I don’t think I understood what writing really is until I was a Masters student. Though I was a successful academic writer, and studied and produced my own creative writing, I somehow missed the idea of writing as rhetorical, as shaped by different discourse communities, as a way of making knowledge rather than just demonstrating knowledge to a teacher. I struggled at first with seminar papers in graduate school, as I didn’t know the discursive “moves” for summarizing my research, signaling an intervention, or synthesizing conflicting sources. In short, I didn’t know what composing my own argument really meant.
As a writing teacher, I carry this experience with me. I want my students to have a different experience than I did, and I believe that they will benefit both in the classroom and in their own writing outside of school from learning early on about the norms in academic writing, the differences in writing from across discourse communities, and the ways different media can be drawn on to make their arguments and reach audiences.
To provide a groundwork for interrogating our beliefs about writing, my classes often begin with readings such as those from Writing About Writing that expose common constructs and limiting assumptions about writing that students may bring to the classroom. Students are often excited about this deconstructive work, especially those students who have not seen themselves as “good writers” based on their previous academic experiences. As part of the critical lens provided by writing scholarship, we also look to Graff and Berkenstein’s templates in They Say/I Say, which make explicit the “moves that matter” for producing academic arguments, exposing the underlying patterns that some students had attributed to genius or skill and to which they may have felt they didn’t have access. We write reflective essays and literacy narratives tracing the influence of their writing instruction, home language experiences and beliefs about language in their own lives, and practice using the template moves as heuristics to see how they can help give shape to their ideas and arguments.
As I work with my students towards developing their academic writing and research skills for college through such activities, I also try to value and respond to their lives outside of the classroom. This means valuing the language histories of students, helping them understand the forces that have shaped their successes and challenges in academic writing to date, and practicing writing strategies that allow them to critically engage with the rhetorical expectations of each new writing situation they may face. Overall, the central learning objective I am committed to and believe all students can achieve is an understanding that all writing in their lives (both inside and outside the classroom) is rhetorical—that it is responsive to context, audience, history, and power, rather than about right or wrong.
In my writing assignments and assessment, I emphasize reflection, critical analysis, and revision. In each of these activities, students’ emphasis is shifted away from the product, the grade or the surface features of an “academic essay” as they have come to understand it, and towards an understanding of both writing and reading as rhetorical acts of engagement and inquiry. The details of my approach differ depending on the course I am teaching, and in response to the needs and dynamics of each individual group of students, but in each course, the assignments I design are intended to keep such reflection and metacognition central. As we read or produce texts, I constantly invite students to ask why a text is constructed as it is, what choices are made in response to what purposes and perceived audience needs, and what other options are available. Such questions are central both to students’ reading of sources and their composition of texts.
For instance, in my most recent composition course we composed a multimodal remediating or “form-finding” assignment that asks students to revise a previously drafted essay by considering who the most appropriate audience of the piece is and to re-envision the piece to best address that audience. Decisions about media, genre, and design were dictated by their decisions about purpose and audience, resulting in a variety of digital multimodal projects, including audio essays, websites, and short videos. Through this assignment, students were invited to think about their writing in terms of real audiences with specific needs, to select rhetorical strategies and forms that best suit those needs, and to conceive of composition as encompassing more than the standard written essay. In short, they were introduced to the notion of composition as a complex rhetorical project encompassing multiple forms, genres, purposes, and audiences
I have faith in my students and a willingness to take them seriously, and I attempt to help them to trust themselves and their own processes as writers and meaning-makers as well. At the same time, I also design projects and supporting assignments that scaffold the difficult work of composition, and provide a safe space in which they can experiment, fail, and, eventually, succeed in meeting our shared learning outcomes. Recently, I have experimented with grading contracts, as outlined by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow, to help foster confidence and trust in this process of discovery and reinvention of their writerly selves, and their experimentation with new forms and genres, which I understand is often a scary process for students.