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Finally Here

posted: 8.21.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

We don’t usually get terribly personal in our blog posts, but for this one, I’m writing about this very specific moment I’m in: my first opportunity to launch new graduate teaching assistants into a writing-about-writing curriculum. I’ve been waiting for this for almost six years.

It’s true that about three years ago I was interim comp director, and that the GTAs on my watch did wind up teaching writing-about-writing, but that was mostly, not entirely, my fault; I introduced them to a couple central ideas and they told me, “we should just do writing about writing.” They went off and did it, and I just held on for the ride. That was in the days before the textbook, and we just kind of felt our way through everything.

So, this is different, because now it’s happening on purpose. Just like when first-year college students enter a WAW classroom, I find myself thinking of these new GTAs, “This is going to work because they don’t know it’s not supposed to.”  Oh, and because it’s a really good idea—but will they still think so at the end of the school year? Or will I have been the first director of composition in the country to have an entire year’s GTAs hate WAW?

What I’m Worried About

Of course, I should be asking myself: What’s the worst that could really happen?  (Just like I actually ask of these brand new teachers, some of whom were seniors in English three months ago.)  Let’s see: they could hate it, rebel, and leave; they could implement it poorly and create bad experiences for students, or decide that teaching writing isn’t at all for them; they might lack the flexibility, the give and take of expectations, that this kind of teaching requires.

What I’m Excited About

I know, though, both that catastrophe can strike no matter the pedagogy and that catastrophe is actually pretty rare in WAW courses, if reports are to be believed. There’s an essential, intuitive “fit” between writing instruction, WAW, and college students that somehow simply makes the approach work.

More than worried, I’m excited to walk into the orientation, where new GTAs themselves have been writing about writing, and hear the typical “sure, this makes sense, what else would we do?” response from the teachers-to-be.

I’m excited that more students than ever get to spend their semester in their writing class focused closely on writing–not just in analyzing their work in the course, but in doing their work in the course.

I’m excited by the responses from students in my most recent first-year comp course, just ended, who were delighted that the course was something other than the same repetitive worries about grammar and writing of assignments that had little meaning to the writers.

What I’m Expecting

Of course, this stuff doesn’t teach itself, and I’m expecting a mix of worry and anticipation from the new writing instructors.  If their reactions are typical, they will be intrigued by the potentials of this style of writing instruction. They will wish they’d been able to read the entire Writing about Writing book, but most won’t have. They’ll have read enough. They’ll be eager to see, as I am, every single semester, what encounters students will have with these ideas. Mostly, I expect, we’ll have a good time exploring, investigating, and coming to more richly understand writing. Which it seems to me is what it’s all about.


Categories: Douglas Downs
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One Response to “Finally Here”

  1. A.R. Mallory, Iowa State University Says:

    That is super exciting, and I hope to hear more updates as the course goes on.

    I’m teaching first year comp for the first time this semester and I find it intriguing that, since I was “raised” in WAW, it is hard NOT to see WAW, even in places it doesn’t formally exist.

    I know that the way I think to talk about the readings and the curriculum (that all the first-year TA’s here are teaching) is just saturated with WAW ideas that I don’t even recognize as WAW ideas–to me there just isn’t any other way.

    It’s fun to compare notes with instructors from other backgrounds and see how we all translate a curriculum differently. Fun to try and pull the WAW concepts out and peer through a different lens at what I see without them. I’m relatively certain, however, that there is no way to completely remove the concepts of WAW, because they are the very fibers that define writing to me. And I’m not complaining!

    My biggest comfort two classes into teaching freshman composition is that writing is a messy process, and context: my classroom is a constantly-shifting situation. Being comfortable with the idea that writing is situated makes it easier to accept the encounter with teaching that needs to be just as situated. What a wild ride!

    Doug, you said here in your blog, “I’m excited that more students than ever get to spend their semester in their writing class focused closely on writing–not just in analyzing their work in the course, but in doing their work in the course.”

    In general I know what you mean, but could you say more about the difference between analyzing their work in the course and doing their work in the course? Seems important, but I don’t have a visual for that–what does it look like? How do I translate that statement into action in the classroom?

    Thanks, and have fun!