right now, or about to, because I'm writing a blog post right now. I end up turning quite a bit over to them, but give them a tidal wave of models. Not just writing examples, but real models --construction paper monstrosities showing where a claim goes and how it fits with reasons and evidence, pyramids, towers, that sort of thing, very elementary school. They look more like physics models. I also have them write a paper about someone else's paper (anonymous) and how it presents an argument. By the time they agonize over that, they've got some of these basics down because they've become way too self-conscious about it.

Just came across this blog; I've not seen many yet that deal with grad school/teaching issues like this. I like what I'm seeing.

shameless self-promo:


2 Board AlleyI think that there is that quality of ineffability that holds it (writing, teching writing) that holds it all together--or brings it together, and to discover it may be impossible--like giving people instructions on how to have an "aha!" moment.
That said, I think you can teach writing--by giving students writing to do, writing to read, writing to imitate, and then, by discussing expectations of audience and genre, show reasons why certain writing asks certain tasks of the reader.
And then you just step back and let them have at it, offering advice when asked for, grading papers (because you gotta)in a way that suggests that you understand where they're heading or trying to head with their papers, and meeting with them for draft conferences.

Writing is not magic

Speaking as a holder of an MFA in writing, I hate the MFA-style bullshit mystification of writing. I entirely agree that it's often a slog, and entirely I agree you can't lecture it but have to do it, as anybody who's worked on writing knows -- and I really don't think "models" in the conventional sense ("here's something good; do it like this") are the right approach. Writing is work, and it takes practice, immense amounts of practice: nothing else will do. Yes, pay attention, and do it over and over again, because that's what the MFA mystification-words like "craft" and "talent" disguise; the fact that people have worked at it -- not that they're "born writers." You learn by doing, and you learn more by doing more. Ain't no "Zen" to it.


Models and Mystification

Mike, I don't think McCann's saying that writing is a talent you're either born with or you're not. I read him as simply acknowledging the complexities of what counts as "good writing." Any attempt at trying to codify what "good writing" is can immediately be knocked into smithereens by all the exceptions. You can say that sentence fragments are bad, but someone can come along and write a brilliant essay full of them, using them for stylistic effect.

And I'm not willing to dismiss the value of models, either. For certain kinds of writing, models can be immensely helpful, and I think sometimes they are the right approach. If the abstracts I submit to CCCC or the grant proposals I write for the NSF get rejected year after year, it's far more practical to review carefully abstracts and proposals that got accepted than to rewrite my abstract or proposal over and over. When Mary Lay and Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch were teaching us how to write exemption application proposals for our IRB, they showed us a good one (by Amy Koerber, a recent graduate of the PhD program here). And I'm glad they did; I would have been terribly confused without it, and such confusion is mystification too. As I write my dissertation, I'm definitely going to read some dissertations by people in my department. I guess this gets into your exchange value argument, but I still think models have sensible purposes sometimes.

back on models

Yeah, I'd have to argue with the non-necessity of models as well, and agree that it depends on the kind of writing you're teaching. I'm teaching a lot of freshman comp, argumentation, and most of my students have not had to write like that in the past. So going in, they aren't all that clear on how a thesis statement is going to work and be a dynamic argument, how reasons operate with evidence, how a claim is warranted, etc. If they don't see some of that in action, they're less likely to get it, or at least less likely to get it in one semester. In this case, models of writing help them to understand how they can approach their own writing of arguments and develop from there.


No, Not Non-Necessary

OK, let me take a step back: I'm not dismissing models, or saying they aren't necessary -- after all, imagining writing anything that has no generic or intellectual antecedent would turn me straight back towards that mystification that I really don't like. But there is lots and lots of bad writing pedagogy that begins from the point of saying to students, "Write something like this." If you don't have a prior exigency for the writing project, model-based instruction turns writing into nothing more than a school exercise, reducing it to its exchange value without any use value to the student. Starting from the model -- as I see so many new teachers doing -- attenuates the purpose of writing in the first place. I think it's essential to start from the why and then move to the how.

