• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

Against Shortcuts and in Favor of Potholes

I used to think my job was to shorten the learning curve. I think differently now.

October 31, 2017
 
 

 

 

 

As a teacher of writing, for a long time I viewed my role as helping students shorten the learning curve.

Having made many mistakes during my own period of development, I believed I could aid students in avoiding potholes into which I’d once fallen and speed them along to proficiency. This involved lots of prescriptive teaching - do this, don’t do that, watch out for these other things.

In a first-year writing course, this meant highly structured assignments where students were essentially asked to work inside a template or rubric. The content and arguments would be theirs – a plenty difficult task – but I would give them significant guidance on the shape and dimensions of the container in which to place their ideas.

In fiction writing courses, this primarily meant prohibiting certain subject matter or warning against clichéd moves. No spring break adventure stories. No dead grandmother stories. Don’t start your story with an alarm clock going off and the protagonist waking up. Don’t kill off your protagonist with a sudden death in the last line, particularly if the entire story is written in first person past tense, meaning the character has been dead the entire time.

I believe this approach likely helped produce “better” writing in the context of the courses, at least as judged by a discrete grade on the assignments themselves. How could it be otherwise? Having been warned off so many problematic approaches, the chances for a total whiff were decreased.

Now, however, I think I was doing my students a disservice. The assignments may have been better, but this did not necessarily reflect their overall growth as writers. My prescriptions had short-circuited some aspects of their development. What was going to happen when the man with the prescriptions wasn't available? I no longer believe it’s my job to shorten their learning curve because a shortened curve – at least when it comes to writing – means learning less. My role isn’t necessarily to help students avoid potholes, but to help them figure out what happened to put them into a pothole so they can avoid doing it again in the future.

In a lot of ways, I think my goals for students were too low, settling for proficiency, rather than insisting on a process that allows them to consistently and continually build expertise, not only in the class, but beyond. I now recognize that deep learning, lasting knowledge requires each individual to reinvent the wheel for themselves, rather than allowing an instructor to set them up with car.

I believe this because as I work on two manuscripts concerning the teaching of writing, I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on my own learning process. I wrote recently about the nature of expertise and realized the vast majority of what I “know” about teaching writing has come about through my own experimentation and exploration. Essentially, I examine what’s happening in the class, identify a particular problem or shortcoming, consider the evidence, and formulate a response. Once I’ve developed that response, I go looking at the scholarship of others and find out that 95% of the time, someone else has already articulated something similar.

An example. For years, I chafed at what I saw as the counterproductive nature of letter grades on writing artifacts in class, believing they emphasized product over process, which for me, was ass-backwards to how the work is best done. Having achieved my personal epiphany, I went looking for scholarship to back me up and lo and behold, there it was, everywhere.

The same pattern has repeated over and over, both in my teaching and my writing, where for the learning to be meaningful I must “discover” something for myself that many other people already know. This happened to me just the other day as I was revising a chapter in which I discuss a writer’s “practice.” In the chapter I describe and explicate the dimensions of a professional practice - skills, attitudes, knowledge and habits of mind – first by discussing how these things work for more traditional professions such as doctor, or chef, and then extending the framework to writing and writers.[1]

I was very proud of this framework. I knew it wasn’t 100% unique, but I also believed it was perhaps a different way of conceiving of the work of writing. In the initial draft, I compiled the skills, attitudes, knowledge, and habits of mind based on a consideration of my work and what I’ve witnessed in others. The ideas were, in that sense, original. I made them.

Turns out though, that the National Writing Project, along with other writing groups banding together into a kind of Justice League of writing instruction, had already developed a comprehensive list of the habits of mind of writers. 

I was simultaneously excited and disappointed. Excited that I had an authority to cite that agreed so thoroughly with what I’d come up with myself,[2] but also a little disappointed that my insight wasn’t as original as I’d first figured.

But I also recognized that going through the difficulty of formulating my own list of the habits of mind of writers meant the learning was far deeper and more meaningful than if I’d merely grabbed the NWP source and folded it into the text from the get go. I owned this knowledge in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I can declare some general truism about what makes a good piece of writing, but until students discover this truism on their own, often by doing the opposite and seeing the negative result, it tends to have little currency or impact. Over time, this has evolved into a pedagogy involving much less direct instruction and much more (sometimes loosely) structured situations tot help students “experience” writing, reflect on what’s happened, and use what’s been learned from that reflection next time around.

This has the benefit of being true to how writing works in the world beyond school, but the structure and demands of school often makes it hard to resist the lure of aiming for proficiency and smoothing the path towards that goal. Students seem to respond to my approach, but they retain some well-ingrained skepticism over a gestalt that seems so foreign.

Prohibitions may prevent disaster, but they also may close off the possibility of great discovery. A student determined to write a dead grandmother story without falling into sentimentality and cliché may produce something truly special. And if Franz Kafka’s teacher prohibited stories that start with the protagonist waking up in their room, we would’ve been denied one of the most enduring short stories of all time.

Proficiency is too low a bar. I want to figure out how to get students on the road to expertise, to a place where they own their knowledge.

This means letting them make many of the same mistakes I’ve already experienced. I can’t see any lasting benefit in shortcuts.

 

 

 

 

[1] One of the big picture arguments of the book is if we want students to write more effectively we have to spend more time thinking about them as writers, rather than merely examining their writing.

[2] I’d come up with seven of the eight habits of mind the NWP lists, with some slight variations in terms. They say “persistence” is a writing habit of mind. I called it “obsession.” I also included other traits they don’t list, like “empathy” and “comfort with ambiguity.” All in all, though, significant agreement.

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