Drafting the Next Generation of Writers
San José State Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Tom Moriarty led a conversation about ChatGPT as part of a three-day seminar for instructors of the First Year Writing Program. Photo by Robert C. Bain.
One of the biggest myths about learning to write well, says San José State Associate Professor of English Ryan Skinnell, is that it’s a linear, clear path. All too often, students of every age and ability enter a new year of school only to be told that they don’t know enough, haven’t mastered the right skills or lack the appropriate training to improve as writers.
“Writing instruction for 200 years has more or less been about what’s wrong with students — they don’t spell well, they’re not literate enough, they’re not smart enough,” said Skinnell.
As director of San José State’s First-Year Writing Program (FYWP), a series of English courses designed to fulfill general education requirements in writing, Skinnell hopes to change this perception.
“We’ve known for a very long time that teaching from a deficit-model of students’ writing abilities is not pedagogically sound,” he said. “People learn to write slowly and over time. So instead of focusing on the deficits, we are better served, and our students are better served, by focusing on what it is they bring to writing, and how we can help them develop that.”
That’s why, when SJSU’s Office of Undergraduate Education received a California State University Supported Pathways grant to support instruction in first-year writing and math, he partnered with the Center for Faculty Development and the College of the Humanities and the Arts to offer the “Writing Pedagogy and Community-Building Faculty Seminar,” a three-day professional development series for FYWP instructors.
The first training of its kind offered in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic, the three-day workshop offered a mix of lectures, a keynote by UC Davis Associate Professor of Education Kerry Enright, small group work and facilitated dialogue that challenged instructors to think creatively about how to engage students of writing. Conversations covered everything from ChatGPT to trauma-informed pedagogy — topics that continue to shift the way writing teachers create curriculum to meet their students’ needs.
“It’s been very beneficial to talk to other teachers about what they’re teaching and how they’re implementing it strategically and tactically in their courses,” said Helen Meservey, English and Comparative Literature lecturer and editor-in-chief of Reed Magazine. “It’s been really useful talking to people who are teaching different classes and finding out what works, what doesn’t work, and what we can implement right away.”
“We know a lot about how students learn,” said Skinnell. “We know a lot about how writing happens and how people get good at it. I’m eager and excited for us to be in a place where we can really begin to dig into what we know works well, and see if we can get around some of those obstacles.”
One of the obstacles Skinnell and his colleagues are trying to confront is that of viewing non-native English speakers as less prepared to write in English. By considering multilingual learners, as well as first-generation students, instructors can better address equity gaps in the classroom and beyond.
“All this heady, conceptual, theoretical thinking is great, but if you can’t take that into the classroom to reduce equity gaps, is it really successful?” Skinnell asked.
Of the approximately 4,000 Spartan undergraduates ushered through the First-Year Writing Program every semester, the vast majority report coming from multilingual households. Even though SJSU’s drop, fail and withdraw (DFW) rates are in the single digits, Skinnell added that DFWs are highest amongst those who grew up speaking languages other than, or in addition to, English. “So the question for us becomes, how do we value what students bring, rather than seeing some students as prepared and others as unprepared?”
This big question is echoed across the university, through the HSI Institute’s counter-storytelling program (which Skinnell participated in 2022) and the ¡Somos SJSU! Initiative designed to reduce equity gaps. And while there is no one way to address institutionalized barriers such as systemic racism or unequal access to educational resources, Skinnell hopes that as educators they can find better, more innovative approaches to embracing the myriad strengths their students bring to the classroom.
“I teach Writing 1A. I love teaching it in the fall because the students smell like freshly sharpened pencils and anxiety — it’s fun,” said English and Comparative Literature Lecturer Sara Cook, adding that it’s rare for instructors to be offered paid professional development opportunities on campus. It was especially nice to connect with colleagues and brainstorm ways to address AI in the days before fall semester started.
“I have found, particularly after the pandemic, that as a program we seem kind of disaggregated, much like society at large was, and it’s really nice to get in a room of other writing instructors to talk about what we’re doing and what challenges we’re having,” she added. “I’m very grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to do this.”