What is Your Endgame? Passion or Commitment

All, Teaching Tips

The triangular theory of love holds that love can be understood in terms of three components: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Each component manifests a different aspect of love. Consummate, or complete love, results from the full combination of all three components.

~ Dr. Robert J. Sternberg

I’ve written before but it is worth repeating: Every teacher needs to know their endgame. What is the ultimate outcome you want for your students? Forget all the standards or learner outcomes and definitely forget about your institution’s mission statement. This is not about those things. It is about your bottom line as a teacher. How do you want your students to grow by the end of your class? What transformation do you want to see take place?

On my syllabus I describe my endgame as “a reflective and self-regulating writer” but I am thinking about changing my stated instructor outcomes. It is not that I’ve abandoned that goal. Reflection and agency will continue to be important to me, but I’m thinking my endgame, my bottom line, needs to be something simpler and purer. I want my students to fall in love with writing.

This is something I have always wanted, but as a large part of my teaching load is always required writing classes focused on things like argumentation and professional writing I was always afraid to admit to that goal – even in my own heart. Then this week I had an epiphany as I watched my students workshop in class.

In recent weeks, my Writing II class has been collaborating on a project that is the culmination of the work of our semester. We have taken deep dives into our class textbook and the more modern day philosophers found in popular culture from Shrek to Daredevil. We have discussed our reading and exploration of a variety of texts and written about topics ranging from redemption to authority. And all of this came AFTER they turned in their argument papers. If that isn’t love then I don’t know what is. My students don’t see it that way, I’m sure. They think they are having fun and creating something interesting, but every time I hear students debate the layers of meaning in a text or argue about word choice I smile. I made my students love writing and I did it in a required class.

Dr. Robert J. Sternberg’s triangular theory of love describes love in terms of three components: intimacy, passion, and decision/commitment. Considering that idea made me think about my love of writing and the ways our education system works against itself by forcing students into arranged marriages. If we truly want to make writers then we need a balanced relationship between passion, intimacy, and commitment, but too often our writing classes and programs eschew passion and give only a passing nod to intimacy while going directly to commitment. Far too many writing programs force teachers to sneak in passion and reduce intimacy to rote exercise. Is it any wonder that these arranged marriages end in failure so much of the time?

If we really want to make our students writers then we need to begin with passion and we need to work to keep those fires burning throughout the semester or year. There are many wonderful ways to fire that passion (clearly a blog post for the future) but simply giving students some choice and agency to explore topics and/or products that interest and inspire them is a great way to start. Building and sustaining that passion for writing in our students is important to sustain them through the hard work ahead.

Passion is essential to creating writers because it is the engine that drives the relationship, but developing intimacy is necessary to writers’ development because it is the fuel that sustains the engine. Too often the teaching of writing attends to surface level issues teaching the form of sentences and genres, but there is rarely a focused dip beneath the surface to gain the real knowledge of language and writing that will help a writer develop and grow. We need to help our students develop an intimacy with language and writing that transcends a specific classroom or genre. This intimacy can only be developed through a deep interaction over time that involves reading, talk, and writing in a variety of combinations.

It is only after we have helped our students develop a passion and intimacy with writing that we should encourage them to make a commitment to writing and that commitment should never be forced. I believe in my core as a writer and a teacher that if we help our students develop passion and intimacy with writing then they will become writers – they will possess a consummate love for writing. However, by forcing that commitment too quickly without a foundation of passion and intimacy instead we end up with empty love – meaningless love. This love is easily recognized by the student who succeeds in a writing class and even declares they enjoyed the writing class yet cannot transfer that success and enjoyment to new writing contexts. Forcing commitment too soon and supporting empty love of writing is the primary cause for failure to transfer writing skills to new writing situations.

As writing teachers, we need to do more to help our students develop passionate and intimate relationships with writing. If we want our students to become writers we need to create a classroom context that helps them fall in love with writing. What do you think? Do you think the Triangular Theory of Love is an useful metaphor for thinking about the teaching of writing? I can’t help but see this theory reflected in what my National Writing Project experience has taught me. It was the recognition that true love requires a balanced relationship between passion, intimacy, and commitment that first drew me to the teaching practices of the National Writing Project and it is that balanced relationship that continues to drive my own teaching of writing.

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