it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

For many (many) years I taught writing skills. Academic and creative, adults and kids, online and in person, you name it. The bulk of my experience, or at least the part that has stuck in my head the most, has been teaching writing to university students in a live, brick-and-mortar setting. And the people that have stuck in my head the most have been my students at the University of New Orleans.

I’m more than a bit entranced with the nuances of language, and more than a bit of a zealot when it comes to the power of critical writing to develop a person’s skills and confidence in promoting their own desires and concerns to the world in a way that has at least a snowball’s chance of being noticed. So when I had the opportunity to work with people who were not ivory tower elitist sons (and daughters) of the great and good, I really went for it. Sure, it might have been a silly little compare and contrast essay that no one else would ever read, or a run-of-the-mill process essay on how to dye your hair, but it was a step towards the fuller expression and development of one unique human experience. The one essay might not matter, but the whole process most certainly could.

The point of this little essay of my own might be that most of them didn’t seem to give a rat’s patootie about either the small or the grand elements of my ambitions for them. Take that as read. Also take as read that I have no idea what these people ended up doing with their lives later on or whether my impressions of their impressions were in any way accurate.

So that’s not the point I want to make. What I’ve been thinking about lately is the shift from teaching people how to write to teaching them the content of a given subject, but then assessing their understanding of that subject through their writing. It’s a very odd shift to make.

When I first signed up to be a ‘demonstrator’ for this popular culture ‘module’ (which in the States would translate to being a ‘TA’ for a ‘class’), I felt uneasy. Sure, I had taught before, lots, and done a decent job of it. But teaching a skill didn’t seem to count as much as teaching content. After all, once you survived freshman composition, you were hardly going to spend another three years majoring writing essays on no particular topic. Literature, physics, law, Spanish – these were things you could devote years of study to. But writing? Writing was a method, a side effect, a skill.

It was why those writing classes seemed so easy to dismiss: it didn’t actually matter what my students wrote about, as long as they wrote about it well. Teaching them actual subject matter to learn, process, and discuss intelligently seemed like an entirely different plane of existence.

Maybe it is, and maybe those years I spent teaching writing skills have totally warped my senses. But you know what I think now? I think that any imperfections in the papers I’m grading boil down to writing skills, and of course to the closely related issue of reading skills. I don’t think there’s any magic in the content they’re needing to absorb, anything amazingly ‘other’ about dealing with subject matter. If my students would improve how they’re reading and writing about this content, they would improve what they’re learning and processing and taking on board.

(By the way, please note that when I talk about ‘imperfections’, I am referring to the fact that this is the first assignment in a first-year undergraduate course, and the work I’m grading is not yet of utterly impeccable professional standard. This would, of course, be as close to physically impossible as one could imagine. If you are, or know, or empathise with one of my students, or someone who might be one of my students, I am talking ONLY about the natural learning curve in ANY learning situation. I am not making the SLIGHTEST reference to particular strengths or weaknesses of any particular people. OK?)

So, back to my point: I’m finding it to be a fascinating experience, thinking about the difference or lack thereof between skills and knowledge. And I’m wildly curious as to how someone with no background in teaching writing skills per se would try to convey how a student should improve his or her written work. I’m sure there are any number of approaches that don’t share my biases at all, but I can’t imagine what they would be!

I think someone should research this. Call me if you want me to be a guinea pig.