I’ve been teaching college writing courses off and on since 1985 or thereabouts. I’d doing it again this spring–I’m teaching two courses of basic writing, and one course of college writing. And just about the time we headed into this term it dawned on me that the one thing I’m not teaching is writing. My students already have the marks-on-paper stuff down cold.
It took a student bringing in a paper he had “written” by speaking to his computer for me to realize this. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m teaching. Is it grammar? No–there are grammar checkers. Is it spelling? No–spelling’s a visual memory; memorizing word lists isn’t going to make anyone a better speller. Is it modes of writing? Not really. What’s the point in being able to spout a particular format of essay on command?
It seems to me that what I am doing is teaching students not how to write, but how to think. I teach them how to find, gather, and evaluate information, and document where they got it. I teach them how to go beyond the obvious to the hidden messages buried in imagery and context. I teach them how to weigh conflicting opinions. I teach them how to reason a problem through, make judgment calls, lay out their findings in simple, persuasive terms.
If I do my job right, I prepare my students for every other class they will take in college–and for every day they will live afterwards. I am teaching them how to learn about and understand the world.