Teaching Tuesdays: Teaching Writing: From Obstacles to Resources
The P3 Collaboratory is pleased to continue “How I'm Teaching Now,” a series highlighting the innovative pedagogical work being done by RU-N instructors. Today’s contribution is from Dr. Lance Thurner (History, SAS-N). Dr. Thurner is one of many RU-N faculty members participating in tomorrow’s SMARTeaching workshop on “Writing & Humanities Online Teaching Strategies.” You can register for that workshop here.
Language was always the companion of empire… language and empire began, increased, and flourished together: Antonio de Nebrija, the first grammatician of modern language, 1492.
[Image Credit: Antonio de Nebrija teaching from Introductiones Latinae in the presence of D. Juan de Zúñiga, 1486. Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid.]
Unlike scholarship, teaching is cyclical. I love it for that. We are always circling back around: teaching that intro course again, returning to that foundational reading from week 1, rethinking our lesson on a pre-requisite subject. This rhythm of experimentation and improvement through reiteration is what makes teaching rigorous and robust. In times of crisis, when there is so much beyond our control and our students are struggling, the patterns of teaching and learning can provide at least one anchor to our lives. At the same time, the pandemic can be a particularly instructive turn of the pedagogical cycle. I’ve learned so much about my students and have had to reassess my approach to foundational skills and lessons. When college returns to normal, I’ll never teach writing the same again.
I began teaching writing the same place our students begin learning college composition: “Expos” -- i.e. ENG 101: Expository Writing. “Grade hard at first to set the standards high,” the staff of the Writing Program explained in August 2016 before my first semester. “Be prepared: some students will cry.” It was true, some cried. But the students came through it and were overwhelmingly grateful by the end of the semester for what I helped them achieve.
I’ve relied on that experience for years. In my History courses, writing is elemental to the skills of interpretation and analysis students learn and, thus, writing instruction is central to my teaching practice. My Expos toolkit has served me well and my students appreciate all of the direct feedback. But they also cringe at the dozens of red marks on every page, especially “awkward,” “unclear,” and the like. For some, it is a source of veritable anguish and confusion. I therefore admit to them that most grammar rules to don’t make any logical sense, but are the unfortunate product of a long history of pedantism, convention, and cultural hegemony. “It is difficult not to hear in standardized English always the sound of slaughter and conquest,” writes bell hooks. Inspired by Asao Inoue’s Anti-Racist Writing Assessment Ecologies, I explain to my students that these are tools of success and survival in a world of linguistic norms that for reasons of inequality, racism, and migration are an unequal burden. By understanding grammar as a structure of power, writes Inoue, students can comprehend that their difficulties are the fault of neither themselves nor their people.
That explanation doesn’t make the skills easier to attain, but it clearly resonates with my students. In COVID times, though, I’ve tried something different: I simply left the door open. Once again, my students are employing theoretical frameworks to analyze primary historical sources, but this time I explained that their assignment was not a college essay. “Write however you best express yourself,” I told them. "Be creative. Experiment." I want my students to find ways to relate to the distant past – to figure out how, why, and when history matters and helps us develop broader and deeper understandings about how to live and act in a big, messy, protean world. For achieving this goal, the conventional college essay format had become an obstacle, especially when teaching online. It was time to try something new.
The shocker came when my students’ first paper, their “Personal Essay on Citizenship and Belonging,” came in: their eloquence and articulateness, their diction, their grammar, their organization, their argumentation, their ability to work from evidence to conclusions… it was all magnificent! My metaphorical red pen rested. Even on the technical level, the most error-plagued essay this semester is almost on par with some of the best papers from last fall. I am still in awe.
During the pandemic, it is all we can do most of the time to just keep the ball rolling, to not let life and education grind to a halt. Like most teachers, I can’t wait to return to a classroom. Some of our work-arounds, however, can brilliantly tweak our pedagogical practices. The pandemic forced me to enter a bit further into my students’ vernacular online worlds. What I have found there is that their writing capacities needn’t be obstacles, but are instead resources. Our students are more experienced in mediated expression than probably any generation before them. By building on these capacities with academic rigor and skills, we meet students where they are, and allow them to bring themselves into their education in new and exciting ways.
Lance C. Thurner is lecturer in the Federated Department of History at Rutgers University-Newark. He is the creator of the interactive learning sites Empire’s Progeny and States of Belonging. He can be reached at email@example.com.
bell hooks. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge; 1994.
Asao B. Inoue. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Parlor Press; 2015.
Would you like to share how you’re teaching now with the RU-N community? Interested contributors should email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “How I’m Teaching Now” and include 1) name, department, courses taught in 2020; and 2) a description of proposed essay topic in 2-3 sentences.
Brought to you by the P3 Collaboratory for Pedagogy, Professional Development, and Publicly-Engaged Scholarship at Rutgers University-Newark