Writing Past the “Good Grade”: Authorship, Empathy, and Community-Engaged Classes (Crystal Benedicks, Wabash)

Crystal Benedicks, Assistant Professor of English, Coordinator of Writing Across the Curriculum, Wabash College

I’ve been teaching college composition at various levels and in various institutions, from community colleges to liberal arts colleges, for almost two decades.  I’m convinced that writing, at its best, is a communicative act rooted in a deep knowledge of one’s audience and purpose. Yet I’ve also felt stymied by the (il)logic of writing-for-teachers, writing-for-grades. If they’re being effective, writers are thinking of their readers as potential collaborators rather than (or at least in addition to) judges. The writer-reader relationship should be less about hierarchy and more about representing and moving toward common understandings or goals. Writing is meant more to persuade and illuminate than to demonstrate knowledge or to demonstrate mastery of the semicolon. In other words, good writing pays attention to the needs and positionality of the reader as well as that of the writer.  Are students really engaged in that act of communication if they are trying to impress an authority figure or to enter the secret code that will unlock the Good Grade? And how could I expect them to do otherwise when the structure of higher education is centered on the GPA? They’ve learned the lessons we’re teaching, even if they aren’t the lessons I’ve ever wanted to teach—and those lessons are of limited use outside of the academy.

I’ve recently been experimenting with a possible response to this problem. I’ve been trying to create an audience for student writing that is not the teacher and a position for student writers that is not the supplicant—yet also to preserve my function as a coach and a source of experienced helpfulness. An ally, ideally, even if the ally still holds the red pen.

In other words, we’re doing community-based writing. I designed a new class—English 302: Writing in the Community: Grants & Nonprofits—which links small groups of students with community nonprofits. I arrange the pairings through my local community board and in liaison with other campus efforts to support learning outside of the classroom, like Wabash’s Global Health Initiative and Center for Innovation, Business, and Entrepreneurship. Each of the student groups in my class elects an organizational leader (who keeps records and timelines), a communications leader (who liaises directly with the community partner), and an editorial leader (who has final responsibility for proofing the group’s written work). Each group unearths other kinds of leaders, too: the student who can build a website, the student who can edit digital video, the student who is unabashed at cold-calling potential funding sources. These teams work with nonprofits to write grants and promotional materials and undertake other writing projects. In the past two semesters, students have worked with an animal shelter, a home for women battling substance abuse issues, a youth services bureau, the local department of health, the public library, a center for rural research and education, and a health clinic for people living below the poverty level.

Used unreflectively, service learning can posit students as privileged saviors of the local needy in a community with which they likely will have no real engagement after graduation. However, with enough planning and with investment from both the students and the community partners, it becomes an opportunity to help students live and write with meaning. Students in my class twice secured grants for a shelter for women battling addiction. When we started working with this organization, they had just purchased a run-down shell of an abandoned daycare center. Now it is a freshly painted and furnished, up and running. Of course, students were not entirely or even mostly responsible for this, although they certainly had a hand in it. Additionally, they learned a great deal through interviews and meetings with local criminal attorneys, counselors, nurses, and former drug addicts.  These interactions drove home truths about the epidemics of drug use and poverty in small-town middle America, and how these deep-seated problems disproportionately affect women and children. I could not have taught this in a traditional writing classroom, and I don’t think my students could have learned it there either.

The deepest difference I noticed in the writing students did for this class as opposed to my other more traditional writing classes has less to do with product and more to do with process. That is, I don’t think community service necessarily transforms students into more elegant, persuasive writers, but it does change their relationship to the writing process. I spent a great deal of the semesters’ class time meeting individually with the separate student groups to plan, revise, and edit their emergent projects. We often met in the school café or coffee shop, or virtually on Google Docs.  The students worked with great passion and with a newfound awareness of the audience and reception of their work. In an end-of-semester reflection, one student wrote, “This class taught me to pay closer attention to how I write. The main issue with my writing was that I never actually paid attention to how others would read and interpret my writing. My problem was that I always focused on how well I could understand it, not others.” Another wrote, “I truly think that writing these grants for a real life reason made the whole process that much easier and that much more worth it. It really made a difference to me, being I am not the best writer, that the process was rewarding, fun, and didn’t feel like a hassle at all. Hopefully I can take this attitude towards my other papers in order to be more involved in topics that I might not find so interesting.”

