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Q&A with Nick Carbone: Teaching Writers and Teaching Writing

Nick Carbone (Twitter, LinkedIn) is a teacher of writing teachers, a role he’s had on-campus, in publishing at Bedford/St. Martin’s, and now as a freelance consultant. Sometimes upfront and oftentimes behind the scenes, his leadership has helped Eli Review grow from a little demonstration at Computers & Writing 2010 into a full-service learning technology company.

In this blog post, we unpack teaching writers and/or teaching writing. Writers do things. Writing is that thing they do. Balancing behaviors and outcomes is the tightrope we walk in classrooms and writing programs. Nick’s insights remind us how to use the push-pull of teaching writers and teaching writing to sharpen our focus.


When you hear instructors distinguish between “teaching writers” and “teaching writing,” whose scholarship comes to mind?

First, Stephen North in “Idea of a Writing Center,” described what a writing center does and how it serves students:

“In axiom form it goes like this: Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing” (438).

But several other scholars and mentors reinforced the power of that axiom: Anne Herrington, Charlie Moran, Peter Elbow, Marcia Curtis whom I got to know because they were at UMass when I was in graduate school there. In what they assigned and in what they wrote, in how they urged us as TA’s to teach writing through workshops, and classes and training instantiated that axiom.

Donald Murray, Cindy Selfe come to mind as well, for living that ethos in their writing and mentoring. What their mentoring did was pretty simple. They pointed out things that one wrote or said — in any professional context: e-mail discussion list, comment at a conference, paper in a course — and pointed out what was good about it and why, and also, what could use some more thinking or might be better if it considered another idea.

So they coached writing by coaching writers on their expressed thoughts — oral, casually written, informally riffed, as well as in essays — to foster fluidity, build thinking. Compliments were instructive — “this is good because” — and turned that into motivation: “You should keep at it because.” And that set up critiques for revision or improvement. “You should read X to help you do Y.” or “This part I’m not sure of — is this what you mean?” kinds of things.

Help a student find some strength.

So as a teaching method it was this: Help a student find some strength. Help make the strength a foundation the writer can build on, while giving the writer a reason to build. And then teach them to build soundly, so that things don’t collapse. As you can imagine with this metaphor, we’re also talking about scaffolding and like a building, working towards the removal of that scaffolding when the job is done.

So what they taught me about seeing writers growing as writers was to look for writers using the scaffolding provided to build more. What I like about Eli Review is that it supports the creation of scaffolding and the kinds of evidence that writers are learning to build themselves as writers. Revision plans and the notes on them, comment lengths to other writers, and helpfulness ratings are all ways of seeing writers growing as writers. They capture judgment (comments) and decisions made through judgments (revision plans). That’s where writers grow — in learning how to do for themselves and other writers the kinds of things our best teachers taught us: see strengths and articulate why the work is good; recommend paths to making things even better; take advice and make decisions about how to follow it; and then learn from the execution of having tried to revise.

That’s where writers grow — in learning how to do for themselves and other writers the kinds of things our best teachers taught us.

To that last, learning from the execution, one way to use Eli is to ask for a summative revision plan. Writers submit their best final draft after review, plan, revise cycles, and make a final revision plan along the lines of, “This project is final, but choose and rank comments that you received in your closing project review; in your notes on each comment, tell me how the comment will help you on the next project.”

If the assertion that “we teach writers, not writing” was a room in the house of lore, what is the furniture like there?

Whatever furniture writers bring with them when they come into the room to write, or to revise, or talk about writing and being a writer. Imagine a room where each finds the comfort and tools they need to go about writing texts so that they have written enough to have something they are willing to share  — writing classrooms and writing centers are spaces for sharing writing.

You can tell, whatever the furniture might be, that the room is working when you see writers writing more. More words, more words in drafts, more words in revisions, more words in comments on others’ writing, more words in their reflections. (The last two items in particular Eli does an excellent job of encouraging and revealing.) Especially so for novice writers who aren’t at risk, generally, for making their work too long. Beginning academic writers need an exuberance of words, a flowing fluidity that floods the page, from which they can, in later drafts and after feedback, reflection, and revision planning choose the better words.

They also need their own separate rooms. Virginia Woolf talked of a woman writer needing, “Five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door,” but the kind of room I mean is more this: space in the brain for words, time in the day to think on them, a tool handy to write the words, and then doing that writing. Writers benefit from moving back and forth from a shared room (Burke’s metaphorical “Parlor,” if you like) to a private room (a composing space where only they see what is being written).

