Van Gogh’s Ear

As classes have started and I am helping students think about their own research projects, I have had time to think about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways I am reinforcing the very practices I am trying to guide them away from in my composition classes. These sorts of reflections can be a good place to start asking questions- and can give me pause to really consider my classroom goals. What do I want my students to come away from class with? What do I want them to get out of our time together?

At EKU, we have a 2 part composition series. ENG 101 is a the “welcome to writing in college” class and ENG 102 is the “welcome to research in college” class. I feel like I have given myself more latitude to experiment with form in ENG 102– our ePortfolio/grading contract project is not revolutionary. There are many many instructors who have laid the foundations of this work. If there is any revolution in my 102 classes, my hope is that it takes the form of a personal one for my students. I want them to leave 102 believing in the strength of their ideas. I want them to leave 102 feeling confident about composing in different formats and forums. I want them to have a positive experience. Abandoning paper and writing in a more flexible format allows students to play with their thoughts and their words. They decide the format and I hope that decision is one that is considered. I see evidence of this in the work they have produced. But I wonder.

I work hard to help them understand argument in a less simplistic way. I want them to explore their ideas and confront opposing points of view. I want them to consider a world where everyone did this. I love Carl Rogers and I wish I could really devote myself fully. I mean, this is a great idea in practice, but how many arguments between myself and my husband have started with one of us maturely asking, “What is it that we both want here?” How often have I turned to my red voting parents and suggested, “We really have more in common, where do we agree?” Imagine how much easier my life would be!

As a teacher, I feel like I start them off with a call to write rather than to follow the rules. I ask them to move away from the safety of the classic five paragraph essay. I challenge them to write what they want to say, but how often do I undercut this? More than I like to say.

In ENG 101 especially, I struggle. One of my tired teaching statements, after 10 years of adjuncting and lecturer-ing, is “How many books have you read that are 5 giant paragraphs long?” I may get a smile or two- but for the most part, they get it. “Real writers” don’t write five paragraph essays. And I know that everyone is a real writer. We all have complicated ideas and we all need to share these ideas with other human beings. We struggle and we hurt and writing and reading can comfort us. Yet, how often do my assignments ask for the very kinds of writing I don’t want them to produce? How often do my comments and my grades reward conformity and disregard innovation? I am a creature of habit. I don’t know how many student essays I have read in my life- but I would venture well into the thousands. It is exhausting work, to be trusted with this responsibility, and I know that I have failed. I ask them to consider their topics from multiple points of view- and remind them not to make them too broad. I challenge my students to write something they care about and want to read- but remind them to write in third person. I get caught up in following tired conventions because these tired conventions make evaluating student work easier.

With this project, I want to really challenge myself to break away from this! I want to encourage my students to write, to see themselves as writers and thinkers, and to feel that they have the exact right words and voice and point of view to be heard. I am getting older, my ideas about writing and communication are tied to my own experience. Something new comes across my desk every day. It is my responsibility to see it for what it is, not what I think it should be.

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