Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service
On Tuesday, February 25, 13 PhD students in the English department gathered over pizza to discuss the challenges and joys of teaching writing at Stanford. Sponsored by the department’s graduate pedagogy committee (full disclosure: I’m a member of the committee), the event followed a similar forum on Teaching Reading, which took place two weeks earlier. During the Teaching Writing salon, the students spoke about best practices in writing instruction, reflected on their own struggles with writing in the discipline, and enthusiastically shared ideas to help undergraduates in their English classes.
In a recent post for the Teaching Commons, I wrote about grad students across Stanford taking advantage of teaching initiatives. The Teaching Writing salon provides a great case study of one such event. As with many other resources on the Teaching Commons website, students and teachers alike can use this event as a template for discussing good teaching in their own fields.
Before the salon, students interested in attending read two pre-distributed articles. One, a chapter from Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, looked at how best to give targeted feedback on student work. The other, an introduction from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Conversation, argued that writing teachers should “demystify”—in other words, make transparent and transferable—the effective strategies (what the authors call “moves”) found in good academic writing.
In fact, “demystifying” good writing for our students turned out to be one of the key themes of the evening. Participants were even asked to demystify their own writing: as a final piece of preparation, pedagogy committee member Abigail Droge asked participants to find one of their old college papers: “Start a short list of moves and arguments that you find yourself making often…and that you find important.”
Grad student Tasha Eccles began the salon by providing some background about the event. “On the one hand,” she noted, “writing is a skill that English departments lay a special claim to being able to teach, and on the other, it's a skill that the discipline seems to want to keep a little bit out of reach.” For the pedagogy committee, Eccles said, the goal of the salon was to think firstly about our own writing practices, and then to “think about how we might make them accessible to our students.” Using the pre-circulated readings as springboards, Eccles invited participants to discuss the hurdles that English teachers face in helping students write persuasively about literary texts. “What are the biggest challenges that you’ve met or still struggle with?” she asked.
Long Le-Khac mentioned that literature teachers often don’t feel comfortable sharing strategies for teaching writing, and this hurts everyone involved. “We need to systematize the teaching of writing so that teachers can benefit from each other’s ideas,” he said. Vanessa Seals identified a Stanford-specific obstacle: “How do we get students to develop a research topic and write about it at length when the quarter is only ten weeks long?”
The discussion then turned to the particulars of academic writing about literary texts. Morgan Frank talked about how it’s often difficult to get students to see that their arguments have different implications for different groups of scholars. “For instance,” he suggested, “if you’re writing about Moby-Dick, your argument is important not only for that novel, but for Herman Melville as an author, for 19th-century American literature, for topics like race and class, and for the novel as a literary form.”
Finally, participants wondered about how best to incorporate literary criticism into their writing instruction. If we ask our students to read only poems and novels but expect them to write literary criticism, what models do they have for that kind of writing? Sylvan Goldberg wondered how best to expose undergraduates to sophisticated secondary texts that they can then use in their writing: “It’s important to force an engagement with challenging literary criticism,” he argued. In a similar vein, Le-Khac noted that students frequently have problems figuring out what critical or theoretical approach to use in their papers.
With so many questions surrounding the teaching of writing, it might seem daunting to even begin to develop workable solutions. But the participants at the salon offered each other many exciting, thoughtful examples of good practice from their own teaching.
Annie Atura suggested assigning a text or idea that is “so small that students can be expected to cover every possible opinion on it.” This exercise helps students incorporate opposing points of view into their writing, an important strategy that many beginning writers don’t come to on their own. Becky Richardson, a recent graduate of the PhD program and the course coordinator of the department’s Literary History sequence, advised that, “As the material gets more complex, our students’ writing should become more lucid.” She urges students to eliminate unnecessary jargon and syntax so that they can present ideas straightforwardly.
Some of the participants’ advice was almost counterintuitive. Seals spoke about the importance of creating “tough reading moments”—sentences and paragraphs that present information in strange or new ways—so that readers slow down and take note of key arguments. Droge brought up an odd strategy she sometimes uses during revision meetings with her students: she advises them to turn their conclusions into their introductions. “Oftentimes, students get more creative in their conclusions, when they’re pulling together they key parts of the paper,” she noted. “By moving this material to the beginning, they can grab their readers’ attention more effectively.”
With regard to literary criticism and theory, which can often seem overwhelming to undergraduates, Vicky Googasian noted that she presents each new theory as “a tool that students can use.” This approach turns what students could see as a complication into a useful set of strategies. Luke Barnhart, a member of the pedagogy committee, reflected on the ways that his own writing informs his teaching: “I spend too much time ‘clearing my throat’ about one critic,” he admitted, “so I advise students to move on to their own, new arguments quickly.”
Many participants noted afterwards that they’d be employing some of these strategies the next day in their PWR classes or English discussion sections. First-year grad student Elizabeth Wilder was “amazed by how much we accomplished—our conversations brought together some of the most fundamental questions of the profession (the value of studying literature, which skills it develops) with concrete classroom strategies for teaching.” Droge also reflected on the benefit of the salon, noting that “As grad students, I think we are particularly suited to teach people how to write literary criticism since we are in the midst of that learning process ourselves.”
For Wilder, forums like this have a social value, too. “Hearing other grads speak about their own experiences as teachers and students underscored how many resources we have to offer each other, and how important it is that we situate our teaching in this wider community context.” Barnhart echoed this thought, adding that “Teaching a course can be isolating, so talking with others who have encountered the same obstacles is encouraging.”
Formed in 2010, the pedagogy committee liaises between students and English department faculty with respect to issues of graduate student teaching. These include TA training, mentoring, and the preparation of teaching portfolios for job applications. The committee also hosts regular salons like the one described in this post. During the current academic year, the four members of the committee have worked closely with department administrators to develop a series of literature courses to be taught by grads in future years.
While the committee was created as a result of a student-led initiative in the English Graduate Student Council (the collective body of grads in the department), Eccles, Barnhart, and Droge report that faculty have been quite receptive to the committee’s work. They also encourage anyone whose department or program lacks such a group to get in touch if you’re interested in forming a similar committee.
Are you a grad student or teacher interested in similar kinds of events for your department? How do you and your colleagues support each other in sharing and developing teaching techniques? If you would like help in starting discussions about good teaching, contact CTL about designing a workshop, or browse the Teaching Talk blog for great ideas. And please contact the writer if your department hosts events like the Teaching Writing salon.
Allen Frost is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at Stanford, where he's also served as an instructor in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and as a writing tutor at the Hume Center.