Assignment Overview: A Writer on Writing

For an upcoming meeting at St. John’s University where I teach First Year Writing Courses, I was asked to speak about some aspect of my teaching. I decided to share an assignment I’ve been giving the past few years I call “A Writer on Writing.”

Some ways we learn about writing in our course:

  1. We write regularly for an audience we interact with.
  2. We read what other writers have to say about writing.
  3. We write to learn by situating our thoughts and reflections about writing within what other writers have written about writing.
  4. We learn to read like a writer by paying attention to choices writers make in their creation of texts.

Here are some examples of the kinds of texts students take a look at: 

  • Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling”
  • Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”
  • Keith Richards’ excerpt from Life about songwriting
  • Stephen King excerpt from On Writing
  • Alice Walker interview “Writing to Save My Life”
  • Mark Doty’s “Souls on Ice”
  • Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”
  • Do you have favorite texts about writing to recommend?

My introduction to this assignment from the course I taught this summer:

At least in this class, you have been a writer writing with other writers. I want you to claim this identity of being a writer for at least the purpose of this paper. You are the writer saying something about writing in this paper. My impulse to give you this assignment was that you would tell us about your experiences writing in this class while integrating the thoughts of writers you have been reading.

I do want to give you the space to do something different with this assignment if you’d like. Some students in the past have decided to focus on their learning of English, their dislike of writing, their wish to write screenplays, that they do slam poetry, that they speak five languages, or to think about the writing they publish on Twitter or other social media platforms. It’s a wide-open assignment as long as you focus in some way on writing and/or the use of language. Write at least 1,500 words and quote from at least three of the Writer on Writing texts (Peter Elbow counts as one if you want). You’ll use signal phrases, direct quotes, parenthetical citations, and do an MLA works cited page.

Some titles and “Golden Lines” from papers written by students the past few semesters:

  • I Dare You: I hate what they’ve done to me. They’ve made me into a robot. They’ve made my writing into a Mad Lib. Insert noun here, adjective there, quote here, citation there.” -Tatiana Castellanos
  • Writing for Me: In high school, we were assigned a paper and whenever it was due we would just hand it in to the teacher hoping to get a high grade. Having classmates listen along as you read your paper was something I’d never done before. Something I realized while writing papers in this class was that I was afraid. In “The Teacherless Writing Class” by Peter Elbow, he claims, “You have to keep from making apologies or giving explanations. For example, ‘I just wrote this last night, I didn’t have much time and didn’t revise it at all’” (101). Even though I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable reading my paper to people who were then strangers to me, I stopped myself from making excuses about my writing and waited for their criticism. What surprised me was the amount of positive feedback they had to say about my paper. -Sharin Chowdury
  • Learning to Write an Essay: Have you ever been afraid of doing something? For example, have you ever been afraid of talking to people? Or have you ever been scared of opening your mouth and saying something in your head? I have. I am a student from China still trying to learn English. -Xinxin He
  • Writing Does Not Have to Be a Burden: I remember that my classmate Farzana Haniff wrote in her process essay about how she kept erasing and rewriting her essay about her trip to Guyana because she thought it wasn’t good enough. Then she wrote about how she was able to get over her writer’s block which I think serves as great piece of advice. She wrote, “I decided to just go with my gut and to just continue writing whatever came to my mind. So I completely ignored the ‘delete’ button on my laptop and I just kept typing without even fixing spelling errors.” I thought about what Farzana wrote whenever I encounter the same problem of erasing and rewriting and it has helped me over think less about my writing choices. -Sammie Li
  • The Little Big Things: The writing process was tricky for me. I wanted to avoid being cliché and dull but when trying to write about something of this content, it can be difficult. During this process the reading from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott reminded me that no matter how successful a writer is they often feel like they are “pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid” (22). This told me that it was okay that I was having a difficult writing process; I simply had to feel it out and roll with the punches. -Sarah Khan

Introductory Letter to Online Writing Students

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Dear Writers Enrolled in Online Composition With Professor Torgerson,

Welcome to the class! I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor named Sam to think about my writing and teaching life. It goes, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.” I didn’t know what the heck Sam was talking about back when he first spoke those words to me, but the phrase has held my interest for the past fifteen years.

Sam and Anne

Sam on the left, who said, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.”

This idea of conversation works in all sorts of ways. To start off, we are all going to write each other letters in the spirit of what you are reading here. (or in a spirit you prefer) We will do a lot of letter writing in this class because I hope the form will allow you to be yourself. Somehow, many students end up writing in college in some boring voice they consider academic.

