Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Reflections on Teaching Writing: Or How to Get Beyond “I’m not into this English Thing”
by Anne Jung
Being an effective Instructor of Composition at the community college level requires a variety of skills and talents, many of which simply can’t be taught in formal classroom settings. Facing constant pressure to make judgments that have weighty consequences is just one of the challenges of teaching writing. A writing teacher who is too strict or inflexible can give students the excuse they may be seeking to withdraw or not perform in class. Some students are only too eager to proclaim that they can’t possibly meet high standards in writing, so there is “no use in even trying.” Putting stringent rules in place for a writing class does not necessarily provide an atmosphere that will foster successful student writing. But being lenient and making exceptions to policies can give a teacher the reputation of being one who can be manipulated or worse yet, “easy.” How do teachers of writing negotiate these obstacles and still manage to convince students to produce quality writing not only in their classes but across the curriculum as well?
How do teachers of writing fulfill an obligation to students, and provide them with a basis of knowledge and the writing experience to prepare them for the next semester of writing instruction while still being understanding and compassionate?
There is a fine line between expecting students to do their best work and knowing when to allow them some room for the extraordinarily difficult situations in which many of them find themselves. This is one aspect of the job that very few veteran teachers speak of to laypersons. And yet this is a very real problem teachers of writing face every day. How do we find a way to be compassionate and fair without compromising the morals and character of the teacher or the student? Which students truly have a legitimate excuse that prohibits them from performing satisfactorily in the classroom? Which students are just trying to take advantage of a sensitive and compassionate teacher? And it is fair to other students to make exceptions for students with seemingly extenuating circumstances?
Teaching writing has a way of forcing me to evaluate my principals and ethics on a daily basis. This is an exhausting task. While it could be argued that teachers of all subjects have to deal with this dilemma, the very nature of writing presents a unique situation. Students cannot seem to resist writing a personal essay whether one is requested or not. A teacher of Math or Chemistry is not likely to receive an essay in which personal information is disclosed. Even with my limited years of experience teaching writing in college and high school, I can confirm that students write mainly about what they know. And what they know best is their own lives. Receiving essays and verbal communications of a personal nature-and in turn responding to such offerings---seems to be part of the job. This observation confirms one of the conclusions drawn by Dan Morgan in an essay entitled “Ethical Issues Raised By Students’ Personal Writing” published in College English in March 1998. Morgan illustrates some of his experiences as a writing teacher and more importantly, shares with his reader insights about the ambiguous complexion of writing instruction today:
The inescapable conclusion is that the very nature of teaching itself has changed, especially in a field such as composition, where “content” is most often the students’ own writing. With all the safeguards possible---legal, ethical, professional---our interaction with students, our responses to their work, have become more personal. (320)
Teaching writing invites unparalleled potential for connections between students and teachers that aren’t accessed as easily by the teaching of other subjects. The very nature of these connections can make for problematic relations between teachers and students, and can create a situation for teachers whereby assessment of student writing becomes completely subjective.
By way of illustration, consider that on any given day, students waiting after class to speak to me about their writing flood around me as I pack up my bag still standing behind the desk or podium. They come with an essay or assignment in hand but then speak to me about something personal in their lives. How does a teacher who has knowledge of their personal situations not let that knowledge interfere with the grading process? Is it possible for a teacher to maintain a sense of fairness for all students in the class and still be considered understanding and responsive?
It takes only a few semesters for even new teachers to have heard all the standard excuses from students for non-performance. One of particular interest that bears repeating was a disclaimer I received from a young man who was taking Introduction to Writing at a rural Upstate New York Community College. Instead of the usual excuse of highway breakdowns, babysitter cancellations, death of a relative, (or in some cases, what I call the “relative death syndrome”-a curious coincidence whereby the same relative of a student dies several times during one semester), or just plain oversleeping, his disclaimer actually grabbed my attention. Packing up my bag, I looked up to see a student I knew only as Michael towering over my 5’5” frame. The top of my head barely met the middle of his chest. Trying not to appear intimidated by his massive size, I watched as he whipped his head around to see if any of this classmates were within earshot.
“Mrs. Jung” came out of his mouth like a whisper. This was not the voice I expected to come from that body. Then came a hesitation and another glance over his shoulder.
“I’m not into this English thing,” he continued as our eyes locked.
At first I felt a smile forming on my lips. Studying his face more closely, I realized he was not joking. He was completely serious. He meant to convey a challenge to me as a teacher. He thought that being an athlete would somehow exempt him from the work of the course and that I would be willing to compromise my standards for evaluation. And so, the challenge began. Here was a basketball star that just stopped short of winking at me in conspiracy. Being a star athlete was not the only card Michael would use to attempt to persuade me to lessen my requirements throughout that semester. He made sure I knew that he’d had a less than perfect high school education. He described the conditions in his poor urban high school where he received very little attention. I learned of the difficult job his Mother had raising him as a single parent of four other children while his father was in prison. He even attempted to suggest that I couldn’t understand his situation because of the differences in our race and what he assumed was a difference in class status. We were different races, genders, and separated by more than two decades of age. Our experiences living in the United States could not have been any more dissimilar. And yet I didn’t let any of this compromise my teaching. Or at least I don’t think I did.
