How I teach technical writing

Introducing technical writing:

In my technical writing courses I use many of the same real world examples that I discussed above in “Introducing writing.”  We actually examine the Three Mile Island memo as part of memo writing.  I also mention the promotion a friend did not get because he was not able to write well; the students are usually impressed when I mention that the raise that went with the promotion was $43,000 a year and they usually quickly figure out how long it was before he had lost a million dollars.  I am not sure why they find that number fascinating, but their reactions show they are listening.  Though it was not available when I taught technical writing before, Killian Advertising offers examples of horrible cover letter errors, from real cover letters, to help the students see what not to do.   There are many other useful websites available now on different aspects of business and technical writing; an excellent one is “Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design” by Jakob Nielsen.  It is easy to read and understand, yet professional enough that programmers refer to it.


Modeling technical writing:

The modeling process also applies to technical writing.  When I taught the class at Purdue, I began applying for jobs at the same time.  I kept every version of my curriculum vita as I did revision and I showed these to the students.  I think while we were working on resumes I did seven versions.  When I went to Abilene, I took all of those with me and used them as examples.  I also took a friend’s resume, which was for a legal position, and revised it.  The students looked at it with me and offered suggestions, based on what they had learned.  It was fun to see them showing off their newly gained expertise.


Goal for technical writing:

When students leave my technical writing class, I want them to have been exposed to and practiced most kinds of writing from the corporate world, including those they need for the job search.  Usually my students, especially those who are already working, feel more confident about their writing and can talk about ways the class has helped them.

How to teach freshman composition

Or at least how I do it.

Teaching writing:

Much of my college level teaching experience to date has been teaching writing:  developmental studies, freshman composition, business writing, and advanced composition.  I prepared to teach these courses through the primary area in my doctorate, Rhetoric and Composition.  I have taken twenty-four graduate hours in the theoretical and practical aspects of composition as well as an additional twelve hours in communication.  I enjoy teaching writing and believe that writing is an important skill for my students to learn and that it is essential to enhancing the quality of their education and their life beyond college.


Introducing writing:

In introducing writing, I offer examples from life to show that the assignment is not just useful for a grade in class but is also relevant to work after school, since students sometimes have the impression that college and the learning they do there is separate from “real life.”  For example, when introducing audience, one example I give for the importance of knowing your audience is the memos sent by the main engineer for the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island and his inability to alert management to the impending problems because of his lack of audience awareness.  In discussing plagiarism I present the 2006 case of the Washington Post blogger, whose excellent high profile job was lost because he had plagiarized in college.  In the introduction to a paper on definition and illustration, I discuss the Challenger explosion and the misunderstanding generated by two different definitions for the word “secondary.”

These sorts of examples bring possible future implications home and help focus student interest. 


Practice and revise:

In writing, I believe that practice makes, if not perfect, at least more competent; therefore I give many written assignments in my composition classes.  The positive aspects of this are two-fold: the student is learning by doing and if the student does poorly on an assignment, the student’s grade is not lowered catastrophically.  In addition, I believe that giving the students the opportunity to rewrite papers helps them to learn what is wrong with their individual papers, by applying grammar they may theoretically know quite practically to their own writing, and learning how to correct their mistakes before turning in the next paper.  Finally I offer my students the opportunity to write their papers early and bring them to me so that we can go over them together before they are due.  If a student is willing to work to improve, I want to give all the help I can.


Overcoming difficulties:

In the past I have found that the research paper can overwhelm students.  Partly that is because many have never done such a major assignment and they often are not prepared for the amount of out-of-class work required.  One way I have responded to that is to divide the research paper into smaller components. 

The students get a library introduction and pick their topics. They write a one to two page paper on what they know about their topics and why they chose them. 

Then they find articles and take notes.

We go through how to write a Works Cited and then, using the articles they have brought to class with their notes, the students each write one citation on the board.  In this way, other students help them recognize errors.  Although that can be embarrassing, they respond well to this exercise and appear to enjoy it.  At the end of that application, everyone in the class has written at least one citation and as many of the students use citations from similar sources, they have seen multiple examples of the types of citations they need to create. 

After that we work on possible organization for their papers by creating outlines. 

Then they write a short paper each, which eventually becomes part of the research paper, where they present one of the arguments on their issue.  I mark these and return them and they then have a portion of their papers written. 

Finishing up the preliminary writing is much less frightening at that point.  Next they turn in three copies of the paper.  Students do peer editing on two copies and I give the other a quick (two to three minute) read and mark major difficulties.  Then the students do a final revision of their research papers based on both the peer editing, which are usually more in-depth than mine, and my marks and turn them in. 

Students tend to feel better about the research paper and their work improves throughout the project because it is broken into smaller steps.  And presenting the research paper in these smaller pieces models for the students how they can reduce an unmanageable project into reasonable size sections.


