As one who teaches English composition to undergraduates who are non-English majors, my first task is to convince the students that being able to write well is important, that being able to persuade others is important, and that the approach to written persuasion is different from that of verbal persuasion. At the beginning of each semester, I present my students with an outline sketch of how written persuasion might be done, the various techniques involved. Most nod, seem to understand. Others look askance, have heard it all before. A few recline in their chairs and fold their arms, signaling that this class will be a breeze.
My second task in the first week is to get to know the students. Since we will be spending time together, I like us both to gain some familiarity and comfort with each another. For one, I attempt to learn their names. Culturally, they are a diverse mix, students that represent a cross section of the globe, every continent but Antarctica, several who know English only as a second language. As I said before, I rarely teach English majors, maybe one or two. Most are interested in the better paying professions: those related to computer science, business, and health care. And many hold down jobs while attending college. By this, I don’t mean part-time jobs; some work two or three part-time jobs; others work full-time jobs while taking full college course loads.
Some of these industrious students are confident in their English skills; most are not. Those who lack confidence in writing have come to understand taking an English class as a necessary evil and have been motivated to avoid tasks that involve writing. A few confess to having had bad experiences with English teachers and composition courses in the past, and these learners wish to move on to more seemingly stable, more quantifiable STEM subjects. To enter STEM professions, they are primarily concerned that their performance in an English course doesn’t do harm to their GPAs. Learning the subject matter that I teach is frequently viewed as secondary to getting a high mark.
My third task, after getting to know the students and hailing the virtues of writing, is to let the class know that despite all the pressures on their time, and despite my apparently easy going manner, that I have expectations for them in class. I have guidelines. These guidelines take various forms but have one sole purpose: to garner respect not only for me but for their fellow classmates. I include these guidelines in my syllabus because I’ve learned that respect for others is not always a premise for some the way I believe it should be. Those who want and even demand respect don’t always give it freely.
Another reason for these guidelines is to manage the work I face over the course of the semester. As I may have 4 classes of 21 students—84 total—3 days a week for 16 weeks, and because I may assign 8 graded assignments for each class, while allowing for revisions to early papers, each student will not always get the kind of attention he or she deserves. I would like to be, but cannot always be, attentive to student needs, and students can sometimes become difficult to track. If left to their own choices, many of my non-English majors will choose not to come to class, or they will make a habit of showing up late, a few in the last ten minutes. I have guidelines to see that these behaviors are discouraged.
On another front, many students enjoy electronic media and don’t mind using it during class. They’d prefer to put on headphones and escape into their music or thumb-text into their favorite social media site during class discussions, signaling to me that they prefer not to participate in those discussions. I have more strategies to see that this doesn’t happen. And in a different area, students don’t always see the disadvantages of plagiarism. Perhaps in classes where most students have a strong desire to learn their subject matter, plagiarism is not a temptation. But for non-English majors who are required to take composition courses and want to maintain high GPAs, my guidelines of class behavior are designed to eliminate such temptations.
Having set forth my plan, gotten to know the students, and informed them of my guidelines, the work begins. Picking up on my introductory sketch of persuasion, I give more detailed instruction on the essential elements of writing to persuade: knowing your audience, following established writing patterns, arguing a thesis, presenting proof, weighing strong proofs alongside weak ones, and following the fundamental rules of grammar and spelling. The students often tell me they’ve heard this all before, suggesting that any assignment I might give should not be a problem.
The moment of reckoning occurs after I’ve assigned the first paper. When I receive these papers, I discover that many students, perhaps even the most seemingly confident ones, understand fragments of the writing discipline but have not fully absorbed it. They are in the habit of writing broad theses but are often unable to refine those theses and provide adequate support. Few have a comprehensive understanding of grammatical principles, techniques that would make their writing more readable.
