Teaching Writing

The most gratifying part of being a Teaching Assistant (TA) this semester has been the work I’ve been able to do with students on their writing. I didn’t even realize how important teaching writing was to me until I had to do it. But I love when students email me, knock on my door or catch me after class to ask to work on their papers. I love when I have a question about a sentence or a phrase, then they tell me what they were trying to say, and I’m able to reply, “Yes. You need to write exactly what you just said.” And I love handing back A papers to students who think they’re weak writers because someone told them once upon a time that they weren’t.

I had a chat with my students recently about writing. I encouraged them to shift the way they think about it, with the understanding that in some ways, they can’t. Taking approximately 15-18 credits requires likely dozens of papers a semester and it’s very difficult to give the proper amount of time and attention to each and every paper. You often don’t have the time to write drafts well in advance to get feedback from your professor or TA. You’re simply trying to crank those babies out to make sure you have something to turn in.

When that’s your reality, it’s difficult to think of papers as anything but a means to an end, a hoop you have to jump through. In all honesty, I can count on one hand the number of papers I actually remember writing in undergrad. Remember, as a French and Comparative Literature double major, and an International Relations minor, I probably wrote hundreds of papers. And yet.

Still, with all of that in mind, I still proposed a perspective shift. Instead of thinking of writing as another thing you have to do, think of it as an opportunity to share the thoughts and opinions you have about our films, backed up with evidence and careful analysis.

Yet another problem I’m up against as a TA is the way we present writing as an individualistic enterprise. Because folks have so many papers to write during the semester, it feels like you have to lock yourself up in a study room in the library until you have no more words. I reminded my students that that’s absolutely not how writing works professionally. Every writer that we read in class, every book that you get in the bookstore…all published writers have editors. They have friends and family and mentors that read their words with a red pen of love at the ready. They workshop their words. That’s why the “Acknowledgements” section of books exist. Writing is a communal process, but we present it as something you do alone. So I try to make it as clear as possible that I am willing and able to work with them on their words, because they shouldn’t have to be in this alone.

I try to be as sincere as possible when I tell them I look forward to reading their words. Yes, it is my job to read and comment, but I’m curious as to what they think and how they think, especially if they’re quieter in class and discussion. Papers are a chance for you to flex a little, but it gives you the time and space to think through your response if you’re not as willing to jump in to a conversation with only a half formed thought. I try not to think of their papers as more work for me, but a chance to get to know my students a little better. I think of my comments as engagement with their thoughts.

I perhaps do all of these because I want them to love writing as much as I do. I know my efforts won’t matter to many of them, no perspective shift will occur. And that’s fine. But as long as I’m clear that for at least this semester, they have someone who cares deeply about writing and their words, I will have done my job.

So many articles exist on best writing practices and how the greatest writers write, but so much of that is crap. No, you don’t have to write every day to be an effective writer. You should practice as regularly as you can, but every body is different, every life is different, every circumstance is different. As much as I would love to write fiction all day every day, I mostly write during the summer and winter break when I have extended periods of time to devote to that manuscript. Do I write every day? Mostly every day, yes. But I consider many different things to be a part of the writing process. Tweeting is writing, blogging is writing, journaling is writing, reading is writing, note taking is writing, outlining is writing, drafting is writing, revising and editing is writing. I do at least one or more of those things every single day, but not because I’m practicing every day writing. Writing is part of my self-care, my self-expression, how I feel whole.

What I didn’t know also makes me feel whole is helping someone else craft clear and substantive prose, helping someone find their voice and run with it, and encouraging them at every step of the process. I love being a sounding board, an editor, a cheerleader– all important parts of writing. I love it all. Teaching writing is difficult, as is writing, but I still manage to find joy in it every day.

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