Rules for Writing

To start off classes this semester, I had the students sit in groups of five. This meant 5 tables of 5 students each. I asked the students to list each member of their group on the board as well as a detail that might help us to get to know them. After they finished doing that, they listed five “Rules For Writing” that they believed in or had been taught to them in previous classes.

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college writing, composition, rules for writing, teaching, pedagogy, writing studies, St. John's University, Bill Torgerson, English, NCTE, CCCC, ENGCHAT, FYCChat

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Next, each group read a different text written by a writer about writing. On the first day, I used these texts/excerpts:

  • Black Boy by Richard Wright.
  • “Shitty First Drafts” by Anne Lamott
  • Life by Keith Richards
  • Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
  • “Unlearn to Write” by Donald Murray

The students read the excerpt out loud and answered the following four questions:

  1. What is the writer’s message about writing?
  2. What are some “golden lines” that you think are worth talking about?
  3. How can you apply the ideas here to your own writing?
  4. Does any of what this writer says about writing cause you to rethink any of your own Rules For Writing?

When each group was finished, I counted off by fives at each table. Students moved to a new table and presented the text they had just read to students who had read something different. I want to thank St. John’s University doctoral student Katelynn DeLuca for reminding me about this “jigsaw” method of getting students to move around the room.

In the coming weeks, students will be reading and commenting on texts written by writers about writing. This exercise was a way for all of us to begin to get to know each other and for the students to get acquainted with some of the choices they have for their reading this semester.

 

Introductory Letter to Online Writing Students

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Dear Writers Enrolled in Online Composition With Professor Torgerson,

Welcome to the class! I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor named Sam to think about my writing and teaching life. It goes, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.” I didn’t know what the heck Sam was talking about back when he first spoke those words to me, but the phrase has held my interest for the past fifteen years.

Sam and Anne

Sam on the left, who said, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.”

This idea of conversation works in all sorts of ways. To start off, we are all going to write each other letters in the spirit of what you are reading here. (or in a spirit you prefer) We will do a lot of letter writing in this class because I hope the form will allow you to be yourself. Somehow, many students end up writing in college in some boring voice they consider academic.

Please view the syllabus as a part of the opening to our conversation. I hope you will read  this letter and the syllabus carefully, think over what I’ve said, and say something back to all of us based on what you’ve heard and who you are. Soon, there will be twenty-six voices all in conversation with one another. We’ll do much of this through the use of Google documents. There is something in education called an Electronic Portfolio. Lots of people call these ePorts for short. These ePorts are personal websites on which you will post your writing. Everyone in this class will sign up for Google GMAIL, write in something called Google Documents, and post work on their ePortfolios. I will help you do this. There are lots of tutorials posted online. You can come see me in my office for extra help if you need it. If you have any trouble, I want to help you. Don’t be afraid to email me and ask me questions: torgersw@stjohns.edu

Conversation in the class will continue through your reading of texts written by writers about writing. I’ll ask you to write letters of response. These letters will be the raw materials for the papers you will write. Your assigned papers will be a way to take your letters of response, gather your thoughts, and share them with us in an essay about writing.

When I ask you to read something, keep in mind someone like you and me wrote the text and that writer has a message for us.  Say something back to the writer and to your fellow writers in the class. Try and remember that everything you read and everything you write is a part of a conversation we are all having together about reading, writing, and thinking. The word literacy can cover are work in the areas of reading, writing, and thinking. I hope to empower you to develop your 21st Century Literacy skills.  When we read and write online in conjunction with the screens of our devices, there is a lot at stake: votes are won and lost, money changes bank accounts, and voices are heard and suppressed. Social media and writing on the web allow more ordinary people like us to have voices that must be listened to by big business or government. Writing is a tool that can be used for social change.

Students often tell me this composition course is easy and that it’s hard. (A paradox! How can that be true?) It’s easy because if you read the instructions carefully, do the work, post it on time, and use some of the feedback you receive to plan a revision, you’ll most surely get an “A” or “B.” On the other hand, the class can be hard because you have to be responsible enough to take care of your business. Two times a week you have to read, write, and leave comments on the writing of your classmates. This isn’t the kind of class you can blow off for twelve weeks and then buckle down for a couple of exams and get by with a decent grade. You’ll either be responsible, problem solve, and keep up with the work, or you won’t pass. One of the keys to doing well is staying in touch with me. Be sure to read your emails, work a few days ahead of when assignments are due, and write to me when you have problems. torgersw@stjohns.edu

The technology aspect of this class can be challenging. Mostly we are using Google’s “Drive” and “docs” along with Digication’s ePortfolio platform to do our work and communicate with each other. I will be on the Queens campus at least on Mondays and Thursdays and it might be good to get off to a good start and come in for help setting up Google Documents and the ePortfolio. I’d love to reserve the conference room in the writing center so that we could get together and do this if you need help. There are lots of tutorials online you could also Google. Try something such as “writing in Google docs” on YouTube and be sure to watch more recent videos in case something has changed.

