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Ask the Professor

The Letter:

Dear CSU Professor,

I don't know anything about teaching writing--and I'm not such a great writer myself. In fact, I struggle with writing (or look for ways to avoid it entirely). Do you really think it is such a good idea for me to assign and grade writing in my classes?

Three CSU Professors Respond:

Mary Kay Harrington responds:

I hear two concerns: First, you have some fear about writing, some questions about your own failings as a writer. You mention that writing is a struggle and that you avoid it if you can.

Secondly, you don't feel that you know much about the teaching of writing, let alone assigning and grading it.

Of course these two things are related. However, that writing is a struggle and that you avoid it, does not suggest that you know little about it. Obviously, to become a college professor, you had to write—albeit with struggle. Little do you know, perhaps, that most (all?) writers/professors struggle with writing. I believe that those very challenges you faced make you the perfect person to help your students with their writing. You have empathy for those who feel daunted by writing tasks.

Think back to any writing instruction you might have had that helped you. What is it you finally know about writing? Probably more than you think. Then, think about what you think you need to know: perhaps something about organization or development? I'll bet you are most worried about grammar and punctuation, which are the easiest things to learn. Pick up a handbook in the bookstore, and take advantage of help on your own campus from Writing Across the Disciplines programs or sit in on a class. One of my favorite books for tips on writing (which will help your writing, too) is called Revising Prose by Richard Lanham (Allyn & Bacon; ISBN: 0205309453). I use it to train graduate students to tutor writing, and find that their own writing improves as well.

Lastly, trust that you know when a student writes an elegant response to a question or problem you pose. Isn't it the case that you always know when their responses are unclear, imprecise or confusing? Remember, you are the expert. Trust what you know intuitively.

--Mary Kay Harrington
Faculty English Consultant to the CSU
Director, Writing Skills Program
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo


* * * * *

John Edlund responds:

Writing assignments don't have to be formal term papers or academic articles and you don't have to be a literary critic or a copy editor to respond to them.

Although writing assignments can be used to develop proficiency in writing the formal documents and genres of a particular discipline, perhaps the most useful kinds of assignments are designed simply to help students learn the concepts and materials of the course. These "writing to learn" assignments include different types of journals and notebooks, correspondence, problem-solving, question-posing, freewriting, lecture and reading summaries, and expressive and exploratory writing. The emphasis is on understanding and learning, not correctness or form, and in most cases it is not necessary to grade them. Often they are simply counted or checked off.

If you do choose to assign a more formal paper, it is important to decide what role is appropriate for you to take in responding to the paper. Are you responding as a proofreader or editor, as if the paper is going to be published? Are you taking the role of a reviewer or critic? Or are you a teacher or a coach, trying to diagnose what is going wrong and how it can be improved? It is often best to respond simply as a reader, not as a critic. As you read the text, if you lose the train of thought or are confused, simply say so. Even if you can puzzle out what the writer means, the initial confusion indicates that there is a rhetorical or stylistic problem that the writer should deal with.

For more advice, look at Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, by John C. Bean, (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education; ISBN: 0787902039). Bean provides an excellent resource for designing both formal and informal writing assignments for courses in any discipline or field.

--John Edlund
Director, University Writing Center
Associate Professor, Department of English and Foreign Languages
Cal Poly, Pomona


* * * * *

Sheryl Fontaine responds:

I understand your reluctance to assign writing if you are an uneasy writer yourself. However, if your school requires a writing component of the course you are teaching, you might think about ways you can use writing to help students learn the material you are teaching, and ways you can introduce students to the kind of writing required in your discipline.

One use of writing is more about learning than about writing. For example, ask students to spend five minutes at the beginning of class writing out questions from the readings or from the last lecture, or five minutes in the middle or end of class, writing questions for you about the material covered that day. This will reinforce what they've read and heard, and will provide you with valuable information about what they are hearing.

You can collect these and read through them quickly, looking for patterns of need, or you might have the students share them with one another. You needn't respond in writing, but after recording that they are done, you can respond to a few in front of the class. You might also ask students to write to you about how they reached the answers or conclusions in the homework—a kind of process report. These activities will help you see what the students understand and don't understand, and will also remind students how important it can be to process what they hear or read as a way to learn.

A second way to use writing is the more formal way—assigning the kind of writing most representative of your discipline. This could be a report, review, or essay. Your own discomfort with writing may, in fact, help you create this assignment. First, be as explicit as possible in creating the assignment; ask yourself how you would answer the questions and even if you could answer them. Give your students all of the benefits you may not give yourself—time to write a draft, time to have their peers read the draft (to tell them where it makes sense and where it doesn't), and time to revise and edit.

If your school has a writing center, ask a tutor to come to your class and introduce the service to your students. And by all means, tell your students about how you struggle with writing, and what strategies you have used to face these struggles. Long before you grade the completed assignments, determine what qualities you will be grading for and announce this to your class while they still have time to use the information.

Generally, I would encourage you not to think of yourself as someone who must teach writing, but rather as someone who uses writing both to help students learn better and to assess better what students have learned.

--Sheryl I. Fontaine
Director, University Learning Center
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
Cal State Fullerton


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Last modified December 22, 2006.