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Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 479-488
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How I Teach Writing:
How to Teach Writing? To Teach Writing?
I had the good fortune to realize my dream of becoming a teacher of writing just when composition studies was emerging from places I came to think of as "basements." In the symbolically and actually feminized sites where I first taught, all instructors were cast as "the women," whatever their sex. We were definitely not the people upstairs, teaching and writing about literature and interpretive theory. But those of us lucky enough to teach where we were provided the time to read and to write--time and other resources that many teachers of composition never have--did have some purchase on moving up. Again, the "up" has been symbolic; actual status, achieved by publishing and compensated for by offices with windows and job security, has been rare. With or without time for reflection and the writing that usually follows from it, people in composition have had to be apprentices. In a field whose earliest arguments were built on a contrast between old and new, bad and good teaching, those who began their careers when I did repeatedly meet themselves in various mirrors. We often see our earlier practices as open to criticism, if not as altogether forgettable.
With even more luck, we may forget in public. When I was invited to join an MLA 2000 panel that the Division on the Teaching of Writing had planned so that composition theorists might address "how I teach writing," I happily saw my chance. I have taught basic writing, first-year, or upper-division writing classes almost continuously since the sixties: as a child graduate student toddling around the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, [End Page 479] as a part-timer at Georgia State, and as an administrator of writing programs at Ohio State, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and the University of Utah. Now I coordinate and teach a University Writing Program course, "Writing in Majors," that is designed to prepare students for writing in the arts and humanities, education, architecture, and the behavioral and social sciences. As the staging of such a panel by the Division on the Teaching of Writing may suggest, composition's successes, in my experience, have generated less and less discussion of teaching writing among those who have gotten "up," if writing is regarded as an action through discourse that is simultaneously situated and tradition-bound. It is the relative silence about writing that motivates the second and third considerations in my title. Both of them express the worry that few discussions of writing pedagogy take it for granted that one of our goals is to teach how to write.
The facts of "how I teach" replay almost the entire history of writing instruction in the twentieth century. With the energy of a true believer, I have moved from workbook-and-whip versions of writing themes about literature; to in-class light shows designed to demonstrate the uniqueness of perception; to sentence combining; to and through cognition, writer-based prose, and revision checklists; to and through imported multiculturalism; to, finally, teaching the genres and processes of academic writers. As this catalog of approaches may imply, I am disenchanted with the "approaches" approach to teaching, precisely because I once had hopes for them and was willing to act on my rather vague wishes without any data about their effects on composing or on texts, on the process of writing or on its products. I do not say the effects of these pedagogies "on students," for that implies yet another approach threaded through the progress I have outlined, another way of imagining "the student" that levels these and other approaches in ways that will become clear. I think that "how I teach" has a great deal to do with reasons for not doing what I do not do now.
I do not, for instance, teach students to think or to have original ideas. I have acknowledged that while they are sometimes clueless, they are rarely thoughtless. They...