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In Praise of Writing Teachers

posted: 3.7.13 by Andrea Lunsford

This winter I have been traveling more than usual:  I’ve been in North Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and Texas – and that was just in February.  While I’m not a fan of airline travel (whatever happened to those “friendly skies”?), I always like making these trips because I get to meet teachers and students, invariably wonderful teachers and students.  I find that no matter how down in the dumps I may be about something in my own writing program, I always get a tremendous lift from meeting with others and especially from learning about what they are doing.  I find teachers and WPAs everywhere doing amazing things and almost always on a shoestring budget.

During a recent trip to Middle Tennessee State University, I learned of the very exciting curricular revision they have been working on for a year or so.  Their first and second writing courses are now grounded thoroughly in rhetorical principles that are clearly and cogently outlined for students in the course descriptions.  They are also asking students to engage and compose digital texts as well as print ones, and the examples of student work I saw were truly impressive.  We talked for quite a while about how important it is to do ongoing work on curricular and programmatic revision, and I am convinced that the best writing programs in the country are those that see such revision as integral to the effectiveness of their programs.  If we always need to revise what we write (and that’s certainly the message I give my students), then it’s also true that we need to revise what we teach and how we teach, on an ongoing basis.

We also talked about the special challenges that such revision entails.  It seems to me that composition and rhetoric teachers, much more than teachers in other disciplines, have to keep reinventing ourselves, especially in terms of technology.  That is to say, with every technological advancement, we have a whole new set of information and skills to learn.  And our learning curve has never been higher than at the present.  The teachers at MTSU spoke of how difficult it is to teach a heavy course load while also trying to find time to take workshops and seminars on digital media and all kinds of software.  And yet we are making time, as writing teachers always do, because we believe that staying abreast of developments will help us be more effective teachers.

One colleague at MTSU shared with us a study he had recently completed:  he asked two groups of students to write for forty-five minutes, one group with pen (or pencil) and paper, the other with computers.  The first thing he noticed was that the group writing by hand never stopped writing—their pens kept moving for the full forty-five minutes while the group writing on computers paused often and sometimes for quite a while.  When he looked closely at the changes the student writers had made, he understood more about these pauses.  The group writing by hand made relatively few changes or revisions and they were all lexical or semantic.  The group writing on computers, however, made three times as many changes and they were all across the board—these students moved whole paragraphs around and wrote in new material in addition to making lexical and syntactic changes.  These findings suggest that students who are writing by hand in all those blue books may be at a disadvantage of some kind when it comes to substance.

Teachers all over the country are doing such research, looking for information that will help improve writing and writing instruction, and they are almost always doing so on top of huge teaching loads as well as the challenge of learning new media and new technology AND while providing plenty of other service to their schools.  BRAVO, BRAVA!


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