Thursday, March 19, 2009

Unschooling College Writing

Since first learning about unschooling, I’ve tried to apply some of its principles to my pedagogy in the college classroom by encouraging my students to take responsibility for and to be fully invested in their own learning rather than to follow my lead passively. This can initially be perplexing for my students, but eventually many of them seem to find this approach empowering. Ironically, the skills and strategies that students must employ in most high schools to be successful and to get in to college are of limited utility once they actually get to college. A high school system driven by standardized testing doesn’t fully equip students for the independent critical thinking we want them to do in college.

When I teach a freshman writing seminar, one of my major tasks is to free my students from the shackles of the moronic Five-Paragraph Essay. Thanks to their training in the Five-Paragraph Essay, average students at the selective college where I am a faculty member begin their writing seminar thinking of writing as a magic formula replete with mysterious rules* (such as “don’t use ‘I’ in your paper”). In effect, I have to get students to think about writing from an unschooling perspective, though I never use that word with them. Their tendency is to focus on product (rules, paper requirements, due date); I want to shift their attention to process, to using writing as a way of thinking through ideas rather than simply producing a result.

Some of the ways I encourage students to focus on the process of writing include the following:
• Although I outline my general expectations, I do not give students specific questions, paper topics, or “prompts” to answer. They are responsible for writing about a topic that interests them.
• I encourage students to start with a passage of text or a narrow, focused idea that interests them and start writing about it, without any plan, outline, or thesis in mind. In other words, start in the middle, not at the beginning. You can’t know what you want to say until you start writing about it, so there’s no point in writing an introduction at the beginning of the process.
• I require (not so unschooly!) students to start early enough on their papers that they can abandon lines of inquiry that turn out not to be productive. Scrapping a paper draft and starting over is not a sign of failure; it can be an important part of the writing process. I am also somewhat flexible with deadlines when I know a student is really working out an idea (particularly at the major level); I care more about a student completing the writing process for a particular paper than about her meeting an arbitrary deadline.
• I ask students to list every rule they’ve been told is a requirement of good writing and interrogate those rules for themselves. Are there times when the passive voice is useful and appropriate? What is the effect of using “I” in an academic paper? (I also encourage them never to read Strunk & White again!)
• I vigorously encourage students to develop their distinctive writing style or voice. We read Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page, a book that both describes the history of the concept of style and examines a wide range of contemporary writers’ reflections on style.
• I try to minimize students’ fetishization of grades by meeting with them in a grading conference (about which perhaps I’ll write more here another time). By requiring them to meet with me, I hope to direct their attention away from a letter grade and toward our meaningful conversation about the content and form of their writing.

I suspect that unschooled students (I’ve never knowingly taught one) would already do many of these things, though perhaps unwittingly, so it doesn’t surprise me at all to hear about unschooled students getting into top colleges or even getting full scholarships. Although I enjoy opening the eyes of my traditionally schooled students to the joys of writing, I would love to teach a student with the depth and independence of the unschooler.

*Obviously the idea of writing as magic formula is enhanced by the advent of computer-scored essays. Ugh!


Jena said...

I am smiling all the way through this post and then I see you link to me! ha! Thank you. I'm thrilled to meet a college professor who is embracing unschooling at home and in the classroom. Your post will be very helpful to homeschooling high schoolers. Love your ban on Strunk and White. I'm so glad you started blogging.

Fanny Harville said...

Jena, Thanks for this and all your recent comments on my blog. I've been meaning to write this post for a while, and was inspired to actually get it posted by reading through much of your blog in recent days!

Lindsay said...

I love the idea of "unschooling" college writing. The five paragraph essay is an abstraction, although I think one should know the form in order to break it.

There is no "magic formula," and I'm glad to hear it confirmed as you teach students to be primarily concerned with their thinking and to let their ideas determine the form the writing takes.


Fanny Harville said...

Thanks for your comment. I have to respectfully disagree, however, with this: "one should know the form in order to break it." The inventors and best practitioners of the essay form -- Montaigne, Addison & Steele, Johnson, or contemporary examples such as John McPhee or Adam Gopnik -- wrote with no reference to the 5-paragraph essay. They didn't learn it and then move beyond it, nor should student writers.

You're right that the 5-paragraph essay is an abstraction -- a made-up abstraction that impedes rather than fosters good thinking and writing!

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Fanny Harville said...

Wow, I can't believe a "paper mill" (a site that sells "100% plagiarism- free!" papers to students to turn in as their own work) just left a comment on my post about the importance of college students being engaged in and responsible for their own thinking and writing. Thanks for alerting me to your badly written, ungrammatical, fraudulent site, guys. Total fail!

Cassi said...

Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. I am really encouraged by your post and hope more teachers get on board. Actually, I've personally been considering going back to teaching but on a collegiate level. At least, in that case, the students are there (mostly) out of their own volition. But, the abstract grades and deadlines makes me feel so restricted.

I do currently tutor students in writing and it is so frustrating to have to teach them the "rules" in order for them to get good grades on their English essays. I usually tell them that these rules are just playing the game of school and do not necessarily equal "real" writing. I just wish other English and writing teachers would be as enlightened as you are.