Rethinking College Writing Instruction

Monthly archive for June 2016

A Conscious Decision Not to Teach Style

[Here’s a note from an anonymous liberal arts professor. Does it strike you as true that the “composition profession” has decided to be uninterested in the quality of student prose? Be the first to comment!]

Actually, I’m involved in a research project on the way we teach college writing. In particular, I’m examining the scholarship that has led the profession to the strange conclusion that the quality of student prose is nothing more than an afterthought. The college writing profession has made a conscious decision not to teach style, and if you review the scholarly literature, which I have done, you will find virtually nothing about student prose at all. So even though the profession claims to teach student writing, student writing is irrelevant.

But I do prattle on. I look forward to reading your book!

Michael Laser: ignoring awkward writing is a great mistake

Novelist teaches freshman writing, is shocked by students’ inability to construct basic sentences

Gradual shifts in a teacher’s point of view

I don’t remember just how these shifts in my beliefs happened, but they arrived at different points in the first few years of testing this method. I came to believe certain ideas because I saw them validated in the work of students in the course.

o All students have something to say and the poor writers are embarrassed by their lack of eloquence. All want to be eloquent.
o Students must be given things to do they can succeed at, such as reading a passage and circling the concrete nouns. Throwing students into writing complex assignments early amounts to throwing non-swimmers into the deep end of the pool. All you get is panicked flailing and distress.
o The five variables taught in Course 1 do actually and fully determine the readability of a piece of writing. There are no other variables.
o Students improve rapidly if you arrange skills in steps, give them the ability to judge their own performance, arrange for their best writing to be read by the class, have them write a lot, and keep up a rapid pace of improvement. Each week should announce and require a higher level of performance than the week before.
o The only grammar one needs to insist on is the writing of complete sentences at all times.
o You draw good ideas from students simply by insisting that they write in the plain and vivid style you have taught them.
o There’s no such thing as a boring subject. There are only boring styles. Any subject will be interesting if you write about it in an interesting style.

John G. Maguire
307 Market Street, #306
Lowell MA 01852