Our Writing as Teaching

In some ways, my R&C this semester is much like the other ones I’ve taught — I’m using the same contract grading system I’ve always used, and I’ve got my paragraphing patter down pat — but I’ve also been trying a lot of new stuff out this semester as result of our seminar over the summer: in-class seminars with student writing, a final project that is relatively untraditional, and the use of a wordpress site.

Some of that’s gone really well (seminar-ing has been fun), and some of that has been rocky but in a predictable and ultimately productive way (they were initially a bit nervous and unsure about the idea of an assignment that wasn’t a traditional “research paper,” but are now working on projects that are personal to them and they are actually excited to write). The website has definitely been a net plus overall, but my midterm evals made me think more about (or start thinking more about) the implications of sharing our writing with our students, and how that’s different (or not) from speaking to them.

I began the semester saying I was just going to use the course website when it was necessary. That quickly became me using it for every single class session for most of the first half of the semester — I love having my lesson plan ready to go, and the way it forces me to take that lesson planning a bit more seriously is salutary. I also love the way it helps organize my thoughts for more presentational classroom moments: it’s not that I just read straight from it, but it does provide a helpful schematic I can glance to while I’m talking, and I never find myself thinking afterwards, “crap, I wish I’d mentioned that one thing about transitions!” But all good things, and the best laid plans: at this point it’s settled down, and I use it mostly when there is a clear set of directions or other kind of textual point I want to be sure to get across.

On my midterm evals I had several students write about me using words that they didn’t know (which has certainly happened before, and doesn’t particularly bother me as a teacher in and of itself), and two write about not feeling comfortable asking me what they meant (which hasn’t, and does). I was really pretty saddened by this — I’ve always tried to have a classroom where we neither shy away from difficult language, nor pretend it’s not actually difficult.

At any rate, I tried my best to turn it into an opportunity: when I reported back the results of the midterm evals as always, I gave them a little pep talk about asking me what a word means if they’re unclear, and I shared with them my own stories (and feelings of fear, timidity, and — well, not shame, but its weaker cousin) from my current semester as a student in a three-person Mandarin reading class, where the two other grad students both have excellent Chinese and where I am very much the person who has to raise his hand and ask the teacher what a word means — precisely the situation they’re in.

Students have been more vocal about clarifications in the second half of the semester, which is great, but I’m left with some — what? Concerns? Questions? Inchoate thoughts? It was clear from their evals that issue largely came up when reading my writing — which must be the writing on the website (especially since it also hasn’t been an issue on evals when I’ve taught other courses where my teaching has not been quite so closely tied to my own prose). And that perhaps makes sense: when we’re reading something aloud in class, I’m always (or try to always be) careful to stop to gloss any words that seem particularly likely to be unknown, and I’ve tried to do the same when I teach off the cuff — but apparently that sort of self-monitoring fell out when I was teaching with my own prose, or when I was thinking about writing my longer, more discursive assignment prompts.

I don’t have any particular direction to go in this post, except to say that I’d love to think through with y’all what the effects are not just of having a written record of our teaching that we use, but of having so much of that —and of our prose — be student-facing.

One thought on “Our Writing as Teaching”

  1. Hi Max,
    Thanks for your post (and I love your “paragraph patter down pat” alliteration)! This makes me think about something that I often reflect on/agonize over (depending on the day), which is the authority built into my role as an instructor and how I can go about undermining it or using it in more productive ways. I think your swift response by doing some meta-commentary and making an example of yourself with the Mandarin class was a great way to start to get at the idea of, hey, I’m a student too (and I’m not sure if you did it at the time, but it could be a great moment to be like, so, GSIs are not professors, I too am a writer, etc.) This also reminds me of something I believe you brought up over the summer: showing students one of your professor’s comments on something you’d written. I think this is an incredibly humble thing to do, and it also introduces students to what I think is an integral aspect of the humanities: writing in response to others’ writing, and having conversations through and about writing that go beyond criticism or mere attainment (e.g. of vocabulary.)
    One way I’ve been able to chip away at my own authority in the classroom is by dwelling on moments in which my students teach me: from making comments like “wow, I’d never thought of that before” during class discussion about a reading to letting them fill me in about how to use my laptop (no exaggeration) and about, oh, I don’t know, California phrases or millennial slang or TikTok. This often results in me being a little goofy, and I’m totally fine with that.
    Finally, your reflections seem fitting for your course topic this semester: you’re turning the lens around to think about your own “I,” and I think this correlation between the form and content of your teaching will also help model this more creative critical aspects of writing you’re emphasizing.
    Looking forward to speaking more soon!


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