I love teaching writing. Really I do. If I could teach any subject under the sun, I would chose writing.
I’m beginning to think I’m in the minority. It is not a chore. It is not a dull course that one is saddled with every few years. It is an adventure every time, as students bring their own interests and talents into the classroom. I’ve been teaching for more than six years and I am still amazed each term by the new insights and interpretations my students bring into the classroom. Through their writing, I continue to learn and evolve as more than a teacher but also as a human being. If that ever stops, I will stop teaching.
A colleague of mine made a comment today about how writing courses should concentrate on “real composition” rather than becoming “cultural studies” courses. I sat and listened to the conversation for a bit and did not say a word. But I wanted to ask what is a “real” composition class? Is it a grammar course? Is it a regurgitation of poor interpretations of old literature course? WHAT exactly is “real” composition?
I’m not so sure I agree that composition shouldn’t be linked to cultural studies in some ways. Because when I teach composition I try to make it relevant to my students. I want them to write about what they care about. And I want them to learn to look at issues in a critically reflective way. I want them to see life on this planet a little bit differently than they did before they stepped into my classroom. So I bring in real issues that are happening in the world. Tough issues that I want students to be able to think about and talk about and write about in real authentic ways.
Does that make me an idealist? I don’t think so. Because a lot of times when my students do write in a critically reflective way I don’t agree with them. Sometimes I don’t even want to hear what they have to say. But I do. And in those instances I need to step outside my own narrow belief system and value their ways of looking at the world. I grow as an instructor and they grow as students.
But using cultural studies topics to teach writing doesn’t mean we exclude grammar and stylistic considerations from the classroom. But grammar and style are part of the process of writing. And they go along with helping students to find their voice and learn to express their own interpretations of the world they live in. Grammar and style are tools of the trade, not an end in themselves. Students can write stylistically and grammatically perfect prose that is cardboard crap.
And what about literature? Is using literature in the classroom is out-dated? I don’t think so but it is not the only way to teach writing. And literature does not have to be 250 years old to have value. Instructors don’t have to teach “the canon” so they can check off a box on a clipboard (“Okay, we covered some Milton, now what else?”). What about mixing it up a bit? What about teaching composition in a way that incorporates the socio-historical heteroglossia of voices that influence the way we encounter life on the planet today?
Make it relevant. Make it real. Then the course won’t be a chore, but maybe it will be a course students remember as one of the classes that made a difference.