Please view the syllabus as a part of the opening to our conversation. I hope you will read  this letter and the syllabus carefully, think over what I’ve said, and say something back to all of us based on what you’ve heard and who you are. Soon, there will be twenty-six voices all in conversation with one another. We’ll do much of this through the use of Google documents. There is something in education called an Electronic Portfolio. Lots of people call these ePorts for short. These ePorts are personal websites on which you will post your writing. Everyone in this class will sign up for Google GMAIL, write in something called Google Documents, and post work on their ePortfolios. I will help you do this. There are lots of tutorials posted online. You can come see me in my office for extra help if you need it. If you have any trouble, I want to help you. Don’t be afraid to email me and ask me questions: torgersw@stjohns.edu

Conversation in the class will continue through your reading of texts written by writers about writing. I’ll ask you to write letters of response. These letters will be the raw materials for the papers you will write. Your assigned papers will be a way to take your letters of response, gather your thoughts, and share them with us in an essay about writing.

When I ask you to read something, keep in mind someone like you and me wrote the text and that writer has a message for us.  Say something back to the writer and to your fellow writers in the class. Try and remember that everything you read and everything you write is a part of a conversation we are all having together about reading, writing, and thinking. The word literacy can cover are work in the areas of reading, writing, and thinking. I hope to empower you to develop your 21st Century Literacy skills.  When we read and write online in conjunction with the screens of our devices, there is a lot at stake: votes are won and lost, money changes bank accounts, and voices are heard and suppressed. Social media and writing on the web allow more ordinary people like us to have voices that must be listened to by big business or government. Writing is a tool that can be used for social change.

Students often tell me this composition course is easy and that it’s hard. (A paradox! How can that be true?) It’s easy because if you read the instructions carefully, do the work, post it on time, and use some of the feedback you receive to plan a revision, you’ll most surely get an “A” or “B.” On the other hand, the class can be hard because you have to be responsible enough to take care of your business. Two times a week you have to read, write, and leave comments on the writing of your classmates. This isn’t the kind of class you can blow off for twelve weeks and then buckle down for a couple of exams and get by with a decent grade. You’ll either be responsible, problem solve, and keep up with the work, or you won’t pass. One of the keys to doing well is staying in touch with me. Be sure to read your emails, work a few days ahead of when assignments are due, and write to me when you have problems. torgersw@stjohns.edu

The technology aspect of this class can be challenging. Mostly we are using Google’s “Drive” and “docs” along with Digication’s ePortfolio platform to do our work and communicate with each other. I will be on the Queens campus at least on Mondays and Thursdays and it might be good to get off to a good start and come in for help setting up Google Documents and the ePortfolio. I’d love to reserve the conference room in the writing center so that we could get together and do this if you need help. There are lots of tutorials online you could also Google. Try something such as “writing in Google docs” on YouTube and be sure to watch more recent videos in case something has changed.

A little about me: I first became an English major as in incoming freshman in 1990 because I was afraid of flunking out. I went to college because I wanted to play basketball, and I wanted to become a basketball coach. Both of my parents were English teachers, and so I figured if I needed help, I could make the two-hour drive home and get some tutoring. (we didn’t have a tutoring center and writing center like St. John’s!) I was so scared of flunking out as a freshman, that I went to the library every night after dinner. Much to my surprise, I made the Dean’s List the first semester. I learned that when I studied every day that I could do well.

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my dad Martin, me, and my mom Sue

I did coach basketball and teach high school English for ten years in Indiana and North Carolina. The more I worked at being a teacher reading and writing, the more I began to enjoy quiet time in the mornings more than my time in the gym after school. I decided to quit coaching, go to graduate school, and try and become a writer and a professor. Over the years, I’ve published three novels with one more coming out next year, and I’ve directed two documentary films. It seems like the students I work with are writing more than ever, especially in conjunction with the screens of devices. My wife Megan and I have two daughters ages five and eight. We rent an old farmhouse in Connecticut out in the country and even have a barn and (non-working) outhouse on the property. How an outhouse doesn’t work is a story for another time. After almost ten years of not coaching basketball, I’m back in the gym two days a week helping to coach my daughter’s 2nd grade girls team. It’s wonderful fun!

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with the girls in Maine

I make time almost everyday for reading and writing. I enjoy working out, and at forty-three years of age, I still play in a basketball league at our local YMCA. I love to teach because I enjoy learning from the writers I work with, and I thrive on the energy that is created as we all work enthusiastically on projects of our choosing. I believe everyone can learn to write more effectively, and it’s important to do this because I believe writing can be a form of thinking. If this is a thinking class, then it can benefit everyone. If we don’t work to become more powerfully literate thinkers, there are lots of people (especially in digital spaces) who will try to manipulate our thoughts and bank accounts. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have this semester!

