I want to frame my response to this week’s readings with an idea that has recurred in our class discussion, the idea that we, as writing instructors (of various types) are teaching tools more than we are teaching English or literature or grammar or… Sneaking in my reading time late in the evening after plotting out specific guiding questions for a student struggling with the idea of reading what is in a text rather than what she thinks about the text’s subject or early in the morning on the overcrowded Q88 bus on which I repeatedly have to instruct the wee student-aged bodies to move to the back, I couldn’t help but realize that a lot of what I was encountering in the readings had to do with teaching students not just writing but how to be a student in college. And, if I may, beyond simply how to be in college, all of the skills targeted by the readings’ practical suggestions were transferable and important life or “how to be in the world” skills. I found all of these readings incredibly helpful (and permissive of my verbosity and precision in assessment) in a practical sense. However, it’s these reflective observations that I want to expound here.
Each of the readings’ suggestions targets the skill of learning how to read and infer from directions and in so doing how to build your own ideas and critical thinking in response to said directions. Bean’s article focuses on the importance of asking the right questions and making your evaluative tools explicit; Walk’s “Crafting Assignments” provides clear direction in giving clear, “sharp-edged direction;” and Lessner and Craig’s chapter offers ample options for helping students find their own thoughts regarding the (very clearly articulated) assignment. Following direction and thinking for yourself within a framework are key to the students’ lives after university. As I read, I felt myself split between a list-making, hallelujah-singing response (maybe critical thinking on the next essay won’t be like pulling teeth!) and a very serious sense that these inventive techniques and the crafting of an assessment to the understanding of a student with 13 fewer years’ experience than myself was essential to these tiny humans’ growth into responsible citizens.
Before anyone jumps down my throat for my grandiose tone, please note, every structural element of this post is on purpose! Indeed, part of what came to light for me was the deluded sense that I had that I knew about what these students’ level was. Moreover, the idea that carried around that these young folks would be able to automatically link the work in the classroom to their futures and to the crazy political society which we inhabit. These reflections returned me to our class’s questions about explicitness and transparency. What is the best strategy here for motivation? Is it best to explain how these writing skills translate to their other courses and any job they will pursue? Is there a way to more clearly build this into the syllabus and assignments? (The Bean article does talk about this, but, given that these are not specialized writing classes for all nursing majors or all arts majors, it seems unhelpful to give say a memo or a critical review as a genre-based assignment.)
Perhaps you all can pick up these questions and threads in your responses or we can pursue these lines of thought in class. Perhaps if we can answer these questions, we can hope to save the youth of our nation from their digitally-induced illiteracy, and I can continue to hope that if I do all of the teaching “right” (e.g. as the readings instruct) my students might actually be those kids who move all the way to the back of the bus both because they’re instructed to and because it is the considered, egalitarian, and respectful thing to do.