For the seventh time I have the opportunity to teach a first-year composition and rhetoric class. I first taught this class in the Fall of 2012, and have taught it intermittently since them. This time, however, I will be doing a significant overhaul of the writing projects, as I have slowly developed ideas that better suit my course goals and personal interests.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges I face this time around is making the point clearly that writing is a learned skill and (for many) a slow process. I plan to return to the mantra that this course is meant to help students develop a “heightened awareness” of their writing choices through the cultivation of particular sets of skill. Acquiring a skill requires repetition and incremental adaptation to higher level challenges.
I need to remind myself of this because inevitably students will just start asking me what I want to see in their writing – in the hopes of getting the best grades. Of course, at some level there are requirements, but these are always spelled out in the simplest terms in the class materials.
How to draft a thesis, how to support a thesis, how to organize an argument, or whatever other elements are necessary to “academic writing” need to be practiced through numerous iterations of drafting, critiquing, and revising. In other words, through the slow acquisition of a skill. The criterion of “good” writing is simply effective writing, and effectiveness can take on many shapes. There is no universal template for good academic writing. Sorry, Artificial Intelligence enthusiasts, computers cannot even grade essays, let alone compose them. As the prosaically named Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment (membership including Noam Chomsky) stated: “Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others.”
This is more about setting a tone for the class, where taking chances are rewarded and failures are framed as true learning opportunities, not shameful embarrassments. With this in mind, I am looking forward to class discussions and activities centered on their writing and hope they all can see growth in the next few months.