Using Student Texts

In our Teaching Develop Seminar on Tuesday, one side note of the conversation fascinated me. As instructors talked about how they respond to student writing, it became apparent that many (possibly most) feel reluctant to use current student work (“live writing,” Lisa called it) as content to be addressed in class time. These instructors may feel that putting student work “on the spot” makes the writers uncomfortable or serves only as a demonstration of teacherly control. I understand these concerns. I don’t think we should ever use class time to single out a student for work that is poorly done or even below average. And we should not make use of student work without first explaining what our intentions are and treating that writing, and all writing in the course, with respect.

But class time spent on student writing needn’t be tentative, negative, or unduly personal. Indeed, I find that enthusiastic and supportive engagement with student projects in the process of revision is among the most productive (and most interesting) of class activities. In using student texts, we discuss real, concrete projects, countering the abstraction that so often haunts writing courses. Instead of broadly describing, for example, what an introduction should do (and does anyone have an unassailable answer anyway?), we ask how Jessica’s or Eric’s first page functions and how it might be revised. Instead of having a generalized discussion about a course text, we ask how Mina or Joel are making use of that text. A canny instructor can feature material from every student by course’s end, and, in doing so, she adds a new collaborative layer to the course. Whenever possible, we should turn individual comments about student work back toward the public forum of our classes. We save ourselves work and give students practice translating insights about another’s work into things they can use. Some instructors prefer to leave student names off of sampled work, but I want students to pursue projects that, even with names removed, are recognizable as particular students’ work.

In Rewriting, Joe Harris says the following: “a writing course is defined less through the texts you assign students to read than through the work you do with the texts that students write. I expect there to be student texts on the table at almost every meeting of a writing class that I teach” (127).  And, in a chapter in a recent volume, Teaching With Student Texts, Harris follows up on this insight with a distinction he makes between two types of writing classes, workshop and seminar. A workshop, as Harris describes it, functions quite like our small writing group conferences (née SGTs). The goal in most of these sessions is to help an individual work through and improve a current draft. A writing seminar, in Harris’ terms, is a teacher-led conversation about a student text that is focused on helping all students see something in this draft that might contribute to their own work as writers.

The difference might be put this way. The question that drives a workshop is “How can we help this writer revise?” The question that drives a seminar is “What can we learn as writers from this text?” (147).

Harris goes on to describe various models for pursuing this seminar dimension, including the multi-text seminar, which draws on several small excerpts from student work, and the single-text seminar, which spends more time on a single, complete student text. Harris concludes by arguing that the best writing courses include elements of both seminar and workshop. Our FYW courses, built around the Small Group Tutorials that were for so long a defining feature, have a strong tradition of the workshop model. These comments from Tuesday’s TDS suggest that we may need to consider, too, how to develop our seminar models.


Harris’ chapter can be found here:  “Workshop and Seminar”