Professor David Zimmerman, Department of English
I have designed many undergraduate literature courses in my eighteen years at UW-Madison on topics ranging from American Dream literature to “Imagining Apocalypse.” The same question has guided the planning of them all: what do I want my students to be able to do at the end of the course that they can’t do, or do as well, at the start? Despite the variety of course topics and formats, my answer has always been the same. Whether they’re reluctant readers and writers in large introductory lecture courses or English majors in more specialized upper-level courses, I want my students to learn how to write original, compelling, and consequential analytical arguments about the course literature and the cultural topics and concepts addressed by the literature.
At the start of my teaching career I would not have been able to articulate this answer as a goal of mine. I had only a vague notion of what writing skills I wanted my students to learn, and the weaknesses in my students’ essays showed this. It took me several years to identify these skills (for example, how to use textual data to support what I call a “staircase” argument) with any precision. However, once I could do this, I was able to design a sequence of writing activities and assignments built around these specific analytical and argumentative skills. I also reframed my lectures and discussion activities so that they self-consciously modeled and called attention to these skills. To make time for developing these skills in class, I’ve had to shelve some course content, but I’ve never regretted this.
The attention I give to writing instruction in class has directly benefitted my students by guiding and deepening their preparation for their major essays, on which much of their course grade is based. In my large lecture courses (over 200 students), the additional writing instruction has also provided a welcome foundation my TAs build on in planning their weekly sections. The attention to writing in class and in discussion sections has boosted my students’ interest in analytical writing— in making more nuanced arguments, for example—and their commitment to becoming more successful writers.
Teaching a Streamlined Set of Writing Skills
Some instructors design a course to expose students to a broad range of analytical and creative writing tasks. I have had more success with the opposite approach, through which I teach a narrow but tightly streamlined set of writing skills that students practice and develop repeatedly throughout the semester. For this reason, I use the same prompt for all major writing assignments. Indeed, this is the only formal prompt I use across all my undergraduate classes. I change only the texts that students write about, and the prompt reads as follows:
Analyze the significance of a pair or sequence of details, passages, or moments in and for one of the following works: [book x, book y, book z]. Be sure to analyze and emphasize how it serves the text’s argument (i.e., what the text is saying or showing) about a particular keyword or intersection of keywords.
The prompt may look easy, but it’s not. It requires students to combine three difficult analytical tasks, each of which students have practiced regularly in anticipatory writing assignments and class activities. First, the essay must offer an original, discerning, and persuasive analysis of a textual echo (i.e., a series of textual moments the text invites us to link), the importance of which may have escaped our notice on a first reading. The essay must also show how this echo serves to advance the text’s study of a particular “keyword” (i.e., an idea, problem, or question). And finally, the essay must show how the text, through the construction of this echo, advances our understanding of that keyword.
For me, this assignment has at least three payoffs. First, it gives students considerable freedom, ensuring that no two essays are alike. Every essay focuses on different textual moments, establishes fresh textual connections, and marshals an original thesis and argument. For this reason, I look forward to reading every essay. Second, the assignment demands that students think carefully and critically about new ideas and arguments, ensuring that students feel intellectually challenged. Finally, it focuses on the reading, critical thinking, and writing skills that are key to the course and to students’ success in the course.
Early in my teaching career I made the common rookie mistake of penalizing student writers for not showcasing writing and analytical skills I had not taught. I realize now how unfair that was. I’m careful now to grade only the aspects of writing that I teach.
Crafting a Thesis: Helping Students Develop a Key Skill
Over the years I have designed handouts, mini-lectures, class activities, and assignments that anchor my writing curriculum. Because half the work of producing a successful essay in my classes involves coming up with an original, compelling, and consequential central claim, much of my writing instruction focuses on theses—what a thesis looks like, what a successful thesis is supposed to do, and how to craft one. Students identify one of my handouts, “Crafting a Thesis,” as particularly helpful. It shows how a successful thesis is typically the result of a long process of trying out different claims, selecting a few to refine and elaborate, and choosing a promising one to perfect.
My thesis handout displays each of my halting attempts to produce an original and compelling thesis about a novel I teach, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. At first, my attempts constitute half sentences and aborted claims (for example, “Benito Cereno, is a subversive work about how blind slaveholders are to slaves’ imagination”). However, each of my subsequent attempts gains in clarity and force until finally, after seventeen tries, a satisfactory thesis emerges: “Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno studies how the racist beliefs and stereotypes that white slaveholders rely upon to justify slavery make them incapable of recognizing slaves’ desire and capacity for revolution. The story exposes how this insensitivity not only incites, but also enables slave revolution.” Discussing this handout, students see that no one—not even the professor—gives immaculate birth to a fully formed successful thesis. They see that early attempts at fashioning a thesis, inevitably stilted and unsatisfactory, are necessary first steps in producing a successful thesis. They also see that crafting a thesis is hard work.
Other writing handouts and lessons (each 10-20 minutes) focus on “Coming Up with an Essay Topic,” “Introductory Paragraphs,” “Keeping Your Reader’s Attention on Your Argument,” “Making Your Paragraphs Work,” and “Constructing a ‘Staircase’ Argument.” (I also lead an in-class grammar free-for-all that begins with a single question: “So what grammar questions do you have?” All students, I have found, have long-simmering grammar questions that they’ve been afraid to ask.
Student Success in a Streamlined Writing Curriculum
Because students in my upper-level courses write several essays over the course of the semester and revise each essay two or three times, I am able to track their remarkable growth as writers. While the mean grade on these English majors’ first essay typically hovers below a C (satisfactory), the mean grade on their final essay hovers close to an A (excellent).
Students often celebrate this improvement and their new confidence as analytical writers in course evaluations. One student explained that the writing curriculum, together with sustained attention to writing in class, “without a doubt has made me a better writer and analytical thinker.” And other students reported that it “creates excellent writers” and is “an incredibly useful resource.”
Here is my summary advice for instructors who wish to give more attention to writing instruction: it’s important to think carefully not just about what you want students to know at the end of the semester that they didn’t know (or know as deeply) at the start, but also what you want students to be able to do at the end of the semester that they couldn’t do (or do as well) at the start. You can reap enormous rewards by identifying as precisely as possible which writing skills students should be held accountable for learning, and then giving sustained attention to those skills in assignments, activities, and lectures across the whole semester.