Statement on Teaching Writing
Damian C. Koshnick, Ph.D.
Don’t Divorce Writing From Its Functions
Writing surely inspires, but it is also the case that writing is a critical component in the organization of society. To read something -to create and respond to the symbols around us- this is how we participate. My interest generally is to be a bit more conscious, and to help others be a bit more conscious, about the ways in which writing and reading mediate our lives.
Put simply, I believe that writing instruction must focus on empowering students to act as both inspired and pragmatic agents amidst the social and institutional settings within which they work, live, and want to participate. This requires moving beyond the culturally deadening tendency to define successful writing as a mere matter of grammatical purity. This important, but reductive frame unfortunately tends to divorce writing from its functions. Composition theory offers a contrasting view. Through it, we have learned over the last half century how to operationalize writing as a tool for self-discovery, as a tool for thinking, and as a tool for learning to participate in the coordinated actions of society.
Create Convincing Writing Environments
What engages me as a teacher of writing is prompted by recent “social turn” theorizing. The ways in which I think about writing and teaching writing in the academic setting are tied to these perspectives. For me, activity theorists (via Vygotsky) and the influence of North American genre studies provide two broad, intellectual frames that continue to challenge my assumptions about what is -and what can be- dynamic and valuable writing instruction. What is clear, now, is that being an effective writer requires not just specific writing skills, but also an intimate knowledge of cultural differences in the social and professional environments and settings in/with which a writer intends to participate.
As I wrestle with the implications of these influences, my teaching and curriculum development has also pivoted, for some time, off of my fascination with John Dewey. For me, one of the most profound contributions to theories on teaching is Dewey’s (1902) The child and the curriculum. According to Dewey, a teacher’s most important medium is in the attentive use of and the shared interaction between students and a teacher in the present environment. The learning environment, according to Dewey, is the site which offers a teacher the most tangible access to both students and content. Put simply, if we as teachers of writing continue to find innovative ways to make our classrooms convincing writing environments for students, then it is likely that student engagement (and as a result, learning) will follow. As a teacher of writing, therefore, I spend a great deal of time attending to the writing environments that I present to and create with my students.
Surprise Students in Believable Ways
Over time I have, in many courses, come to incorporate a corresponding series of writing assignments across a quarter that culminate in the production of individual, or collective student “publications” -documents written to be distributed to some specified audience. There are two factors on which I focus:
1. does the writer have a tangible, final product in which he/she can recognize the work of a specific quarter/semester?
2. has that writer been given a convincing proxy, or an authentic audience for which to write, who will likewise recognize some value in the final product?
Of course what is written and who may be a believable audience depends upon multiple factors -such as the content and goals of the course, the ambitions of a teacher, and the availability of accessible resources and audiences. But, I firmly believe, that students value utilitarianism. When they recognize some purpose for a course assignment beyond a simple grade, they typically spend more time writing and revising assignments.
When I teach courses in Engineering writing, this has meant asking students to develop and propose the building of a memorial that conforms to the language, laws and ordinances of city building codes. When I teach courses in professional writing, this has meant making sure student proposals align with academic capstone projects, or future professional goals. When I teach first year composition courses grounded in poetry and literature this has meant asking students to read tens of poems and organize them into a formal poetry collection with an introduction, a binding theme, and book cover etc., to distribute as gifts to family. The key, across these and other examples, is that the document they produce maintains a value, for someone, after the grade has been submitted. In this manner, a “convincing writing environment” must be anchored to someone, or something that can be supported by the classroom, but is not confined by that brief space and time span alone.
At the six institutions in which I have taught, I adapted to and learned from the general institutional strengths of each department:
-Northern Arizona University / Professional & Technical Writing
-U.C. Santa Barbara /Writing in the Disciplines (Engineering; Education)
-Allan Hancock Community College / Developmental English
-Concordia College / Service-Learning Curriculum
-Minnesota State University / Literary-Oriented Curriculum
-Humboldt State University / Critical Cultural Studies (Portfolio Assessment)
This, along with my academic positions supporting post-doc. and graduate student writing, has given me a broad view of the various means and justifications by which writing instruction and support can operate within particular institutions. Indeed, the circumstances and purposes for courses that speak to writing are so varied that it would be difficult to write a teaching philosophy that addressed universal beliefs and practices.
Alongside the philosophy outlined above, I value flexibility and diversities of practice because theory, teaching practice, and the shaping forces from specific institutional settings are in constant recursive relation with one another -at least for persistent and inquisitive teachers. To understand writing and be a successful teacher of it, one must engage with all levels -intellectual, individual, social, cultural, and institutional. Realizing the complexities of such work, in realistic and attainable ways within the classroom and across the university setting presents challenges that motivate me and my curiosity. Despite practice, experience, and successes there is always room for improvement. This and the opportunity to talk, learn from, interact, and engage with other faculty and students each day is what makes me feel fortunate to do this kind of work.
Damian C. Koshnick, Ph.D.
Northern Arizona University
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Skype: damian.koshnick