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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Teaching Writing Isn't for the Faint of Heart

As I was driving to work today, the thought that a week from tomorrow I go in for my promotion portfolio defense flitted through my mind. A nano second later, that rush of adrenaline that happens when a person feels fear shot through the pit of my stomach. I calmed myself, thinking hopefully my portfolio readers are all reasonable people. Then, almost as soon as I sat down at my desk my phone rang. I answered and found it was one of my promotion portfolio readers. Another rush of adrenaline coursed through my core, speeding up my heart. The reader, someone I've known for many years and have cycled with, tells me a page from my teaching philosophy is missing. The last page. Pages 1, 2, 3, and the works cited were all there. Page 4? Where'd it go? I quickly pulled the document up on my computer to check it. Yes, page 4 was there. Why it wasn't in the portfolio is beyond me. I checked, double checked then triple checked each copy of the portfolio before submitting them, so I know the entire document was there when I dropped the binders off at HR. Thankfully, my reader simply said, "Email me the teaching philosophy. I'll print it out and hole-punch the missing page then put it in your portfolio." At least one of my readers is a reasonable person.

This promotion portfolio is extremely important to me. I've gone through four promotions during my time teaching here, moving from instructor to Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Professor I then to Professor II. Now I'm up for Distinguished Professor. The obstacle I knew I had to hurdle in putting together my portfolio was the perception my readers hold concerning what a writing teacher should be teaching. Over the last 25 years, I've heard on many occasions that we writing teachers aren't doing our job. We're allowing students to move out of our comp classes though they can't put a coherent sentence together. Instead of teaching concepts like voice, audience, and context, we should be focusing on grammar. For many of my colleagues who are outside the writing program, grammar is the end-all to good writing.

This emphasis on grammar came out loud and clear in an email exchange that occurred the week before classes began this semester. Long story short: I am in charge of our Writing Across the College initiative. In my time here, others have tried to get WAC up and running but it always fizzled out. I knew this going into this newest WAC attempt, and as such, I wanted to take a different approach from my predecessors. With assistance from my Chair, I drew up a survey to get a sense for my colleagues' attitudes concerning what made good student writing. That survey revealed pretty much what I figured it would. Correct grammar means good writing. Those who teach "content" courses don't have time to teach writing because there's so much content to cover. It is the responsibility of the writing teachers to prepare students to handle the writing assignments they'll face across the college. While not every person to respond to the survey shared in these beliefs, many did, and after drawing up a response to the survey results and sharing it with all faculty, the proverbial crap hit the fan.

Several very vocal senior faculty members expressed their beliefs that the survey was "rigged" to elicit the responses that it did (never mind that the participant had the option for each question to not answer if he/she didn't wish to). These faculty members went on to suggest that the goal of the writing program is to remove teaching of grammar all the way around and push it off on everyone else (never mind that we created a class specifically to focus on grammar-related issues for incoming students who didn't place directly into English 101). The culmination of this heated, and even vitriolic at times, email exchange came when one individual personally attacked a writing program faculty member. I was simply stunned by what was said in a forum that included all faculty, full time and adjunct (which tells me this person has no idea what voice/audience/context mean and should have to back up and take English 101 and English 102).

With all of this in mind I wrote my promotion portfolio. I may have been snarky at times, referring now and again to "the more traditional-minded instructor," but I build what I believe to be a solid case for teaching writing the way I teach writing. I bring in scholars of the field as well as scholars from the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and sociology. I offer anecdotal evidence from my students over the last five years. And I demonstrate my own involvement in continued professional development through the years. My hope is my portfolio readers see that writing and the teaching of writing is, as someone once said, "Fraught with peril." Peril that involves much more than correct grammar.

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