Teaching students to write

At NYU there is an expository writing course called Writing the Essay, which all university undergraduates must take in their first year. I’ve listened to many an undergrad complain about the course, and not coincidentally, I can’t think of a single TA in my acquaintance who hasn’t had to reteach these students the basic skills of writing an essay: how to open an essay; what a thesis sentence is and how to formulate one; how to introduce quotations and other sorts of evidence in body paragraphs; how to conclude an essay, etc.. With an already tight semester, there is no way to go about teaching all this without making students feel like they are going through writing boot camp.

So what goes wrong during the semester when students are supposedly learning how to “write the essay”? One of the most common complaints about the class is not that it’s boring or difficult, but that they don’t actually learn how to write papers in Writing the Essay. This baffled me until I finally saw a copy of the syllabus. And, indeed, students do a lot of reading and writing, but the essays they are modelling their writing upon are deeply introspective. They read Annie Dillard and react to Annie Dillard and write in the style of Annie Dillard (for example). Now let me say that I have nothing but the highest regard Annie Dillard. She has written one of my favorite books of all time. She is a master at elaborating ideas in prose that will haunt the reader. If you read her carefully she will teach you to see the world with clearer eyes, and if you become sensitive to the rhythm and imagery of her prose, you might even become a better writer of creative non-fiction. But all that still doesn’t make her the person to turn to when you want to learn how to write an analytical paper that will pass muster in an undergraduate literature class. (Although once you’ve gotten a handle on the basics, I would certainly urge you to return to Annie Dillard, because her prose will inspire you to enliven your academic writing, which really needn’t be so dry.)

One thing that Writing the Essay does well is expose students to the writing of other undergraduates. (There is an essay by Interpol‘s Paul Banks that continues to make its rounds on the Internet.) Student papers give undergraduates accessible writing models. In my MAP course I asked my students for permission to share anonymous excerpts from their first papers. Everyone agreed, so I set aside fifteen minutes from one class (yes, time is always tight) to go over the passages together. I emphasized that I had selected examples from papers that received a range of grades to show that even papers that didn’t earn an A had strong moments. I grouped the selections into introductory paragraphs, body paragraphs, analyses, and conclusions, and we went over them together one by one. Rather than telling students why I had made each selection, I asked them to pick out the remarkable features of each one themselves. I also included one special case where a student opted for a more creative approach. After explaining to students that I generally preferred that they practice a more orthodox essay style, I asked them to discern why I found this particular instance effective.

This sort of one-off exercise is not a magic bullet. Although I charted a handful of drastic improvements between the first and second papers in each of my sections that semester (from the C range to the A range), student writing did not improve across the board. And I wouldn’t expect it to based on a single fifteen-minute exercise. I share it here because I think that this is the sort of work we need to make time for, coupled with one-on-one office meetings with students who really need help with their writing.

As a college student I was not required to take any sort of expository writing course. It was assumed that we had learned the basics of writing in high school (where I did indeed learn how to write basic three-sentence paragraphs as a freshman), and that as undergrads we would hone our skills in the many “writing intensive” courses on offer and visit the Writing Workshop (where I was a tutor) for extra help. In contrast to NYU’s factory approach, Wesleyan’s strategy when it comes to writing is to develop the skill within a disciplinary and thematic context, while giving students individual guidance. This is the philosophy that roots my academic enrichment programs, which seek to build students’ reading and writing skills while hooking them into engaging topics and problems. I design my programs so that students have more time to work on their academic skills without being overwhelmed by so much content, as they are in regular undergraduate classes. Instead of administering exams, we will work on building arguments and ordering thoughts both aloud and in writing.

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