I assure them this is all fine. “We are here to learn,” I say, declaring that “this first paper is only a beginning.” Even though I have presented a rubric and a set of standards for the assignment, we can begin talking about how their papers are working and how they might be improved. Aside from the comments I’ve made in the margins, I take time to elaborate generally on those comments in class. I do this in any number of ways: not just through lectures but by engaging the students in group work, journal writing, essay and book readings, discussions of readings, video instruction from other teachers, exercises that pinpoint special areas that might be improved upon, one-on-one chats, and suggestions to visit the university’s writing center.
From my perspective, this is an attempt to attack multiple problems from multiple angles, an attempt to appeal to different learning styles, but more plainly, an attempt to avoid being a bore. And along with my multipronged approach, I tell the students to revise their papers, offering them two additional attempts at the earlier papers, encouraging them to take advantage. I might suggest refining ideas, searching out better sources, reworking sentences, and setting new deadlines to fit their schedules, but I do request that they not hand everything in at the end of the semester. Then I move on to the next class assignment
The semester advances and I am looking forward to incremental, not mammoth, improvements. But alongside the work on new assignments, some added group projects and oral presentations, I witness the class becoming distracted, and I fear losing their interest. Despite the variety of teaching techniques and my attempts to avoid boring the students, despite my attempts to know as many of them as possible, and despite the items of discipline outlined in my syllabus, students stray. A few may come to class but never hand in papers. Others hand in papers but come to almost no classes. A few arrive persistently late. Still others provide written excuses for missed classes, but should contact phone numbers be called, no one at the doctor’s office knows what to say.
Meanwhile, during class discussions, students pick up cell phones and begin texting beneath their desks or behind conspicuously placed backpacks. Students have by now gotten to know their classmates and have formed relationships that must be renewed during class time, updating one another on the events of the previous day when they did not see one another. More assignments come in and I discover plagiarized sentences, paragraphs, and entire papers. When confronted with these issues and the penalties previously outlined in the syllabus, the students appear to have no recollection of my earlier syllabus review or the request I made to have them read it.
One day I become aware that students who should be revising old papers aren’t taking advantage of my offer to improve those papers or their grades. Settling down to grade a new round of papers, I reach into my bag of class materials and discover the first draft of one student’s paper that I graded many weeks ago. When I returned that graded assignment to the rest of the class, the student must have been absent. In the meantime, I forgot about the paper and didn’t return it. I am disheartened that the student who wrote the paper must have forgotten about it too.
“Of the words of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.” Olive and Baklava Gastronome, Aristotle
During each semester, there seems to come a moment when these issues overwhelm. I stop teaching the subject of English composition and force a conversation with the students about the bigger issues involved, perhaps ethical issues: I ask them about the value of learning, about them owning their educations. I ask about the direction of the class, about the topics that I teach versus topics that interest them more, about what it means to share a class with 20 other students, of learning not only from me but from one another. And once again I make a case for the importance of knowing how to persuade and write and think critically, of knowing how to focus on a topic, of supporting that topic with convincing evidence, and of presenting what they’ve discovered in a way that another person can easily follow.
These conversations are difficult at first. I try to convince them, if for a moment, that this course is important, that what I teach will prepare them for their futures, that I am looking not for perfection but for their attention to the subject matter and an honest effort in their work. The students admit that they don’t mind learning what I’ve been teaching, but most still can’t help confessing that they find writing difficult, subjective—art, not science. I argue that what I have been teaching is a science, even when practiced in its most creative forms. They may not be convinced of this credo, but my efforts to explain myself seem appreciated, and our conversation ends on a high.
Carrying these feelings forward, I commit to making my teaching more responsive but remind them there are things they must know, and therefore, things I must teach. They commit more to the struggle of becoming better writers, having by now reckoned my de-emphasis on grades, my emphasis on learning a process. They give me an education about what it means to study a topic not high on one’s agenda, and I retrench, steadfast in my resolve to impart a subject that I care about deeply. For a time, I am convinced that we could be partners in learning, and I am hopeful that this understanding will last beyond our days together.