Keeping the Why of Writing Instruction in Mind
Writing instruction is best when each course has less to accomplish and is also working within a series of courses and a writing program that have overarching guidelines.
While many, including myself, have focused on Jennie Young’s provocative argument that “that we stop teaching [academic citation] entirely” in first-year writing, Young builds to an important and broader point by the end: “Writing instruction is a messy business, and there are few simple fixes for any aspect of it.”
I certainly agree there are no simple fixes, but here I want to consider a foundational need if we are in fact concerned about writing instruction — the “why.”
Writing in 1946, Lou LaBrant asserted, “There are many ways of writing English, and the teacher of composition must know, before he thinks of means for teaching, what kind of writing he thinks important to teach.”
Here, I think, LaBrant is calling for any teacher of writing to understand both the “what” and the “why” before coming to terms with the “how” of teaching writing.
At the K-12 and higher education levels, I suspect there are far more teachers assigning writing than teaching writing, and far more teachers grading writing than giving substantive feedback on writing.
I also would anticipate that too few teachers have investigated the “what” and “why” — in part because they are teaching in a curriculum that is absent a cohesive writing program, some guiding principles for why any teacher is assigning or teaching writing to students.
In a brief exchange with Young, she noted two points from a post of mine grounded in her citation argument. First, Young paraphrases a question, “Is first year writing a service course or a discipline for its own sake?” and from my post, “First-year writing expects far too much from both teachers and students.”
Both of these, I propose, are inherent problems when writing instruction is not grounded in a writing program with clear purposes and goals that are shared by the faculty and the students.
Let me stress now that I am not suggesting there is a singular set of purposes and goals that all writing instruction and programs should adhere to; I am arguing that writing instruction must be grounded in some programatic purposes and goals that are communal (not top-down mandates such as meeting states standards or university mission statements or initiatives) and related to the larger educational purposes and goals of that school.
However, writing instruction in any one course can be greatly improved if — along with insuring that the teaching and learning conditions are conducive to writing instruction — that course and instructor have a clear set of achievable goals. In other words, writing instruction is best when each course has less to accomplish and is also working within a series of courses and a writing program that have overarching guidelines.
A sophomore level high school English class and first-year writing, for example, often labor under the same problems — hostile teaching and learning conditions, an unachievable amount of expected learning outcomes (some of which include writing, but other non-writing expectations crowd the teacher’s and students’ time for learning writing), and a lack of program cohesion or buy-in by teachers and students.
To be blunt, there is little any of us can do about writing instruction being messy and complicated, but one way to help those realities not unnecessarily impede good instruction and robust learning is to be aware as a teacher of the “why” and “what” before designing the “how.”
And for students, less will be more when any writing-intensive course or individual writing assignment in a course is grounded in clear purposes and achievable outcomes.
To return to Young’s specific concern, do all first-year students need intensive academic citation instruction — and more pointedly, is it reasonable to expect all or most of them to understand and apply academic citation well before they have determined their major, the discipline that will dictate what citation stylesheet and writing conventions matter?
When I was briefly directing my university’s first-year seminar program, I argued (without as much success as I intended) that first-year writing needs to be transitional (from high school to college) and foundational (for the needs and expectations of whatever major any student may choose in college, and eventual career).
And as I have repeated often, I dissuaded anyone from thinking first-year writing (or any writing-intensive course) could be an inoculation, somehow “fixing” students for whatever future teachers or courses expected of them.
Decades of teaching and writing and also writing myself have proven to me, humbled me, to the reality that both teaching writing and writing are journeys, often without any ultimate finish line. And I must stress, as Young did, that the messy and not simple are the realities we as teachers and our students must mostly accept.
For writing instruction to work, schools and universities must first design a shared vision for a writing program, and then develop a series of courses that work together to meet the needs of that program in the service of students. With that framework, teachers must be allowed and encouraged to address the “why” and “what” of the courses they are charged to teach.
With their students in mind, next, teachers can begin to fashion the “how” of writing instruction.
Without this purposeful and communal approach, we are likely left with writing being assigned and graded — and writing itself being as poorly served as the students laboring under those assignments and grades.
LaBrant, L. (1946). Teaching high-school students to write. English Journal, 35(3), 123–128.
The Weaponization of Academic Citation, Jennie Young