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Teaching Applied Writing

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How to teach college writing? – that’s the question I found myself trying to answer before the start of the fall semester, my first time teaching at the college level. The formal objective of the course, of course, is to prepare students for college level research and writing, whatever that means. I think it means you can bang out a 5-7 page standard undergraduate paper for any class you might encounter. It doesn’t mean that precisely, but close enough, and research papers are crucial if you plan to pursue further graduate studies, or publish in academic journals.

A large part of this skill is formatting the paper via MLA, or APA formats. While again crucial to reading peer-reviewed journals, and again, publishing articles in them – I’m not sure of any inherent applied knowledge conveyed through this requirement. I encourage students to use automated tools to create their citations. While these tools are imperfect, they are computers, and ergo perfectly imperfect. They make the same mistakes, so students learn to fix the routine mistakes. We should remove formatting as a requirement because MLA and APA are not used in the workplace. Students preparing for graduate school will have no issue learning these formats, and can rely on online resources as needed. The romance with formatting needs to end.

Writing is amorphous. There are as many theories on teaching as there are teachers. Teachers insist on independence. Formalizing curricula is challenging.

Much less fickle is the marketplace. Writing there isn’t so amorphous, it’s required. Writing via social media, or at least the internet, is also required.

Those are the two streams (as I call them) I teach.

My third stream is Evaluating Information. This is also required – in business, at home, in social and cultural scenarios, and for your own introspection.

1. Writing for the Workplace (Composing Business)
2. Writing for Social Media (Composing Yourself)
3. Evaluating Information

Composition students nominally write personal narratives, or creative stories. This is of no use to a college graduate. My students write about national issues. They learn to evaluate media, to write for social media, while researching and becoming conversant in applicable knowledge – like managing their online privacy across social networks.

Most students in my classes have done a research paper in high school. It is not until Composition II at the university when students are expected to write a research paper. My students write full research papers by their 3rd (out of 4 total) paper of the semester. I have students write individual research papers. They pick the topic, I approve it and help them to frame the discussion (national conversation), and they are off to the races.

Students engage with material they are interested in. Some paper topics my freshmen selected:

Increasing Funding for Music Departments
Emerging Nuclear Reactor Technologies
Service Animals on College Campuses
GMO’s in Fast Food
Alexander the Great & Leadership
Socialism vs. Capitalism
Gay Marriage in Ohio
Pay-to-Play issues in Ohio Collegiate Football

In my mind, writing about these topics, IS in the tradition of a broad liberal arts education. The problem is, liberal arts education has come to mean impractical, and rightly so. I presume, and so teach my students, everyone can understand the importance of Shakespeare, or a museum, of history, of the highest forms and examples of the human mind and experience. Every student will only benefit by exploring and finding a lifelong passion for learning. It’s more enjoyable to do so when you’re gainfully employed, rather than living in a basement-type scenario.

However, by age 21 or so, when 3000 students pour onto the streets of Ohio each year as graduates new to the work place – what they write of themselves, onto their resumes, their LinkedIn and other profiles, their management of their online selves, their grades, and written recommendations – will be mostly all that defines them. For this reason, I always have students write their first paper on Campus and Local Organizations they can become involved in, related to their particular talents and backgrounds.

Once they land a job, they must know how to write quickly and succinctly. Their ability to evaluate information is crucial, and translates into learning the job, evaluating internal networks, people, and information. We must teach to these needs. On the first day of class I have each student write a 2 paged single space essay. I give bonus points for anyone hitting 2.5 pages. Every student has in both sections of my class hit this target. Why is this relevant? Because it’s longer than any paper required in the Composition program. I do this to illustrate how easy the work actually is – and also how someone with drive works – all the time. I teach them to distinguish themselves by their work, and that they must go far beyond the requirements on the syllabus to succeed.

We must compose Composition to these applicable standards. Ohio is depending on us.

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