What I’ve Learned from Teaching Writing

I’ve been a writing tutor for about 5 years and in the Fall of 2022, I began teaching freshmen college English at San Jose State University. This was just the beginning of my dream career, and I knew it would be a great opportunity to learn more about writing, teaching, and how to navigate the complicated boundaries of academia, technology, education, English, writing, and pedagogy. But now, after two full semesters of teaching, I’ve noticed something: being good at writing is not based on just talent or good education, but also on what your environment and community tells you about writing.

Although I specifically teach college freshmen and sophomores, I’d wager that what I’m about to talk about applies to most people in education and academia.

The students entering college in 2021 (and for the next several years) are facing some of the most extravagant educational challenges and adaptations in the century thus-far. In the last 3 years the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the planet, changing the way instructors interact with their students. Technological advancements (especially in the last year) have created apps and services that write papers and essentially help students cheat. Economic recessions in the last half a decade have forced students to work at younger ages and have made family situations increasingly fragile. Extreme political differences have made classroom spaces uncomfortable and tense, creating a difficult learning environment. As a result, instructors (and those higher on the food chain of academia) blame the students for poor grades and decreased attention levels, when the cause of these problems are actually much too large for any single group of people to take the blame for, especially students.

I understand that this post may come off as a bit rant-y, so I’ll get to the point: the most important thing about teaching right now is to change how we think about the experiences of students.

Think back to when you were in high school or college. What new things were happening? Was the internet becoming a new thing? Were cellphones becoming smart phones? Were citation generators getting famous? Now think about what people were saying then: “this is going to destroy educational institutions” or “kids these days will never know how to cite their sources” or “our world is going to get taken over by technology!”

Sound familiar?

If we, as writing instructors and academic administrators can remove ourselves from positions of power for one minute, we’ll realize that what’s happening right now is a repeat of what’s been happening for decades, and what’s going to continue to happen for centuries. Now, we’re going to defend ourselves and say, “it’s different this time,” and it is. But how do we deal with this?

The difference in how we approach this isn’t actually problem with changing systems or the advancements of technology. Instead, it’s the environment we, as instructors and administrators, need to create and provide in academia and in the classroom.

We too are affected by these changes and are continuing to engage in a world that both embraces and rejects these developments. As a result, we have biases and experiences that subconsciously affect what we say to our students, how we teach them, and how we frame or offer resources. Therefore, we are actually creating an environment for students that can be hostile and unwelcoming. And what would you do if you came into a classroom like that? You’d defend yourself. And that’s what these students are doing. They’re using the resources and tools they find and using them to get by, just like we did, and just like we’d do too.

Instead of framing these new technologies, teaching styles, and accommodations as viruses (punny, I know) and detriments to students’ learning processes and the educational system, we should be teaching students how to navigate this great wide world and all the new shiny things in it. Isn’t that what you would’ve wanted as a student? Heck, isn’t that what you want right now?

I couldn’t say what the best way of going about this is, but I can say that it would be best to start by 1) stop demonizing the students for just trying their best and using what they have available to them; 2) research and learn what these technologies are and how to turn them into resources and tools that actually help students learn instead of encouraging them to cheat, and 3) stop demonizing the world and victimizing yourself. We’re all dealing with these changes and struggles. Pinning the development of technology on young adults who are still trying to figure out what they’re major is is simply unfair.

Specifically regarding writing: we as instructors need to recognize that not only are students navigating technologies, college, family. friends, society, work, and mental health, but they’re also trying to establish their writing identity, which is primarily based on their personal struggles and how we respond to them. Many students have informed me that they have constantly been told that they’re bad at writing by other people (writing instructors in particular). As a student and teacher in the arts as well as in English, I can personally say how detrimental it is to hear that you’re “bad” at a skill that is developed only through encouragement, practice, and guidance. It’s our job to uphold policies and teach things, sure, but we also need to recognize that teaching writing is like teaching an art: it’s unique and different for every student and we are responsible for creating an environment where students can feel supported in their learning journey.

This post may only give a surface level perspective on the many issues at hand in academia, educational systems, and pedagogy. But hopefully it can inspire instructors and administrators to humble themselves, show compassion, and create an environment for their students where everyone can learn how to navigate this scary new world of technology, pandemics, political differences, and economic troubles.

Disclaimer: I understand that there are exceptions (schools with incredibly poor resources, ridiculously strict policies, students who intentionally manipulate situations or negotiate beyond sanity). This is directed at the majority of the population that doesn’t have extensive or ridiculously strange policies, situations, or resources.

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