Semesters are Short, Life is Long:

A Philosophy of Teaching Writing

Their time in my classroom is just sixteen weeks. I can't possibly teach them everything they will need for the years and decades that follow.


During the rest of their college career, composition students spend at least four years reading, writing, and participating in academic discourse. After graduation they will participate in the civic sphere and live in a world deeply affected by what happens in the academic sphere. As a composition instructor, my job is to help students comprehend and participate in these different discourses, which take place primarily through writing.


Meanwhile creative writing students leave my class with many years of their writing apprenticeship remaining ahead of them. My job is to help them no longer require formal instruction by enabling them to become their own teachers.


Experience as both student and teacher has shown me that students learn best if they are motivated to improve their writing rather than simply earn a grade. In order to put students in charge of their education and minimize my role as instructor, I use 1) a contract grading system, 2) open-ended assignments that force students to confront the difficult task of doing independent, personal thinking and expression, and 3) a course design that guides a student’s thoughts outward from themselves to an audience.


The contract grading system is an idea borrowed from Peter Elbow. My syllabus lists a number of concrete actions that I believe lead to the most learning and if the student completes each item, he or she is guaranteed a minimum final grade of a B. So while students still need to work very hard in my class, experience has shown they no longer count points and fret over final scores and instead focus on improving their writing.


When the semester ends, students who have put forth honest effort have spent months engaged in independent thinking and learning. In other words, they are prepared to continue their education as their own teachers.