Friday, August 23, 2013

How writing shapes my teaching

The 2013-2014 academic year is approaching at lightspeed. I teach at a community college, and this semester I have the pleasure of teaching four sections of English I and a section of English II. These courses involve lots and lots and lots of writing, and they're foundational courses for the academic writing students will do in the future.

So as I work on syllabi and tweak assignments, I can't help but reflect on how my experiences writing and publishing inevitably affect my teaching. Having my debut historical novel NEVER TOO LATE published earlier this year by eKensington was a dreamy, overwhelming whirlwind of goodness.  And it gave me a deeper, more visceral appreciation of writing advice I tend to give students perennially.

Writing is a process. I emphasize this every semester, throughout the semester. I structure assignments so that students practice separate stages of pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing, getting feedback, and polishing/proofreading. And, sure, I generally practice what I preach with most things I write in my academic life. But experiencing the publishing process on a professional level--working with an agent and editor and copyeditor and production editor--reinforces how very important it is to give every step the time and attention it deserves. It can be so easy to miss something, so easy to give in to impatience or frustration or fatigue. But each step matters, and it's not a straightforward staircase. Sometimes we have to backtrack and re-assess, to take a fresh look at the project and see what needs to be changed or moved, even if it's such a major change that it's painful. In the end, the time and effort are worth it.

Writing is work. Some people have a natural affinity for writing, a gift with words and ideas. But natural talent isn't enough. It's important to learn how writing works, to examine literary and rhetorical techniques, to analyze what makes various pieces of writing effective. While some writers just have brilliance flowing from their fingertips at will, there is much about really effective, really powerful writing that can be learned...and practiced.

Writing makes us vulnerable. One very important reminder, one that can be so easy for writing teachers to forget in the hustle and bustle of the semester, is that writing for an audience makes the writer vulnerable. Some students come into my classes already feeling insecure about their writing skills, perhaps because of previous less-than-successful experiences or because they've been told sometime in the past that they aren't "good writers." Being in the position of having my work read and reviewed by total strangers is wildly exciting but also tremendously humbling.  It's an important reminder of how many of my students must feel when I hand back their project portfolios. I recognize how they brace themselves before looking at their grade, and I sympathize.

Writing can be fun. I must admit that, in my classes, I have a tendency to focus so much on academic writing and on helping students become part of the academic discourse community. One of the reasons I transitioned from writing (or trying to write) literary fiction to writing historical romance was that I found my lit fic attempts heavy and serious and depressing...and writing historical romance helped me rediscover the joy of writing. It made me feel lighter, more carefree...doors and windows in my mind flew open as I gave myself permission to explore and play. (And then, of course, came the work of revision and editing and polishing.) So perhaps one of the most important things I need to remember this semester is to make time for students to play in their writing, to at least occasionally foster an atmosphere of joy and exploration in the midst of all that serious academic work.

5 comments:

  1. This is a fabulous post, Amara, and one I'm bookmarking to read again!

    Good luck with the semester! We switched to a new textbook for one of my classes, so I have to re-work a lot of my lectures. Not like I had anything else to do, though, right? ;)

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    1. Thanks! Good luck to you too--with the semester and all the other fun stuff! When is your release date? That's going to be added fun in the middle of the semester! :)

      Ah, yes, I just love those textbook changes. We got a new edition, but that just requires a little tweaking, not a major overhaul.

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  2. Good points, all. Plus, they can be rephrased to apply to many aspects of life. Have fun with your classes.

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    1. You know, I hadn't thought of it like that. Absolutely! Thanks!

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  3. Nice read! It appears to me that writing has always appear in our experience as a result a pointless method of indicating ourselves. :) Marj of Red-pen-masters.com.

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