Once you express yourself, you can tell the world what you want from it … All the changes in the world, for good or evil, were first brought about by words.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

As a student and a lifelong-aspiring writer, I have always been moved by the power of effective writing. It has always seemed to me that, if you can write well, the world is essentially at your fingertips. While this mindset has not changed, my idea of what constitutes as “good” writing continues to change and evolve as I prepare to teach my first First Year Composition Classes in Fall 2021.

Writing is all around us and takes an infinite number of forms. Everyone, from students in any major to teachers to soccer moms to CEOs to bloggers to internet trolls, uses some form of writing, invokes the rhetorical appeals, and considers audience in some way every day – whether they are cognizant of it or not. As a FYC Professor, I believe that is my job to help students become aware that they already use these and other writing skills, and teach through engaging discussion and reflective revision processes, how to strengthen these skills that will help them throughout the rest of their college careers and lives. I feel that my job has been most effectively completed when a senior in his Honors Biology Capstone class remembers and utilizes the writing skills he learned in his freshmen English class from me. He understood the connection between all of his classes that I’m hoping to emphasize.

There is No “Right Way” to Write

For many of our students, their First Year Composition class will be their first opportunity to write at a college level. I believe that we should take advantage of that and help students break the molds of Standardized English that they have been previously exposed to. In his essay, “Metacognition is Not Cognition,” Howard Tinberg states, “For those of us who teach writing, the objective is not just to have our students produce effective writing … We also want our students to demonstrate consciousness of process that will enable them to reproduce success” (75). I agree with Tinberg and share his belief that we want students to think about what they want to write. I believe as a professor, it is my job to help students learn the most effective way to say what they want to say, not to expect them to say what they think I want them to say. As a professor, I want to teach students how powerful it is to convey your thoughts through effective writing. In my classroom, I want to be very careful not to convey that writing should be a free-for-all. There will still be expectations and rubrics on formal papers, though a lot of their writings will be journal writings with lower stakes. I will still ensure my students understand the fundamentals of a strong paper, including cohesion, audience, and others. I will instead show students how they can utilize these conventions to express their own thoughts and ideas.

An example of how I will combine these ideas of conventions and free thought is the Argument Essay I will be assigning in my FYC Course. The main idea of the assignment will be having students pair off and write the opposite sides of a low-stakes argument topic. Students are encouraged to select an interest of theirs – preferably from pop culture or similar mediums – and write an argument paper arguing their side of the debate. Because the students are choosing from their own interests instead of larger global issues, a lot of their argument will stem from their own ideas as opposed to what they might think is an expected opinion. However, the paper will still follow the normal conventions of a college-level argument paper.

Assessment is an Opportunity for Growth, Not a Punishment

In his essay, “Revision is Central to Developing Writing,” Doug Downs states that he believes students “may see revision as punishment for poor performance” (67). I agree with this assessment. There is nothing more disheartening to a student than to turn in a draft of what they feel to be a strong paper, only to have it return riddled with red ink stains that identify every minor mistake the student made. Not only can this cause students to doubt their skills as a writer, in my opinion this also leads to ineffective revision. I believe that the result of this essential attack of the student’s paper turns into a scavenger hunt of sorts, in which the student quickly scans over their paper, changing every mark the teacher made regardless of the student’s thoughts. This leads back to my earlier idea of the paper the student thinks they are supposed to be writing.

It is my belief that revisions are crucial to the writing process when utilized correctly. Therefore, in my classes, I will be invoking guided peer reviews to help students learn from each other’s writings, as well as help them identify opportunities in their own writings. Revisions will focus on clarity, structure, and overall strength as opposed to minor grammatical mistakes. As part of their reflections at the end of each major paper, I will be asking students to reflect on some of the comments that their peers made on their paper. The reflection, which is more in-depth here, will ask students to explain what changes they made off the peer review and why, as well as suggestions they did not make and why. This will help students understand that not all revision suggestions need to be adhered to. This will also be a helpful tool the student can use to improve his own writing. By comparing their peers’ suggestions, with my grades, and their own decisions in the paper, the student would be able to effectively triangulate their opportunities in writing. In the end, this is still the student’s paper, and should reflect their own thoughts and ideas.

Grammar, for me, is a part of strong writing, and therefore should be acknowledged in any writing course as a necessary component of a paper. However, like all revisions and edits, I believe that grammar is an opportunity for growth and learning for a student. I will point out grammar in early papers, but it will not be heavily graded. Instead, what I hope to do is identify patterns and trends in grammar mistakes that students might not be aware of. I will provide notes and resources for the students to help them better understand their individual grammatical opportunities. I will keep track of student’s individual opportunities by ensuring I provide them with feedback that I have access to as well. Then, in future papers, I will begin to grade more heavily on grammar, looking for these specific opportunities I have identified earlier. To me, this is a justifiable way to assess grammar; I feel that we as teachers need to be aware that not all students learned or understood the same grammar rules in the past. We should not grade off the assumption that the student already knows this. Instead, we should help them to understand it, and then grade them on how well they demonstrate retention of the knowledge. Because of my philosophy in growth, I also feel that is important to stress my expectation of growth. As the papers progress, so too will my expectations that students are learning and demonstrating what they’ve learned instead of taking advantage of the situation and hiding behind their mistakes.

Concluding Thoughts

The classroom is always changing and evolving. There is always something new – new ideas, new subjects, new technology, new stories, new students, and so on. As teachers, we must always be ready for the next, newest thing. But, for me, one thing should always be a constant. Students should enter the classroom every day knowing that they will be learning to think and express themselves. In a Composition classroom, specifically, students should always come to class knowing that they will be learning how to express themselves through the written word. In my classroom, I want my students to be confident in the knowledge that they will learn to strengthen their thoughts, arguments, and prose. I want them to learn what I learned long ago, that, if you can write, you can do anything.

Works Cited

Downs, Doug. “Revision is Central to Developing Writing.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kasser and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 66-7.

Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition is Not Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kasser and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 75-6.