Writers must also be readers

Joy Wagener

Several of the readings this week focused on the need for students to write—write more, write with ease, write through the difficulties, write to know oneself, write for others. As many of the authors reflected, writing is HARD.  Grading writing is HARD.  I think that’s why so many teachers shift their focus to literature, or have students use writing as a way to demonstrate mastery of the assigned literature. I know that I’m guilty of using writing as an assessment tool instead of a tool for learning. So, how do I transition from writing for assessment to writing for learning? How do I make room in my curriculum for writing without burdening myself with grading or without cheapening the writing process with rubrics, expectations, and guidelines?

Echoing Elbow in “The War Between Reading and Writing,” it’s apparent that many new English teachers are not well prepared in teaching writing, but are overly prepared to teach literature.  I know this is true of my background, coursework, and licensure. Writing is just supposed to come, right? I think part of the difficulty in instructing students to write comes from the teacher’s own level of comfort with it. For example, in “When Writing Teachers Teach Literature,” Cheryl Glenn keeps a diary throughout her semester to document her feelings about assigning writing to her students. She is at first uncomfortable with how much writing she plans to assign, doubting that the students will engage with it and doubting that she’ll be able to manage grading all of it. I can completely sympathize with that! Throughout her semester, the same students keep returning to her office hours to raise complaints or to conference with her about why they have poor grades. It’s an uncomfortable situation, yet she usually has a “big picture” response for them. She reflects that it’s difficult for her to dig her heals in and stick to the value of doing all of this writing, revising (or contrastingly, NOT allowing her students to revise) as it becomes more and more difficult. “Jill” hasn’t met the group work requirement while “Dan” has not listened to any of the feedback from professor or from his group. Glenn is conflicted over the pedagogy of what she’s doing—should she allow students to be truly independent in writing? Or does writing have to require a reader as well?

Elbow argues that all writing requires a reader. Readers are the ones who interpret and negotiate meaning in a text.  So even if the reader is oneself, or just one other person, or a much larger audience, one must write with an effort of clarity. In William Cole’s piece called “Less as More, the Ten-Minute writing Assignment,” he has a great activity for teaching students to write with clarity and concision. Dealing with an enormous class size, he gets students to write one to three sentences each class on a specific prompt. Not only do the students have to be concise and clear, but they have to demonstrate mastery over the content and grammar within the sentence constraints. The result is a clear idea of what the student knows—and it’s faster for Cole to assess. I love this idea! It’s a writing challenge reminiscent of Tweeting out messages to #ENGL610.

Writing is indeed a challenge, just as reading is a challenge. However, they both need to be taught, if only has a means to the other. Writing takes time. In the end of the semester, Glenn notes that the process—all of the doubts, conferences, confrontations, conversations, and growth—was worth it.