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  • Writer's picturewriteminded

Not what I do as a writing teacher

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

My work is teaching first year college writing. I like it. Rather than teaching a subject, it's skills and general awareness we work on. I'm just trying to foster a situation where folks find their own voices and act in the world with creativity and somewhat clearer, firmer intentions. I also hope they gain a critical eye on media. Things like that, so they're able to advocate for themselves and their ideas in all walks of life. Most immediately, that’s future classes and graduation—yet, as they say, “That’s when the fun starts.”

L. Lennie Irvin, Writing Spaces

Naturally, there’s more to my job that’s not in that description. But if that core were removed, then all the rest would devalue tremendously, imho. Yeah, that's my individual view, in those words, but the focus of a first year writing course is, by the book: rhetoric. Rhetoric is understood in various ways. The way I mean, primarily, is the control of language, image, self, and everything within reach, all to assess a situation and speak to it in a way that gets the result(s) looked for. The practitioner can employ these skills and awareness ethically to inspire and to protect good. Other times we humans use rhetoric in open abuse, as with fiery speech, or subversively, as with artifice.

I'll have just a bit of hopefully harmless fun with the misapprehension that I teach people how to hate themselves for not knowing how to use semicolons according to arbitrary standards set by the misnomer of prescriptive grammar.

"How are you?"

"I'm good," I say. "And you?"

"What do you do for work?"

"I teach writing."

"Oh, you're an English teacher? Okay."

Little laugh. I took many classes that employed literary analysis and I did teach adult ESL. I have great respect for those fields, and linguistics, too. They’re not lost from me. But none of them are the equivalent goal as teaching writing.

I say, "Well, the LOI is English, but I teach rhetoric . . ..”

"I'm bad at writing," he claims. "I get so confused about commas!"

"Really . . .?"

I’m sure he’s not a bad writer. But as a writing teacher, or just as a teacher of any sort, probably including most English teachers, too . . . I'm more interested in what people have to punctuate and the processes they're willing to engage in to develop themselves and their abilities to express.

I didn’t entirely choose my life path. It kept insisting on me, until I accepted what I am. If it’s not grammar or literature I teach, but rhetoric, a lot remains to the imagination. It's not necessarily a clear matter even to someone who does know the definition of rhetoric that applies here. I don’t know, but I’m willing to pretend, and that’s what makes me an instructor of it.

I like working with people on their thinking–on how they process what they see, watch, and read. I enjoy guiding people to shape ideas and texts in ways that help them collaborate, gain support, and live life. Or to offer something in their future workplaces, etc. Civics, too, but I don't tell them what influence they should wield, though I do vote for truth, self-love, and hope on the individual level. I can't feel bad about calling to those things. I just help them sharpen the blade of their tongue and put pressure behind the ink in their pens.

Dialect and Objectivity

Yes, the building blocks of language are part of writing, and I do teach in the US, and in English. So, there are sociolinguistic specifics to the course I teach, and to my very own self as a white male born and raised in the Midwest, in a family born and raised here several generations over.

Fortunately, I've had all sorts of exposure to other dialects, languages, communities, styles, ideologies, accents, feelings, academic disciplines, cultures, religions, and so forth. That helps in teaching diverse students with all sorts of majors. Like anyone, I'm not perfect. No one here is, but being somewhat eclectic doesn't hurt in my profession.

I never told anyone outright, "No, I’m absolutely not an English teacher." I’m explicit to the contrary: English affects the class and what we do and write. People normally tend to take that for granted when immersed in their own language community. So I mention it in class, though we don't dwell on that. We focus on what we can then do with that language.

But, yes, I'm in favor, for example, of some level of objectivity that the arbitrarily favored dialects aren't the only dialects. Whole other languages and rhetorics exist. It’s a passing moment in a class, if I remember to talk about these things explicitly. But that awareness comes through organically in my teaching in other ways, I hope. Because the LOI–the language of instruction–really is English, in all its glory. . . . nor is any language something anyone masters, not even a grammar book. Especially a grammar book.

It's not like grammar and English-specific, linguistically latent meaning don't matter. Language is culture and subculture. It's integral even to how we think inside our own heads, and so language shapes us as we shape it. Necessarily, it is part of what I teach, and more so because writing emphasizes language. So, I admit that, for objectivity, and then we take that English and work with it to get it to say what we want it to say to who we want to say it to.

Code Switching & Descriptive Grammar

In my case, I generally speak with my own Midwest dialect and in the multi-degree register of a language fanatic. But we all codeswitch because all the language systems and variations are expressive, and various situations call for different language. What I mean to say is that the same core message can be said in English in many ways, and all of them will be expressive. They won't be the same, though.

Recent decades have seen a shift to descriptive grammar, which describes the various dialects, registers. It's like documenting how someone talks, rather then telling them how to they should. That's a real, workable model in other ways, too, because language isn't static. The prevailing English at the time of Shakespeare is drastically different than how we speak now (eg thy v your), and it's in the range of Modern English. Middle English is when the Norman French invasion influenced the Old English, which has origins in Germanic tribes, from what I remember from Brit Lit I & II classes. So, it's not like I'm not an English-type k-n-i-g-h-t. But that's not the part of me that I engage avidly, neither as a career nor personally. My grad work in linguistics, though, while I don’t teach it, is vital to my fairness of view on language and language communities, at all.

What I Do Do

So, in my class, for example, a class member begins by assessing an ongoing topical discussion (pre-research), and then begins creatively working with it and adding ideas from themselves. Only after that’s gotten underway through a curriculum that creates voids, not hands out answers: A middle stage where they start to find a focus within the heap of stuff they collected—to pull something together and getting feedback. As they think about what to include, what shape, what genre, what style, etc., they'll also be thinking about who their target audience is. And, so, they have to consider that audience and how they'll react. And all that can sort of happen in reverse and then back again, like where someone knows basically what they want to say and to who, but they have to go back and process it to elevate it to activate it to empower it. Then, I look at their work and provide feedback, and they do that over again. And then we do that two more times, in an overlapping pattern that results in a three-project portfolio. The main criteria is that it be engaging to a discerning reader/listener/watcher.

That’s a reason we all codeswitch, among other things. It’s an important skill. A person can have a great idea, but not say it either effectively (that's rhetoric), or in a way that's clear, accessible, or without hidden bias.

It's good, I think, to have control of one's mind and language. That's the sort of thing I try to learn and foster . . . "teach"

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