In the first issue of Writing on the Edge, John Boe and Brian Connery suggest, “The ‘writing’ in writing teacher should be both a participle and a gerund.” That is, a writing teacher should not only be a teacher of writing but also a teacher who writes. I would add that the text a writing teacher writes most often—more so than the journal article—is the course itself: the syllabus, the assignment sheet, the lesson plan. 

As are the drafts of my writing, I find my teaching is messy. Both are works in progress. And so, I am skeptical of narratives that present a classroom orderly and easy, a classroom where all goes as planned. More compelling are the lessons that unravel. These moments can be the most productive for both students and teachers. 

I recently assigned a first-year writing class Richard Ohmann’s “Use Definite, Specific, Concrete Language,” an essay that questions Strunk and White’s canonical advice for writers. More than half the class misread Ohmann as endorsing rather than critiquing Strunk and White. As we moved through Ohmann’s essay some students came to understand it, but by the end of the semester the majority still misread him. They had heard so often and in so many different settings that writing should be definite, specific, and concrete that my course could not unsettle that deep belief. And though Ohmann had the potential to become a cornerstone for the remainder of the course for what his essay revealed about our reading practices, students quickly dismissed him. That discussion necessitated revision not only of the day’s lesson but also of future class meetings, of the course syllabus in terms of how and when and whether I introduce Ohmann to a freshman seminar, of—most importantly—how I teach reading through difficulty.  

But revision need not be prompted by missteps alone. A student from that course, on revision:

This is revision, the act of composing a sentence. This is composition, the act of revising a sentence. Just because it isn’t written down on paper doesn’t mean it can’t be revised. And just because you revised the sentence in your head doesn’t mean it can’t be revised again when it’s written on paper. 

This word play reveals something integral to my teaching. The student blurs revision––which she had believed meant merely tidying up a paper––and composition. She has come to see revision as essential to writing, and her prose reflects that muddiness. The way she swaps words and phrases held together by similar syntaxes demonstrates how she sees composition and revision bound to each other. Her syntax speaks to a method of thinking. That this student uses language to challenge her previously held ideas; that her prose reflects revision by its own self-conscious craft; that she works within a grey area and that her work is not yet finished––this is what I hope to foster as a writing teacher, in both senses of the term.   

Sample Syllabi

An introduction to college writing, this course teaches basic rhetorical theory through multiple rounds of revision.

Building on the work of WRI 1000, this course teaches writing within the disciplines—in my case, the humanities.

A major assignment of this course is keeping a commonplace book, and students write a final paper in response to their gathered sentences.

Relying on the most recent edition of The Best American Essays, this course asks students to imagine writing outside the bounds of standard-fare academic discourse.