What You Write When You Teach Writing

Within my institution’s* hierarchy, I’m a Lecturer, which means that I’m a full-time faculty member who just teaches. (Teaches writing, in my case.) This is expressed in my material surroundings (e.g., I always share an office with at least one another PhD), just as it is existentially codified within most academic disciplines, including English, which I used to call home and now avoid for reasons I’d be happy to tell anyone about over a drink or five. That is, if you manage to get onto the tenure track, your teaching performance has little to no bearing on whether or not you advance from Assistant Professor to tenured Associate Professor, or from Associate to the magic Full, or earn raises after that. In fact, “too much” focus on undergraduates will often hurt one’s tenure case. And if you’re trying to get into the TT hunger games in the first place, it is a disadvantage to have spent most of your professional time on instruction as an adjunct, teaching fellow, Visiting Assistant Professor, one-year appointment (that’s me), instructor, or whatever name your employer bestows upon various types of contingent brain labor, because that means you had less time to spend doing Very Important Scholarship. Search committees frown quietly upon PhDs who aren’t “focused on” or “serious about” their research profiles.

As a rhetorical motif, “publish or perish” is beyond stale (and nobody reads most scholarship anyway), but it remains the law of the Titanic’s deck.

In the years before the post-employment economy I might have hung around to make Professor, but now I go by “Dr. Boyd” when I’m on campus hangin’ with the kids, since I would rather students not call me “Professor,” because their tuition isn’t being spent on many professors, just stadiums and bougainvillea. Besides, schools aren’t paying the actual tenure-stream profs much either. And the situation is much worse for adjuncts who must jerry-build a financial existence out of abusive part-time contracts. At least my job includes health insurance.

There are three problems with that “just teaches” paradigm. First, it is not a good idea to implicitly or explicitly wedge “just” in front of anything about teaching. A sizable portion of humanity’s next half-century is sitting in a classroom somewhere right now. Second, the professional life of every lecturer I know includes heavy labor outside of the classroom. We’re all writers—some scholarly, others nonacademic, others doing a mix. Third, teaching is intellectually and emotionally exhausting work, especially if you teach classes that involve lots of writing, and especially if, like many contingent faculty, you teach introductory/freshman/first-year/lower-division/[pick your adjective] Writing. No “just” about that noise.

If you are a competent teacher in my field, you make students write a great deal in class and out. You force them to plan their work, produce rough drafts, explore multi-tiered revision strategies, then submit the polished versions of their work. Repeat as necessary.

This means that an instructor produces a Pleistocene flood of words, too. There is no other way to form productive, sustained connections with students. Conferences and office-hours chats are helpful, but writing instruction ultimately consists of multiple exchanges of written text.

Exhausting work for anyone who tries it, but particularly enervating for writers. I am not kidding when I estimate that 75-90% of my potential daily writing energy goes into work for my classes, most but hardly all of it spent in providing detailed feedback on my students’ writing. At the university where I work, lecturers teach eight courses—most of them fully enrolled at 25 students or very close to that—over the school year, which is divided into three ten-week terms. (Every lecturer gets two terms that each comprise 3 classes, or about 65-75 students total, and another “light” term that usually works out to 45-50 young scholars.) If you take on summer courses, which most of the lecturers I know do, because the Department of Education wants loan payments every month, you work with 25-50 more students during even slimmer academic time frames.

Think about the slog of reading this entails. Writers are heavy readers: without a routine intake of colorful language, of other writers’s work, one’s skills decline. Your ear gets out of practice.

Teaching entails a laborious form of reading. You are working with apprentices, many of them bright and eager. But they tend to do what apprentices do: Mess up while they’re developing. A teacher encounters much prose that is peppered with, and sometimes wholly devoted to, muddy phrasing, clichés, solecisms, unexamined opinions, and harried appeals to such repositories of knowledge as About.com and Wikipedia, even when the writer is ultimately working towards something smart and engaging. This doesn’t mean that students are dumb, it means they are apprentices. That’s how education works. With her limited time, a comp teacher does what she can to introduce them to complex, effective rhetorical practices and revision habits.

And when you’ve hauled your parched, scratched brain through twenty or thirty or sixty papers by writers who are mostly in their late teens or early twenties, then composed thoughtful responses (because that is your job), you aren’t much in the mood to read Roberto Bolaño or Harper’s. Ironically, the skills that make an effective writing teacher are depleted by teaching writing effectively.

