To prepare to write this blog post, I thought I would read through some of last year’s entries to get a sense of how I could contribute something that would build on that earlier writing. One post that stood out to me while reading was Jeanine Rauch’s post focused on teachable moments, and I thought that I would continue that thread from a different angle, especially after a recent summer teaching experience.
As a writing teacher, I know that many/most/all of my students probably think of grammar and mechanics first when they prepare to turn in a piece of writing to me for feedback and a grade, and often at the start of the semester students will tell me that they are bad writers and this is commonly in relation to their struggles with grammar and mechanics (and their prior experiences with “bleeding papers” as a result). And yes, I do consider the technical correctness of a paper when reading it. However, the content is what I value above all else, which may be because of my research interest in basic writing or my recognition that the students I teach come from so many different backgrounds that do not always prepare them well for college writing. In writing this post I’m not trying to initiate any debate about the preparedness of students for college writing, or about whether a paper with grammar and mechanics errors but excellent content is better or worse than a paper with excellent grammar and mechanics but lackluster content. Rather, I want to draw attention to the fact that part of our responsibility as writing teachers is to address “teachable moments” that pertain to the ideas of a student’s writing as well as to the correctness of it (*I know Jeanine also focuses on ideas in her feedback to students, so this post is just continuing the thread she started).
This summer I taught an online advanced composition course that has a Writing in the Disciplines focus, and one of my students chose to write her papers throughout the session on the subject of breastfeeding and development of allergies in children. As a new mother to a daughter who just recently turned 6 months old, I was particularly interested in the topic since I had done quite a bit of reading on my own about health and nutrition for both mothers and infants. While reading the student’s paper, I came across a paragraph promoting nursing infants until they are at least 6 months old, and within that paragraph a sentence about how families should be educated on the benefits of breastfeeding, which include that it is “easy” and “free.” I think my initial reaction to that comment was surprise, which was quickly followed by frustration. I acknowledged that my student was not a mother herself and probably did not discuss her topic with mothers before writing her paper, so her statement was the product of being uninformed and unfamiliar with the issue rather than any deliberate disregard of the difficulties of nursing. I didn’t think that I would be helping the student, though, particularly in terms of calling her attention to audience awareness, by just ignoring the comment and continuing to read the rest of her paper.
So, I wrote feedback in her essay as well as in the rubric that was returned to her calling attention to her comment, highlighting the realities that surround nursing that make it incredibly difficult despite the (I think) common perception that if you will it then it will easily happen. I pointed out to her that some mothers and/or their infants experience medical issues that prohibit nursing, for example, and that even if no such issues are present that it requires significant commitment to be able to nurse, especially to at least 6 months. I tried as much as possible to frame my comments within the positive context of trying to help her be more aware of her audience so that she didn’t risk offending any reader, assuring her that I was offering my feedback from a distanced, think-about-your-hypothetical-reader viewpoint rather than just my own. I then waited to see how my comments would be received.
For the students’ ePortfolio reflections that week I asked them to read the comments I had written on their papers and in their rubrics and to then write back to me, addressing those comments with any questions, concerns, and/or other thoughts that they had. I was excited to see that the student chose the feedback I provided about audience as one of the comments to reflect on, and in her response she stated that she didn’t intend to appear to ignore the challenges of nursing and potentially offend her audience in doing so. In the future she would make sure to more carefully think through how the way she expresses her ideas affects how they may be received, and I found that in her remaining assignments after that paper that audience was not an issue. Am I saying that the student will never again write a sentence that could offend her real or hypothetical reader? No. But what I am saying is that I had a teachable moment that I took advantage of and that in doing so gave that student a better understanding of her reader and what it’s like to be a mother such as the one she was writing about.
I debated on whether to share this example for a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t want all that I do to be connected to my status as a mother, and the other that I worried about this post seeming too personal. I decided to write as I did, though, because I think the experience I had relates well to a lot of other teachers’ experiences reading students’ papers, whether the topics focus on gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. It’s difficult for any writer to understand what it’s like to be a person unlike himself/herself and all too easy then to repeat stereotypes and uninformed ideas. As writing teachers, though, when we see our students demonstrating questionable authorial ethos we can take advantage of the “teachable moments” to help them become not only better writers, but I hope also better people who have a greater understanding and appreciation of others, some of whom may be sitting in the classroom with them or others who may be reading their papers after a 3:00 a.m. wake-up call from their children.