I know McCann wasn't suggesting that people are "born" writers -- that's why I was very careful to make sure I didn't attribute the MFA mystification to him. But I do think the "Zen" remark -- and Joanna, maybe even your "ineffable" comment -- start to approach that mystification. My educational training was first as a critic, then as a writer, and now as a teacher, and those three orientations make me disagree with such mystification that sees aspects of writing as inexpressible, and with Gary's contention that "teaching" is "doing it for students": what we do as teachers is ask students to envision a purpose for their writing, get lots of practice attempting to carry through on that purpose, help them give names to the techniques they used in their attempts, and help them to see other possible techniques -- and then the practice starts again. From this cycle, Joley, I'd suggest again that purpose comes first; model and method, later. So I might ask (given, Joanna and Clancy, your past questions to me, and Joley, your above descriptions of your pedagogy): where do you see the intersection and sequence of purpose, model, and method?


Oh, okay

I had thought you were putting McCann in the MFA camp because he used the terms "craft" and "talent" that you attributed to them.

Nothing useful to contribute

I do have opinions of course but there are so very many issues brought up here that I don't wnat to just take a stab at the easy ones and ignore the questions I was brought to ponder. Yet, I was very interested in this post and the comments so I thought I'd just say that.


really less of an argument than there seems


The cycle you laid out is very similar to what I'm doing. Maybe I should make clear what I'm saying by models (hinted at this above); I almost never, NEVER give them someone else's essay and say "write like this." I hate that. It's rather demeaning and limiting. The only time I give them models like that is when they ask for it. The models I'm discussing are more descriptive skeletons --what are the qualities of a good opening for an argument; how do you address what's at stake; what constitutes the difference between a reason and evidence; how might you acknowledge other points of view. It's a structural skeleton I'm talking about. And in my classes (based on media), we read media and develop arguments out of what they read; they won't find an academic structure for an argument in the editorial pages, but they'll find a point of view or have a stance on _some_ issue, and from there they begin to develop their claims, and so forth. I get essays dealing with sports coverage to media bias to film reviews to coverage of the war, with a certain theoretical grounding.

As for the other form of model I was discussing, it's just that --I mean I take objects like blocks and designate them as "reason" "evidence" "claim" and so forth, and physically build an "argument" based on how an anonymous paper (from a different class) built it. Some of the models fall apart, some hang together --depends on how well the paper was written (it's kinda like Jenga; I've also used mobiles. I get into this stuff, and it's just off-setting enough that it wakes them up and they remember it).

I've been doing this for about 7 semesters now, and it's been pretty successful. There's a standard curriculum they're expected to learn, and there's state reviews of this stuff. How they learn it is up to us, and if our students don't succeed in the review, we get bumped out of the writing department and over into something that pays less. I can't expect my students to just know how to write an opening claim, how to start it with a basic status quo and know the difference between that and something destabilizing their status quo to start their argument. By going through a skeleton, asking check questions in our discussions of the readings (what's the claim here? Is there one? If not, what might it be? What reasons are used to support that claim?) and then developing examples as a class through the material we read, they not only see examples, but they've developed their own models to follow.

I was going to attach a link to one of my handouts (all my stuff is online), but writing this I just found out my link is broken. I'll have to fix that.


2 Board Alley

I'm all for a dab of mystification so long as it doesn't overtake commonsense. I really do believe that it's there, and as a practicer of Zen meditation, and a writer and teacher, I know it when I see it. It's there with the hard work. It's there with my students , who, after falling to pieces last week, have spent this week very calmly going about preparing their portfolios and showing that they've learned something. I do believe that there are some aspects of knowing that are ineffable--perhaps they lie on the side of affective knowledge and intuition rather than intellect, and I know that these ineffable aspects work on us or with us while we do the hard work of writing or teaching it.

Your question of the intersection and sequence of purpose, method and model intrigues me enough to write about it this weekend at CCE, but for now, let me say that I tend to not use models very much, largely because I want to get away from students thinking that an essay is a finished document printed on the page, as they would find in their textbooks. And, I find that my BW students are too happy to have a model do the thinking for them. But there are times when I have read several essays at a time with them and then discussed similarities and differences and techniques.

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