Best,

Bill Torgerson ncte composition college writing online teaching
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NCTE 2012 Handout: Twitter in the Writing Classroom

Dear Colleague,

I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor to think about my professional life. It goes, Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation. In the fifteen years I’ve been in writing classrooms, I’ve come to believe it’s important for me to help students navigate all of the conversations they are having in digital spaces. Much of the reading and writing my students do is on the screens of their devices. There is a lot of power up for grabs in these spaces: votes will be garnered and lost, money will change bank accounts, and voices will be heard and suppressed. I originally introduced Twitter into our classroom because I thought it might help with student engagement during class discussions. That didn’t go so well. Students seemed to become lost in the worlds of their screens and the classroom fell silent.  I’d been leaning toward scrapping my use of Twitter until something happened during a conference with a student. Our conversation caused us to enter the student’s major–speech pathology–into the Twitter search box. What we found was a tweet from a speech pathologist about a job opening. For the student, who had always characterized herself as a reluctant user of technology, this was a moment where Twitter was transformed from just one more messaging system she needed to keep up with to a powerful tool that might impact her future. For the next semester, I decided that I’d have students try and find professionals within their field who tweeted. What has happened since then, is that I’ve come to see possibilities for students related to research, gathering news, and building a sense of community in the writing classroom. I see Twitter as one place students can experience a tangible example of how they might situate themselves within a conversation relevant to their lives. As someone who values that sort of  conversation for my own professional growth, I hope you’ll take the time to connect to say hello, note an observation, or ask a question. I’m including some notes below relevant to my experience with Twitter so far. Thanks for reading!

Best,

Bill

Some thoughts related to Twitter in the writing classroom:

  1. Students can decide to what degree they want to be known on Twitter. If I’m “Writer89,” and my profile picture is an apple, I don’t have to be easily identifiable. Teachers should  at least keep a private record of what student is connected to which Twitter account.
  2. What might students tweet? golden lines from readings or classmates’ writing, questions, notes of encouragement, reflections, or highlights from group work.
  3. You can lose the attention of students to their gadgets. I find myself asking students to open their laptops or get out their phones and then asking them to put those devices away. You might use Twitter as a place for work outside of class time.
  4. I’ve had students write digital literacy narratives. This has worked well.
  5. Twitter has become one more way for students to engage with the classroom community. Some students speak up in class, some do well in small groups, some write emails, and some tweet. Students send tweets to me and each other.
  6. Twitter can be a place for student research as they identify people who tweet articles and links related to conversations that are important to them.


Here’s an excerpt from a student blog that highlights what I think is possible for student research and professional connections through the use of Twitter:

After reading about nuclear pharmacy jobs on @Pharmacy_Job, I decided to search on Twitter more specifically on nuclear pharmacy jobs and I found a page @NuclearPharmacy. According to the description provided, nuclear pharmacy jobs consist of nuclear Pharmacist, radiochemist, health physicists, chemists, pharmacy technicians, and radiopharmacist…I can definitely see myself using this Twitter page! Some interesting articles that I have found on this page include topics concerning diabetes, heroin drug use, and updates from the FDA.  Searching in Twitter has made me realize that the most popular jobs are still in retail and in hospitals. However, other fields and roles are slowly becoming more and more popular as well. These pages will certainly help me find a job when I graduate!

Here are some examples of the sorts of tweets my students publish:

  • I have no clue what to do my documentary film on…
  • Prof. Torg, you’re right when you say that college is a place for trying new things. An example of one of those things is this tweet.
  • Going vegetarian all this week as an experiment for my latest documentary #wishmeluck
  • I found a twitter page titled New York Internships which can help me get an internship in my major
  • social media will soon over take media outlets as time goes on we are beginning to rely more on each other than a third party
  • “The exemplary DJ is a model of rhetorical excellence, and even the everyday DJ is a model of rhetorical agility” Digital Griots
  • my summary of the article i read for hw: the internet is not only changing the way we read, its changing the way we THINK#wow
  • wat do lebron james and professor torg have in common? Hairline.


I hope you’ll take the time to say hello, offer an observation, or ask a question!

Tweet to me @BillTorg or write me an email here: William.Torgerson@gmail.com

NCTE 2012 Twitter in the Writing English Language Arts Classroom