Being Mindful

“Writing instruction that supports student writers in the choices they make when they are asked to make those choices while drafting and revising is the kind of writing instruction that will produce versatile, thoughtful writers.” (Wiley, 67)

“Comments that recognize the integrity of the student as a learning writer and that look to engage him in substantive revision are better than those that do not.” (Straub, 248)

As many of us in the field of writing studies and composition know, process versus product is an ongoing debate. Though, I believe there has been a major shift in focus and in appreciation in recent years towards process-based teaching approaches, tensions can still arise over the subject in the community. I myself definitely lean more towards a process-based approach to the teaching of writing. Personally, I believe developing a writer’s process will ultimately assist and benefit them more in the long run. After reading both Mark Wiley’s “The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist)” and Richard Straub’s ” The Concept of Control in Teacher Response: Defining the Varieties of “Directive” and “Facilitative” Commentary”, I find that not only do I believe even more in the long-term benefits of a process-based approach to teaching writing but I also believe that teacher-commentary that concerns itself with matters of process and of developing process better facilitates student writing.

In Wiley’s article, the benefits and–many–failings of the Schaffer Approach to teaching writing are discussed. Before reading this article, I had never heard of the Schaffer Approach by name but being very familiar with the heavily scorned and equally formulaic 5-paragraph essay method, I got the gist of the approach fairly quickly.  Schaffer’s Approach is designed to be an easily taught and effective means by which students can respond to writing prompts. Basically, it’s a formula and students just have to fill in the blanks. Though this method is certainly simple (i.e user-friendly) and effective in that it can produce adequate writing if consistently applied, it, unfortunately, by design, reduces writing to a singular form and all literary text to facts alone. In this method, students search for facts to fill in a supplied form. There’s no emphasis on strategy or on interpretation and certainly none on process. Neither the development of voice nor the exploration of identity are promoted through this method. Of this approach, Wiley says it is “a simple solution for sequencing a writing curriculum, but one based on what’s easy for teachers and not necessarily what’s best for students.” (63) It never ceases to amaze me how little some teaching is concerned with students, how little some writing instruction concerns itself with writers.

Schaffer herself apparently recognizes that students consistently seem to struggle with generating or articulating commentary (interpretations/opinions/reactions) and yet excludes guidance on the matter from her method. But if we are all in agreement students are more challenged by this task, shouldn’t developing interpretations and ideas be given more guidance than generating topic sentences from a text? Wiley appears to be of the same mind when he states, “In attempting to take the mystery away from writing and make it more accessible, the formulaic approach winds up hindering students from exploring their ideas, reactions, and interpretations—the rich chaotic mess from which true insight and thoughtfulness can emerge.” (64) Promoting a formulaic approach to writing that values product over process does a disservice not only to student writing but to students’ overall development and growth of self.

It’s irresponsible teaching to promote to students a method of writing that severs them and their experiences from their learning and development. More, it creates a codependency that will ultimately be to the student’s detriment. Schaffer’s Approach, while able to create adequate writing for most standardized tests, is not capable of nor designed to be capable of meeting the procedural and conditional needs of most other kinds of writing students will encounter and engage in generating. “Procedural knowledge answers the question of how to accomplish a given task, and conditional knowledge answers the question of when to make a particular choice.” (65) Basically, rhetorical knowledge–necessary if students are to create effective work. There are no rhetorical concerns built into Schaffer’s Approach. No appreciation for them whatsoever. In this formulaic method and, I would say, in most formulaic approaches to teaching writing (including the 5-paragraph essay), failure lies not in what it can produce but in how it instructs students to produce work. Product informs process. When this occurs, the rhetorical situation isn’t given proper consideration which means interpretation also suffers–since one’s interpretation is a large component of identifying and recognizing rhetorical maneuvers. And, we could go on and on about what is excluded when product trumps process forever.

Another issue with teaching writing through formulaic approaches I would like to cover though is the authoritarianism. Students are taught that “good writing” follows strict rules. More, because how we write is deeply connected to how we think, students are having their minds structured to fit neatly in circumscribed little boxes through a formulaic instruction of writing. In a learning environment, it is incredibly important to be mindful of the limits imposed and I believe formulaic approaches show a distinct lack of mindfulness on the part of educators–especially when these kinds of approaches are taught as formulas and not as strategies that can be applied to certain writing situations. It discourages exploration of self and of voice by creating boundaries and telling students to, “stay.”

Straub’s article, too, seems to address the importance of educator mindfulness. In this case, when it comes to leaving commentary on student work. In the article, directive commentary and facilitative commentary are compared and contrasted. More, though, Straub seems interested in how we distinguish a facilitative comment from a directive comment and also in how we tend to elevate one style of commentary (facilitative) over another (directive). And, we perform that distinguishing without ever really making clear distinctions about why.

What I found most revealing about this research was how teacher commentary doesn’t exist as some kind of binary so much as it does as a spectrum–meaning that no kind of commentary can be entirely directive or wholly facilitative. Some commentary can lean towards one style or another but it cannot be completely defined as one or the other. The reason for this seems to lie in intent. Because teacher commentary is ultimately geared towards initiating revision, it can never be totally severed from being directive. Teacher commentary is driven towards revision, if not correction. It is attempting to evoke change of some kind and because of that, it cannot be wholly facilitative. And no commentary can be entirely facilitative because that inherently means to initiate no kind of revision and so what is the point of leaving commentary in that case? 

More interesting than that though was how facilitative commentary appears more concerned with developing writer process than with final products whereas more directive commentary obviously appears to see more value and benefit in having students complete “correct” drafts. Its process vs. product again. Directive commentary has a specific product in mind which guides its focus while facilitative commentary is more concerned with the process by which students undertake to generate their work. Like with writing itself, teacher commentary all comes back to process for me. Being attentive to how students write and how they are developing themselves on the page when evaluating their work and providing feedback seems like the best kind of focus teacher commentary can have. Commentary like that certainly practices mindfulness. Comments become, as Straub says, “ways of teaching.” (248)

Too often, in my work in my university’s Writing Center, I read through papers riddled with Professor comments about grammar and syntax–all local concerns. Often, a comment on content is reserved for the very end of the work and then it’s usually sandwiched between commentary galore for correction. And, really, let’s be honest–those comments for correction aren’t so much comments as they are commands for compliance with the academy’s standards. Even when work isn’t covered in directives, comments left are too often regulatory (something else Straub addresses). There’s no expressed interest in the student exploring themselves through their work. No indication whatsoever that writing is a conversation–something social–instead of mere exercise–meant to perfect academy mandates. Commentary leaning this far on the spectrum towards directive too often reads as authoritarian. It’s sad and, again, deeply concerning. Especially when there are ways (as Straub shows) to be directive/authoritative with commentary without being authoritarian, to exert less control over work and encourage more responsibility of it instead–that’s what the intent has to include.

Ultimately, after reading these articles, I find my stance on process-based approaches to be reaffirmed and expanded upon. Though it may not produce the “best” writing according to the academy’s standards, providing students with opportunities to explore form instead of enforcing it outright seems to offer better learning outcomes. Teaching different approaches as possible strategies allows students to take a degree of ownership over their own work until they feel comfortable/are capable enough to develop their own strategies. More, providing commentary on student work that facilitates but does not order revision, that encourages more responsibility instead of enforcing strict rules, that guides instead of orders compliance seems to assist students most in developing their voices and their identities which facilitates authenticity.

That kind of mindfulness is something more classrooms could use these days.


~Till next time~






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