What Does It Mean To Teach Writing?

Poe

Poe was a great writer. But what does the art of writing even mean?

“What do you teach?”

I often get asked this question when I tell people that I am a professor. My answer typically goes from “I teach English,” to the more specific “I teach writing.”

With the end of the semester fast approaching, I have thought about what it is that I teach. Yes, I teach writing. But what does that mean?

There are, of course, the many concepts that I incorporate and teach to my students. Bias, appeals, audience, tone, thesis, revision, peer review…these are seemingly standard fare in the particular course that I teach. I could get even more general and say that I teach students how to analyze a text, research a topic, and write about themselves in a thoughtful, self-reflective manner.

More than that, though, what I teach is critical thinking. Critical thinking may sound like a simple enough concept, but it’s actually rather complex in that it requires students to engage with a text and/or topic in a way that goes beyond simply reading and looking stuff up on the Internet. Critical thinking involves thinking beyond the self so as to widen the lenses individuals use to comprehend information. And it’s not just students who are tasked with this; as an instructor, I, too, have the responsibility to constantly view information and situations from different perspectives.

To answer the question I originally set out, I teach the product of many discussions, drafts, edits, revisions, and challenges: voice. Because to teach writing is to teach voice. How to have one and how to effectively use it.

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Still September? – Project Thankful #229

The semester is in full swing.  My students have their first essay assignment due October 2nd, only a couple of weeks away.  Between teaching and being a student myself, I have been trying to find some type of balance to avoid being blown over by the chaotic winds of the semester.

When you’re in college, as a student or otherwise, it’s easy to start to think of time in terms of semesters.  A semester is a shortened amount of time where we attempt to cram knowledge in before the end rolls around and we’re off for winter or summer vacation.  A semester is it’s own widget, counting down the days that are left.  It’s the sand steadily running out.

Here’s the remarkable thing: it’s still September.  SEPTEMBER.  The first month of the school year.  The academic year has actually only been in session for a couple of weeks.

And yet, we feel like it’s going by so fast.  It is, but more than that, we just tend to rush through our schedules without taking time to breathe.  We’re the ones who are rushing, not time.

Time is what we make it.  Don’t rush it.

What My Students Taught Me (Among Many Things) – Project Thankful: Reason #228

The first full week of grad school is over with.  On the third floor where my office and other Teaching Assistants’ offices are, the energy has changed somewhat.  It’s taken on a more serious tone as we fully realize our roles as instructors and the responsibility that comes with that.  Mingled with that seriousness is anxiety over how to juggle the classes that we teach and the classes that we take as students.

This morning, I overheard a fellow Teaching Assistant (TA) telling our mentor about his stress and his struggle to cope with it.  It’s a topic I can relate to.  I’m a worrier by nature, and situations such as graduate school exacerbate that stress.  I think my mom has lost track of how many freak outs I’ve had, many of which involved crying.

I, too, am stressed.  When I get stressed, I remember what my past students taught me.

See, my students didn’t know about my academic career.  They didn’t know where I graduated from, what honors I graduated with, what my accomplishments were, what other “professional experiences” I had.  What they did know was that I was Ms. R, the nice lady who would help them if they asked.  They knew I was there for them, that they could talk to me.  They knew that I would listen.

In academia, there is pressure, one that can lead a person to define their worth by their performance in the classroom.  What my students taught me is that a person’s worth is not defined by their accomplishments, their grades, their GPA.  They taught me that I value for reasons independent of any criteria for an essay, a research paper, a thesis.

They taught me what I knew already but didn’t fully understand.

As I sit in my office typing this blog post, I look around at the blank walls surrounding my desk.  Other TAs have put up posters in their offices.  I don’t have any posters to put up in my office.  What I do have, however, are drawings.  Drawings students have made for me over the years, visual “thank you” notes.  These drawings are currently sitting in my office at home; however, I think the belong in my office at school.  For when the stress starts feeling severe, I can look at them and be anchored by the memories of what my students taught me.

Project Thankful: Reason #208

Tomorrow is July.

