The “write” thing to do in freshman comp!

Reflecting a few days ago on 25 years of teaching the skills and thrills of composition, as my own MWF 11:00  English 1002 flock of fledgling rhetoricians strained in the throes of invention and drafting, I drafted too . . . this current post the proof of my labor.  I had charged them that morning to an extended time of in-class writing to work on the reviews they’re preparing for their next grade.

As I took my seat at the desk in front of the class to begin my writing, since the good rhetorician models the behavior he expects from his charges, I enjoyed looking across the room to note the students’ focus and determination as they either clattered laptop keys or scurried penpoints across their notebooks.  I remembered at that point some advice that’s served me the well in my years of teaching in this discipline.  I read that advice in a late 1980’s journal article by Dr. Donald Murray, a rhetorical theorist who professed at the University of New Hampshire.  In that article, Dr. Murray admonished would-be teachers of rhetoric with eloquent bluntness and common sense: “If you [the teacher] are talking, ‘Shut up,’  because if you are talking, they [students] are not writing!”

That advice at first seemed to cross the grain, since traditional doctrines of teaching assume that teachers should explain, pour out from the fount of their well-springs of knowledge and erudition with lecturesome pontification and scholarly discourse.  And admittedly, stepping aside from the lecture podium in those early days seemed a sacrifice because, like most teachers, I confess to a streak of exhibitionism that strains for the recognition and adulation of students  (recognition and adulation, admittedly, that exists mostly in delusional states?).

Over time, of course, I got the hang of knowing when talk is appropriate and when shutting up is better, and I’m grateful that learning to use Dr. Murray’s advice has served me well. Better yet, of course, his advice has served my students well by helping them to grow and develop as writers. That’s truly a humble reward of the profession.