Teaching Writing Online

I teach writing and I teacher teachers to teach writing. One thing we talk about in my pedagogy classes is how theories of teaching writing have changed over the years. In the old days, writing was just something students did at home to prove that they were able to write (ie, it didn’t matter how they got to the final product, as long as there was a final product to grade). Then process writing expressionism came into vogue, and teachers encouraged their students to get in touch with their feelings and express them (hence the name) through flowery essays and poems and freewriting. This was writing for the self, not for others. More recently, writing instruction has become more pragmatic, with the realization that students do need to write for others, namely their teachers and professors, but that we need to give them some support in getting from nothing to the final product.

Process writing pedagogy takes into account the idea that writing does not emerge fully formed from the writer’s pen (or keyboard) but that instead it develops in fits and starts as the writer wrestles with ideas, organization, and wording. Good writing teachers will help their students understand that this is a messy process and that it does not follow a clear, linear path. There are no formulas that can be followed or blanks to fill in. Academic writing, however, does follow culturally accepted forms–genres–and uses socially expected types of language–registers–within those genres. Some approaches to teaching second language academic writing explicitly focus on developing students’ ability to recognize and produce registers and genres that are valued in academic practice.

Too often, however, we forget one key part of the writing process: the modality in which we are creating texts. School writing is frequently done in pen on paper. In the high school where I observed writing classes, this was because the school only had two computer labs for 1500 students, most of whom did not have a computer at home. One of the teachers I observed made a point of reserving the computer lab at the end of a writing unit, so that the students could type their final drafts. The problem with this approach is that the students learned to see computers as merely a typewriter, something to make an already polished piece of text look nicer. All the drafting and revision took place on paper, with students copying text from one draft to the next. Few of the students I observed did much revision between drafts beyond surface level corrections to spelling and punctuation. In the college writing classes I’ve taught, I have seen my students unaware of how to change line spacing from single to double. When they submit electronic versions of their papers, I discover that they have been hitting return twice at the end of every line. I do not know if this practice, too, stems from earlier experiences of using computers as typewriters, but whatever the source, it makes me think that we need to include media literacy in writing instruction for students of all ages.

I’ve been thinking about how I would go about teaching a second language writing course online. To some extent, a writing course seems like a natural fit, given that modern students do all their writing online anyway and text-based communication is the most straightforward way of integrating instruction and feedback in an online platform. There are already valuable resources available free online, such as Writing Commons, an open-source textbook with vast options for teachers and learners. Discussion boards and blogs allow students to interact through writing, which seems like a great way to extend writing practice from just a focus on product. Tools like Microsoft Word’s Track Changes allow commentary on written texts, and wikis and Google docs are perfect for collaborative writing projects.

My concern is that having a writing course entirely online would lose the human touch that I have found essential to supporting second language writers. My students have rarely been confident about their writing. Most of them placed into my classes because they “failed” a placement test and were told they didn’t measure up to acceptable college level writers. So a big part of my teaching in the first weeks of the semester is helping students build up their confidence and think of themselves as writers who are worthy of being in college. We talk a lot, and I have students do activities in groups to get to know their classmates. I know much of this interaction could be set up in an online format, but I feel like there would be something missing–maybe that opportunity for a quick wink and a smile at a student who is surprised at his accomplishment, or the chance to bring in cookies on the day of the first timed in-class essay, to give the class something to sustain them through the stress. I like being able to walk around the room and look over students’ shoulders as they discuss meaningful issues, and I like giving them little insights into my own experiences as a college student and language learner.

I think a lot of my own experience developing as a writer (and I am most certainly still developing) is the personal connections I’ve made with colleagues and friends in writing groups over the years. Much of our learning came through unstructured interactions over sandwiches or beer, where we discussed the papers we were working on or the ideas we were struggling to explain. Sometimes those discussions ended with someone in tears or laughing out loud. Some of these discussions have been as beneficial to the other participants as they are to the writer. One of my writing groups now meets over a phone conference every week, exchanging drafts with comments via email, but I don’t think we would have been able to build as much of a trusting bond if we had not started out having drinks together at a pub in Oxford two years ago.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to say that I really want to figure out how to make an online writing environment as warm and supportive as it is possible to make a classroom that meets in person. Having used platforms like Adobe Connect in my past teaching of other classes, I think it is essential to have means like these to make sure that synchronous interactions are able as much as possible to replicate the live classroom atmosphere. I would not want to teach an entirely asynchronous course, where the only way students could see me was via prerecorded videos, and the only way I would get to know them was through typed messages in discussion boards. As new technologies advance and become more ubiquitous, I hope we are able to make these links affordable and practical.

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