I Teach University-Level Writing

March 21 2018

Hey Listserve,

It’s been a fun few years getting to know some of you and having your advice come into my life. Thanks for your honest introductions to who you are, what you care about, and how you live.

I teach writing at the university level. Teaching writing has, for nine years now, been an unendingly interesting problem to try to come up with solutions for. Although the pay is not great, (which is a whole problem in itself), it has provided a fulfilling, creative way for me to spend my life and my time. For me, it’s a good job in the most quintessential meaning of the word good.

Listserve emails seem to end up taking the form of advice, so I want to share the most important advice I have for teaching writing at the university level. Hopefully it translates for whatever you do in your life.

First, encourage your students (and yourself) to start off your assignments doing B- (B minus) level work. I don’t know if our grading system in the US translates for everyone, but B- level work is work that is good enough to get by, but is not the absolute best work you are capable of. Doing B- work means finishing the job according to the instructions given, and turning it in on time, but without putting so much pressure on yourself to make it perfect that you paralyze yourself and never do anything. I am sure thousands of Listserve emails were never written or sent out because the writer succumbed to the pressure of perfectionism.

“Writing is a process” is a phrase that has become overused and tired, but that nevertheless continues to be profoundly true. Your first efforts will never be exactly what you want them to be. Help the people around embrace that fundamental truth of creating and participate in the process of starting out bad and getting better through revision, reworking, and rethinking.

Second, stop caring so much about little surface level stuff like spelling words differently than how they appear in the dictionary, what seem to you like odd phrasings, and your own pet peeves like whether or not data is a singular or plural. When you comment on stuff like that, you send the message that a lack of surface level “mistakes” like these are the ultimate key to clear, meaningful communication, and I am 100% sure that you yourself don’t even really believe that.

Take the tiny bit of extra effort it takes to look past surface level stuff and actually read what your students are writing. Then comment on that. In your written feedback to them, you have enough of their attention to teach them one thing, if you waste that time pointing out that they have a sentence fragment somewhere in their paper, you are sending the wrong message about what makes good writing.

Most of the stuff that we call “grammar” isn’t even grammar, but just cultural shibboleths that allow people in power to maintain that power by creating an in-group and an out-group. There is no “Standard English” but a beautiful, diverse bouquet of Englishes that we need to learn to love and embrace; if we are focused on tired old cultural expectations of “incorrect” and “correct” english, we are doing everyone a disservice.

The last thing I’ll say is that writing has the power to make us all better people. Do it. Do it as much and as often as you can.

And most of all, be honest with yourself and your audience.


Dr. Steven W Hopkins
Grand Junction, CO

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