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The Time Squeeze in the Teaching of Writing

posted: 4.16.14 by Nedra Reynolds

I find myself to be increasingly frustrated with how short semesters have become.  Where does the time go?  If writers need time, ownership, and response (Atwell), I can provide ownership and response, but I can’t give them much by way of time when so many cultural forces are conspiring to eat away at it. 

For whatever set of reasons, a single semester feels like less time than it used to. As time appears to speed up, our field has also expanded with new sub-specialties or areas of interest as our institutions have also layered on the expectations. Genre studies requires more time for learners than “the modes” did (am I right?); multimodal composing requires more time than using a pen and paper (at least it does for me!); and assessment mandates require more time than simply submitting grade sheets. Writing classes are teaching information literacy as well as civic engagement, document design as well as visual rhetoric, rhetorical appeals as well as transferable skills.

Somewhere within this crowded list, we need to find time to coach students on how to give constructive reviews to other writers, how to follow the documentation style of one or more fields, how to use effectively a number of tools or to navigate different online environments that support the work of writing.

Realistically, is there time for all that we are expecting from one writing class?  And despite a few exceptions, most colleges and universities are still expecting a single (usually required) course to prepare writers for a range of academic and public writing situations.  It. Can’t. Be. All. That.

All we can give student writers is practice. Practice might lead to a finished product, and it might not. I’d like for my students to be able to recognize the difference between something they have to finish (for a grade) and something they can choose to finish (for their growth as a writer).

I hope Bits readers will weigh in with suggestions (or objections), but I’m wondering if I could try a writing course that does NOT culminate in “finished” or final products. I’m wondering if we should return to the daily theme, for cryin’ out loud!

If I gave students prompts for each and every class meeting and gave them, say, 30 minutes out of 75 to write responses, that would provide them with about 15 hours of practice. From the writing I’m seeing this semester, and the poor attendance and the exhausted bodies in my classroom, those 15 hours of writing workouts–time that I know they are giving to their own writing–might be twice as much as they are able to carve out on their own.  Fifteen dedicated hours of time in the mental gym might be far more valuable to these time-stressed learners than the so-called freedom to “choose your own topic.” (The ancients aren’t a bad model, after all, and my more advanced rhetoric students love the progymnasmata.)

Years ago, the current-traditional emphasis on weekly themes–characterized mostly by correctness–became demonized because studies of professional writers illustrated that “real” writers just didn’t work that way. (I suspect, however, that a study of bloggers might suggest that model has changed.)  Professional writers depended upon revision and didn’t confuse revision with editing or edit prematurely; through time and process, they came to own their topics–and along the way, discover the genre appropriate for the topic. But what if that discovery process takes weeks and weeks?  That’s the crucial difference between professional writers and student writers:  the commodity of time.

In any case, my students are having trouble with writing academic arguments this semester—more than in semesters past, I think.  I suspect that the causes are multiple and complex, so in next month’s post, I will try to connect what new research is saying about our brains to implications for the teaching writing.

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One Response to “The Time Squeeze in the Teaching of Writing”

  1. Akilah Says:

    My lit students do a lot of writing. A LOT. I should really require more daily writing of my comp students. I have tried, though, by requiring blogs from them.