Modeling writing:

Modeling writing can be hard for a teacher to do because either we prepare beforehand and the students are overwhelmed by our speed in doing the assignment or we run the risk of being embarrassed by our own slowness in the classroom.  However, I have found that modeling assignments similar to what the students are required to do is beneficial to the students.  After having given the parameters of an assignment, I will often discuss how I would approach the writing.  I will model my thought process and make notes on the computer or board so the students will see how what I say works out in what I am doing.  Then I will begin writing the assignment. 

In one class, I was modeling a definition/illustration paper and I was so quick to come up with my next point that students were frustrated.  One of them mentioned awe at how quickly I worked and I explained that the particular assignment I was writing had been an example for several years; my quick writing was the result of years of prewriting.  I realized my speed was frustrating them, because they could not imagine ever being that fast to prewrite and write.

So I chose another topic, one I had not modeled before, and began the assignment again.  This time I was much slower and when I was caught without a third strong example, I modeled my thinking process for what I might do and came up with a solution.  While the students were completing their assignment before the next class, I also rewrote mine and presented them with the finished project, showing where I had changed sentences and even that problematic third example, which in the new version was a strong and relevant example.  They liked the fact that I had done my ‘homework’ too. 

The best part of it was they also saw, although they may not have realized it, how revision is necessary, even for a professional.


Updating a writing class:

Many people think that a writing class is stagnant- once a plan has been made, a syllabus constructed, there is no reason for review, except when a new textbook is adopted.  However, I think that my classes should adapt.  I have added online reading assignments to my writing classes; these cover everything from how to succeed at college (Dr. Mom’s site), an important question for first-generation college students particularly, to how test taking improves memory (LiveScience article).   My students read the latter and said that they appreciate quizzes now, which was an unexpected bonus.  They are not as enthusiastic about the quiz I give over how to take tests, but it does reinforce the lesson on test-taking, a skill that not all students have previously developed. As I learn and as the world changes, so do my writing classes.


Goals for freshman writing:

My ultimate goal is that, when the students leave my freshman writing class, they will know they are able to write any paper assigned in college.  I also want them to be confident that they can learn to write any kind of composition because they have successfully achieved that goal in my classes. Many students are hesitant about their writing ability when they begin freshman composition and my classes are designed to help them grow in skill and confidence.


How to teach literature

Reading literature:

As an avid reader, I have enjoyed taking literature courses. My second field of study in my doctoral program was Old English language and literature. In addition, my master’s focused on literature primarily in early British and American literature for a total of thirty-six graduate hours in literature.  I have relished the opportunities I have had to teach literature classes, both sophomore British literature through the eighteenth century and freshman writing about literature.

In teaching a literature course, I believe that the more the students enjoy the readings in class, the more likely they are to finish the assigned texts and continue reading similar works after they finish the course.  Examining the choices available, I select works I am enthusiastic about, since enthusiasm is contagious.  Beowulf is a favorite of mine and the students benefit from studying the work with someone who enjoys it.  I have had students, even those who have studied the work before, tell me that they did not realize Beowulf was so fascinating.  I do not think the text changed, but the way they looked at it clearly did.

Providing background information:

I also make sure the students have the background they need to understand a particular work, including historical, linguistic, and cultural information.  For example, when teaching “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I introduce the students to the history of psychiatric care and to the changing expectations of women, specifically delineating the idea of the “weaker sex” and how that plays out in illness, relationships, and social life. Additional readings include Nellie Bly’s biography and her expose of asylums, Ten Days in a Mad-House, while those who wish to learn more about historical responses to insanity might read Torrey and Miller’s The Invisible Plague or for a quicker overview examine posts on the topic at I also try to give the students related literary readings, so that they can see the work as a part of a larger canon and not as a work in isolation. When teaching Gilman’s short story, the class also reads “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin and the play “Trifles” by Susan Glaspell.  This gives the students the opportunity to compare the role of illness, both mental and physical, and the role of women in different stories written during similar time periods.  This enrichment approach to literature encourages the students to develop their own deeper insights about the works and the themes and ideas presented in them.

Modeling how to read literature:

Modeling how to read literature is a practice essential to my courses.  I usually begin to read the assignment with the students, since this introduces them to the work in a non-threatening way.  When a concept is new to the course, I often have the class brainstorm together; when teaching Shakespeare, the class collaborates on possible definitions for tragedy and comedy.  When I am teaching poetry and want them to practice intense reading, I allow them to choose a poem not on my assigned list and, as a class, we read through it on consecutive days, making notes and identifying our changing understanding of the work. They expect me as the expert to know everything about a poem with the first reading and this experiment lets me show them how even someone well versed in reading poetry can learn from subsequent readings.

