Why I Teach Writing

I promised that I would write an entry that was not a rant (all agreed they were getting a bit grating).  So I thought I would write about why I teach (and research) the art of learning to write.

People are all too often skeptical when I tell them I love teaching composition.  Despite the fact that my doctoral dissertation is wholly focused on first-year university writing, there is doubt that anyone could actually want to teach composition, never mind research the subject.  This year I taught technical and professional writing for the first time and it was a stretch for me.  I’m used to teaching composition – finding a thesis statement in an email does not work so well.  And yet we all have to teach subjects that are not our favourites.

So why is composition my favourite subject to teach.  I love reading the students’ work.  I truly do.  In my classes, I refrain from assigning MY topics.  Instead, I have my students chose their own topics.  Rather than reading 40 papers on the pros and cons of the public smoking policy, I get to read 40 papers on different topics.  And I learn something every term.

But beyond exposing myself to a wide variety of research topics, I also am blessed with learning a little bit about each student.  In my doctoral defense a few weeks ago, I made the Freudian slip of using “low stakes writing task” as an example of a writing exercise.  My supervisor nailed me with her next question.  Because, after all, if it’s low stakes who cares?  Certainly not the student.

So I ask my students to spill a bit of their own blood on the page.  Dig deep and then dig a bit deeper.  CARE about what you are writing about.  Then I get to read it!  And even more so, I get to watch as they shape and mold that piece into something really worth reading.

There is nothing more exciting than seeing a student grow in one’s classroom.  It happened this term in one of my tech writing classes where I discovered two of my students had really finally mastered the task of summarizing.  Not only had they summarized but they had done it in a way that was shining with their personality and voice and yet still an outstanding example of technical writing.  I read both those pieces aloud to the rest of the class to illustrate what they should all be trying to do.  One of those students excelled after that – he took chances and his writing gained a depth and confidence that was gratifying to witness.

And what about teaching a more noble subject like literature?  I’ve taught literature – I did it for four years at SFU (despite the EDUC prefix to the Children’s Literature course it was an English credit) – and I don’t know how to teach literature without teaching writing.  The teaching of composition comes so naturally to me.  When a student would hand in a literary essay that was so garbled I could only catch glimpses of their ideas I would send it back, covered in my comments and without a grade, and have them redo it.  Soon I adjusted the class to include the writing process.   Because these students had something to say and I wanted to hear them say it.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I also teach writing because I am a writer.  I have always been a writer and I adore reading good pieces of writing, full of personality and voice.  I wish as an undergraduate English major I’d been required to take composition courses.  If I’d learned the writing process back then, perhaps I would have completed my doctoral degree long before the age of 41.

The semester is drawing to a close and I’m engulfed in student writing now.  Even though this was a semester of professional and technical writing, I am still pleased to see that so many of my students have grown as writers.  They understand the writing process and the first-year students are beginning to find their voice while the fourth-year students have gained a confidence that was missing in September.  I had several students ask me what I was teaching next term, a few more sent me their contact information and asked if they could keep in touch, and one even asked what other “English” classes he could take.  I am so proud of these students and I will miss them next term.

The main reason I teach writing is because I am given the opportunity to look through the window that is the writing of these young scholars and catch glimpses of brilliance.  I am privileged to read about their aspirations and dreams through their writing and to see them grow.  It is an inspiration and an honor.

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