I spent most of the past year in a professional development program sponsored by my university. The Association of College and University Educators (ACUE) course focuses on teaching techniques that encourage student resiliency, curiosity, and experimentation. As a composition instructor, I hoped this course would also give me some new ideas on how to help my students see writing as less of a “drudge” and rather as a way (as Didion reminds us) to see their thinking on the page. Every module focused on some form of transparency with students: everything from deciphering grading rubrics to understanding the applicability of the composition projects to their disciplines. But one outcome continued to evade me—how to encourage my students to fall in love with writing. The ACUE course made me wonder if being more transparent with my own writing process and my life as a writer would help students fall in love with writing instead of seeing it as an odious academic chore.
Composition courses are already at a disadvantage in terms of winning the hearts and minds of our students. At best, they see the course as a mandatory university writing requirement and partial impediment to their major; at worst, a useless and painful (and, in their minds, arbitrary) exercise. The previous writing courses our students attended often sour them on writing, but why? Peter Elbow posits in his essay, “Illiteracy at Oxford and Harvard,” that students feel “most strongly of all the need to comply with the teacher, the assignment, and the authority of the institution” (24). It’s true that there are specific learning outcomes in each writing course and that the project requirements may seem rigid to students because of this.
Our composition curriculum is already structured in a way to help students become confident in their writing skills and in writing for different genres and mediums. Even our text book is called “Everyone’s An Author.” On the first day of class, we talk about the writing we do every day—texts, social media, emails. But students were still not convinced they could call themselves authors. “Authors are people who write beautiful sentences that become books,” one of my students informed me. Students would find it difficult to fall in love with writing if they continued to think of writing as some distant, unobtainable craft that only certain people do (or have access to). What if they knew a living, breathing author, teaching this course, who also struggles with writing daily? Could I, as Elbow suggests, “help students fall in love with their own ideas and writing” (24) just by sharing a little bit more of myself with them?
I have spent the past several years building a teaching persona that is, as Henry Rollins explained in an interview once, at an “intimate distance” from students. My persona is warm and approachable without sharing anything personal about myself with students. How could I maintain this while also sharing my writing life? This personal transparency filled me with apprehension—how would I not come off as narcissistic, or not intimidate students by describing every long and arduous writing and revision process? I then remembered that one of my own writing teachers, Rebecca McClanahan, modeled this in a workshop. She built a classroom esprit de corps, reminding all of us that she, too, went through many drafts and revisions while putting in the work in every day. She broke down the invisible barrier between author/teacher and student as a matter of course: we are all writers, therefore, we do the writing work. This feeling of community is what I wanted to build: a similar kind of esprit de corps where students know they aren’t alone and that I will be there for them as a teacher and also as a fellow writer to share as much as I can with them.
Building community in the classroom takes time and effort. Our composition program utilizes Bill Martin’s Occasional Paper (OP) prompt, which is one of the first projects of the semester. The premise is that students think about something that happened to them very recently, then write and share a brief essay aloud in class. The essay encourages students to be observant and share their thoughts in a public forum—it also helps build a sense of community when we learn a little something more about each other. When the occasion happens is mostly up to them—there is a hard deadline at the end of eight weeks. I find it to be a paralyzing project for some students—write something personal and read it aloud? As composition instructors, most of us write our own occasional papers to encourage our students.
At first, I thought I would write something funny, but if I was asking students to be observant and reflective, I knew I had to reveal a little bit more to model the assignment. I wrote about my own body image and feeling like I’m always wearing the wrong thing while trying to hide behind my clothes—I know image is something many of them struggle with as well, especially in a new environment as first year students. It still feels weird and risky to read this essay to my classes, but I know from exit tickets and evaluations that my students don’t think it’s weird at all. They tell me that it helps them better understand the project and that they feel they can take a risk because I’m creating a space for us to share. After a few days, if no one else has shared an OP, I write a more topical (and humorous) piece about something I observed on the way to class, which helps students understand we don’t have to be serious in order to be observant.