If the literary work is challenging, I provide help with vocabulary lists and questions to focus on particular issues as needed.  Several of my students have said that these act as a guide for them when they are reading so they know that they understand the text when they are able to begin to answer the questions.  A sample question for Gulliver’s Travels is:

Gulliver says, “Although there were few greater lovers of mankind, at that time, than myself, yet I confess I never saw any sensitive being so detestable on all accounts; and the more I came near them the more hateful they grew, while I stayed in that country” (Bk. 4, Ch. 2).

  Gulliver’s revulsion forms the basis for his intense hatred of mankind (misanthropy).  Why and to what extent is it normal for Gulliver to react to the Yahoos this way and how is his reaction problematic?

Questions like these allow the students to explore the text and its implications rather than just rush through a reading to say it is finished and perhaps miss the reading’s most important lessons.  If a student can read well, most things become accessible.

Goals for literature:

In my classes I also discuss the applications of literary analysis to other areas of their lives.  A character analysis can be very similar to a personnel review, for example.  It can also be useful when trying to sort out personality conflicts among friends.  In addition I try to show that other people, besides English teachers, have read the works and expect that they will have too.  To do this, I bring in comic strips or cartoons that refer to the works we are reading.  I also reference editorial letters in newspapers or magazine articles on other topics that refer to literature. It is a light-hearted way to make a serious point.  I hope that they are encouraged to keep reading long after the assignments are completed.

Problems with English Class: 1

Newmark’s Door talks about gripes he has with English classes. And I, of course, jump to respond.

1. Instructors spend too much time discussing issues more appropriate for specialists such as symbolism, archetypes, and historical context. They should, instead, focus on the issue, “Why is this book/short story/essay good?” And they should also highlight “What can the student learn from this piece to improve his or her own writing?”

The historical context makes a good work better. Gulliver’s Travels is a good book. It is better when you can understand the satire in it, which can only be done through the historical context. Frankenstein becomes more interesting as you know the historical scientific context…. It’s true of many works.

I agree that symbolism is overrated. I tell my students that anything can be a symbol and stand for something and that as long as they can explain why they think some thing is a symbol of some other thing, they’re good to go, im my opinion.

But the last point he makes in this section… what can a student learn from this? I don’t think that I’ve ever asked that about literature. I’ve told my students what NOT to learn from Hemingway. Yes, I tell them, Hemingway uses fragments all the time. But Hemingway isn’t turning in college essays. You must know the rules for writing correctly before you can get away with breaking them. And, I tell them, your job in class is to show me that you know the rules.

I know that Benjamin Franklin learned to write from copying other people’s writing. And, I think, I saved a link somewhere to someone who recommends “copywork” for modern homeschoolers. I read it within the last month, I believe.

But I’ve never thought of what a student could get out of literature except an enjoyment of it, a broadening of their perspective, a larger vocabulary, and an introduction to a thought or idea told in a way they’ve never heard before. I don’t expect any of my students to become professional writers, though some may someday. I don’t expect they’ll be writing literature.

So what should they get out of literature? I try to give them a love for it. Even, despite one commenter’s view, a love of poetry. I figure most of the enjoyment is smooshed out of children with things like having to learn the difference between Italian and Shakespearean sonnets. I’m teaching college students, not high school students (except my own) these days, but that’s what I want them to have… An introduction, a taste of the great literature of our language.

I explain to them that literature is mostly depressing and they must learn to deal with that. But I also explain to them why most literature is depressing. The lecture goes something like this:

What was funny two thousand years ago isn’t funny now. Same with a thousand, five hundred, sometimes even fifty years ago. Think of literature as a person. Do you laugh at the same jokes you thought were hilarious when you were five? How many of you adored knock knock jokes and thought they were uproariously funny? Do you still laugh at them as much? No. Your idea of what is funny has changed. And the idea of what is funny changes quickly.

On the other hand things that were a tragedy two thousand years ago are still sad today. Are you sad if your father is killed? Is it terrible if someone pokes their eyes out? Is suicide depressing? Yes. All those things are still a tragedy today. And they were when Oedipus Rex was written in Greek centuries ago. Would it be upsetting if someone kept getting into the White House and killing people? Would everyone want the suspect caught? If the murderer were killed, might his family not want revenge? Wouldn’t that be bad? What if the good guy were killed battling a monster and all but one of his friends ran away? Would you be upset? Yes. And that’s Beowulf fourteen hundred to a thousand years later.

Sad stays the same. Funny changes.

And that’s what answers his question “What makes this work good?” It’s a story that tells well a thousand years later. It’s details that spark the imagination across millenia. It’s a happening that you can imagine, even if you can’t believe. And you can relate, in some way, to it. None of my students have been in their death throes and deserted by all, but every one of them, I am sure, has found a friend to be less true than they expected or wanted. We can relate to the story. And so the tale continues to live.