Helping 2

Many teachers I know feel that students want most to be told what to do. “How do I fix it?” “What should I say?” The literature on teaching anything tells us that at some point, people learn best when they work through problems on their own. But there’s some optimal level of help that positions a person to set off in the right direction rather than flounder around in circles. Finding the optimal level is one of the hardest things for me.

In my own case, the worst editor I had was the one who said, “There’s something wrong. Go fix it.” Unfortunately this was a really important editor, and our lack of communication slammed my fiction-writing career into a concrete wall. The best editor wrote comments like, “There’s an awful lot of sitting around in hotel rooms, brooding, in this book. We need to open it up and get Chris out and acting.” I felt that comments like that gave me a clear sense of how the editor was reacting and something specific to work on. Was he too directive? I’ve never thought so. (He did also tell me things like “Fix ‘babbling’ on page 85”; he hated that verb in that context and he was right.)

I try to say things like, “Here are the questions your paper raises for me,” or, “Here’s where I got confused and why,” or, “What are the counterarguments and objections to your position?” or simply, “I don’t understand this sentence. Did you mean X? If not, can you explain better?” For weaker students, though, I’ve tried “helping” more aggressively. Last term I sat down with a graphic organizer and had the writer fill in boxes with the points she wanted to make. It didn’t change her paper at all, and she’s someone I know was trying.

So today’s question is: given that you often have to write a particular kind of paper or piece (you can’t give your boss a poem), when do teachers, editors, colleagues, cross the line in “helping”? When does “helping” unravel into taking over a paper or project? But then again, when are comments too vague to be useful? When was a time you couldn’t figure out what a reader who was trying to help you meant?

What “helps”?

Here’s something else I’d like to know about. In my evaluations, I often ask students what “helped most.” I usually give them a list of choices, such as conferences with me, peer review, written comments from me, workshops, etc. Students gladly rank these choices, and I take their rankings to heart. But at the same time, “what helps” is pretty vague. Helps to do what? To finish a paper? To come up with ideas? To get a point across? To make a particular grade on a paper?

Okay, so here’s the question. Think back on a particular experience when you wanted to say to someone who had read and responded on your writing, or “fixed” it in some way, “Thanks, that really helped.”

First, what did the person do? And second, what was the “help”? Why do you think whatever this person did really “helped”?

A Very Basic Question about Learning to Write

Here is a basic question I hope some readers will answer:

If you were to enroll in a class to become a better writer, what would you expect to learn? What would you want the class to do for you?

Feel free to go in any direction you would like for this. I am very much interested in what “becoming a better writer” means to you.

Some Possible Reasons People May Have Trouble in Writing Classes

If you’ve read my Welcome page (please do), you know that this blog is about how, and whether, people can “be taught” to write better. It’s about what I think I DON’T know about teaching writing after twenty-two years. I’m not fishing for “tips” on how to teach better. I’ve got lots of those in years’ worth of files. Instead, I want to know more about the experiences of people who’ve found learning to write a challenge.

Of course, I know that there may be many reasons why I feel as if there’s something missing in my pedagogy. Continue reading

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