As I encounter students who are new to writing, at least as a core part of a course, inevitably I see two types of writing emerge.
One type of writing that comes out is found in the discussion of a text. In discussing, as authors grow more comfortable with the course setting, the writing is soundly couched in that author’s personal reaction and understanding of the text. They “get” certain parts of the text and are able to go on at length about the meaning or intent of the author. The parts of the text that they don’t “get,” they can point to as well; often as they articulate why the text puzzled them, they come upon a solution of their own. Their words have the confidence that is born of understanding their own relation to the text. This writing comes from our need to be heard and understood. It is writing that takes risks and finds rewards.
The second kind of writing is what gets submitted as an essay on a text. Initially the writing is stilted. It overreaches itself in its attempt to sound informed. It often parrots what the student has read elsewhere, or what I have offered up in discussion. It is a form of writing that attempts to give the instructor what a student thinks the instructor wants. It is often shallow and lacks any voice whatsoever. This writing comes from a place of seeking approval. This is safe writing that never admits there is anything difficult about a text and never covers new ground.
In the best cases, by examining their discussion posts and their essay writing side by side, I can demonstrate to students that their best writing comes from a place of both understanding and trying to understand. Instead of filling their essays with safe certainties, they should be building, brick by brick, their own answer to a question that puzzles them. Even if they fall short of their ultimate premise, the journey will be instructive.
If there are no risks, there are no rewards. Students should be encouraged to take ownership of their own writing, to chart their own course and surprise us all.
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