A little about me: I first became an English major as in incoming freshman in 1990 because I was afraid of flunking out. I went to college because I wanted to play basketball, and I wanted to become a basketball coach. Both of my parents were English teachers, and so I figured if I needed help, I could make the two-hour drive home and get some tutoring. (we didn’t have a tutoring center and writing center like St. John’s!) I was so scared of flunking out as a freshman, that I went to the library every night after dinner. Much to my surprise, I made the Dean’s List the first semester. I learned that when I studied every day that I could do well.

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my dad Martin, me, and my mom Sue

I did coach basketball and teach high school English for ten years in Indiana and North Carolina. The more I worked at being a teacher reading and writing, the more I began to enjoy quiet time in the mornings more than my time in the gym after school. I decided to quit coaching, go to graduate school, and try and become a writer and a professor. Over the years, I’ve published three novels with one more coming out next year, and I’ve directed two documentary films. It seems like the students I work with are writing more than ever, especially in conjunction with the screens of devices. My wife Megan and I have two daughters ages five and eight. We rent an old farmhouse in Connecticut out in the country and even have a barn and (non-working) outhouse on the property. How an outhouse doesn’t work is a story for another time. After almost ten years of not coaching basketball, I’m back in the gym two days a week helping to coach my daughter’s 2nd grade girls team. It’s wonderful fun!

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with the girls in Maine

I make time almost everyday for reading and writing. I enjoy working out, and at forty-three years of age, I still play in a basketball league at our local YMCA. I love to teach because I enjoy learning from the writers I work with, and I thrive on the energy that is created as we all work enthusiastically on projects of our choosing. I believe everyone can learn to write more effectively, and it’s important to do this because I believe writing can be a form of thinking. If this is a thinking class, then it can benefit everyone. If we don’t work to become more powerfully literate thinkers, there are lots of people (especially in digital spaces) who will try to manipulate our thoughts and bank accounts. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have this semester!

Best,

Bill Torgerson ncte composition college writing online teaching
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After Reading Always Apprentices

Initial Thoughts:

I thought I’d like this book because I often like texts that come from The Believer. As I started to read, I thought the book was going to stink due to idle banter. There are some not-good conversations in here. When I didn’t connect with a conversation, I skipped ahead to the next one. I ended up reading well over half of the interviews printed in this book.  As someone who thrives when in conversation with others, I jotted down a lot of ideas I have for my own work, texts I want to take a look at, and ideas for teaching.

Three Golden Lines:

  • Lawrence Schiller on choosing a topic for writing about: “First, find a story that has depth and general appeal.”
  • Gary Lutz: “Ideally, as I see things, every sentence should bestow a fresh verbal bounty on the reader. A writer needs to give in every sentence-a writer is someone who is forever bearing gifts.”
  • Victor LaValle “Fear is a powerful motivator in human behavior, for bad and for good.”

Something to remember for an upcoming trip:  Norman Mailer is buried in Provincetown.

To check out as a result of reading:

  • Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song. Note the Lawrence Schiller connection.
  • My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist
  • The Complete and Collected Work of V.S. Pritchett
  • Joan Didion’s Blue Nights
  • Bruce Jay Friedman
  • Requiem for a Dream

Always Apprentices Bill Torgerson, The Believer, St. John's University

Something I’ve been thinking about for teaching:

For the fall of 2013, I want to start the class on what we’ll call “Intellectual Browsing.” I’ve been dis-satisfied with the way my requirement that the students include articles from the library databases has often caused student writing to veer off course according to what articles they find. The direction of their writing shifts only because of what they are able to find and not because of what they have decided. The articles that are found drives the paper rather than the students’ interest or curiosity.

I have in mind a new sort of research paper, one called “Intellectual Browsing.” Students can browse journals in the library, books in the library, check out Google or Amazon books, and take a trip to the local bookstore. Then they can “report back” and get some practice or experience using MLA format while also hopefully firing some intellectual curiosity. The book/film project we have been doing can follow this stage of intellectual browsing.

I thought I’d like this book because I often like texts that come from The Believer. As I started to read, I thought it was going to really stink. There are some not-good conversations in here. When I didn’t connect with a conversation, I skipped ahead to the next. This made the book good reading for me. I read over half the interviews in the book. As someone who thrives when in conversation with others, I jotted down a lot of ideas I have for my own work, texts I want to take a look at, and ideas for teaching.

Citation information:

Vendela, Vida, Ross Simonini, and Sheila Heti. Always Apprentices: The Believer Presents Twenty-Two Conversations Between Writers. San Francisco: Believer Books, 2013. Print.