Sunday, April 27, 2008

An Open Letter to All Beginning Graduate Assistants, Embarking on Their First Semester of Teaching FYC:

Laura Edwards

When I was hired to teach freshman composition, I was elated. And terrified. I’d never even taken Composition, and my teaching experience was with high school freshman, a very different kind of freshman than the ones I would be facing now. In a panic, I spent a lot of time on campus those three weeks, talking to colleagues and studying their syllabi– I even read through the recommended textbook, taking notes in the form of an outline throughout. Yet, all of these practices pale in comparison to one piece of advice given by a colleague; when asked if she had any help for a newcomer, she went to the wall of books in her office, pulled a worn tome from the shelf, and placed it gingerly in my hands. “Read this.” She said, and I looked down to find A Writer Teachers Writing by Donald M. Murray.

What I learned from that book was invaluable and led me into the first semester, if not more steady, at least more adept. It is with my own tale in mind, that I write this letter, to share why Donald Murray is one theorist whose work every FYC professor should be acquainted with, and to make your job a bit easier, I will break down exactly which of his ideas were most helpful to me that first year and the ones beyond.

First, why Donald Murray? To begin with, Mr. Murray is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and even more importantly for the purposes of this essay, a seasoned veteran at teaching FYC. He’s chaired departments and written multiple articles and books on his teaching methods, and out of those, I’ve pulled what I believe are the two most important aspects of Mr. Murray’s teachings: cultivating surprise in your students’ writing and writing with and for your students. These are two pieces of FYC that may not be as readily obvious as others, which is why I believe them most important to bring to your attention before you begin your career as a FYC teaching assistant.

The first method of teaching, cultivating surprise, occurs when a writer begins writing one way and realizes early in the process that there may be another topic more deserving of his time, or some other angle he hadn’t considered. In fact, it is Murray’s contention that “we write to surprise ourselves” (A Writer Teaches 7). Writing to cultivate that surprise, to learn something new about our topic and to decipher what’s most important for the writing project is an invaluable tool for our students’ arsenals.

How do we go about cultivating surprise in our students’ work? Murray began with a period of “incubation” (Berkenkotter 163) in his own writing as evidenced in a study done by Dr. Carol Berkenkotter, utilizing Mr. Murray as the case subject. This period of incubation was sometimes extravagantly long, even developing into years before some projects were concretely begun (Response 170). What is important to note when speaking of the pedagogy of surprise, also termed “responsive teaching” by Murray, is that the incubation period is not a once and for all process; in fact, it is after a writer begins writing and then questions what is on the page, that a new period of incubation, and with it, a “twist” or surprise in the direction of the project can occur. To write a draft and never pause and consider what is on the page and where the work is going is to deny the writer the pleasure of surprise in her writing.

But does this happen naturally for our student writers? Would that it did, but in most cases, it does not. Murray’s answer to this dilemma is “mini” one-on-one conferences with students, in which a student will bring a very rough draft or even a sketch of ideas for the paper. Upon arrival to the conference, Murray would ask his students very basic follow-up questions on what they have written so far, such as, “What did you learn from this piece of writing? What do you intend to do in the next draft? What surprised you in the draft? Where is the piece of writing taking you? What do you like best in the piece of writing?” and finally, “What questions do you have of me” (Learning by Teaching 159)? By doing this, Murray pulls the students out of the traditional role of an inexperienced student writer who tends to write a rough draft and revise on a sentence level into the tasks of the more experienced writer who questions general direction and the larger theme of the piece. What is most interesting about this technique is that Murray found his students asking the questions of themselves and answering them before he had the chance to ask (Learning by Teaching 159). He was teaching the students to revise with the “big picture” in mind, a needful part of any writing task and an ability which can be transferred across the curriculum.

Next, Murray encouraged his colleagues to put down their red pens and pick up a pencil to write with their students. As stated previously, Murray himself was a writer. Not only was he a journalist, but he also wrote several books, many on writing and teaching writing. He wrote two autobiographical novels, one following the loss of a child and the other after he experienced a heart attack.

Murray’s admonition to teachers to write was two-fold: first, he encouraged all teachers to write outside of the classroom, whether it be fiction or academic writing; and secondly, he promoted writing in the classroom along with the students. Roy Peter Clark, in a recent tribute to Murray states, “I can boil that knowledge [given to Clark by Murray] down into a series of statements about writing [one of which is]: That teachers should write with and for their students, in the classroom and the newsroom” (Poynter Online December 31, 2006). Murray didn’t only write outside of the classroom, but he practiced what he preached and wrote with his students, working through many of the same practices he assigned them, reading them his outcomes, good and bad, and discussing what made them so. He recounted one such occasion when he wrote to the same prompt he’d given his students in Expecting the Unexpected. When the timed protocol was up, he shared what he had with his students. He stated that the result was two-fold for him: “Support. I shared it with the class when they shared theirs, and they laughed. [and] Doubt. Since they laughed, I worried […]” Expecting 141). He goes on to describe how reading to his students impacted his work, helping to change his ideas, reform drafts.

One can only imagine the many benefits this practice had for his students. To see their teacher as one of them, experiencing the same self doubt and realizing that it is okay to fail in those early drafts (A Writer Teaches 8-9) enables a student to try, to write without heavy expectations, to be open to surprise, and to realize that writing isn’t a magical “taught” formula, but a daily exercise of revision, rethinking, and rewriting.

So, when you stand before your students this fall, remember to ask the tough questions; teach your students to think beyond sentence level grammar and into the heart of their projects; and write with them in the classroom and for them outside of it, sharing your failures and successes equally and without shame. And should you find yourself questioning this most humble of callings, remember how Murray answered the question, “Why teach writing?”:

"I continue to teach writing, because I will never learn to teach writing – even when I write books on how to write and how to teach. I can only continue to experiment with ways of creating an environment in which I can get out of the way of my students and watch – applauding – as they teach themselves the craft none of us will ever learn." (A Writer Teaches 245)

Works Cited
Berkenkotter, Carol. “Decisions and Revisions: The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer.” College Composition and Communication. 34.2 (1983): 156-169.
Clark, Roy Peter. “The Take and The Give: A Tribute to Don Murray.” Poynter Online.
December 31, 2006. The Poynter Institute. April 21, 2008. .
Madigan, Chris. “Applying Donald Murray’s ‘Responsive Teaching.’” College Composition and Communication. 39.1 (1988): 74-77.
Murray, Donald M. Expecting the Unexpected: Teaching Myself– and Others– to Read and
Write. New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1989.
---. Learning by Teaching, Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching. New Hampshire:
Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1982.
---. “Response of a Laboratory Rat– or, Being Protocoled.” College Composition and Communication. 34.2 (1983): 156-169.
---. A Writer Teaches Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.


Michelle said...

Wow; thanks for that post! Although I have a recently-received undergraduate degree in English and a state teaching certificate for secondary students, I'm also a grad student who's not taught outside student teaching, and next semester will be my first semester in the classroom, teaching a freshman composition class. I have enough of a background in education and FYC (I've been tutoring at Writing Centers for years now), but I can't wait to get my hands on that book and read it over the summer!

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