On Teaching Writing

Wolf Man Dream

Image Credit: Freud.org.uk

As a theorist of rhetoric and digital studies, writing instruction resides at the heart of everything I do (and love) as a professional. Yet teaching students to write effectively is not only of practical importance regarding their careers; it is a “liberatory” gesture with no less than transformative potential. When one writes, one frees oneself through critical reflection and catalyzing socio-political transformation, not only via critique, but through illuminating the cultural, historical, and material contexts within which one is situated. When it comes to writing, especially student writing, the future itself is at stake.

Actualizing futures, though, is a ceaseless process, and thus writing to bring about futures is a ceaseless process as well. To this end, my students engage in writing as a “scaffolded” undertaking, one that values not only the products of writing, but evolutionary processes that connect each assignment to others. Such processes are guided by substantive feedback, and I therefore provide students with careful comments, the opportunity for conferences, and in-class field trips to the Writing Center. In accordance with the latest research in composition theory, however, while providing feedback it is crucial not to inundate students, but focus instead on their most significant needs as writers.

For instance, although conventions such as grammar and thesis-development are often the focus of teaching student writing, more significant value resides in attuning students to the nuances of rhetoric. Students can address papers to specific audiences rather than writing into a void, analyze texts for rhetorical strategies and figures that they themselves can employ, develop and experiment with multiple styles or “voices” that dazzle rather than drone, and practice argumentation/arrangement structures with the power to win debates. Moreover, an attunement to rhetoric involves grasping the concept of “invention,” wherein the development of ideas is understood as involving researching, assembling, and tweaking, rather than producing something ex nihilo. And rhetorical innovation encourages students to actually think as opposed to “Current-Traditional” models that depend upon a predictable five-paragraph template.

Finally, returning to the question of the future, it is clear that writing instruction can operate as a springboard for launching students in their careers or toward pursing graduate education. Hence, much of the writing I assign is structured to aid students in becoming more eloquent, persuasive professionals, or to prepare them for the types of analytical writing required in graduate school. (For example, this spring my students will present on activist writing at CNU’s Paideia conference.) And because being a successful writer today means having the capacity to write online, to possess “electronic literacy,” students in my courses engage in multi-modal projects that carry them from the paper page into social media, wikis, blogs, infographics, timelines/maps, and much more. Indeed, the writing teacher of the future is called to respond to media’s electronic whisper not only to prepare students for a digitized workplace, but to usher in the revolutionary futures to which “electrate” writing calls.

Let’s dare have the courage to answer not only this call, but to take up all the challenges that writing instruction in the twenty-first century entails.

*Trevor Hoag PhD was granted the 2014 Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Student Writing at Christopher Newport University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *