6 writing beliefs every post-secondary teacher should consider

I did a presentation this past May, which had attendees from around my college. I talked a little bit about my research on writing and what I’ve been finding but what I really wanted to talk about was how we view writing from a belief standpoint and how that affects how we view student writing.  We all carry with us different beliefs on what makes writing work.  What makes it magical. What processes work best. And like other belief based activities — going to church, political affiliations, marriage, vegetarianism, immunizations (yes that too!) — it is hard to sway someone from their belief once they have made it a part of their inner self.  So I’m going to lay it all out on the table. Here are the beliefs that I know heavily influence the way I teach/grade writing:

  1.  How my teachers treated my writing is the catalyst for how I approach my students’ writing

Every time I sit down to grade a student’s paper, I am carrying with me all the baggage of every grading experience I ever had as a student.  My grading experiences seemed to sway between two extremes:  the papers that came back with no comments until the last page and then a letter grade of A, Excellent Work! scribbled in the teacher’s handwriting (so… why not an A+?). When I was in grad school, I published nearly every paper I wrote for my course work, but yet, I was rarely given an A+.  Or the teachers that would find any excuse to not give you an A.  Very well written but you missed writing one sentence that stated how you personally felt about the issue, B+. (Seriously? One sentence was worth 25% of my grade?). Didn’t my entire essay build an argument which described how I felt about the issue? Why would I have to make some lame point-blank statement about my personal feelings? Doing that would ruin the cohesion of my work!

Over 20 years later, I can still conjure up the same feelings of injustice or pride that I felt reading teacher comments.  I keep this in mind when I am commenting on student papers.  I try to make it valuable. If they miss something, I try and use the language of the rubric to explain what is missing or flawed. If they do something well, I tell them. Better yet, if I can, I try and make comments that are like having a conversation with them about their work and their subject matter.  When I make assignments I don’t ask them to do redundant things like describe their personal feelings on the subject. If they have written their essay well, I will know where they stand.

(P.S. The image in the heading is of a paper I wrote in my first year of University. English Literature! Look at all that red!)

2.  There is no right or wrong way to teach writing

One of the things I’ve often told my students is the magic of writing courses is that you’ll get a different course based on who is standing up in front of the classroom.  Theoretically you could take the same course 10 times from 10 different teachers and get 10 perspectives on writing. And that’s exciting — at least to me — for those who would rather not be there at all it is worthy of a giant eye-roll.

The key is to recognize that every student will take something different away from your course or writing assignment. Every student will also come with with different past writing experiences. In my introductory nursing scholarly writing course that used to range from no experience, to remote experience, to a lot of experience or even previous degrees.

And that variation, along with making teaching the class challenging, means I had to adopt a philosophy of flexibility. You didn’t have to do things my way. If you had your own methods that have been successful for you in the past then you could use them.  For example, students were required to hand in an outline of their paper and they could submit it for feedback by a due date — or not. I refused to enforce a due date on the process because I am not an outline maker.  My papers tend to evolve as I work so any outline I may write before I start is not going to look much like what I hand in.  In fact, if I was given an outline assignment, I would probably write it after I finished my paper.

3.  Every discipline has different writing biases/beliefs

Before I had even heard the term “discipline-specific” writing, there was one recurring trend in my writing course: student’s who had taken some other generic writing course for other university programs always felt they shouldn’t have to take my course too.  I used to be asked to look at course syllabi for these courses to see if it was equivalent enough to grant credit upon admission.  I never felt I could say yes.  The general writing information was OK but then we’d get to the style guide and it would say something like: students can choose from MLA, APA, and Chicago.  So which one did they learn and use?

Sometimes I would get to communicate with the student directly and I would ask for a sample paper that used APA and it was so poorly implemented I had to say no.  But it wasn’t just the poorly implemented APA that made me say no. It was the fact that who ever graded their papers made no effort to correct any of this poorly implemented APA.  So the students were left believing they had correctly used APA but really they had not.  They’d get eaten alive if they did APA like that among our instructors. Me included.

Now as an aside, I have a whole blog about APA I need to write so I’m going to save my rant about APA (and all style guides for that matter) for later.

In addition to poor APA, I also saw coming out of these generic intro courses poor researching of sources (websites only) and poor or absent citation patterns. These intro generic writing courses were simply not rigorous enough. And they weren’t going to push them down the road of tapping into that knowledge that would one day make them talk,  think, and write like nurses.

4. There is no such thing as an original idea

In the realm of fiction writing, in which I have also dabbled, there is the theory of the 7 basic plots of fiction. Ignore the religious connotation to that link. I just like the brief descriptions, the historical look at the seven stories, and that it is not Wikipedia. The idea is that all stories that have ever been created can fall into these 7 categories, ultimately meaning that no story is ever truly original in its origins.

In academic writing we use other’s writing as a crutch and we string together ideas, facts, and data from various sources and create a new whole.  But in addition to that, if there is a tiny nugget of something new it usually is inspired by an existing nugget.  So even within our fresh ideas, we are still building from something said by someone else in some fashion.

Working in a discourse that likes its citations, we as teachers need to think about his when grading student writing. No student can be truly original in what they say, but how they say it, and the words they chose might be everything. And how close is it to the source they cited? And if they didn’t cite it, does it really matter in the scheme of things? Hmm… a plagiarism discussion may be in order too.

5. All writing is creative writing

I can’t remember if it occurred to me while I was writing my novel or while I was contemplating academic writing after I finished it, but there are a lot of similarities between creative writing and academic writing.  Both seek truth. Both require a passion for the subject. Both require total emersion of one’s self into the process. One creates story, and the other a narrative argument. But one could argue that both story and narrative argument are present in both genres in slightly different ways. Both have voice and within that voice is where the creativity lies. This one I’m still trying to get a handle on, but I know in my soul it is true.  So I will direct you to two great sources to get you started on the thought process: here and here.

6. Writing is both cognitive and emotional

We can thank our friend Albert Bandura for this one. The cognitive aspect is obvious. There is thinking galore involved in the writing process. And sometimes that thinking is at 3AM, and sometimes it is standing int he shower washing your hair, and sometimes it is while driving home from work (watch out for those school zones!).  Every single one of those moments of thinking is an act of writing even if you aren’t actively typing words. But the emotions are sneaky.  Frustration, fear, anxiety, pride, excitement, anger are all part of the writing process — not to ignore the emotions elicited by the grading process which I already addressed above. Even procrastination is a form of emotion.  When I procrastinate it is generally a form of dread. And sometimes apathy — which paradoxically is an emotion too.

Then after I went through the six belief slides, I asked the participants to gather into small groups and talk about their own beliefs in their writing and in their discipline.  Can you identify your writing beliefs? How are they similar or different from mine?