Teaching Writing – lesson one
I have a doctorate – a doctor of arts degree – from George Mason University. The National Center for Community College Education is at GMU and the degree is through the center. Students go into the program with a Master’s Degree, and then in addition to courses in a major (mine is composition, but you can do art, science, math, whatever) they have to take five education courses, do an internship, and take comprehensive exams in both the education department and the major department. Then comes the dissertation. It’s a practitioner’s degree, not a theoretical degree, so not a doctor of philosophy. My dissertation was pedagogical – I studied a classroom of students to whom I was teaching a research writing course at Temple University in Japan. Obviously a lot of what I do as a writer is informed by the teaching of writing that I’ve done and the research contained therein.
But the main lesson that I’ve learned is that all the teaching of writing in the world could not prepare me for the experience of writing my own fiction.
With my students, I’m demanding and I insist they write on a schedule. I create assignments so that they do specific parts of the essay or story on a timeline. I realize that I force them to write every day so they get into the habit. I also force them to consider ideas from varying points of view. In every class I’ve taught, except for the fiction classes, my students have to read an article from the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post on Sundays and then write one paragraph of summary and one paragraph of response. To me, thinking is part of writing.
My mantra when I teach is that thinking is the hardest part of writing. If you can get the ideas together, the words are easy to just jot down on paper. Where most people fail is in the cognition – the actual coalescence of ideas. But that idea is really difficult to explain to someone who is afraid of writing. So many people I’ve found are simply afraid of writing! Expressing oneself is an important part of being human, and expression on paper is an extension of the self.
I think about all these things when I write myself. As I edit the two books that I’ve written, I understand my students more and more. Revision is the hardest, but the most necessary part of writing. No one’s work is perfect on the first go.
I’m sure I have many more lessons to learn as I go through this process of writing. The teacher that I’ve been in the past informs the writer that I am in the present – and hope to be in the future. The journey is just beginning.