I’ve been teaching writing for almost 35 years now. They say the teacher sometimes learns more than her students.
So what are some of the things have I learned over the past three plus decades about writing, college kids and life, in general?
Writing can be taught. There is a debate about this, but I can say for a fact that writing can be taught, and I’ve done it many times. Give the students the necessary tools, and they will write fabulous essays. What are the tools? Good, thorough discussions about thesis statements, paragraph development, specific details, transitions, grammar, organization, expression. Give them time to rewrite, to peer edit. Give them encouragement, and they will write. They will find their own way, along with your expert guidance.
“Write what you know” is a useful adage. This semester I had a student who was writing at a “C” level. But when the last paper came around, a research paper, he picked a subject that he knew inside and out — one concerning “Should college athletes be paid?” Using this topic, he produced an “A” paper. He told me after the fact that he felt passionate about this subject. He knew the details of his argument so well, that the paper virtually wrote itself.
Writing what we know can produce some of our most successful work. Incidentally, he picked the unpopular “side” of the argument; Will argued that collegiate athletes should not be paid. Wow, what an essay!
Sometimes a writer’s emotional life is too conflicted for her to write. The students in my classes who do well have relatively stable lives outside of the classroom. But sometimes a student’s home life, work life or personal life takes a turn for the worse. Case in point — Mary was doing perfectly fine in my class; she was on her way to getting a “B,” but then, her parents began divorce proceedings, and unfortunately, she couldn’t find it in herself to finish the last half of the course. She ended up dropping out.
Writing demands a clear head and when one’s life is in total turmoil, it’s hard to think clearly and create lucid work. Only the extremely practiced writer can produce fine work through life’s peaks and valleys.
Deadlines help some students. It was down to the wire for one student. He had to write a research paper by midnight. With my help, he produced an outline and then, went home and wrote a very average paper, but one that would allow him to receive a final grade of a “B-.” The lesson here is that some writers won’t write without the blood, sweat and tears that a tight deadline can give them. And college courses are all about deadlines.