What Can We Learn While Teaching Writing?
Before I joined the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy at Krea University (Krea-CWP) last year (2020) to teach academic writing, I had not been formally trained to write. This is particularly interesting because I have been a writer for as long as I can remember my adult life—I have written a body of journalistic work in national and international forums; I have written peer-reviewed papers, book chapters, comics and even books for children. Before I came to the Krea-CWP, I did believe that writing was an exercise that one could get better at with practice, but I did not understand what it was that one was meant to practice!
Krea-CWP, directed by Anannya Dasgupta, aims to train undergraduate students in methods of critical reading and writing across disciplines, as well as to develop new pedagogies to further improve the practice of critical reading and writing in higher education spaces. To further this cause, not only do faculty at the centre teach the compulsory first-year “Writing and Oral Communication” course at Krea University, but also conduct and facilitate critical reading and writing workshops across higher education institutions in the country.
Writing centres such as ours are slowly carving their own niche in higher education in India, although after a considerably long wait. What we attempt to do at our centre is to look at the process of writing as something that is in tune with the natural process of learning. We have very good evidence from the neuroscience of learning and memory that tells us how we get better at something with practice. Based on the evidence we currently have, we know that most mammalian brains (including ours) learn in steps. We have all possibly encountered videos of animals performing very complicated tasks successfully. A mouse can be trained to, let’s say, walk on a ramp, then press a lever to open a door, reach a platform that opens behind the door, and then knock a ball, which then offers the mouse a “reward” (mostly food). Now, the question is, how did a mouse learn to do all that? The answer is rather simple: it didn’t learn all of it at one go. It first learnt to walk on a ramp in exchange for reward. Then, it learnt to walk on the ramp and press a lever to open a door in exchange for reward. During consecutive sessions of training, the complexity of the task was slowly increased, with the mouse’s work becoming more arduous, and the reward being more and more difficult to obtain.
The above example tells us two things: one, that practice enables learning of a certain kind of skill—one that can be broken down into simpler, more doable tasks, with levels of complexity added over iterations of the task. And two, despite how far the final reward is, we persist at a task, however complicated it gets, as we start to get better at it.
So, if one believes that practice makes one a better writer, then one has to believe that writing is an exercise that can be broken down into smaller, formal steps, each leading to the other over multiple iterations. One has to practice each of these small formal steps and become better at them, which will eventually lead to an overall improvement in the writing of an individual. This insight for me was profound, not just as a writer, but also someone who was (and is) setting out to teach writing.
In my writing class, one way I motivate my students to write is by using assignment questions that elicit certain kinds of responses. These assignment questions intend to break down and elicit the practice of particular components of writing—claims, use of evidence, analysis, etc.—that can be synthesized to practice critical writing, let's say in a 1500-word essay. This method of assigning questions for essays, as I am learning to do at Krea-CWP, is an adaptation of one of the ways in which critical writing is taught in the American classroom. In this short video, Kurt Spellemeyer, the director of the Writing Program at Rutgers University, outlines the logic behind asking questions in one kind of way and not others. Anannya Dasgupta, who incidentally trained to teach writing with Spellmeyer, presents her adapted take on writing assignments questions in this workshop video. Here, you will find us discussing what kind of assignment questions elicit what kind of responses, and what our motivation is behind asking students a certain kind of question.
At the beginning of the course and at the beginning of every new reading I assign, I usually ask students questions that elicit summary of parts of the text or the text as a whole. For example, if I have assigned them Emily Martin’s “The Egg and The Sperm” (1991), I will ask them a question on the lines of “How does the language of reproductive biology reflect the inherent gender biases of culture?” However, as our collective understanding of the text improves, to borrow Spellmeyer’s formulation, I can ask them a question with an element of abstraction—something that they can directly answer from the text, but not without some extrapolation. As we move deeper into the course, my questions become increasingly abstract. Just recently, I asked students to write on “How does culture impact politics?” Questions like this one necessarily elicit original arguments from students, where students have to think about the text in context of the question asked, and their answer limits the role of the assigned text to being used as evidence for the student’s original argument.
