On Teaching Writing Vs. Teaching Literature

A couple of notable essays have appeared recently about focusing on teaching writing, as opposed to literature.  Here are a few money quotes, starting with the original piece in Salon:

It’s hard to blame anyone for not wanting to teach writing, which, while it might not involve manual labor or public floggings, is hard, grueling work. Often it demands maximum effort for minimum payoff, headache-inducing attention to detail, wheelbarrows full of grading, revision after revision, conferences with teary-eyed students. Who wouldn’t prefer to talk about books or stories or poems? Problem is, the hard, grueling work to be done doesn’t go away. Ask any college composition teacher.

 A reaction from another teacher, quoted at Instapundit:

Teenagers, already a cauldron of emotions, rather enjoy boiling over onto paper, as long as authenticity trumps accuracy or analysis. They “reflect” all the time, mostly on their cell phones in indecipherable shorthand. Building, supporting, and defending a thesis – that’s much less fun. Teaching them to how do it, and grading the results, is much harder work as well.

Others have chimed in, but you get the idea: teaching literature is fun and easy, whereas teaching writing is painful. 

It’s absolutely true.  I try to do writing instruction in my classes—and some classes end up getting it more than others—but the preference for almost any English teacher is reading fiction.  I’m thinking now of one English teacher I’ve known who declared that she would not guide students on an essay through the whole writing process, because it would take far too long and be too frustrating. 

I sympathize, but the fact is that that’s what we signed up for.  General writing quality is pretty atrocious, and we need to do better of getting in the trenches, slogging through the mud, and fighting the good fight, in for the long haul.  (Along the way, maybe we can help new writers eschew clichés!) 

But there’s one very important thing that the teachers above have missed: you can’t separate reading and writing and make the latter an independent priority.  None of us learned to speak English merely by studying phonetics textbooks, and neither does anyone ever become a decent writer simply by working through grammar exercises, but by reading how the language is supposed to be used well by published professionals. 

Bottom line: nobody ever became a good writer without first being a great reader.  One of the chief values of studying quality works in our schools is to provide students with a multitude of worthy models to follow.  (This is one reason why I don’t let students read Twilight and Harry Potter for any independent reading projects—school exists to teach skills by working, not to promote pleasure reading, and there’s no point in teaching students what they already know.) 

So yes, let’s not avoid writing instruction; we cheat our students when we flinch in the face of editing and revision over as many drafts as it takes.  However, let’s remember that all that reading reinforces their writing practice, and hopefully our instruction integrates the two. 

The formula is simply to do as much of both as possible.  At least we won’t get bored.

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One comment on “On Teaching Writing Vs. Teaching Literature

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