A Letter to the Writers in my Summer Composition Course

Hello Everyone!

One of the biggest problems for students in my online classes is that they fail to READ CAREFULLY. The world bombards us with texts, and we are getting used to always skimming. I’m guilty too!  Take the time to read this letter, the syllabus, and watch the tutorial videos on the course website. None of the videos is over 10 minutes long.  That’s a much shorter lecture than many of you are used to.  :)

I’m writing you because you are currently enrolled in the Summer I writing course I am teaching. In order to take this class, you will need a willingness to try new things, have regular access to the internet, and the desire to keep up with your work and stay in communication with me. This course will be over before you know it! Time flies in summer writing.

As you’ll soon see, I believe college is a place to try new things, to stretch yourself intellectually, and to get out of your comfort zone. Why just jump through the same old academic hoops you’ve been jumping through for years? You’ll do most of your work on a WordPress blog this semester, and I have some experiments planned when it comes to Facebook and Twitter. I realize some of you might have good reasons you object to social media, and if that’s you, just be in touch with me as the course moves along.

William Torgerson Writing Teaching College Composition

The Course Webpage / Click on Pic to Check it Out

You should know that just about everyone in the class thinks they aren’t a very good writer and is embarrassed to have others read their work. If that’s not you, please be sensitive to your classmates’ fears!  Once you start reading each other’s work, you’ll see we all have our strengths and weaknesses.  I really admire those of you who are writing in English as a second language. That is so much work, and I admire your intellectual ambition! Writing is something that happens in process.  We can write a bad first draft just to have something to work with and then we can go about making it better. You’ll be graded on keeping up with the work and the work you do to make the draft better as the class goes along.  You will not be graded on the quality of your first drafts.

I’m attaching the syllabus.  You can print it out and read over it, but it is also available online. I’ll give you the course website at the end of this email. The syllabus is going to look very long.  Don’t be afraid!  I think it is long because I explain what you need to do in great detail.  I hope you’ll find everything explained clearly.

This is important: Once you are on the course website, you will occasionally need a password.

(Password Information section removed)

I used to be a basketball coach, but I was converted to writer by some life experiences I had in the way of meeting people and reading texts that changed my life. Watch out. The reading and writing you do may change your life. Be on the lookout for that.

The course begins on Tuesday, May 29. I’ll respond to any email questions you have before then, but I’ll respond to your work the day or two after it is due. Like you, I’m pretty tired out from the year and getting this course ready for you all.

If any of you are in places where YouTube is blocked, you won’t be able to access some of the tutorial videos. If that’s the case, you and I can write back and forth if you have trouble setting up your work.

The course website is below.  I look forward to meeting you through the work of this course!



College Writers on the Craft of Writing (podcast link at bottom)

Each semester the past couple of years the First Year Writing Program at St. John’s University holds a conference called “Coming to Writing.”  My colleague Tara Roeder was one of the faculty members who came up with the name and it comes from Hélène Cixous, a writer Tara describes as her favorite, fabulous, French feminist.  Here’s a quote that has previously been used on the conference program.

“I sensed that there was a beyond, to which I did not have access, an unlimited place […] A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question. The question with this strange destiny: to seek, to pursue the answers that will appease it…
—Hélène Cixous in “Coming to Writing”

I moderated a panel discussion of students I worked with during the semester, recorded the session, and published the session as a podcast with their permission.  I can certainly spot ways in which many of them were, as Cixous describes, in pursuit of answers.  What follows here is the title of our panel and a description of the work the students discussed.

Writers on the Craft of Writing

Like it or not, these students had to be writers this semester.  They wrote two blog posts a week and created a documentary film as a culminating writing project.  Here’s a list of the students who presented and what it was that most struck me about their work:

