Teaching to the Text Message by Sophie

Teaching to the Text Message (Sophie’s post)

There were two strains of thought in Selsberg’s NYT op-ed that I want to pull out: the impact of concise writing on the student, and its impact on the teacher.

The impact on the teacher is made fairly explicit in the Selsberg. By making assignments shorter, we are teaching them to communicate their thoughts more succinctly, and consequently more effectively. I agree with Selsberg’s assertion that once students have mastered effectiveness of communication, they can move on to the meatier, more conventional assignments like research papers. Clear, frank writing is the bedrock of more complex assignments; I think, based on many of our discussions in this class, that a lot of our frustrations with our students’ writing stems from the fact that this bedrock isn’t yet in place, and yet we’re trying to build turrets and decorative arches in midair.

The impact on the teacher was less explicit in the Selsberg, but I think it still bears commentary. He mentions that when his students’ writing is shorter, he can really focus on each student’s work. This has definitely been a frustration of mine this semester: because of the inherited syllabi, I’m having to read A LOT of students’ writing (four papers and rewrites for each). Assuming that all of my students write all four papers and rewrites for each (which many of them are), that’s 800 pages of writing for me to grade over the course of this semester. Not only is it a lot of labor for me, but I’ve been frustrated by how little real engagement I have with my students’ writing. I feel as though I’m constantly spot-checking, trying to address the problems that recur most often and on the most macro level, instead of working with each student to build on their individual strengths and weaknesses. Not only is this tactic not beneficial to me as the teacher, since it leaves me feeling so ineffectual, but it also squanders the very purpose of first-year writing: to set students up for success in their later classes. Instead of having students leave the classroom with a genuine understanding of their personal strengths and weaknesses in writing, they leave with a general idea of what writing should look like, and perhaps a vague understanding of how their own work fits into that framework.

This leads me to some of my questions. Assuming that shorter writing is the most effective teaching method, what qualifies as “shorter writing”? Selsberg indicates that we should be drawing on students’ lived realities, and the mediums they interact with on an everyday basis: Twitter, Facebook, Youtube… While I certainly don’t disagree with that, I don’t think those should be the only formats for short writings; to limit ourselves to those would be a disservice both to our students’ writing development and to the very purpose of 110, which is to expand our students’ understanding of what writing is and what it can be. Perhaps we should also be considering graphic organizers or similar visual creations as a form of writing; perhaps we could also be teaching poetry and comics. Perhaps, just as we are scaffolding from short writings to longer research projects, we could scaffold the types of short writings that students create and engage with, so that they work their way up from the short writings they already live with and create to new forms that engage and stimulate them.

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