Reflections on Teaching First-Year Writing

Reflections on Teaching First-Year Writing March 28, 2021

Since I’m teaching First Year Seminar this year, I’m teaching academic writing skills through a variety of assignments…but of course, this is making me reflect on when and how I first learned to write.

image of an old-fashioned pen
Photo by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash. In public domain.

My mom likes to joke that I popped out of the womb with a dictionary in one hand an an encyclopedia in the other. I learned to read pretty early on and I was announcing that I wanted to be a paleontologist before anyone thought I was capable of spelling the word. I was writing my first novel in 4th grade (a horribly hackneyed plot with a girl cross-dressing to train as a knight in generic fantasyland) and reading everything in sight by then.

Hence it’s no surprise that I’ve gone through life with a readerly, writerly, and academic shape to me. The problem, I now realize as I’m trying to teach others how to write, is that I learned so many of my skills so long ago that I’m having to learn to teach these skills anew.

This is my second time teaching First Year Seminar at my university, but the first time through, I was focused on other of the various learning goals for the course (acquiring expertise in the topic I’d chosen, fairy tales; giving lots of oral presentations; learning critical thinking and reading skills). This time around, though, I really wanted to focus on academic writing skills, and that’s when I realized that I had to reevaluate how I knew what I knew.

I know I learned to write at some point in my life. I recall having excellent Honors English and AP English teachers in high school (for anyone in the Los Angeles area, I went to El Camino Real, and I was also on the Academic Decathlon time as a senior; my team took 1st place in city and 2nd in state, with me having the top individual score in the entire state of California at the time).

But the downside of taking 9 AP classes in high school is that I entered UC Berkeley essentially as a sophomore, testing out of many basic requirements such as college writing/first-year composition/whatever they’re calling it these days. So I actually have no idea what’s taught in these types of classes, having never taken one myself.

My writing in college and grad school was always decent enough to escape criticism. I was always a good enough writer; words flow when I want them to, and I’ve got a great vocabulary and hence am good at sounding smart. Looking back, though, my writing has always lacked sufficient clarity and structure to be truly good, and that’s something I only really started to remedy in the last decade or so. Blogging forced me to prioritize clarity more than ever before, because in academia your audience has an incentive to slog through clunky language that the general public lacks. I started asking friends and colleagues for help with my academic writing too, such as having someone be an advance reader before I would send my work out for publication, and so with gratitude I also started to learn more about what makes writing good.

(writing fiction and poetry has also been a side project of mine too; lately, I’ve found that as I began to intentionally prioritize it, it began improving as well, but that’s a topic for another day)

So I knew I wanted to craft a helpful college writing experience for my first years, but I didn’t know how to go about it. Well, one thing I knew is that one gets better at writing by increasing one’s volume of writing, so I made sure to assign lots of low-stakes assignments, like reading responses and little take-the-temperature prompts at the end of every class. This also makes sense given that I teach at a small liberal arts college, Butler University, so learning to articulate one’s values and understand the place of a given text in the humanities tradition makes sense with the overall mission of where I’m at.

Luckily for me, I’ve got amazing friends and colleagues. I owe special thanks to Christy Williams, Cory Hutcheson, Chrissy Widmayer, and Scott White, who all shared their first-year writing materials and prompts with me. I borrowed from their ideas and crafted my own assignments, and now, about 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through the semester, I think I can state that it’s going fairly well.

I decided, this semester, to have students conduct independent research on a topic of their choosing (so, I didn’t limit them to fairy tales, though I told them that they closer they stayed to our shared topic, the more likely that I could give them some tips and assistance). First they turned in a research proposal, explaining their topic and showing a few initial sources they’d found. Next, we had a research session with one of our librarians, so they’d be ready to do their own research. Based on that, they turned in an annotated bibliography with 6-10 sources, at least 2 of them scholarly in nature (published in a peer-reviewed journal or by a university/academic press). Now they’ve just turned in their claims outline, which is less of a topic outline and more of a “here’s my thesis statement aka my main claim, and here are the various claims I plan to make to support it, backed up by a bit of evidence here and there.” I’m still grading those but they seem to be doing well, and we also did a peer review workshop with the Writer’s Studio at our school, so that students could get some help figuring out if their claims fit together (I’m a big fan of the “talk your research through with someone, does it make sense to them, y/n?” approach).

Next up, I’m going to have them turn in the 1st three pages of…whatever form their paper is in, and then their final papers will be due. The other assignment will be an idea I borrowed that I’m calling “Research Remixed” where they either give a brief speech summarizing their research so their classmates can hear about it, or create a little artifact explaining their research (a diagram? a game? a poster? a puppet show?). I’m still writing this assignment but I’m planning to make it pretty low-key, both because this academic year has been (to use the most polite language I can) an absolute trash fire, but also because the point is to communicate your findings, not to jump through a million arbitrary hoops.

And this brings me back to my original point: good writing communicates, and do so efficiently, clearly, and (hopefully) beautifully. It’s taken me a while to journey from sufficient writing to good writing in my own writing practice, so I’m hoping I can model that for my students. In fact, that’s exactly what I did this semester: I went through every single assignment I created before having them do it, so that I could provide samples of my own work in case they do well knowing what the execution of the assignment might look like. Granted, I was writing on The Mandalorian as fairy tale, which I then presented at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts this year, and which I now am hoping to develop into an article…but it seemed to get the job done.

As an educator, I’m a big fan of modeling practices for my students, so I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to do so this semester. I benefited from the generosity of my colleagues as well as from the advice in one of my new favorite academic writing books, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (second edition) by Wendy Belcher. Her book helped me write 2 completely-from-scratch articles in the second half of 2020, which is pretty damn amazing during a plague year while working full time, if I do say so myself.

Anyway, I make this post because all the teachers I know, despite being burnt out as all hell, love to geek out about the nuts and bolts of our teaching practices whenever we talk, so I thought maybe this would be useful and interesting for some folks. Additionally, I’m always looking for new suggestions and conversations around teaching, so maybe this post will spark some conversation…and since I’ll be teaching again next year, likely 2 sections of First Year Seminar again, I will get to revisit these assignments then too. So, yay for teaching, yay for writing, and yay for teaching writing.

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