Why I Write, Teach, and Make Websites

Who Writes a Guide to English Composition?

I've long dreamed of writing my own "guide to writing." I have dreams of preparing a lovely textbook that my students will savor. But who am I kidding? I only like textbooks because I'm an unusual person. The kind of person who chooses to endure a Ph.D. program in English.

All Writers Are Unique

As a writer and a teacher, I focus on what I see as the most important aspect of learning: we are all human, and we all lead different lives. However many students I've taught and however many pages I've read or graded, I regularly meet students who change my expectations. Part of this is generational — in the past ten years, the internet has changed writing to such a degree that I see the differences in student writing. But then, is it the internet? Is it changes in how we teaching writing to K-12 students? Or is it maybe economic? The job market has changed significantly since 2008, back when I started teaching as a master's student. Also, my education and career have carried me to a private university, a state university, and to a community college — it's hard to say "the world has changed" when my own world has changed so much.

Helping Students Navigate the Classroom and Life

For English teachers like myself, writing is an essential skill — when our students write badly, we feel that we've failed them. For students, classroom writing is often seen as a chore with irritating requirements and little clear purpose. Yes, students want to be good writers — but they primarily care about writing that matters in the real world. They want to compose their words to address the rhetorical situations of academic and daily needs. In my eyes, facing this issue involves four key steps:

  1. Figure out which kinds of writing are important in the real world beyond the classroom.
  2. Assign those kinds of writing.
  3. Convince students that these are the kinds of writing that matter.
  4. Hope that you're correct about Step 1. If you aren't, your students will figure it out.

So when I teach, I do my best to find a balance between teaching the skills that definitely matter, and then listening to students to learn how those skills continue to change in the real world. To take one example, the explosion of online social media is dramatically changing how and when our students use words. Obviously, students use language in very "non-academic" ways when they're on Facebook and Twitter - less obvious, however, is the degree to which this informal language is changing our expectations of "good" writing.

"The Answers" Remain Elusive

Clearly, I don't have "the answers" for how students should write in every social situation. I have, however, written many, many research papers. I've even enjoyed several of them. But the successful ones required effort and planning — the ones that went poorly usually "flopped" because I tried skipping too many steps. I can tell you why citation matters, and how we use rhetoric to persuade others, and how to observe the differences in language across genres — these are useful skills that can be applied far beyond the classroom. The don't offer simple rules that always work, and they won't help you sleep better at night, but these concepts of language can help make us better writers and more thoughtful human beings.

At least, I hope this is true. My job security kinda depends on people believing that words matter.