Teaching Freshman Comp Was the Best Writing Education I Ever Got
As part of our Education Week series, Jaime Green describes how teaching the fundamentals in undergrad writing comp made her a better writer.
I likedI didn’t likeI wonderedI wantedyou should trywhy
Why do I need to know this? I’m gonna be an engineer! Why do I need to know this? I already know how to write well!
I felt confused here.The end of this paragraph is about X, so I expected the next paragraph to develop that idea, but you instead move on to Y and bring X back three paragraphs later.
This is goodHere’s what you did and why it worked.
One of the canonical texts of rhetoric and composition isThey Say / I Say, by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Its subtitle is a manifesto: “The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.” Graff and Birkenstein’s argument is that writing is not a whole-cloth invention under the influence of the muse. It is a series of moves and conventions, with which we can learn to express and develop our ideas. This is the case in creative writing as much as in academia—the moves are just different. (Steven Hotdog being one of our favorites.)
But even Graff and Birkenstein’s moves are a map for literary as well as academic essays. Just a couple weeks ago, I was trying to crack a problem in my manuscript: My book, which I have been writing for two years and developing for almost a decade, still, somehow, did not have a clear argument. What I realized was that it was missing a they-say.
They-say/I-say is a kind of test, a way of ensuring you’re writing for an audience. How much literary writing is beautiful, or personal, or clearly meaningful to the writer but leaves you reading nonetheless with a shrug: Okay?? There are many ways to motivate a piece of writing—with a problem you intend to solve, or a mystery dangled before the reader—but they-say/I-say does it by finding a starting place the reader thinks is stable and then cocking an eyebrow: Unless . . .
Once I realized I was missing a they-say, I had to figure out what it was, so I turned to another mainstay of my comp classroom: the focused freewrite. I’d used focused freewrites in class to help students gather their thoughts before a discussion, to sneak some very-low-stakes writing into their lives, and to show what I kept telling them: that writing can be a place to discover your ideas, not just record them. (Not news to anyone who’s ever kept a journal.)
So, searching for my book’s argument, I set myself a topic to write on: What presumptions does my reader have about this topic? And I wrote about it, brain vomit on the page. Halfway through the second paragraph, I found it; I wrote it out in joyous full caps, then kept writing to explore the idea and its implications. (And then I texted the editor-friend who’d gently told me my first draft didn’t have an argument: I found it!!!) And then I spent a few days figuring out how to work it into the book.
In comp, writing was no longer just a personal art. It had to exist for someone to read it, and for a reason. Words like motivation and exigence were commonplace in the classroom, as were techniques for conveying that urgency to your reader. The reader’s experience of a text was not necessarily the same as whether the words on the page captured the writer’s ideas. What a writer meant, and thought their writing said, wasn’t always what a reader took away.
In a lesson early in the semester, I would draw this little triangle on the whiteboard:
Adapted from the work of cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg, the triangle identifies the three representations an expert writer must hold simultaneously in their head: “author,” the sense of their own ideas; “text,” how those ideas are being conveyed in writing; and “reader,” how a reader will interpret what’s written. According to Kellogg, progressing to expertise as a writer means mastering this juggling act—and making all other elements of the writing process as automatic as possible, so that the writer can pay attention to these representations all at once.
Then I would tell my students, with hopefully some sort of twinkle in my eye, that we can cheat our way to that expertise by looking at all the components of the writing process and doing them one at a time, with all the moves that I promised to teach them that semester.
I kept some of those moves as my own small treasures, and I still deploy them daily:
• The focused freewrite that I mentioned above, to capture thoughts and, more importantly, discover them, with none of the pressure of producing polished writing. Releasing the hope of ever writing a perfect first draft but embracing revision as a process of discovery and exploration, not just refinement.
• Reverse-outlining, the most previous revision or assessment tool, wherein you take a draft and write an outline to describe what you have—it turns a long or messy stretch of paragraphs into a compact map, a clear bird’s-eye view that reveals, for example, that paragraphs twenty and twenty-three do the exact same thing, or that there’s a confusing tangle in the piece’s structure.
• The trick of thinking of transitions as bridges across paragraph breaks, A to B and B to C, for a sense of flow. Sometimes you can make the bridges explicit to help things flow; sometimes the lack of bridges reveals that the paragraphs don’t actually connect.
It wasn’t just learning these moves that changed me, of course, but teaching them twice a week for ninety minutes for what turned out to be three years. (I adjuncted after my fellowship was through.) I couldn’t love teaching without believing in what I taught, but I wouldn’t have loved teaching if I hadn’t believed in it. And when my students made connections I hadn’t seen in their essays or had bolt-of-lightning ideas in class discussions, that was part of the gift too.
I was at the front of the class, but I was also in the circle in which we arranged the desks; essay writing is a place of few wrongs or rights, even when it’s academic instead of literary. And what’s the line between academic and literary anyway? The essays on my syllabus were from a beautiful gray area, texts published in academic journals and magazines alike, all places for grappling with ideas and making complex arguments. We called them “objects of emulation and analysis” behind the scenes: Texts for students to write about in their own essays, but models of essay writing as well.
It wasn’t just learning these moves that changed me, of course, but teaching them twice a week for ninety minutes for what turned out to be three years.
And in those essays, largely borrowed from syllabi that came before me, I found a new kind of essay just as beautiful as anything I’d read in my MFA, but now driven by ideas and engagement with the currents of conversation in academia and the world. We read William Crononmaking sense of America’s understanding of “wilderness” and calling for a new relationship with nature; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen making a meal out ofthe meaning of monster; and, of course, David Foster Wallaceconsidering the lobster. (That was another thing I learned and taught: to think of an essay as having not just a subject but a project, always something it was trying to do.) We read Eula Bissgrappling with complicit gentrification and Jenny Pricefinding nature in the concrete Los Angeles River. bell hooks revealedthe power of photography to “transcend the limits of the colonizing eye,” and Sarah Songjoined an ongoing conversation about American identity.
That idea of conversation was at the heart of it all. At the top of my syllabus every semester, I reprinted this quote from Kenneth Burke’sThe Philosophy of Literary Form:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
It’s a nice metaphor—the ongoing conversation, the reminder to listen before you dip in your oar—and one I hoped my students took to heart. At our best moments, they weren’t just mimicking the work of academia, but actually producing it, creating new ideas and connections, truly carrying the conversation on.
More than any skill or trick I borrowed from my own syllabus, it’s that sense of the conversation that stays with me, that drives everything I do: Writing for readers—writing as a voice in something ongoing, something I’ll never have a full grasp of, but I must listen and dip my oar in. Not practicing or pretending, but doing the thing for real.
And every time I read that quote, the vision crystallizes. The parlor walls become more solid; the dim lighting takes a clearer, warmer hue. Thanks to everything I learned teaching comp, I can feel myself more solidly within this metaphorical conversation—the heated discussion, the flowing river into which I dip my nonliteral oar. There’s much, as Burke says, to do before it’s time to depart.
Jaime Green is a full-time freelance writer and editor. She received her MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia, and she has taught writing at Columbia, The New School, and the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, BuzzFeed, The Cut, GQ.com, Popular Science, Backstage, American Theatre online, and elsewhere. She is associate editor at Future Tense and series editor for Best American Science and Nature Writing. Her book, The Possibility of Life, will be published in 2023 by Hanover Square Press.