  • Brianne revolutionized the way many of us thought about how a dean might work with students in his or her respective college.  She talked with deans from many of our colleges at St. John’s and then surprised most of us when her exhaustive interviews of students revealed that many students communicate with their deans regularly.
  • Tahyanna is a funny and smart writer who I think ought to write a memoir something along the lines of Confessions of a Germaphobe.  (I don’t think she’s going to do it)  During the “Coming to Writing Conference,” Tahyanna talked about her writing process for the final paper, an assignment I call “A Writer on Writing.”  I make my students (no sense in saying I ask them to do it)  something we call an “annotation.”  For annotations, students  print out articles and take notes on them.  Tahynna explained how she put all her annotations out in front of her and looked at her written comments on the articles as a way of organizing how she was going to write the paper.
  • Miriam was the only student I had who referenced the only poem we looked at all semester as a way of thinking about images.  Although Miriam wrote about several topics, I remember her for writing about the environment.  In one of her pieces she wrote about a sort of paradoxical beauty, that oil in a puddle of water can be beautiful:  “Some puddles are murky, quiet as to how deep they really are.  Others are crystal clear, reflecting the fiery fall foliage.  Others seem to have life.  An intermingling of swirling colors…these puddles have harnessed their own rainbows.”
  • Michael came up with a theme for his blog:  conflict.  What impressed me most about his work (aside from his sometimes encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East) was the savvy and empathy he showed entering into controversial topics.  Rather than lighting up our classroom with angry argument, Michael fostered ideas of tolerance and conversation meant to help us all understand many points of view.
  • Diana says she comes from family that immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel where she was born, and that she considers herself an American.  These identities informed her writing in which she used the various generations of her family to underpin the structure of her final portfolio.  She also alludes to a terrible nickname given to her by a former teacher:  ESL, she was called, because her teacher felt she spoke using poor grammar.  Way to go dude.
  • Kevin started off not sure if he wanted to write about working on cars or the fact that he switched his concentration of study to nursing.  He took a practical approach to the work of the class and interviewed coworkers at the hospital, gathered information about graduate schools in nursing, and read numerous scholarly articles in his field.  If I was ever in need of someone to look after my health, I’d trust Kevin completely.
research, college, writing, high school, college prep, process

Tahyna and Miriam Intellectually Browse in the Library

Thanks to my colleague April Julier for organizing this semester’s conference.  The audio podcast of our panel discussion is available below.  If you take the time to listen, I wonder how you envision the college composition course?  Perhaps you are someone who says you are getting students ready to take it?  Maybe you’re headed for school yourself or had a very different experience when you were a student?  And of course there are other teachers of writing who have very different takes on what this class can be.  Love to hear from you regarding your thoughts on the sort of writing you’ve experienced connected to the first year writing course.

You can connect to the podcast here or search for “digital book club” on iTunes.  Thanks for checking this out.

What do you tell writers who ask for advice?

At the request of Campus Activities I agreed to participate in what is called “Storm Talks.”  It seems the goal of the project is to initiate conversation between students and professors.  I talked briefly on video and invited students to tell me about their writing before, during, and after the first year writing course.  The video was published via YouTube and Facebook.  Questions came in.  Here’s one of them:   “Any advice for a young writer?”

Click Here to Be Taken to Facebook Conversation

I usually answer that question by saying that the writer should read and write a lot.  I suppose it’s a philosophy–PRACTICE– that I used back when I was eighteen years old and cared about my free throw percentage. Okay, I still care about how many I’d make out of 100 if I were to go shoot tomorrow morning, but what I’m getting at is that in order to shoot free throws well, part of that process was that I shot a lot of them.  I remember in Donald Murray’s book, Write to Learn, he quotes writer (and Google fighter) Ursula Le Guin about this notion of practice:

“If you want to be a tuba player you get a tuba, and some tuba music…And you probably get a tuba teacher, because there are a lot of rules and techniques to both written music and to tuba performance.  And then you sit down and you play the tuba, every day, every week, every month, year after year, until you are good at playing the tuba; until you can–if you desire–play the truth on the tuba.”

Right after I suggest reading and writing to the person who has asked for advice (who am I really to give it?) I say that the writer needs to learn how to read.  People often laugh and think I’m joking, but I’m not.   As a student at Georgia College in Milledgeville, a generous faculty helped me to begin to read like a writer.  I learned to see that when Flannery O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” she made a choice for conflict in her first sentence:  “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”  O’Connor had many choices when it came to the beginning of her story.  She could have delivered dialogue, oriented readers to the setting, or perhaps written images for the purpose of developing character.  As I began to read in this way, all of the texts that surround me became my potential teachers, and I can read for lessons connected to dialogue, structure, endings, word choice, and many, many more.

So when asked to give advice I say to read and write a lot, and I say to learn how to read.  That feels like a pretty “DUH” thing for me to write.  Do you think so?  If you’re in position to ever be asks the question, how do you answer it?

Click Here to See Storm Talk Video