Teaching Writing Intensively, Self-Consciously

Here is Richard Lanham, writing about teaching writing in his book Style: An Anti-Textbook.

Any writing course in America today should aim at an acute self-consciousness about style. For this purpose, style itself must be the object of contemplation. [21]

By style, Lanham means writing–an older term familiar to him would be “rhetoric.” His point is that “style” is not just about refinement that comes at the end of writing, or a skill that some students have and others lack. Style is the structuring of the reader’s attention (the grammar, logic, and the rhetoric). And that kind of structuring, that style, should be taught, he argues, by having the student look at the writing and not look through it. [For those interested, he expands these arguments in The Electronic Word and in The Economics of Attention.]

I would borrow his idea of self-consciousness to think about writing intensiveness. In a writing intensive course, where the primary or exclusive focus may not be writing, a topic or disciplinary content is likely in the foreground and writing instruction, if not the writing assignments, in the background. However,  at relevant moments, the focus on writing needs to be brought into the foreground–in Lanham’s sense, needs to be looked AT and not lookedTHROUGH (as though it were a clear window). I suggest below some ways to consider doing this intensively by inviting and challenging students to consider the writing in the course more self-consciously (or, perhaps a better term, self-reflexively). These are ways we can consider being intensive in the focus on writing, not necessarily extensive in the amount of time or quantity of writing produced.

  1. Syllabus planning–start with writing. As you give some thought to planning or revising your syllabus/schedule of assignments, focus on the kinds of writing assignments you would like to do rather than the texts/topics you will cover. After identifying some purposes and possibilities for kinds of writing (different purposes, different genres, different skills you could emphasize), then turn to the scheduling of texts, reading, lectures.
  2. Begin autobiographically. Consider beginning the term, at some point in the first few weeks, with some sort of writing assignment that invites/challenges students to become more self-conscious and self-reflective about their history with writing. Assign an autobiographical piece: can be short, informal; can be longer, more critically focused—perhaps even related to a topic in the course. This gets students writing, but also gets them thinking about their writing. It gives you a writing sample as well as insights into their experiences as a writer.
  3. To-Do List. Require your students to maintain and periodically update a writing to-do list: a listing of 5-10 aspects of writing (could extend to reading, research, presentation skills) that they need and want to develop and improve. As a way to generate some ideas for their list, you can share with them at the beginning a listing of the 20 most common errors/problems with student writing. This list is available from the Writing Center and also here on the Writing Pedagogy blog (The Crossing)–see this post on Managing Grammar and Mechanics. You might also consider developing a list tailored to your course and the kinds of errors/sins you frequently encounter and will expect students to be more self-conscious about. There is, or should be, a little Ben Franklin in every good writer.
  4. Revision = Writing. I define revision with my students as essentially a synonym for writing; Lanham, in effect, argues that writing = style = revision. In other words, revision is not just an important component of the writing process; rather, writing is a process of revising: ideas and thinking (brainstorming, researching, outlining); argument and exposition (more commonly thought of as revision of a draft); language and style and presentation (editing). Most of our students have done very little revision; generally, if they have done anything, it amounts to some correction and minor editing. I don’t know that we can make a student a better writer in one semester. If we help a student become better at revising their work, I do think we can help them develop as writers such that they will become better over time through future classes and beyond. We can teach them, as it were, to do some better fishing.
  5. Publication. Inviting and encouraging student writers to consider the publication of their writing challenges them—and you—to consider an audience. The publication venue can be classroom based: the presentation of some or all of the work to class, in either oral or print form. I use blogs to collect work in a classroom magazine. There are also the various campus publications students could consider—perhaps not for every assignment, but for some it can provide a meaningful target for a writing assignment. I have found this particularly effective to respond to the strongest writers in my class, as a way to enhance my response and challenge them to think beyond the assignment.

Students learning to write, as I have suggested, need to be more self-conscious about their writing. Writing for someone beyond the teacher and the classroom, writing always with revision in mind, writing with a list of goals and achievements and problems at hand, writing autobiographically, writing an assignment or syllabus with writing in mind—these are some simple yet essential ways that we can help students become more self-reflective in their approach to writing.

I plan to focus in more detail on  these strategies in upcoming faculty workshops and discussions. Please let me know which of these strategies, as well as other ideas and issues, you want to look AT in future discussions.

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