These students’ observations echo recent scholarship in the field of writing studies that calls on teachers to find ways to enhance students’ receptivity to their environments and their communities. For example, in his 2005 defense of the humanities in a post-9/11 climate, Writing at the End of the World, Richard Miller ultimately concludes that education’s goal ought not to be “admiration or greatness or appreciation or depth of knowledge” but “to provide training in the arts of solving the problems of this world” even and especially when that world is unpredictable and dangerous (198, 197). Although he comes at the issue from a psychoanalytic rather than a socially-embedded model, writing theorist T.R. Johnson arrives at a similar conclusion in The Other Side of Pedagogy: Lacan’s Four Discourses and the Development of the Student Writer (2014). For Johnson, the goal of education is to get over ourselves to the point where we can deeply engage with others, listening to and respecting other voices: “the aim of our courses is ultimately to teach our students to love – specifically, to love working and playing with words and texts and ideas, and, through these, to love each other, the wider world, and the ideal of justice, more and more and more” (207). Finally, composition scholar Byron Hawk argues in his 2007 book A Counter History of Composition that teachers of writing should focus less on developing particular sensibilities or values in their students and more on building environments in which students can thrive in unpredictable ways: “teachers in rhetoric and composition need to start thinking about classrooms as . . . constellations of architectures, technologies, texts, bodies, histories, heuristics, enactments, and desires that produce the conditions of possibility for emergence, for invention” (249).  For all of these critics, education is not a teleological process of arrival, but a developing ability to be responsive to the world, its problems, and its possibilities.

I suggest that community-based writing is an effective way to accomplish these goals, because it invites the unpredictability and engagement that these critics call for.  Reflecting on his experiences, one student recalled a particular class activity in which we held an “open house” editing session for community members who were writing grants, an event planned to co-incide with a deadline for proposals due to our local community foundation:

[Before taking this class] I never sought outside feedback for my writing because I feared that the person helping me would immediately judge me and deem me uneducated in some way. This changed when I saw members of the community bring grants to us for critiques. They had written these grants as part of their job, their livelihood, yet they had brought them to college students without official qualifications hoping to make some sort of improvement. This humility genuinely surprised me and opened me up to further evolving as a writer.

For this student, unexpected contact with his community prompted him to be more open with his writing, more able to take risks. Another student similarly reflects on what this class taught him about his relationship to others, here in terms of career development (a strong selling point for many students):

One of the most recurring questions that the career services keep telling us about is the need to show examples of how you work in a team. Working in a team has never been a problem for me, but most of my projects at Wabash [College] have been short-term and didn’t require a great deal of team building besides meeting for a few hours. Facing such challenges as the ones [community partner] threw at us has not only been an honor, but a chance to work with three great guys on important projects through all of their ups and downs. I can now give a solid example of working in a team to accomplish something difficult. More importantly, I now know a little more about myself when it comes to working with peers. Whether it came to assessing our next priority, collaborating in a meeting, or correcting each other’s written work, I learned a bit more about the subtleties in how I cope with others.

For this student, learning to work alongside others in the face of unexpected challenges is both a practical skill to be leveraged in job interviews and part of the process of self-discovery.

While those who plan community-engaged classrooms spend a lot of time before the semester begins working with local nonprofits to plan specific ways students can become involved, what actually happens over the next four months is largely dependent on who the students are, the strategies they develop for working together, the opportunities they unearth, and all the accidents of chance that happen along the way. As the students I’ve cited suggest, this unpredictability can be profoundly fecund. On the other hand, it can also be deeply frustrating. Drafts and video footage get lost, people fail to communicate effectively with each other, opportunities are missed, grants are not granted. At the beginning of the semester, students often imagine writing multiple grants, bringing in the big bucks, having transformative power—but by and large they don’t. They maybe eke out one grant, and maybe the funding for it is cut. The progress is small, much smaller than they think. They are forced to scale down their expectations and account for trying to accomplish things in a world that is not engineered, as colleges try to be, to facilitate their improvement.

This may be the most important lesson community-engaged writing classes can teach anyone graduating from a liberal arts college and heading out into “the real world:” it’s going to be harder and slower than you think. As my students observed, however, it’s worth doing anyway. One wrote that in community-engaged work “frustrations that come from ordinary mistakes that don’t occur in a perfectly controlled environment like a classroom can suddenly become commonplace. . . . In short, this is an unconventional course but one that I’m glad exists.” Finally, one particularly engaged student published an account of his experience in this class in Wabash Magazine, the college’s official journal. He writes “I guess I chose [to work on the problem of local drug addiction] because I want to get my hands dirty. . . . I love [Wabash]. But I am concerned. We can confine ourselves inside of our beautiful campus, but we can no longer deny the danger that is looming in the very near future. Maybe it’s time for Wabash to get its hands dirty.”

For me, the biggest lesson of this course has been about the power of dirty hands. It seems obvious, but it often goes unsaid: people don’t write well if they don’t have something important to say. Immersion in the community, with all the possibilities and frustrations it brings, with all the professorial control it demands that we surrender, is the best way I have found of unearthing what is important about writing.

Works Cited

Miller, Richard. Writing at the End of the World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2005. Print.

Eagan, Jake. “Half Way Home.” Wabash Magazine Winter 2016: 30-31. Print.

Hawk, Byron. A Counterhistory of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburg: U of Pittsburg P, 2007. Print.

Johnson, T.R.. The Other Side of Pedagogy: Lacan’s Four Discourses and the Development of the Student Writer. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2014. Print.

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