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  • Writer's pictureJohn Constantine Tobin

In the Composition Classroom, ‘Writing’ Is a Reductive Term

As the weeks go by, I am further exposed to what composition can be. The singular notion that the space I occupy in my classroom is as a teacher of writing has quickly become more complicated, and even reductive. As a term, ‘writing’ just doesn’t seem to cut it. The course isn’t called ‘College Writing.’ It’s not simply English, even though that is my department. It’s College Composition.

So then, does that mean I’m adhering to a Communications approach to writing? In this case, teaching my students how to communicate and convey complex messages via writing, or do I take on a more Composition-focused approach, where composition takes on a more artful meaning, the way it might for a music composition, an artistic composition, or really any constructed, human work? How about a New Media approach, in which writing takes on the form of new technology and forms: gifs, websites, and the various avenues of social media, and the digital humanities? Or do I follow the Multimodal Approach, where I’ll really take any form of composition: an essay composed as a cake, written on a door, or turned-in on a window, where the thoughtful construction of the entire aesthetic must be considered in both composition and evaluation. These certainly are all ways of interpreting composition, and there are many more, but where do my interests lie and how do they fit-in to my institutional context? The answer is pending.

Above all, I want to be an open-minded instructor. To do so, that requires knowledge of the various definitions of composition. To that end, I’m making progress. I may not be developing my own, unique definition and interpretation of College Composition, but the synthesis of ideas that is occurring is laying the groundwork for some type of amalgam of concepts I might use when I have the freedom and will to do so. My research interests are also developing, and that will also factor heavily into my approach.

There is some sort of answer in that I want to incorporate and provide student input in my course conceptualization, but if I am only just discovering the possibilities of the composition classroom, how can I expect my students to even know what a writing class is, especially with the abysmal state general English before students ever step into a College Composition course? There is no High School Composition Classroom (more on that another time). I don’t mean to say that without experience in composition, students won’t have fascinating ideas in a co-constructed composition classroom, but I might have to provide some possibilities as to what the course might be. I should also include the freedom and flexibility to submit a composed work in the form of their choosing. Still I wonder, how effective is this exploratory approach? Would the lack of focus or theme damage the depth to which the class learns? I don’t accidentally want to cover too many topics at once, too many pedagogies, to the point where my students never thoughtfully engage in any of them.

Then there is the matter of the types of students I have in my classroom. Will they be familiar with the technology or materials I want them to use? Will the materials be accessible? How much access can I provide? How do I make an inclusive classroom for student identity, student needs, with my own teaching ability in mind, with appropriate pedagogies, within an institutional context? My mind spins at the possibilities.

Theory is a catalyst. I don’t know when I became so interested in it, but it’s an activation key to the possibilities within my work. The key turns slowly and the outcome is thus slowly determined each call I teach. I predict my philosophy will change as much as my physical, mental and temporal context does. To think of how differently I learned writing just six years ago at The University of Michigan, where they employed a Writing Across the Disciplines approach - tailoring writing classes to specific majors. What then will be the most current strategy years from now, when my doctorate is finished? What a world I might inhabit then.

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