Einstein said if you can’t explain a complicated concept in simple terms, you probably don’t understand it well enough yourself. This was the first thing I learned from teaching writing. However, understanding and accepting my own lack of knowledge is the necessary first step toward learning. Teaching writing taught me a lot about my own approach to writing, how much the writing process varies among student writers, and the importance of being able to explain why students should care about writing.
I have tutored for two and a half years with Student Athlete Support Services and with the University Writing Center. I’ve encountered students across the spectrum of investment in writing. Some understand that writing well is a good skill, but don’t have much desire to learn beyond their sufficient level of writing. Some abhor writing, or see it as irrelevant to themselves and their future careers. Some come to me with questions to ask their professors realizing that they don’t know how to look and sound professional in an email. Some don’t see the point of taking pains to sound a certain way in an email, or in any document for that matter. How do I convince these students that writing matters?
Coming face to face with answering how and why writing is relevant to everyone has been a good lesson in understanding it myself. EH 101 can seem completely useless to a football player on scholarship who has no desire to even be in school. So I put myself in his giant shoes and think about specific situations in his life that would require writing: if he does make it to the NFL as he hopes, that contract is going to be awfully hard to decipher if he doesn’t learn to analyze texts critically the way we do in a rhetorical analysis. Plus, if those dreams are not realized, he will more than likely work at a great job that requires written communications via email, and written reports or evaluations. Addressing complacent or disinterested students was difficult, but it was a great lesson not only in how to explain why writing matters, but also in adopting and understanding alternate perspectives.
No Right Way to Write
Having so many opportunities to see others’ thought processes and communication styles has been invaluable to me as a writer and as a person. My approach to writing is distinct to me, and may not be useful to all of my students. While I know I’m an external processor and think out loud, especially in dialogue with others, many students are internal processors. As a result, I have discovered the value of silence. Another thing I learned was the way structure — like required outlines, rough drafts, or format suggestions — factors in to various writing styles. Paralysis was a common accompaniment to structure — students were either paralyzed by fear of not filling structures in correctly or by the rigidity of the structure itself weighing upon them with no way to get out. So for some students, an outline was a creative block, not an organizational aid. Many, however, found comfort in structure, and used it as a foundation for their writing.
The writing process is simply not a one size fits all framework, and while I still have a lot to learn, I think the lessons I’ve learned so far in teaching writing have allowed me to gain experience myself in understanding how others think, and how I can improve my own writing.