This is one reason that schools need to commit to smaller classes and humane courseloads for faculty. Burnout happens too quickly otherwise. This in turn degrades the quality of instruction that undergraduates receive, no matter how dedicated an individual teacher is. Would you rather have your root canal done by a dentist who has worked on four patients already that day, or a dozen?

I do not mean to suggest that faculty from other disciplines don’t work as hard as writing teachers. Check out this depressing time-use study from Boise State if you want to see how much labor the academic life entails. Further, this is part of a bigger trend in the United States: American workers are expending more energy for less money in order to help their employers become more profitable, because, hey, the free market figures things out. I just happen to know my field and its demands best. Academics or not, most of us owe our souls to the company store, as the man says.

So I’ve got this list here. I’ve tried to catalog every type of teaching-oriented writing I could think of. The list does not include “service” work (the quasi-administrative duties of faculty) or anything having to do with a teacher’s writing life outside of class.

  • Paper feedback. The big gorilla. For example, part of my current courseload includes two sections of introductory writing, or a total of 48 students. Rather than marking heavily on a text itself, I prefer to respond to student work with typed end comments in the form of a brief letter. On a five-page assignment in an intro class, I typically write 250-300 words of feedback. So, thinking conservatively, that’s 250 words x 48 papers, or 12,000 words. In the ten-week structure of the course, I do this three or four times. That’s at least 36,000 words for part of my job. In an upper-division seminar (I also have one of those every term), my end-comments consist on average of 400-600 words on at least two major assignments, sometimes three. Oh, and all of this had better be grammatical, readable prose.
  • Every message written to keep the class as a whole updated about whatever.
  • Every e-mail written in response to various queries from individual students. Profs, you know how abundant those are, especially when an assignment is coming due. Content aside, these e-mail responses serve as models of professional, clear prose.
  • Like all of the lecturers in my program, I draft my own curricular materials: all the syllabi, assignment prompts (which can run multiple pages for complicated assignments), peer-review worksheets, reading-question guides, rubrics, and a plethora of other documents on everything from comma splices to strategies for writing a conclusion. One typically revises these materials every time one teaches; sometimes you end up completely overhauling them, because that’s part of one’s professional growth. You learn from what worked, or didn’t work, in previous iterations of a course.
  • All messages and posts to the course website. All descriptions and copyright information for visual materials posted to the site (e.g., a YouTube interview with an author or a series of photos from a magazine).
  • Recommendation letters. So many! Especially in the spring, when everybody is scrambling for jobs, internships, grad-school apps, and what not. It takes hours to draft a helpful recommendation letter.
  • Run into any plagiarism? Get ready to spend hours documenting and writing up the case before you pass it on to the relevant authorities.
  • Various e-mails to associated instructors and staff, such as the wonderful librarians who introduce my students to the library’s research tools and archives.
  • Any bibliographic information for the photocopies assembled into a course reader. (I don’t use textbooks.) The Table of Contents for each reader.
  • Students will often ask for advice about things like personal statements for scholarship applications. I try to help if the student has been a committed member of whatever class they took with me. So I write some more comments.
  • Compiling and maintaining Excel spreadsheets for grades. These often include notes-to-self about particular assignment grades.
  • Request forms (often surprisingly detailed) for computer-lab space, library orientations, guest speakers, reader printings from the copy shop, book orders if you do those. For upper-div seminars, I might include some books along with the reader.
  • Notes on assigned readings. You have to read or re-read whatever you make the students dig through.
  • Class plans. I write mine by hand on a legal pad.
  • Texts, e-mails, and Tweets to other teachers, complaining about work. Blog posts about work.

Hey, writing teachers. Hey, you chalkboard vets. What did I miss? Let me know and I will add it to the catalog of toil.

*Note: At the time I wrote this, I was working at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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2 thoughts on “What You Write When You Teach Writing

  1. Nice list Ryan. I would add the following: updating course websites or course management systems. (Reading and writing happens there.) Also, progress reports, often for atheletes. I’m sure there are others, but my brain is very, very tired.

  2. And most of these forms require different rhetorical styles, so it’s not as if one can simply go into some kind of automatic writing mode when composing any of these documents. A few of the other forms that come to mind:

    -Materials and minutes from work on committees
    -Promotion/Merit Review/Contract Renewal Case materials (sooooooo much writing)
    -Sample essays/paragraphs

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