Rethinking College Writing Instruction

How writing is taught at one community college–comment on Tinberg and Nadeau


I’ve been reading Howard Tinberg’s monograph on the teaching of first semester writing at Bristol Community College, which came out a few years ago.

Tinberg and his co-author Jean-Paul Nadeau studied both faculty and students for a semester; they did surveys and personal interviews. Sixteen students took part. The style is somewhat weighty, but you can find interesting material in there, if you look for it.

The study is heartfelt—it certainly expresses concern for and interest in the student who has entered college and doesn’t know how to handle college writing assignments. There is no doubt that Tinberg and Nadeau are committed and concerned instructors with great feeling for the dilemmas of their over-stressed community college freshmen.

The book describes the way writing is currently taught at Bristol, which I would call either (a) unfocused or (b) with shifting focuses. The teachers are not sure what their goals are, though Tinberg doesn’t say that in so many words. Sometimes they are teaching “academic writing” (not clearly defined) and sometimes they teach or wish they could teach “writing in the disciplines” (also not clearly defined). The students express wishes that the writing would be useful in the real world, but the teachers, not so much.

Sometimes the instructors want the student writers to be more aware of the reader, but the only reader on the scene is the instructor, so in effect Tinberg wants the students to be more aware of the instructor.

In this study, almost all feedback to student writers takes the form of written notes; some of these are effective, some—like non-specific checkmarks—much less so. Feedback via in-person conference is mentioned, but it seems secondary. Overall, the assumption that teachers should provide written feedback is unquestioned. Tinberg himself comments that he does most of his teaching through written remarks on paper.

In a famous Sherlock Holmes story, the dog does not bark in the night when it should have—and the detective notes this absence and solves the crime thereby. In this monograph, something does not show up that should be there: the reader. The authors do mention the desire to make students more aware of the reader, but it’s just a few sentences in a 135-page book. This is reality in today’s classroom—the standard freshman comp courses have no systematic way of focusing on the reader experience.












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John G. Maguire
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