A lot of words arise from writers being in one of those rooms but thinking of the other. I am composing now alone, me and this screen, but with an ear and eye to how this will be read once it’s shared. I read a lot of shared writing, including my own public work, and it triggers the private, so I sometimes open a window into a private writing space where I can work in words on my own.

Private writing can be so brief as to not seem private. It might be the minute it takes to compose, maybe revise, a Tweet before sending. Or composing and deleting without sending. For long work, it’s more making room in the day, finding time. Or making room in the mind and heart, finding something that compels words, for writing to happen. But in the end, they key is to get writing done, out of the mind and into some other medium; a transmutation happens, even if one writes verbatim what is in their mind, when words go from being thoughts to being written.

I walk around the world with a greater commitment to helping writers grow than to improving a text, and it helps me in the consulting work I do for Eli. But, as an adjunct, I walk into curricula, policies, rubrics, adaptive quizzing software, plagiarism detection, and a departmental culture that explicitly valorizes clean prose as the highest goal for entering first-year students. Against the weight of that structure, how do I create a different vibe in my own class?

As you know from your professional development work, what works for one teacher doesn’t work for every teacher. What you’re describing as an adjunct—working against an ingrained attitude toward how writing is taught and learned, how it has to be assessed, how students are to be judged, how they are not to be trusted (plagiarism detection)—is less about a room and more about a culture.

The sad part is that students absorb the views of themselves a learning culture communicates to them. So if the tenor of things is that writing is matter of getting dull assignments in on time, and the teacher marking things up and grading in the straightjacket of a required rubric, that’s a hard nut to crack.

If you cannot create a grading economy that sustains a more welcoming writing ecology like Peter Elbow’s contract grading, an ecology where students are both nourished as writers and nourish each other (through sharing writing, sharing learning strategies, sharing feedback, co-writing, and other practices that demand from students agency and responsibility for their learning while teaching them how to be responsible agents), if you cannot do those things, then it’s very hard to ask students to take learning risks.

Risk matters. Too many students come into college writing courses having been abused as students writers: scolded, beaten down by read ink, hounded for trivial error, called stupid if not in that word then in other words that convey its message. Or maybe writing was a punishment — “write an essay on why you shouldn’t call someone a name” — kinds of things that sometimes happen in K-12 settings. So they fear to write for a teacher; they’ve learned to not like writing; they’re convinced that they’re bad writers. Think about how we all are with things that have embarrassed us, or hurt us when we’ve tried and failed. Or worse, tried and been slapped back.

And sadly, the more developmental your course or the poorer your student population, the more likely it is that, as writing students, your students have suffered some pedagogical abuse. It’s very hard for those who’ve been treated badly to trust. And so a  lot the work in the course is building trust and revealing to those writers they can write, they can share, and they can learn to see their own strengths and classmates’ strengths and ways to get even stronger.

That’s the key to a vibe change — getting folks to believe (because you can make it true) that learning comes from taking risks and doing lots of writing and revising.

And that’s the key to a vibe change — getting folks to believe (because you can make it true) that learning comes from taking risks and doing lots of writing and revising. To foster risk, grade them, and make it a substantial percentage of the course grade, on doing the work diligently. Try not to make the grade based just on what you make a rubric say about the degree of perfection in finished products.

What would tell you I was even trying for that different vibe? From a classroom observation, course materials, or assignments, what would you look for in order to see whether my priorities tilt more toward 'writers' or 'writing'?

Some tells where a teacher is working on writers and not writing:

  • The class starts with students writing fast, not a lot of the teacher talking.
  • Students come into the room and get into workshop groups off the bat.
  • There are smiles. There is laughter in the room, from each to all.
  • Students who are missing work don’t miss class, and don’t come and sit sullenly. They come and engage, and missing work is rare.
  • Students aren’t afraid to turn in work, even when they know it will come back critiqued in some form. They trust the feedback will be constructive.
  • Even if something is hard to do, students, knowing why they are doing, how it connects to them as writers and students and the course, find a way to have some fun working through the difficulties together.

As a pedagogical theory, the tension between those two approaches is meant to be productive in the ways you describe above, but I feel a bit frayed by it. At the end of the term, I get whiplash between the joy of students’ reflection letters and the agony of their final project quality. My students experience that too. We both expected “C or better” writing to be easier to achieve given the weekly revision cycles in my course. What do you say to a student who has made tremendous growth as a writer but still struggles to produce acceptable revised writing?

If I see this as likely to happen, then I try to make a differentiated assignment adjustment. For example, if a student cannot get a five page paper, and seems to be getting frustrated by length, I might suspend that part for that student so he or she can take that requirement off their cognitive load and focus more back on the writing they can produce.

