Author: Julia Pascal
Since 2008 I have been teaching freshmen. Writing is mandatory and my class often includes those who already believe that they have no talent for it. I see it as my job to challenge that perception.
Most new arrivals assume that there is a ‘correct’ way of writing, a notion learned in high school. Ninety-five per cent of them write stiff English which is often repetitive and rambling. How can this be improved? My methodology is to encourage engagement through personal investment. Writing in class is an element of the curriculum but half the class time is given over to discussion to provoke intellectual skills and creativity. When the forum is open, students mainly want to talk and write about gender bias, sexuality, culture, and identity.
Although faculty must present a curriculum at least six months in advance, I have found that I need to allow space for the unexpected. This might be a political event such as Brexit, a national election, a terrorist attack, or something that the student brings to the group. Discussion also promotes areas that might be considered as taboo. Narratives, such as self-harming, physical abuse and drugs, sometimes emerge. A student may not wish to share with the class: others are keen to read personal work aloud. Within this safe space, experimental and daring writing emerges. In this way there is a link between personal experience, its analysis, writing, editing, and crafting.
However, the main struggle throughout the academic year, is to connect speaking and writing. As students have learned that stilted English is ‘academic’ writing, the way to interrogate this is to show the links between talking and writing. During an oral presentation I might ask that a sentence be repeated and rephrased for clarity. I encourage thinking-on-the-feet. Once students are able to present a point of view, they are asked to contrast their speech with what they have written. This is a key moment. The class collectively understands, by listening, that they have two languages. One is a clunky, written English which contrasts with the fluency of their speaking voice. This is not to say that all students are articulate. Another level of pedagogy comes into play when the student has difficulty producing a clear sentence. Most young Americans use the filler word ‘like’ and this dilutes content. At first, it is difficult for many to get through a vocal presentation without using filler words.
Freshers are also trained to address each person in the classroom and to make eye contact. Standing, which is more dynamic than sitting, acknowledges the presentation as a performance where complex arguments can be developed through a simple sentence structure. The knowledge learned standing up – this access to a verbal fluency – can be applied to the act of writing. In this way students feel that they have learned a skill that has been nascent and that the professor has enabled this to happen.
These techniques absorb students on a deep level. The jump from high school to university is also the shock of learning that papers must be revised several times over a semester. In my class, students discover a suite of skills that can help them fulfill the requirement of editing and re-editing on the page. They develop the discipline of having to get up, vocalize a thesis, share it, defend it, write it, rewrite it, and share it again, and these activities emphasize the importance of process as a means of improving writing skills. In this way the craft of writing becomes integrated and, once embodied, it remains forever.