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2.2: Red Pens and Elbow Patches

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    I have a memory\(^{15}\) that really sticks out in my mind when I think of all the bad ideas about writing. I was at the dentist making small talk, and my dentist asked, “So what is it you teach at the university?” Squinting at the bright light above me, I responded, “I teach mostly first-year writing.” “Uh oh!” he chuckled, looking back at the dental assistants behind him. “Better watch my grammar around you, huh?” He paused and said, thoughtfully, “You know, I should send my son to you. He can’t spell to save his life!” 

    To be fair, these sorts of comments are made innocently enough and, anecdotally, they tend to happen a lot. The reason for this, I think, is because of a particularly bad idea about writing and writing instruction, one that surprisingly hasn’t let up in the past 40 years: that first-year writing is a basic course in language, grammar, and syntax that prepares students for something called academic writing

    in the more “legitimate” courses in the university; and that its teachers consist primarily of error-correctors and behavior-modifiers armed with red pens and elbow patches. However, such an antiquated view of what first-year writing is and can be only scratches the surface of the kinds of learning possible in a writing classroom.



    However, people in the field of composition have come to learn a lot about how writing works and how it is best taught in courses like first-year writing. Scholars have found that teaching grammar and mechanics does not improve student writing. There was a famous study of errors in Freshman Composition essays and found that “the rate of student error is not increasing precipitously but, in fact, has stayed stable for nearly 100 years.” What they mean is that errors in writing are a fact of life. As writing teachers, the idea that errors are a fact of life has been quite helpful because it has allowed them to prioritize higher order issues in writing like argument, analysis, audience, purpose, and context. By having students focus more on argument and audience in their writing, the five-paragraph essay template becomes increasingly irrelevant because it doesn’t resemble anything about how writing looks in the real world or what different audiences expect in different reading contexts. Writing isn’t a set of formulas that you plug in to get different kinds of texts. Writing is a process of brainstorming, composing, revising, having your work read by others, and then revising again. This is a complex, in-depth process that goes way beyond correctness.


    \(^{15}\)Snippet from = Branson, Tyler. “First-Year Composition Prepares Students for Academic Writing.” Bad Ideas About Writing. Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Libraries, Digital Publishing Institute, 2017. CC-BY.

    This page titled 2.2: Red Pens and Elbow Patches is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sybil Priebe (Independent Published) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.