Clancy responds to my last post by noting that she “completely agree[d] with [me] that it never would have worked without a group of strong students,” and writes that she could “imagine that at a lot of places, upper administration might shut down a project like this if faced with complaints from students and/or parents.” As I prepare to depart this place at the end of this academic year, I’m feeling a little conflicted about the assumptions she makes about my students. Do I think that West Point cadets are that much better than students I might encounter elsewhere? Perhaps in some ways yes: every student I teach is nominated for excellence by a member of Congress, and that’s part of what makes this place magic, and part of what makes it so intensely rewarding to teach here.
But the answer’s more complicated than that, too. Clancy’s comment makes me feel a little awkward, because I don’t think I ever actually said that our pilot course “never would have worked without a group of strong students.” And I want to believe that the approach I’ve developed, with its deep theoretical and pedagogical investment with the notion of the value of work, could work elsewhere.
At the start of the semester, I sold our approach to the cadets with every bit of persuasive enthusiasm I could muster, because I knew they’d be suspicious. Writing every day in class? Writing 750 words every lesson day, just to earn a C?
A funny thing happened. They figured out that writing 750 words is easy. They figured out that they can do it on demand. And the most important thing that has happened — and it only happened recently, for some of them — is that they figured out they can write. For me, that’s huge. That’s the battle I’ve been fighting since I first started teaching composition. Every semester, I had the students who were sure they couldn’t write, and so they didn’t. They didn’t write until it came down to crunch time and they had to write their essays the night before the final drafts of those essays were due, and they did. Until this semester, I got those essays all the time. You know what they look like, because you’ve seen them. They’re essays produced at the last minute by students who are certain that doing so is the only and best way of writing. Those essays are why they hate writing.
What’s happened this semester, though, is that writing has become almost like athletic performance: it’s a matter of getting it done, putting in the practice, and pretty soon, practice translates into improvement. There’s value in the work of doing. In August, I asserted my primary reservations about most university-level writing instruction: that it’s “too easy to allow the classroom work associated with composition courses to focus on activities other than writing,” and that
the classroom work associated with many writing courses uses tools and modes of work dedicated to producing texts that look like they should be printed in a single, unified format on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, even if those sheets of paper are never physically turned in. In other words, and as many scholars in the field of computers and writing have lately been pointing out, we dedicate ourselves to preserving a unitary genre and document model that is no longer the world’s dominant mode of textual production. In mummifying and fetishizing this model, we turn our students’ attention away from the many other ways that texts get produced: we privilege the thing itself, the dead thing, instead of attending to the textual practices and ways of writing.
As a way of responding to those reservations, my co-pilot and I designed a course that inverted that classroom model by putting writing — not discussion, not talking about writing, not exercises, not reading about writing, not lecture, not any of the rest of the pseudoeducational nonsense that gets in the way of learning-by-doing, but writing — at the center of the course. Every day, you do it. That’s it.
And it’s worked. That’s what makes me uneasy about Clancy’s comment. Clancy’s comment suggests that what I’m doing here couldn’t really work anywhere else, and I hope that’s not true. The cadets I teach were initially suspicious, and wondered publicly: are those of us in these eight pilot sections doing more work than our peers? My answer: yes, you’re doing more work than your peers in other sections who are earning Ds and Fs. You’re also learning more.
Every class, our students have at least 20 minutes to write their 750 words. I know from my own writing habits that I can rip out about 800 words in 18 minutes on a really good day, and that it’ll take me about 30 minutes on a slow day. I showed students my own 750words.com streak, and I showed them how I work, and I turned them loose, and circulated to make sure they were doing it. They did it. And maybe that’s the part that Clancy takes issue with: the notion that an instructor can tell a student to do something for at least 20 minutes, in class, and feel secure that the student will do it. Maybe I’m spoiled by that military assumption of obedience.
I also know the West Point guidelines about out-of-class work, and they are very clear: assign no more than 2 hours of homework for every hour spent in class. Of course, if you do the math with a cadet schedule in hand, you know that’s impossible: if every instructor assigns two hours of homework for every lesson, something will fail. So I worked it out: no more than 20-30 pages of reading plus a remaining 300-400 words from whatever went unfinished in class will take the diligent cadet about 60-90 minutes, outside of class. I’m comfortable with that, and more importantly, I give the cadets time in class, every class, to start on that work.
Their timed-writing term-end examinations are in, and my co-pilot and I are currently completing the data analysis. We asked a lot of questions, but our ugly and fundamental question is this: is there a statistically significant correlation between the number of words students wrote over the entire semester and their performance on that end-of-semester timed writing assignment?
Students who write more write better. That’s a finding.