Also, I’ve been able to do contract grading where I can assert that students who diligently do all the work in the course, do it on time, and don’t miss more than X number of classes, are guaranteed a C. Their final project is to reflect on the course and to argue up from a C based on what they learned about writing or themselves as writers. That goes to the economy and ecology balance a classroom needs. If you don’t have that leeway, then it’s harder. But I think if you can do some differentiation, that might help.

Your vantage point on what I can do within the limited sphere of influence I have on my campus is helpful. So many of the decisions, though, are instantiated in committee decisions outside my reach. How would you advise committees to use the distinction between teaching writers and teaching writing to evaluate edtech (or books)?

My experience consulting with programs that have relatively strict rubrics or language about how teachers are supposed apply them is that the burden in usually unsustainable. The program has these standards often as defense against criticism from faculty in other departments and maybe the administration about the quality of student writing. However, what also happens is that faculty with too strict a rubric will not apply it fully because if they did, too many students would fail, and that would look bad too.

A lot of work on assessment I did over the years was with programs that wanted out of that bind. They wanted to have standards and to send forth students who would succeed, but they also wanted to be able to honestly assess.

The question I ask committees is this: how’s it going? Are you and your faculty and your students happy with how your courses are designed and taught now? What’s not working? I usually find that if you can have a conversation about goals, about what teachers want, you can start to shift the discussion to aspirations.

Teachers usually aspire to enjoy teaching and learning, and if they find they aren’t, for whatever reasons, moving them back to that original impulse can help reset thinking. Then it takes support—what textbooks, what professional development books, what learning software, what teaching workshops—are best to help a program grow in a new direction?

Contract grading, like Ti Macklin’s that we shared a few weeks ago, is clearly one of the directions that could help a program move toward “teaching writers, not just writing.” Anything else that would signal a big shift in the culture of school?

Portfolio grading — where part of the grade is on the year end reflection and/or mid term reflection. Especially if the reflection is treated as an assignment that gets drafted and revised (so reflection is taught).

Specification Grading as described by Linda Nilson might work for departments that fear or don’t allow contract grading. Nilson describes that briefly in “Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade.”

If grading has to happen on per assignment basis, shifting the weight a bit and grading ‘growth as writer’ assignments more heavily can help signal change. Instead of essays being worth 80 percent of the grade, get them to say 60 and put more weight on grading the writing of review comments and the articulation of revision plans.

Within an assignment, choices about when to issue a grade matter. If you have to grade each essay assignment per a teaching contract, when and how you give that grade matter. A lot of teachers, for example, will give a grade with an option for a student to revise for a higher grade. But that can dissuade revision. If I get a C or better and don’t really care about the writing course, I might let it go. I got a C- or lower, I may be discouraged on only make grudging revisions, if any at all. If get a feedback that doesn’t try to address everything, and gives me one or two things to work on, and then it’s easier to revise. I might get a grade on the final draft and a grade on my revision attempts, and those are combined to form a project grade.

I do find that faculty shift their grading approaches to fit what how they view students and how they view teaching and learning.

I do find that faculty shift their grading approaches to fit how they view students and how they view teaching and learning. If they come to see revision as key, for example, and they seek to urge more of it, they find ways to shift grade weight (whatever their system) to honor revision. Same for peer review, reflection, and other work in the course.

And don’t forget, it’s possible to emphasize process work (revision, reflection, giving and following feedback) while also teaching product skills. Teaching students how to proofread a last draft, how to copy edit, is a good thing to teach. It has value; it can be learned. It helps writers to grow as writers.

The motivation for wanting to proofread and edit carefully grows as the more the writing matters to students. So have a grade for proofreading. A simple way: students bring hard copy and two color pens: blue and green.  With the green pen they hand edit a classmate’s paper. With the blue pen they review the green edits they’ve received and make further hand edits on their own drafts.

Teachers can read and count edits. The more that are correctly made the better. Give points for getting the good edits and have a grade for proofing. That’s different than using a rubric that takes off points for leaving an error in place.


More about Nick Carbone

If you’re interested in working with Nick Carbone to tease out the balance of teaching writers and teaching writing in your course or program, contact him through https://about.me/nick.carbone.

References

Danielewicz, J., and P. Elbow.(December 2009). “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.” College Composition and Communication 61(2), 244–68.

North, S. (1984). The Idea of a Writing Center. College English, 46(5), 433-446. doi:10.2307/377047

Woolf, Virginia. 1929. A room of one’s own. University of Adelaide, 2016.

Nilson, Linda B. “Yes, Virginia, There’s a Better Way to Grade.” Inside Higher Education, January 19, 2016.

Q&A with Nick Carbone: Teaching Writers and Teaching Writing was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Q&A.

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