Teaching Writing at Bryn Mawr

A dozen or so students and a professor sit in a circle at individual desks, talking about how to write well. One student offers her ideas on writing introductions; another student across from her expands on the point, drawing on advice she received in AP English. The professor sits back in her seat, nodding affirmation. She scans the sleepy faces around her. When the discussion lulls, the professor leans forward to reiterate and reframe what’s been said, reinforcing her favored approach to that devilish problem for all writing: where to begin.

So goes the typical scene of instruction, especially writing instruction. It happens in small-ish seminars where content, for once in the college curriculum, is subordinated to skills. Usually, these seminars feature a good bit of discussion. Writing instruction also forms part of the initiation of students into college: first years learn to write and seniors are expected to execute these lessons. Or at least this is the implicit principle underlying the college requirements.

I begin with a different image. Two students sit on a bench, leaning towards each other as they face away from the camera. Their topic is not self-evident, although you can imagine a sheaf of white papers on each of their laps; their heads are slightly angled down. They are alone but for the grassy lawn and arcade with Gothic pointed arches of an idealized North American college campus encircling them. No scene of instruction appears – and no instructor. We see them through the lens of an inset window latticed with burnished iron bars. Rough stone walls frame the pair.

Teaching writing these past ten years, I’ve come to shift my picture of how writing can be taught. Yes, I still lecture about gerunds and dangling modifiers. But I also emphasize even more the idea of studentship, of becoming your own best teacher. The scene in this photograph captures an image of students learning to teach themselves by practicing how to teach one another. This begins, for me, with learning to read their own work aloud.

To read your own work aloud often feels frightening. Not only do you have to listen to your voice; the effect is doubled by the content’s being your own words as well. Yet just as actors practice expressions and movements before a mirror, writers need to practice listening to their language. I find it impossible to require students to read alone to themselves in their dorm rooms or library carrels. But I can have them read to one another and to me. We can learn how to be our own mirrors by playing the mirror for one another.

When a student reads an essay aloud to me during a conference, I first ask: What did you hear? That is, did you notice anything when you read that aloud? They always do. Clunky sentences, overused words, errors large and miniscule: compositions often predominates in the first round of reflection. These are correctible failings. But then I ask again: What else? On second look, the deeper structures emerge: I think I didn’t really arrive at my point until the end. Or: It’s not clear where my ideas begin to pull away from those we’ve been discussing in class already. Now we have something to talk about. Even more so, now the student has already started down the path of rewriting, which, as I say on the first day of our course until the last, is the essential activity of writing itself.

Writing is revision, I often say. Revision means seeing again, looking again. Reading aloud allows students to do this aurally, not merely to see on the page what they think is there but to hear what is actually there. Seeing what you’re writing is looking at a photograph; reading it aloud is exploring the landscape by foot. And the latter allows for marvelous discoveries you simply wouldn’t encounter in the former.

When I pair students to read one another’s work, this “peer review,” as people often call it, actually involves peer listening and self reading. The peer learns to ask the first all important questions before the dialogue takes off. What did you hear? And: What else? This can be the groundwork upon which new practices of writing and reading arise. This allows students to practice their own studentship, to become teachers of writing by learning not just to read and to write but to listen and to revise.

When I learned to play French horn, one new and significant part of my training focused on intonation. Unlike a piano, where striking a key results in the intended note’s sounding, the French horn only has four keys and eight different combinations thereof. This means you must control the pitch with other factors as well as the key: airflow, tongue position, and embouchure, among them. To know how these need to be deployed, you must know the pitch; you need an idea – a musical idea, not an image – in mind when you summon all of the micro adjustments to produce the intended sound. Few of these choices appear to the viewer. You must learn them through listening. And this listening takes enormous practice and especially practice listening.

At first my teacher sat beside me. That’s not quite right, he’d say, and raise his horn to play the correct pitch. Later, I bought an electronic tuner that could give me more precision. The pitch could be correct but out of tune; on my tuner I could watch the pitch bend up or down, sharp or flat, depending on slight changes to my tongue, air, embouchure, or hand. I passed many hours simply holding pitches steady, learning to hear when they were true.

But tuning and pitch are also relative. Although the orchestras with which I played would tune to A440, we didn’t always hold this pitch. In chamber groups, moreover, I would need to adjust on the fly to any number of variations. My teacher couldn’t pick up his horn to correct me nor could I flip on my tuner. I had to learn to listen for myself. I had to become my own best teacher.

Writers have a similar charge, I think. The audience will always vary, much like the tuning of amateur musical ensembles. I can’t instruct my students on every given occasion. Nor can they revert to Strunk and White to solve anything but the most picayune problems. Listening to themselves begins the conversation about their writing, and this listening is what I hope all of them learned through practice, reflection, and repeated practice in my writing seminar.

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