Advice on Teaching Writing

This morning I received the following email from a graduate student at Princeton.

Dear Professor Musgrove,

I am writing to you because I recently ran across two of your articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I just finished grading a batch of student papers, and in my frustration, I googled “is student writing getting worse?” Worse Than Ever? was the first result.

I appreciate your thoughts on the question–especially the point that we tend to compare student writing to our own atypical experiences.

My real reason for emailing is to ask if there is any literature you can recommend for college teachers who do not teach writing. I teach political science and political theory, so I don’t get to spend as much time on student writing as I would like. I sometimes wonder what I can say to my students that will really help without turning my classes into writing classes. I hope you will understand what I am after.

Best wishes, and thanks in advance.

Here was my response:

Dear ________,

A few ideas come to mind that might be helpful.

  1. Assigning, Responding, Evaluating by Edward M. White.  Some good advice in this on designing assignments so that students have the best chance of success.  Good advice also on best ways to respond and to evaluate student writing.
  2. Style by Joseph M. Williams.  This is one of my favorite books on writing, though its emphasis is more on writing clearly than on correctness.
  3. If you are encountering student writing that consistently contains the same kinds of sentence errors, such as run-ons or comma splices or other related problems at the sentence and comma level, you might spend some time reviewing three kinds of sentence strategies: 1. simple sentences with introductory phrases, 2. compound sentences, and 3. complex sentences.  Most student writing errors can be remedied with a review of these basic sentence strategies.  See here a mini-lesson packet I developed for my students: Musgrove-Mini-Lesson-Packet-July-22-2013.pdf.
  4. Also, we know that student writing degrades significantly as students attempt to write about ideas that are new to them.  A kind of cognitive dissonance takes over when students are engaged in that struggle, and as a result, they can’t always see or read what they are writing.  So they need more time than they would if they were writing about something they were more familiar with.  In other words, they need to be reminded (or taught) that writing is a complex and time-consuming activity, and perhaps one of the most difficult tasks humans perform.  However, students will be more willing to put in the time and effort if the writing task includes two attributes:  1. Choice – students have the opportunity to choose among writing prompts – choice leads to ownership and responsibility;  2. Authenticity – students write for an audience or purpose that is not limited to professor and class – how might assignment be designed so that students will see their writing published or share with audiences beyond the classroom?
  5. Related to 4:  Students don’t write well because they don’t read well.  Sometimes, teaching students how to read the texts we offer them can go a long way to remedying writing problems.
  6. Overall, I think that if you can persuade students to value what you want them to value in your classes, like good thinking and good writing and good reading, most problems go away.  Otherwise, because most students have learned in our culture, tragically for our democracy, that thinking and writing and reading in school are oppressive activities (they are forced to think, write, and read what the teacher orders them to think, write, and read), they will continue to believe that until you persuade them otherwise through activities that offer them choices and practice in writing for eyes other than the teacher and the red pen.  See also Paulo Freire on the banking concept of education and its role in dehumanizing education.   Ultimately, your use of writing in the classroom should follow your teaching philosophy.   How might it contribute to students’ chances at achieving human and democratic fulfillment?
  7. You are competing for your students’ time outside of class.  The more you can use in-class time to help your students achieve success in writing or reading or thinking, the more success you will see.  It also follows that the better relationships you build with your students, the more time they will dedicate to you and your assignments.  That competition for student time/attention is rarely considered when thinking about student performance in our own classes.

I’d be happy to chat with you further.

Laurence