Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Higher Education and Writing: Stating the Obvious?

In working with student writers, I see a wide range of skill level, as is the norm for my discipline and as my colleagues will attest. In teaching the basics of writing, or even higher level critical reading and thinking skills, presentation of abstract, general concepts is necessary.

What works, and to state the obvious, is connecting these concepts to real life experiences and issues. In our classes, not only do we read a selection of essays on topics such as education, health, and career, we discuss and respond to short documentary films and short news items. I am interested in getting the student engaged in our rich, complex world: community living, jobs, local political and environmental issues, and issues facing the nation and the world community. Young adults are still forming their views and voices. Being asked to think about and respond to relevant issues and readings is paramount to their developing their critical thinking skills. Applying cause-and-effect analysis, argument, process analysis, and narrative to various situations and topics helps students practice multiple forms of writing, thus building their experience and confidence in such.

Some individuals have wondered why I would bring up political or environmental issues in a writing class. This is perplexing to me. What else do writers write about? Abstract concepts and theories? As a former philosophy major, I am all in favor of discussing philosophical and ethical questions, but with writers, I want to hear their ideas, questions, and perspectives on issues affecting them now or in the near future. I am not interested in teaching students what to think, but I am interested in giving them models, tools, and feedback for developing their own ideas, writing voices. The challenge becomes to make articles, texts, and any lectures live with real examples, asking students to find and connect to examples and experiences from their own lives. This involves asking them to be more aware of their lives, their thinking, and to enjoy the acts of observing, being open minded, and asking questions. As a journalist and citizen, I know it's normal to ask questions, seek answers, communicate, discuss, and even debate. To be valued and respected within a community, effective, engaging, intelligent communication is expected. The practical applications to career success and civil discourse become more clear as the student engages in more and more of these writing situations.

Allowing students the opportunity to write about their own lives and the opportunity to express their perspectives and understanding of course content "goes hand-in-hand" with wanting students to address writing and responding as a natural act of communication. Often, students want clear steps and instructions how to respond, and sometimes this is necessary and needed, e.g. basic and developing writers. However, giving open-ended, but focused, prompts allows students the flexibility to read a text, evaluate its key points, the author's credibility, and respond in a confident way. Yes, there are quite a few students that need an opportunity to gain confidence in this form of expression, since it is quite different than their shorter communications: conversations with friends, media interaction (short bursts of news, information), texting, and emailing, to name a few. We do numerous short responses to essays and even video clips of news or information. We discuss the similarities between forms of communication and the organization of messages: theme, audience, tone, word choices, audience-centered examples, and more.

Once students gain experience and confidence in understanding that their opinions matter, they can be open to learning about how to engage the reader, build respect and credibility, and hopefully become inspired to read, research, and respond to subjects of deep interest to them. As a writing teacher, I am challenged to rethink my teaching methodologies, my pedagogies, and to find more engaging ways to bring the student into the classroom experience and the academic discussion. As some of my graduate professors were able to do, I want to challenge students to connect thinking and writing as related activities, something intelligent students, scholars, and citizens do instinctively. In a culture that assumes everyone has an opinion, helping students discover their own ideas, and the support to back them up, or at least new questions or perspectives, is very rewarding. These are skills that educators know will enhance people's lives, work, and civil activities. Asking crucial questions of ourselves, our culture, our work, and, as a specific example, asking what it means to be human in these various roles we perform, is vital to a thriving and democratic society.

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