However, we don’t just ask students to write an answer to these growingly abstract questions based on one text; they have to answer these questions based on two or three (or very rarely, four) texts. This elicits a different kind of response, one where students find “connections” (to quote Dasgupta) between texts. My students had to answer the question “How does culture impact politics?” based on their reading of three of the four texts that I had assigned to them, the texts being Emily Martin’s “The Egg and The Sperm”, V. Geetha et al.’s “Hoardings in Context” from their book The 9 Emotions of Indian Cinema Hoardings, Aparna Vaidik’s “Satyagrahi to Krantikari” from her book Waiting for Swaraj, and Kimberle Crenshaw’s TED talk titled “The Urgency of Intersectionality”. Now, when students have to write 1500 words on a question as abstract as the one above, with the necessary condition of using at least two of the aforementioned sources in every paragraph (barring the introductory and the concluding ones), there is really no other way, at least in my experience, than to connect texts logically and arrive at an original argument.
This kind of deliberation has, time and again, helped me reflect on the use of “rules” while practicing and teaching writing. As somebody who is, often on principle, opposed to the establishment and the system, rules seem to be naturally oppressive. However, it is in my teaching of writing that I have found certain rules to be enabling pedagogical tools, as we like to say at the Krea-CWP.
Moreover, the kind of pedagogical use of assignment questions that I mentioned above also serves a larger purpose—one of application. Like Spellmeyer points out in the video linked above, most university assignments that students encounter (and possibly a chunk of their work in the future) ask students to use the knowledge they have gained from their engagement with pre-existing work to come up with new arguments, and hopefully, new work. A course like ours, therefore, looks at writing as a transferable skill, i.e., what students learn in my course, they should be able to apply to other courses in their university journey, and hopefully, beyond. In fact, persuasive writing at all levels works towards answering some or the other question; as scholars and academicians, we rarely write something which is not a response to some gap or a hitherto unanswered question*. It should be no surprise, then, that our pedagogy, which is so contingent on a careful use of assignment questions, trains students to be independent scholars and thinkers looking to find and pursue gaps that have never been explored before.
However, while we draw a lot from the kind of American writing pedagogy outlined by Spellmeyer, we are also constantly adapting it to our needs and understanding. In a classroom such as mine, where students come from different backgrounds, some of them unfamiliar with the use of academic English and most of them unaware of what academic writing entails, using a general approach to help all students just doesn’t work. I encounter students in the class who are unable to come up with original arguments, or connect insights from two texts, and that is often because of their problem with comprehending the text. In such a situation, if I can help a student comprehend the text to an extent where they can write a succinct summary, that is not only enough, but also is a rewarding first step!
In a classroom where students come to participate in an exercise as vulnerable-making as writing, any text that they generate is precious. Some of that text aligns with our larger goals, and some of it does not. In a case where a student's writing does not align with our larger goals, what I ask my students to do is to “let go” of what doesn’t seem to work at the moment. I ask them to save those paragraphs in a separate document since they may find their own insights useful later, in a different context or in a different assignment.
This also is to make a point that writing is an experimental and deliberate process. I often analogize the process of writing to my students as a process of conducting an experiment—one has to do multiple revisions to arrive at an answer, and each run is a better iteration of the previous one. However, the first drafts are not useless at all, and they should be documented precisely because they tell us what to modify in the next iteration.
As I look back on my admittedly short journey in working on teaching writing, I realize how much of this pedagogy is affecting me as a writer. At Krea-CWP, we often say that “if it is not transformative, it is not worth doing”. I am glad to have been transformed, and to have realized that transformation is something one can share. :)
*My colleague, Vasudha Katju, faculty at Krea-CWP, pointed this out in a separate Krea-CWP workshop session.
I would like to thank Ananya Dasgupta, Director, Krea-CWP, for her comments on previous drafts of this post.