Brigette Pugh – Statement of Teaching Philosophy
I wish someone had told me how important conversation is to the writing process when I was a beginning writer. I could have eliminated hours of guesswork and countless workshop crash and burns. Though I cannot go back in time, as writing teacher I have a chance to offer my students the best of what I learned the hard way, and at the top of the list is this advice: surround yourself with conversations on writing. It is this exchange, talking with people, bouncing ideas around, that can accelerate the generation of an “a-ha” moments—those brief slips in time when something clicks, when not only is the problem clear, but the solution, too. The “a-ha” that comes to us through conversation can feel a little like magic at the time, but most writers and writing teachers know it is not magic so much as a natural part of what it means to write and write well. However, while teachers and writers may acknowledge the link between conversation and writing, once we leave the workshop classroom, the concept is not often modeled. Foundational to my teaching philosophy is providing students the time to practice engaging a discourse community.
At its most effective, conversation should be part of the entire writing process and not just a tool for revision. Talking about what you want to write about and why, discussing what you’ve read and how it relates to what you’re writing, celebrating insight and questioning ideas—all writers engage in these activities, yet, for the writing student, invitations to speak up are often limited. As Kenneth Bruffee points out in “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” “writing is temporally and functionally related to conversation” thus, as writing teachers, “our task must involve engaging students in conversation at as many points in the writing process as possible and that we should contrive to ensure that the conversation is similar in as many ways as possible to the way we would like them to eventually write” (210). His point highlights a paradox in many writing classrooms: we expect our students’ final products to engage the reader in a conversation without ever giving them a chance to practice the ideas they hope to communicate. Failure to formally include the verbal exchange of ideas in the classroom limits writers in the same way skipping practice would handicap an athlete. But, even worse, it encourages the misleading notion that writing, a practice invented to communicate, is a solitary activity.
Creating an environment where social exchange occurs at various points in the writing process encourages students to connect context and facts—a step that Bruffee claims is “the basic qualification for acceptance into [a knowledge] community” (212). With an aim to value the writing process and, ultimately, deepen the ideas in the final product, I work to create a classroom environment that values conversation in various forms—round-table discussion of early draft ideas, required and encouraged use of the campus writing center, small group break-out sessions, teacher conferences and one-on-one in-class peer consultations. The point is to get them talking and asking each other questions so they can practice articulating ideas and gain a better understand of audience expectation. My teaching experience ranges from creative writing to interdisciplinary research writing and the students in those classes fall along a wide spectrum. Some creative writing students are serious about their craft, some sign up hoping for an easy “A” and others are simply curious and wanting to know more about writing. Research writing students are required to take the class and, as engineering, fashion design or biology majors, have a fair amount of writing anxiety. For all of these students, conversation is the one communication tool they use with the most comfort—even English language learners find it easier to express their early ideas through conversation than in writing.
Providing opportunities to practice ideas and knowledge is not only important for the writing student, but for any learner at any level. For the college student, preparing to become (we hope!) a thoughtful, involved member of society, the invitation to speak up in the classroom is, literally, an invitation to think. As one of my creative writing students (a member of the Arts department, not English department) observed in her end of semester reflective letter:
Our workshops this semester were more helpful than I could have ever imagined. Not just hearing back about your own work, but reading other’s pieces and learning to think critically about everything really helped me develop my reading and analytical skills…This course helped me finally use my brain to realize what exactly made my reaction positive or negative. I have become a better critic, not only for this class, but in my department’s art critiques as well.
Her comment clearly demonstrates the connection between conversation and the development of critical thinking, not just for writing or in the arts, but across disciplines. My experiences working in the writing center and teaching inter-disciplinary research writing reinforced my conviction that learning to write well provides a foundation for the act of creating knowledge no matter the discipline. And when working with students who do not feel confident with their writing, simply engaging them in a conversation about their topic or story—removing for a moment the act (and anxiety) of writing—is an effective way to encourage the growth of ideas.
At the end of any class, when I read through course evaluations and reflective letters, I measure my success by how many conversation converts I’ve made. Comments that express surprise at how helpful the workshops, writing center consultations or one-on-one conferences were, tend not to reflect an experience of working on a specific product, but on the ideas that ended up there. They are not only acknowledging the moment when their ideas began to move from general to specific, but the role that conversation had in that development. It is witnessing the “a-ha” moment within the “a-ha” moment and it is magic.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. Peer Tutoring and the “Conversation of Mankind”. The Process of Tutoring: Connecting Theory and Practice. College
English Vol. 46 No. 7, November 1984.