Michael proceeded to do everything he could to signal his importance at the college as well as his need to be somehow absolved of the course requirements. His chronic late arrivals to class would have been quite amusing had they been in someone else’s class. All eyes were on Michael as he entered with the aplomb and stature of a Hollywood movie star emerging from a stretch limousine at the Oscar awards. Because of his immense physical presence and his status on campus, every student took notice of his grand entrances. I tolerated his disruptions. As he settled in his seat, he would habitually take a posture of complete boredom and exasperation-both of which were directed at me. With his large head cocked to one side, the entire weight of which was supported by the palm of his hand, it appeared that his head would fall off his shoulders if he moved his hand away. On more than one occasion, it appeared that he dozed off momentarily. The effort of attentiveness was too much for him to bear. As his inordinately long legs stretched out in front of him, he frequently let out leviathan sighs and alternated between yawning and rolling his eyes to the ceiling. The absurdity of his having to sit through an English class was more than his face and body could bear.
But still he came to my class.
And while it wasn’t easy not to let his tactics wear me down, I managed to hold up under his pressure. Even when his attitude completely unnerved me, I managed not to change my expectations for him at any point in the semester. I insisted that he write the required essays and complete the readings on the days they were due. Even when his body language suggested that I should not dare to call on him to read a passage aloud, I did anyway. He dutifully read each and every time he was called on. At one point in the semester, it must have occurred to him that he wasn’t going to get something for nothing in my class. He came to understand that he needed to do what I asked of every other student, namely, to put forth some effort.
By the end of the semester, it was apparent that Michael had learned something in my class. No matter how much pressure he put on me to feel sympathetic for the excess baggage he carried around in his personal life, and to value his athletic abilities higher than that of academic standards, I didn’t yield to that pressure. It would have been a very easy thing to do. But my hand was steady as I entered his grade of “B” on the final grading sheet. Despite his disclaimer, he had even made a believer out of me, and perhaps more surprisingly, of himself. He had made an earnest effort at writing. His writing had improved quite dramatically over the semester; he had earned the grade in spite of himself.
The purpose of this essay is by no means to proclaim my expertise in dealing with students. For every student who responds positively to a teacher’s individual methods, there is a student who bolts from the class to find a more “reasonable” instructor. The illustration of Michael’s situation represents one student in a semester. What about the situations of the other 39 students in that class? And the 40 or so other students in each of the four or five other courses which community college instructors frequently juggle during any one term? Each student has a unique story to tell that could ultimately affect his or her writing for the course. How do teachers deal with the overwhelming sense of the clashing of personal insight of students’ lives against the students’ performance as writers? Perhaps one way of dealing with this dilemma is to evaluating the situation on a case-by-case basis depending on the student. It takes a good deal of time, energy, insight, patience and understanding to be involved with college aged students who are presenting their writing for evaluation. Students are complicated beings. Part of the job of a teacher is to be sensitive to their individual needs regardless of their sometimes absurd or disturbing behavior. Just because the strategy employed with Michael seemed successful for the semester does not mean it would work with any other student.
I couldn’t help but feel a little smug after that semester with Michael. After all, I’d overcome a major teaching hurdle. I’d risen to the challenge of having an all-star athlete in my class and hadn’t caved in to the indirect pressure (and administrative pressure as well-please, Mr. Athletic Director/Recruiter, no more daily e-mails and phone calls) to just give him a good grade. I’d come through the whole experience in one piece; a sense of cockiness almost overcame me. I thought of myself as an effective teacher.
But not for very long. When the new semester began and I looked out at the faces, I spotted Michael. On the first day of class I typically collect writing samples that discuss the students’ expectations and anxieties. While reading through them, I came upon a familiar script.
“Their is nothing I am feeling anxious about. Since I have already taken a class with you and past, I don’t have any anxiety. My writing has gotten a lot better since the last class, thought their are some parts that might need to be improved.” Michael. Not into the English thing, indeed. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
While this snapshot represents only one of several dozen students who presented great challenges to me as a teacher, and albeit mild by comparison, I can relate to the student essay Dan Morgan highlights in “Ethical Issues Raised By Students’ Personal Writing” wherein one of his students confesses to murder. Teachers of writing are in a unique and sensitive position. In a highly insightful closing paragraph of his essay, Morgan summarizes the current teaching paradigm as follows:
We must give much more attention to the increasingly complexities of our roles as teachers---living and working in a broken society---to the complicated and thoroughly nontraditional lives being led by most of our students, regardless of age or background, to the unavoidably and increasingly personal interaction that takes place with our students, to issues of trust and ethical responsibilities. (325)
It is as if Dan Morgan has been observing my classroom and reading my mind. Students are depending on writing teachers to be fair and ethical no matter how much the students attempt to bulge or dilate the traditional boundaries of a student/teacher dichotomy. The ability of our students to develop as writers could very well depend on our willingness to rise to the challenge of meeting the complex demands that are being made on teachers of writing.
Morgan, Dan. “Ethical Issues Raised By Students’ Personal Writing.” College English 60 (1998): 318-325.
Return to Student Writings.