Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Against Jumbled Instruction

Experts in composition know a lot. Their hearts are warm, they love students–and they all misunderstand something crucial.

I’ve been reading Professor Gary Hafer’s interesting and motivating Embracing Writing, and I recommend it. It’s aimed at other instructors and explains how he gets reluctant writers excited about writing. He relies a lot on Peter Elbow and he mentions the late Don Murray of UNH. Both these guys paid a lot of attention to college writing and how to do it. Don Murray was considered the old master of writing instruction. (He was a great writer himself, terse and energetic.) These skilled experts say writing instruction is hard—and it is—but they misunderstand why it’s hard.

It’s hard because they are doing it wrong. I hate saying this about three well-known guys I respect.

Harvard’s Stephen Pinker talks about the curse of knowledge, which applies here.  Pinker uses the curse of knowledge to signify this fact: once you know something, you can’t remember what it was like not knowing it. Hafer, Elbow and Murray have that problem. They know how to write, they think of “writing” as one skill, and naturally they teach it as they perceive it. It’s a mistake, though, and I will explain.

When you analyze it closely, “writing” requires two different behaviors.

The first is handling sentences—that means writing good sentences, at will, all the time. The second is arranging those good sentences into a pattern we usually call an essay.  (Note that you can’t have a good essay made from bad sentences.)

Again. Generating good sentences is one skill. Very important. Arranging good sentences into essays is another. Also very important. They are related, but they are not the same thing.

The mistake I used to make in the old days—and I think Hafer, Murray and Elbow make it, too—was teaching the essay and the sentence  indiscriminately.

Back in those bad old days, I might begin with essay form, then jump into sentence structure, then go back to talking about argument, and then hit punctuation. How jumbled was my instruction? When I read papers, I corrected both sentence problems and essay problems with the same red ink.

If sentences were topic A and the essay form topic B, my course over a semester read like: B A B B A A B A B A A B A.

When you jumble instruction like this, you place great burdens on the student. The student, who is trying to learn these skills, has to keep changing gears haphazardly, with no rhythm. He has to shift from sentence focus to essay focus and back, again and again. The fancy term for this is undue cognitive load.

How much better to organize a course so the two skills are taught separately, in order. I did that. My course
now reads:
A A A A A A A A B B B B B.

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John G. Maguire
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Lowell MA 01852
maguirejohn@comcast.net
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