On Teaching Academic Writing
Part 1: Metaphors of Writing
Stephanie Bell, Associate Director of the Writing Centre and Assistant Professor in the Writing Department
Teaching and learning would be easy tasks if they involved straightforward transfers of information from person to person. This is a lesson that has been particularly difficult for educators to learn about writing. For decades, misunderstandings about the nature of “good writing” and processes involved in producing it have fuelled the devaluation of writing support services as well as writing instruction within disciplinary courses across higher education.
Writing is a category of skill and strategy that seems to defy teaching. I find that a combination of two metaphors – interpretive dance and driving abroad – is best at explaining why. Bear with me as I proceed towards a dangerously mixed metaphor.
First, writing is more like performing interpretive dance than following choreography.
There are no hard and fast rules for producing “good writing,” as expectations are often unique to the exigencies of each writing task. Even grammar and organizational guidelines can shift under our feet from task to task. Good writers are accomplished at the dance involved in interpreting the writing context.
Drop an expert writer into an unfamiliar situation, and watch them become a novice again. Any skill for crafting grammatical sentences will only become useful when the writer learns how to effectively communicate within the new social context in ways that mark the writer as a member of the group.
Even the best writers among high-school graduates will flounder when they encounter the dauntingly different writing tasks at university. Their muddled sentences will reflect their attempts to understand the many new ways we’re asking them to write and think about the world. Their preparedness has less to do with their ability to immediately meet our expectations of good writing than with their strategies for learning to speak our languages, don our disciplinary identities, and fit into our communities (though this takes for granted their desire to join our club).
Second, learning to participate in academic writing can be like driving a rental in a foreign country.
You think you know how to drive, you may have been doing it fairly well for many years, but when travelling abroad you have to adjust to a rented car, a different set of rules and driving culture, and a road signs in an unfamiliar language. Transferring your norms for speeding, merging, passing, to the new environment may cause significant disruptions as your norms fly in the face of the implicit mutually agreed upon driving code. The drivers around you may honk and shake their fists. They may question your competence and character. You “can’t drive,” they may say.
It’s not uncommon to hear complaints about the state of student writing ability. But literacy rates are healthy, and students are arguably writing more now than any previous generation. We send thousands of text messages every week and invest hours carefully curating our social media presence. When students enter university, they are highly literate and skilled writers, and a growing number are able to navigate multiple languages. We write this experience off, however, when their attempts to participate in our academic styles and methods of constructing knowledge are not successful. They “can’t write,” we shrug.
We need to be cognizant of the fact that our classrooms are unknown territory for students. While students have a range of skills and strategies for navigating academic writing tasks, they may struggle to predict which of these will help or hinder. Making matters worse, they may be unsure whether or not to seek help. Students might feel shame for not already knowing how to satisfy our expectations for good writing. When we expect students to produce writing but do not teach them how to do so, we send the message that students who might need support require remediation.
Unfortunately, when it comes to teaching writing, we can be like driving instructors who’ve forgotten all the rules of the road. We are driving in very familiar territory where the rules and strategies for writing have become routine. Their very existence obscured by normalcy. We craft academic texts without remembering much of the process. Unfortunately, our mastery makes us both expert writers and terrible teachers of writing. Our writing advice, assignment design, and assessment and feedback strategies are often blind to the various moving parts.
Our approach to teaching writing tends to be akin to instructing students to “Just drive to destination X. Arrive Thursday at 11:59pm. I’ll meet you there.” At the destination, we focus on the car, because we weren’t present for the drive. Did the student meet the deadline? Is the vehicle polished? Has it come to a stop within lines of a parking spot? We circle imperfections as though the key to good writing is in sentence construction.
Year after year at the Writing Centre, hundreds of students come looking for help polishing their product even before they’re confident that they’ve understood the assignment. In our writing workshops and courses, students demand that we tell them the rules for “good writing.” There may be some fundamental rules — come to a full stop at periods and, in some cases, semicolons; motion to other drivers to make your intentions clear; establish your route and paper road map — but an overemphasis on rules and sentence perfection can mislead students.
Their focus – our focus – should be on the interpretive dance rather than on their execution of (largely unspecified) choreography. They need to know when they should speed or how aggressive to be when merging, and there is no manual for these decisions.
As instructors, we should provide support for student writers during their process of writing. We can think of ourselves coaching from the passenger seat (other drivers will pass you dangerously if you go below the speed limit…) or from the rehearsal studio (what do you want the audience to feel when you’re dancing this part?…).
Certainly, when we’re closer to students in the act of writing, we’re likely to be more familiar with the challenges they’re facing, and, therefore, more equipped to provide support. However, we must avoid becoming necessary. Much of our support should help students become more capable and confident independent writers. In my next post, I discuss how experiential design can help instructors teach writing in ways that focus on process, provide guidance, and foster independence.