How many times have you been in a classroom and the instructor used that phrase in the assignment guidelines for a paper or essay.

“In your own words, summarize what the author might have meant…”

“In your own words, analyze this speech…”

“In your own words, write someone else’s words…”

If you are a teacher or a tutor, how many times have you given this instruction, and gotten ten-to-fifteen nearly identical responses?

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I know I have personally experienced this. I found myself thinking I was coaxing a student I was tutoring into a direction, and they in turn wrote down, verbatim, exactly what I said. It was then awkward to explain why said student probably doesn’t want to use my exact phrasing. (Image Credit: Hello Giggles)

But, what I found, and what our readings this week focused on, is that a lot of students simply don’t understand what it means to write in your own words. To them, as my counterpart, Tennant examined last week in her own blog, students are too busy focusing on what they consider to be the best words – which unfortunately usually means the longest words.

As professors and future professors, I think it is important for us to understand that students do not understand that their writing is a part of their identity. As our reading observes this week, “Our identities are the ongoing, continually under-construction product of our participation in a number of engagements, including those from our near and distant pasts and our potential futures” (Roozen 51). Writing is such a big part of that. Every word you use, every sentence you construct, and every thought you express in the page is a product of your own identity and experiences.

Un-Teaching What Has Been Taught

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Unfortunately, in order to get our college-level students to understand this concept, we must first un-teach them everything they’ve been taught about writing previously: in other words, we must teach them that “to write a paper” does not mean that we want a 5 paragraph essay with exactly 5-7 sentences in each paragraph (no more, no less) with 3 random quotes from random articles stuffed in there somewhere, and don’t you dare have any grammatical errors!

In her article, “Ideology, Life Practices, and Pop Culture: So Why is This Called Writing Class?” Karen Fitts observes that “A subtle pressure is applied by first-year students themselves, who often think of writing as they were taught to think about it in elementary and secondary school: as either grammar instruction or writing about their feelings” (90). Sadly, this was also my experience in secondary writing, and I’ve observed in my time tutoring college freshman that not much has changed. I would also like to take a moment to say that I am not criticizing anyone who teaches this way. I have the deepest respect for all teachers and fully understand that sometimes method of instruction is out of our hands. I simply believe that if we can work to show students that writing is not math – there really aren’t any exact formulas (if one more student asks me if I think they have enough sentences in their paragraph, I’m going to cry and you will all have to watch.) The point of many of these assignments is to gather your thoughts on the topic, not to regurgitate what someone else said, and to do that, we want to see your words.

Perhaps this heavy focus on grammar-based writing instruction is a result of the simple truth that there is no formula to writing. “People who want the teaching of writing to be uniform . . . find this threshold concept frustrating, in part because they had hoped a single approach would enfranchise all writers” (Yancey 53). For teachers and curriculum that focuses on universal teachings, grammar – and perhaps citation styles – are really the only things that can be universally graded as right or wrong.

One teacher, who presents in a Ted Talk seen here, previously worked in a newsroom, and so his method of writing instruction was very heavily based in grammar. But he points out that, when grammar is the focus of the classroom learning, that “feedback drowns out every other kind of feedback” (1:55)

As I was thinking about what we learned in the readings and what was discussed in the Ted Talk, I really found myself wondering, and I pose this question to you all as well: Can we ever really grade someone’s writing a right or wrong if we are encouraging them to write with their own identities?

New Teaching Methods

Fortunately for us, we don’t have to find the answers to these questions alone! Many professors are embracing the mulitmodality of incorporating pop culture or relevant texts into the class room in an effort to get students engaged more. In their article, “Reflections on Building a Popular Writing Course,” Emily Howson and her peers state that “Instructors must confront the fact that analysis of cultural artifacts is not an exercise intended only to engage students. We are all impacted by culture.” As you may have gathered from my previous post, I would gladly impose Jane Austen, Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, and Leo Tolstoy on my students as a method for learning writing. “See how Jane Austen writes here…” Oh. God It would be fun. (In case you were wondering, I sighed and looked up wistfully there.) Unfortunately, not all students – more accurately most – students will not learn much from this method of writing instruction. In fact, I think the contrary effect would occur. Students will be intimidated by these masterful works of literature, some of which they can’t even comprehend, and feel that their writing must be the same if it is to be recognized at all.

Students will, however, relate to their favorite music groups, favorite movies, the tweets of their favorite celebrities or internet sensations, or even memes. If we can show students that these, while they may not be adapted into sappy dramas starring Keira Knightley, are still forms of writing, and they still express the author’s unique thoughts and experiences. (He said as he was listening to the music from Pride and Prejudice.)

In fact, an argument could even be made that meme culture could be a way to bridge the gap between harsh grammar rules teaching and individuality teaching. This article suggests a method of reviewing grammar memes in the classroom. Students will recognize the memes, but they will also be learning what the grammar rule is.

In a way, memes are the Magic School Bus or School House Rock of this generation. It is another way of adapting to the times and keeping students engaged. Having them even create their own meme might be another method of expressing their own unique ideas without them realizing they are actually writing!

Things to Think About…

I know none of us want admit it, but as time goes by, so too does the gap between us and the students. Sorry folks, we’re getting old. As such, we need to be cognizant of ways to keep students engaged who might not understand our cultural references like The Magic School Bus. Peers, how do you propose to keep students engaged and understanding the need for their own identities in the classroom as time goes on?

Works Cited

“Can we really teach writing”. YouTube, Uploaded by Tedx Talks, 8 June 2016.

Fitts, Karen. “Ideology, Life Practices, and Pop Culture: So Why Is This Called Writing Class?” JGE: The Journal of General Education, vol. 54, no. 2, 2005

Howson Emily, Chris Massenburg and Cecilia Shelton. “Reflections on Building a Popular Writing Course.” The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 3 no. 1 Accessed 6 Feb. 2021.

Roozen, Kevin. “Writing is Linked to Identiy.”  Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing StudiesEdited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, 2016, pp. 50-2.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Writers’ Histories, Processes, and Identities Vary.”  Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing StudiesEdited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, 2016, pp. 52-4.