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As If We Took Them Seriously

posted: 5.26.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Downs pic for Bits


My “summer break” began and ended last week, with the submission of final grades for the spring semester and the syllabus for my summer session Comp I course, which began three days ago.

The Comp I class has met twice now, and it’s a fantastic group of students. Many of them happen to be nontraditional or returning students; a few are enrolled in their first college course ever; many have years of experience in various fields and industries. They have so much experience as writers, so much to offer and contribute to the course, that I am practically giddy.

Yet even after years of teaching writing about writing, I still feel that little twinge of fear in my gut when a student introduces herself to the class as a post-baccalaureate who’s starting another program or wants a particular certificate; this WRIT 101 course is required, even though she could easily point to her complete college transcript and say, “Really? I need this?” I think, what does my course in college writing have to teach students who already have college degrees? Or what does it have to teach business professionals who have owned their own businesses and are coming back to college to strike out in a new direction?

Then I remember: that fear is the old composition course talking.  I don’t teach “how to write a college essay” anymore.  Here, we study writing. When students are already experienced writers, they can get even more out of the course. And so I can say to these students with confidence (and even a touch of pride), “This course will not. Waste. Your time.” And I know I can make that stick.  It’s a tremendous relief.

Frankly, this approach honors some of the foundations of our field, the assumptions of Murray and Berthoff and Elbow and Macrorie and Shaughnessy: students in writing courses are there to be writers, not merely students; in fact, they already are writers—not just people going to college to learn things to say, but people who already have things to say. Writing about writing honors that tradition of refusing to see from a perspective of student deficit and lack, instead insisting that the students who come here are already literate, already know “how to write,” already have things to say.

This fundamental stance—that composition students are enabled, not disabled, writers—becomes only more sensible in the increasingly typical nontraditional college classroom of today. Instead of saying, “Why don’t you try to challenge out of this class, I’m sure you don’t need it,” a class devoted to the study of writing gets to say, “You—returning, highly experienced student—are a fantastic resource for this class, and this class is a fantastic resource for you. You have seen so much, been so many places as a writer, that this course will be richer for your presence, and it will help you make further sense of your experiences.”

So I’m reminded that writing about writing lets us continue the tradition established by Shaughnessy, Murray, and the rest of that excellent group of compositionists who thought our job was to bring students into the university rather than kick them out, to listen to what they already have to say rather than to silence and shame them. This summer, I get to hear what my students have experienced from writing, and their resulting questions, and we get to explore and tackle those questions and experiences together. I get, in other words, to take my students seriously.  It’s gonna be a party.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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