Radical Idea: What if we stopped teaching writing?

All, Pillar, Teaching Tips

I have a radical idea. What if we stopped teaching writing and instead focused on the writer? What if we gave our writers the support and guidance they need, but stopped assigning inauthentic writing, working on skills out of context, and focusing on product rather than process?

I know some great writing instructors teach their writing classes in this fashion (I am looking at you NWP teachers) but a number of recent conversations have led me to ask if a “writing class” is the best place to teach writing — especially at the college level.

We tend to segregate our writers at Morehead State. We have special sections for honors students and for underprepared students, but why? Isn’t the process the same for every writer – or as much the same as individuality allows. Isn’t the writing task essentially the same — and if not then why? The reason we treat these two groups of students differently is because we focus too much on the product and tend to ignore the writer. The two groups produce different work so they must be different — but are they?

One of my colleagues has often posited that the changes we see in our student writers may have taken place without being in our classrooms. How do we know that the maturing in their thoughts and practices — the improvements in their writing — are not a result of simply being in college and reading and writing in a variety of contexts? We don’t.

Which brings us back to that interesting question – is a “writing class” the best place to teach writing? I have spent the last year or so working with writing studio, a writing workshop with support built in, and more recently been working to reinvent a writing center on our campus. The mantra of the successful writing tutor is to meet the writer where they are and to provide the support they need at that moment. The simple truth is that no writing teacher can do that with talk-and-chalk pedagogy. Teachers can create a writing workshop in their classroom but even the most supportive and empathetic teacher there is still a power dynamic that is different than the tutor-writer relationship because the writer knows that eventually that teacher will grade their work — because in the writing class it always come down to the product.

teaching-writingWhy do we believe that another writing class will transform students into writers when years of English classes have failed to do so? As Albert Einstein says, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Why do we believe that tasks that in no way can be considered authentic writing, writing for a real purpose with a real audience, are good preparation for it?

At Morehead State, and all other colleges I believe, most students arrive on campus believing they are not successful writers because they have not been successful with academic writing and its “mutt genres” but they may still be ahead of those students who believe they are good writers because they have mastered the art of Engfish. Few students arrive on campus as accomplished writers and we do little to help them achieve this mastery by perpetuating the same types of lessons and assignments. They take a few more writing classes in college but they do not become writers. This is our failure and our shame.

teach-writersWe need to break this shameful cycle by giving students real writing practice that engages them in writing with real purpose for a real audience, the writing they will be doing in their other classes and the writing they will be doing in the profession. If we want to break this cycle of failure we need to give them the support, feedback, and guidance they need as they need it – as decades of writing research have told us – as well as opportunity to practice and succeed at the kinds of writing they will need to learn and to demonstrate what they have learned. We will not get writers until we begin treating them as writers and allow them the room to explore and grow outside of the writing classroom.

Our current writing classes are not creating writers so isn’t it time to ask the question: “What if we stopped teaching writing?”