I almost always begin my rhetoric class with a writing prompt. I give students some specific question — usually related to the day’s reading — and ask them to write a response in the first five minutes of class. It’s pretty easy to tell when they find a prompt hard to answer. Last Wednesday was not one of those times.
The day’s prompt: Tell me about a writing rule you were required to follow that seems confusing or pointless. Even my most passive students began writing furiously.
After they finished, I asked the class which rules had come to mind. It was remarkable how quickly and productively the discussion sprang to life. Every student, it seemed, had burning questions about writing rules — although many of them just wanted to know what I would "allow" ("Do you care about, you know, headings and stuff?").
It turns out that talking about the rules of writing is a great way to get into a searching discussion about what it means to write, and to be a writer. Soon we were talking about the best times to write in the first person, the ins and outs of the dreaded five-paragraph essay, and the reasons why some teachers require a thesis statement to be one long sentence.
In an excellent 2014 blog post, Jesse Stommel, now the executive director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington, provided a neat summary of the debate over the teaching of rules in writing classrooms. He noted the long tradition of composition scholars resisting rigid adherence to rules and arguing against writing pedagogy that was too focused on shoulds and don’ts. Countering the standard line that students need to learn the rules before they break them, Stommel argued, "We should, instead, teach the rules and how to break them simultaneously."
I agree wholeheartedly, and even would go one step further. I don’t teach writing rules just because I want students to understand (and break) the conventions of the discipline. I teach the rules because they are interesting.
Rules — because students are so familiar with them as a genre — offer a convenient way to get a class thinking about the hows and whys of writing. Where do writing rules come from? Why do they persist? Why are certain rules taught by some teachers and not by others? The answers can tell us plenty about how students view writing and how they can start to assume some agency as writers.
For many students fresh out of high school, the discipline of writing is nothing but a series of rules, so this is a conversation they are ready to have.
The problem with the rules-heavy approach to teaching writing in high school isn’t just the rigidity with which students are taught those rules or follow them. It’s that too often students are taught rules without any context or justification. That’s just "the way things are." For example, my students are intimately familiar with the five-paragraph essay form, but none of them know how and why it came to be the standard for high-school composition (the explanation has more to do with the ease of grading that form than from any special advantage it offers for a student writer).
Students are left following rules just because a teacher told them to, none the wiser about their function or history. It’s a recipe for seeing writing as foreign or external — something a student is supposed to do but not necessarily understand. Just follow the rules, kid, and there won’t be any trouble.
I’m not at all suggesting we stop teaching grammar and other writing rules. I’m saying: Don’t just teach the rules. Learning the rules is as easy as typing a few words into a search bar. Learning why and how they came about in the first place is a higher-order kind of knowledge. Learning when to follow the rules and when to cast them aside is higher still — the sort of thing we should hope students gain from our courses. Teach your students that writers respond to occasion, audience, and purpose by making considered choices, and that rules aren’t separate from those considerations.
Many of my first-year students are nervous about formatting and citation styles, usually because some teacher in their recent past took off points on papers that were incorrectly formatted. So students are eager to hear my "position" on how to cite correctly for my class. For the first half of the semester I tell them not to worry about such things, that I don’t care how they format their papers, and that we’ll talk about citation styles when it comes time to write a research paper.
When that day arrives, I lead a class discussion, not about citation styles, but about citation itself. Why do we cite? What purpose does it serve? Why should we have conventions for citation? Eventually, of course, we end up talking about style guides, and those students who just want to know whether to put the period before or after the closing parenthesis will get their answer. But they also learn something about why there are so many different style guides. (It has to do with different disciplinary priorities: The sentence is important to the humanities; the year is important to the sciences.) Students learn about the value of giving credit to people for their ideas, and about the collaborative nature of all scholarly work. What begins as a technicality can end up going pretty deep into the very nature of the writer’s task.
Asking students what they’ve been taught about any subject is a great way to spark class discussion. But it’s especially helpful when it yields so many opportunities for students to question the way things are always done. When we help students gain a more expansive understanding of the meaning of the rules they’ve been taught, we help them better understand what those rules are meant to govern.