Posts Tagged ‘Mariolina Salvatori’

How a Linguist Teaches Writing

December 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Few teachers of writing hold degrees in Linguistics. It’s rare enough that a master’s degree in Linguistics doesn’t automatically satisfy the state of California’s “minimum qualifications” for someone like me to teach English in a Community College.

A railroad track in New York.

A railroad track, somewhere in rural New York.

I was once asked to explain how my training as a linguist informs how I teach writing. The preparation is excellent. The benefits of the training run deeper than just enabling me to help students learn the conventions of English grammar and mechanics; the training especially informs my pedagogical stance towards students at the first-year composition level and above.

In these course, I’m prepared for a common set of questions from students:

How many sentences does a paragraph need to have?

Can I use the word “I”  in an academic essay?

How do I know if I should quote or paraphrase?

When I began teaching, I would answer these sorts of questions by telling students to do whatever I would do if I were writing the same essay. Over time, I’ve come to read these sorts of questions deeper, to see them as vehicles by which students attempt to surrender authority over their writing in favor of receiving a confident proclamation of what’s “right.”

I try to avoid taking this bait.  Instead, I often find it more productive to respond by asking What have you heard? What do you think? What are the implications of doing it this way? I’m still surprised at how often students are already 90% of the way towards answering their own questions, and usually when I ask a couple careful follow-up questions, students willingly take ownership over their writing project.

This way of responding is grounded in my prior training as a linguist.  When analyzing how language works, the linguist is constantly tempted to posit definitive rules. But it soon becomes apparent that every “rule” of grammar is dogged by its exceptions, and those exceptions carry their own asterisks. In the face of such chaos, there can be no final human authority on how language works, a point I return to over and over in my teaching. All a linguist can do is ask questions and consider hypotheses, which are either refined or disproven through skeptical inquiry.

Along these lines, I aim for my first-year composition students learn to write in ways that acknowledge uncertainty. This goal is achieved well through Patricia Donahue and Mariolina Salvatori’s Difficulty Paper assignment, an assignment which asks students to begin writing about a reading, not by confidently asserting a thesis statement, but by exploring their own a confusion, struggle, or question—pushing students away from imposing canned closure onto complex issues.

A student once told me they found my ping-ponging their questions flustering, because they never knew where I stood. That’s okay with me. I care more about the reasoning skills students acquire, and their ability to reflexively interrogate that reasoning. My questions aim to make students meta-cognitively aware of the choices they make in their composing processes, so their thinking can continue to grow long after they’ve left my class. Ten years down the road, my students probably will have forgotten where I stood on the issue of using “I” in an academic essay. But I hope, if nothing else, that whenever they write, they still hear my voice echoing in their head, questioning every choice.

Of course, some situations demand that teachers assume leadership and take a more directive approach (for instance, developmental and basic skills courses). Though students learn best by exploring problems through their own volition, they cannot learn everything this way. Again, my training as a linguist shapes how I approach this sort of teaching. Linguists are trained to explain patterns of human language through parsimony—by developing the most simple, elegant explanation possible for a given phenomena. The idea is that, all else equal, the simplest explanation usually proves the best (Occam’s Razor). The same often holds true when explaining concepts to students. In the face of complex explanations and lengthy digressions, even the sharpest students glaze over. Faced with the myriad challenges of composing, students can only synthesize so much instruction at once.

Simplification doesn’t mean, however, that I dumb things down. It means I express sophisticated concepts in minimalist language chosen with care, while still acknowledging underlying complexity. Only once I am certain that students grasp my points, which takes time, can I look to introduce further complexities.

Parsimony also means focusing in depth on a small number of concepts, rather than trying to touch on everything (This is especially relevant in an inter-disciplinary subject like composition.). This principle holds for designing a course, crafting a lesson, or working with a particular student over a semester. For instance, I designed a first-year composition course that had students writing Difficulty Papers throughout the term, and incorporating Rogerian arguments into every major essay. Students benefit more when they learn to do one or two things in depth and well, rather than touching on a little bit of everything. They become experts on a subject and they become better positioned to learn with the same level of depth and focus, whatever they go on to next.

It’s a sad fact, but one that all writing teachers better acknowledge, that no one will ever design the writing class that teaches students, in one semester, anything close to all they need to know to write well.