The OP sometimes feels like over-sharing, I’ll admit. It’s not the kind of transparency that my ACUE course was suggesting either. This kind of performance is something most of us worry about and cite as the reason why it’s not always appropriate to share our own work (in addition to the issues of power dynamics in the classroom). It’s a public performance that requires student attention and engagement. My classes are small enough so that we sit in a circle most days. Standing in front of the students reading a personal essay still shakes me to the core every semester. But I’ve started using that, too. Look at how I’m shaking, I’ll ask, and then remind them it’s okay to be nervous and that I still get nervous too. The OP, however, did encourage me to figure out other ways to be transparent about writing and the writing process in a way that is open and honest with students without sharing specific pieces of writing.
One way that I’ve been able to navigate this is talking more about my own process as a writer and sharing photos of work in-progress. For example, many students ask how much editing and revision I’m really expecting. Many want to be told, I think, that I’m just looking for “cosmetic changes.” But what I tell them is that they should keep adding to and subtracting from their essay. Every time they find a new source or read a different opinion about their topic, they can add it in as well as argue with their sources. That they can move paragraphs around to where they might make more sense.
I realized it might be challenging for some of them to envision what this looks like, so I shared photos of my own editing and revision. When we talk about edits, students see the photo below for an essay published here at Assay. It was my first attempt at scholarly work about creative writing, and Karen Babine gave me tips on where to expand and clarify my ideas. I explain to students that this was the final draft before publishing; that Karen had worked with me through three drafts already, and I still had changes to make. I also share that I wondered why Karen was working so hard with me; I was losing confidence in my own ability at this point, but then I realized she wanted what was best for the individual piece. That’s what I want for you, I’ll tell my students. I also tell them that I was well into my 40s and still felt like I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. But that with some guidance from someone with more experience, I was able to be successful and publish the piece. When students see how I benefited from this guidance, they are more comfortable sharing drafts with me.
Telling students that writing takes multiple drafts and time doesn’t always seem to help and can often be discouraging. It can be hard to fathom that a strong essay cannot be written 11 hours before it is due because that is how many of them are used to writing. They are not used to writing multiple drafts for a project or having a teacher and/or peers review multiple drafts. This semester, I also shared with students that I’ve been working on an essay for a little over a year now. I talked about how I sense most of the parts are there, but it is still not working and it keeps getting rejected from journals. So one night, I sat on the floor with the essay, cutting it up into paragraphs and then moved the pieces around to see which ideas might work better together. Revising can be like a puzzle, I used to tell my students, but it seemed like a teacher platitude when I didn’t provide them with the evidence that I’m always asking of them. I took a picture of the disassembled essay and brought it to class.
I’m not sure which was more horrifying to the students—the amount of time I have been working on the essay, or that I cut it to pieces. “You can do that?” they asked me. They were in the middle of writing a collaborative research project—why not try this with their literature reviews, I suggested. There was an appalled silence in the room. But after breaking into our working groups, one student asked if I had a pair of scissors.
Transparency with an eye toward practical application is what works best for me and my teaching persona. I didn’t, for example, tell students the cut-up essay is about a friend I lost or my emotional struggles with that loss. It was enough to share that I was challenged by the structure of the essay, disappointed it hadn’t been published, and determined to continue working on it until it is published. This is my own spin on ACUE’s lessons on resiliency, curiosity, and experimentation; sharing with my students that I know a lot, but not everything, and that I’m still learning as well. I am also realistic enough to know that not all of them will leave my classroom having fallen in love with their own ideas or writing, but I do know that many of them are now more confident in their writing skills.
Elbow, Peter. Everyone Can Write: Essays toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 2000.
Lunsford, Andrea et al. Everyone’s An Author. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY. 2016
Martin, Bill. “A Writing Assignment/A Way of Life.” The English Journal, vol. 92, no. 6, 2003, p. 52.
With special thanks to Charlie Green, Brooke Champagne, Sonja Livingston, and Ned Stuckey-French for our NonfictioNow panel, “Writing as Teaching, Teaching as Writing,” which was the germ for this essay, and to my mentor and supervisor, Kim Hensley Owens, for supporting my teaching and creativity.
Stacy Murison is a Contributing Editor at Assay.