I’m always thankful for the end of the month.  The end of June is something bittersweet, however.  On the one hand, June was a chaotic month, and one where I thought more things would happen.  An odd thing to say given that so much did happen in June.  The school year ended, I found an apartment, I got even more items for said apartment, I received my teaching materials for the fall, and more.  On the other hand, now that June is ending, the countdown is on for when I move and for when I need to have my syllabus ready for the fall. I’ll be balancing the roles of Instructor and Student come September which means I have to be prepared for both of those roles.  

I have a feeling I’ll be eating a lot of chocolate in July.

Project Thankful: Reason #189: Declaring Defeat

Yesterday, we sat outside looking at the water.  I listened to the waves crash against the rocks, the salt air captivating my senses.  I looked at the blue water beating against the hard rocks, and I found myself resigned to the reality that my life is not how I imagined it would be at this point, nor will it probably turn out how I continue to imagine it will be in the future.

On Friday, I go apartment hunting in New Hampshire.  I have four potential apartments lined up to look at, all of which meet my two main requirements (washer/dryer hookups and pet friendly).  Still, I thought circumstances would be different when the time came to look at my own place.  Without rehashing a post I already blogged, I not only thought I would be at a different place in my life when I moved out, I also thought financially I would be at a different place as well.

I have undergraduate student loans, and now I will be taking out graduate student loans.  When I reached the point of about to start graduate school, somehow, magically I guess is the best term to describe it, I envisioned a means would appear that would at least allow me to pay off the remainder of my undergrad loans.  

That hasn’t happened.

And I know that I have enough common sense as well as financial sense to make sure that I will be alright in the end.  It’s just that lingering sense that things should be different, that my vision should be a reality.

I accept defeat.  I accept that it’s no use trying to mold my life to fit an image I have in my head because the Universe has its own vision of how my life will be.  I accept that The Powers That Be, to use an Angel reference, have a plan as well, and that plan is the one that will ultimately unfold.

I’m not giving up on my dreams or my ambitions.  I’m not giving into self-pity.  I’m giving myself peace.

Project Thankful: Reason #187

A week from today I go up to New Hampshire to look at potential apartments.  It didn’t really hit me before now that I really am moving.  Soon.

When I used to think about what it would be like when I finally moved, I didn’t think it would be like this.  I thought I would be at a different point in my life.  To be honest, I thought I would move when I found that special someone and we became engaged.  I didn’t think I would ever move when I’m single or move to attend grad school.  I always thought I was bound to Boston in a way, having grown up in the Boston area all my life.  As an undergrad, I commuted from home.  Although I applied to non-Boston area schools for grad school, in the back of my mind I always thought I would attend a Boston area school for grad school and live at home, again commuting to school.

I’m the type of person who has a tendency to plan their life, and usually what happens is that my life basically goes in a direction I did not plan.  I like to think of it as the Universe’s way of reminding me that I can not control everything and that what I view as the best plan is not what’s actually best.

When I graduated from college, my plan was to get a job that was just a paycheck while I focused on my writing career, which back then I thought was going to take off almost immediately.  I also thought I was ready to be in a relationship with a person I could see myself settling down with.

What ended up happening was I quickly realized the realities of how hard the economy is, especially to college graduates, and that the publishing industry was as harsh after college as it was when I was in college.  As far as my love life went, I did meet a guy who I thought I could see myself settling down with one day; unfortunately, he turned out to be the type who says all the right things, but doesn’t follow through on them.

I’m thankful my life didn’t turn out the way I planned it because if it had I would have missed out on so many wonderful opportunities and would have ultimately ended up being unhappy.  As I move forward, I am eager to see which direction my life takes me.  For the present, that direction is New Hampshire.

Project Thankful: Reason #166

Yesterday, a boy told me he got an 86% on his My Dog Skip book quiz that I helped him study for.  I told him, “Good!” but inside, I was so proud of him.  He is a boy who is very easily distracted, and for him to focus after studying so hard and to get such a good grade…I was impressed.

I’m always thankful when students share their achievements with me because it tells me that they value having me help them, or just simply being there for them.  When I think about the pressures that exist for individuals in academia that cause many to place their individual sense of worth on grades and accolades, I am thankful to have had these “gap” years between undergrad and grad where I worked in Education, essentially helping students.  Students are less concerned with how smart a person is and more concerned with how caring a person is, a quality that speaks more to a person’s character than to their intelligence.