Reflections on Keys for Writers

Reflections on Keys for Writers (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

I’m paging through Ann Raimes’s Keys for Writers, which I used to use when I taught freshman comp at my previous job, and which I’m coming back to in the fall as Seton Hill offers a new “Basic Composition” course for the first time. (Our freshman writing offering used to be a two-semester course that included content on cultural identities.)

While we are charged with teaching students to compose in words, many students of this digital culture will be experts at composing with sound and images; their hairstyles, fashion accessories, piercings and tattoos may be carefully coordinated to project a “main idea.” The placement of a tattoo — where it can be easily covered up for job interviews, and easily revealed in more relaxed settings — shows an awareness of audience. While I have no intention of turning Basic Composition into a new media course, I do feel much can be gained from working with the strengths that students bring into the classroom.

As part of her early advice to students, Raimes observes that a blank screen can be daunting; quite frankly, I think some students would be better served if they did contemplate that blank screen a little longer, before they started churning out words to fill it. That is, of course, the purpose of prewriting and brainstorming. But because young people who socialize on the internet are so used to composing their thoughts in short bursts, and getting immediate feedback from their peers, that they can use to develop their thoughts a little further, the composition classroom becomes a bottleneck if the instructor positions him or herself as the most important authority of feedback.

I hated discussion groups when I was in school, but as a teacher I’ve become to see how necessary they are. Today’s students are far more peer-oriented than students of my generation were. Today’s students learn in a hive environment, sharing notes and ideas and abilities on multiple levels. When I assign students to post comments on their peers’ webogs, they will coordinate and collaborate that public feedback via private text messages. Rather than complain about work ethic and confiscating students’ cell phones so they can’t collaborate during class, I’d much rather embrace the new peer-to-peer environment and incorporate it into the writing process.

Raimes’s “Key Points” (1a) ask students to do close readings, to question what they read, to “[i]nteract with a text by highlighting points,” to keep a reading journal, and to critique their own writing. I am eager to ask students to develop that critical voice when they confront peer writing, and eventually their own writing. From a karaoke sing-along, to calling in to vote for or against a “reality show” contestant, our students will be familiar with multiple ways of interacting with cultural artifacts. Some will have written fanfic of Harry Potter or the role-playing they do in video games. Even listening to the director’s audio commentary on a DVD is a form of metatextual criticism. In keeping with my desire to get students to think of the social networking they do as an important task (intrinsically valuable in its own sphere, and involving communication skills that are transferable to other communication contexts), I imagine I might ask students to write a list that compares an old TV show they might be familiar with (such as Gilligan’s Island or a Warner Brothers cartoon) with a new show with a similar theme or genre (such as Survivor or the Simpsons). I might ask them to separate facts and observations, and come up with a main idea.

I’ll have to work to ensure that the students don’t feel like they’re being asked to jump directly to argument — I want them to explain the differences, not argue for one over the other. But if I back up too much, the class will be front-loaded with dry definitions and abstract concepts, so I should be clear with the goals of this media awareness paragraph.

Ah, well — this is a work in progress. Got to log off…