Thursday, May 25, 2006

Thoughts on Teaching Writing

At long last the semester has come to a close. Many of you probably have no idea what it takes to teach five sections of composition, with some of the sections having as many as twenty-five students. Each student turns in five essays, so there are a hundred essays to grade within any one section. When you multiple that number by five, the number of essays becomes overwhelming.

Usually, students tend to make the same mistakes in their writing. Students don’t realize what it takes to write a good essay in the second semester of composition, such as fulfilling the assignment, developing one’s ideas, integrating quotes smoothly, and documenting all of the sources that appear in the essay and from which words and/or ideas are borrowed. Some of the other essentials, which students still overlook, are creating an argument, maintaining one’s focus, using paragraph development, avoiding comma splices, fused sentences, and sentence fragments, and even catching spelling errors.

My students tend to experience the most problems when evaluating a movie and when critiquing a written text. The concept of establishing criteria unique to one particular genre of movie and providing evidence in support of each criterion proves particularly challenging. Likewise, students are often befuddled when expected to identify the intended audience in an article written for a journal like Harper’s, believing that the writer is addressing them.

I will be starting my twentieth year of teaching college English in August of this year. Occasionally, a student may think that I exhibit bias when grading his/her essay because the grade isn’t what the student had expected. I am long past the time when I had to shut down my own biases when grading an essay. It’s true that I am not particularly fond of reading essays about incest and rape. There aren’t other topics that offend me. Few if any topics can cause me to overlook my role as a teacher of writing. Some of the ideas are often stupid and not thought out, but I’m not going to tell the writer what I think directly. My opinion doesn’t matter; what matters is how well the writer has fulfilled the rhetorical situation and how well the writer has fulfilled the criteria for that particular essay while still conforming to the conventions of academic writing and standard written English.

Despite how hard I work during any given semester, there are still students who complain because of the final grade for the semester. Students think that grading someone’s writing is subjective when what I have said in these paragraphs proves that grading a text is actually quite objective. A teacher with less experience might exhibit idiosyncratic criteria when grading. Usually, when composition teachers are brought together and asked to evaluate someone’s essay, we can agree on that essay’s strengths and weaknesses.

You might be thinking that I now have the summer off to relax and do nothing until the start of classes in August. In two weeks, I will be teaching another four sections of composition; two of them will last seven weeks and the remaining two will last eight weeks. I get a longer break, about three weeks in length, when classes end in July.

One benefit to this frenzied pace of teaching and grading is that the students I encounter change from one semester to another. Some of them do leave a lasting impression. I can still remember the students I taught twenty years ago. I also see some of my students within the community, such as last summer when I entered the hospital for a brief stay and encountered a former student of mine who now works as a nurse. Another one of my students worked in a booth at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival and was surprised that I still knew her name. Those kinds of encounters are plusses. Fewer of these encounters occur now because I don’t see my students. We communicate within an online environment. Once in a while, I actually meet with a student who needs my help, or I see a photograph in the local newspaper that lets me match a name to a face. I can go out to the store now and not have say someone say, “Hi, Dr. ------.” Sometimes I miss that recognition.