Writing I and Writing II are required as part of the gen-eds, a fairly normal thing for all universities. This universal requirement means that students who fear writing or who simply do not value writing as a part of their future must take it anyway. Enforced education is problematic and leads to resistance. I could expect a certain percentage of “problem” students who resist the course in some expected and unexpected ways, some fairly creative. Despite past experience, I choose to expect the best, most motivated students instead. They will aim for writing that connects to their interests and they will have interests. If they don’t, the class will be the place where they discover their academic interests through writing about them. It may well mean a change of majors, a small thing weighed against a lifetime of working at something they are indifferent to or actively don’t like just for the money. They may learn to like writing, be seduced by its ability to lead to new insights or to a greater understanding of self. They may not and continue to dislike it, but even then, they can gain the comfort of feeling competent at writing, an assurance that whatever writing task shows up in the future, they can analyze what is needed and succeed. This is what I expect and most of the time I get it.
Each semester the dance between expecting the best and the unexpected roadblocks play out. There are times teaching composition is a long, hard slog, and the last week of classes and finals week can lead to despair. Students that disappeared because of a heavy class and work load reappear in a panic. Students on the edge between grades begin to negotiate, give reasons why work “is not that bad” or question assessment categories such as audience. These truly are the weeks that define them, but it is also when I especially need to stay true to myself, to be the writing teacher I aspire to be. I vow to be that teacher. I must also acknowledge though that students need to bring a reasonable amount of effort to the class too and if they don’t, it is their choice. In order to stay fair to the students who did put in the time and effort, I need to play fair there too and have clear vision when assessing work.
Today is the last day of classes for my university, a good day to look back and think about my classes and the last things that need to be done. It is often a time for regrets and occasional triumphs. For example, I also teach a Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature class this semester. Its primary mode of assessment is writing, with fairly spirited discussion about the readings leading to that writing. They were engaged with the material and developed the habit of leaving the class together and continuing the conversation as they walked, settling in a spot across from the student union to talk more. This is not a required classes for anything, but it does fulfill a need for a certain number of hours of 300-level and above courses to meet the requirements for the B.A. Thank you, degree requirements. I have to ask myself, could this happen with composition? Could the academic writing approach (WID) engage students just as thoroughly as this class where students admittedly have a prior interest in the material?
My answer remains yes and no. Yes, they can be engaged in writing about the hot topics in their field, in building an approach to a subject that is uniquely theirs, However, not all Writing II students are passionate about their major, and preprofessional majors will always be difficult to write about on the undergraduate level. That is why that even though I stay with a WID approach in Writing II (modified WID in Writing I), the assignments are designed to give students experience in different kinds of writing that they could reasonably encounter later, either in future undergraduate courses, in graduate school (the focus of my 300-level Writing II), or in their work life post college. Postponed rewards are not always appreciated, So this day, a day of grading for me, I will celebrate what they have done and attempt in my comments to express and celebrate the progress they’ve made. Every single student has made progress, even the ones who stopped coming because of hard times and enrolled with me for a second try in the fall. That too, is a victory.