The Book that Brought Me Back to What Matters in Teaching

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Just why this book—Patrick Sullivan’s too plainly titled A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation, and Habits of Mind—reached me in just the way it did is a more involved story than I want to get into right now. Suffice it to say that just when my adamant belief in the transformative potential of first-year writing courses was becoming strained by the daily wear and tear of the classroom and just when I discovered that I could no longer put my heart into the theories of teaching writing that my mind found most convincing, Sullivan offered me a way forward—and, simultaneously, a way back to what first fired my imagination about writing and teaching. In response, I completely rewrote my writing course.

Three aspects of the book are particularly compelling to me. In my mind, each of these applies to teaching any discipline, not just first-year writing.

First and foremost, Sullivan foregrounds what matters most. 

I only have space and time to share a few of the ways he does this. (After all, the introduction summarizes the book’s key arguments with twenty-one bullet points!) I will begin with passage worth quoting at length:

Research related to critical thinking and the development of writing expertise suggests that intellectual and dispositional “habits of mind” may be more valuable to students, especially in the long run, than knowledge about traditional subjects at the center of most writing instruction, including the thesis statement, MLA format, and even essays themselves. . . . These habits of mind, as we know, include dispositional characteristics like curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.
          I would like to see us bring these important habits of mind to the center of our teaching practice. A classroom focused on listening and empathy, for example, is designed to help build curiosity, openness, and engagement. A focus on reflection is designed to help build flexibility, metacognitive skills, and responsibility. . . . Attention to motivational factors in the classroom actively seeks to help nurture persistence, engagement, and creativity. (149)

In short, Sullivan views the first job of first-year writing (and I’d expand this to all disciplines) not to teach students specific, limited writing skills but to expand hearts and minds through developing practices of listening, reflection, and empathy along with dispositions such as creativity, curiosity, and openness. The argument, grounded in research on transfer, is that these more expansive qualities will be of much more use to students in future contexts (whether related to writing or not) than, say, the ability to avoid passive voice or write clear transitions.

In Chapter 1, a critique of “The Simplistic Argumentative Essay,” Sullivan asks us to move away from asking students to make and support claims about issues that they know and have thought little about and instead get them to “spend more time engaging complex problems patiently and thoughtfully” (17). To enable students to do so, he foregrounds reflection and listening over other modes of writing and thinking, such as the making of reports or arguments. Of reflection, he writes: “The privileged cognitive disposition should be reflection—that is to say, an openness to others and to new ideas and a willingness to acknowledge complexity and uncertainty” (3). Of listening, he writes:

This book attempts to begin building a foundation for a new kind of pedagogy, one focused around the art of listening. “Listening” is theorized here as an active, generative, constructive process that positions writers in an open, collaborative, and dialogical orientation toward the world and others. . . . [L]istening is also theorized here as a philosophical orientation toward the world that is characterized by ‘a radical generosity’ toward ‘the Other’ and is informed most essentially by empathy and compassion. (2)

Are not such qualities, at least in large part, what inspired us to study our chosen fields to begin with? Are they not what got us into this teaching gig? How easy it is to get distracted by lesser learning goals. I appreciate so much that Sullivan brings us back to what really matters, which are, in fact, the larger purposes of higher education.

Another thing that matters for Sullivan is motivation. On this, I can’t help but, once again, simply sharing a good number of his own words on the subject, with the three following passages:

If we can inspire sincere student interest in reading, writing, and thinking, much else will take care of itself, without us having to lecture, harangue, prod, threaten, test, quiz, or plead. We all try to do this to some extend, of course. I am proposing that we make it one of the primary guiding principles of our profession . . . (124)

It is our job to help these students want to be in our classes—day after day, year after year. We cannot continue to present as self-evident the value of reading and writing. We need to work every day to help students discover, experience, and feel the joys of reading and the magic of written communication. (131)

We need to provide opportunities for students to experience for themselves the joy of reading and the power of language to move, transform, and inspire. (145)

In short, Sullivan will not allow us to throw our hands up, claim that students who simply don’t want to learn won’t, and let that be that. He sets a higher bar. May we all, at least to some degree, adopt this same stance, which says we can and have a responsibility to try to influence our students’ very attitudes and desires for the better. We can help students develop a taste for deeper things.

Second and third—more quickly now—Sullivan offers broad theoretical support and specific pedagogical examples for his approach. 

Sullivan’s citations come from writing studies, education, psychology, philosophy, cognitive sciences, and other fields. This extensive groundwork lays a sound theoretical foundation and justification for his vision and practice, giving intellectual rigor and legitimacy to what otherwise might be dismisses as too “soft” or dreamy of an approach. (Of particular note is the use he makes of the “habits of mind” named in Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.)

Still, even while the thrust is theoretical—the vision of this book is more central than its the strategies—Sullivan also offers concrete, practical examples of how to teach dispositions and habits of mind and generate motivation. His structured reading guides, discussion of student work, sequences of scaffolded reading and writing assignments, and discussion of class activities help us to see his lofty vision for education as practical and attainable. We can use his examples as models for our own lessons.

While I write in virtually all my books, I mark some more than others.

A New Writing Classroom bears my extensive underlining and annotations on most every page. And I have definitely not yet exhausted what Sullivan has to say or how it might continue to change my teaching for the better. I mean to reread this book, perhaps again and again in the years to come. You might join me.

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Almost every page of my copy of A New Writing Classroom bears heavy annotations.

 

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2 responses to “The Book that Brought Me Back to What Matters in Teaching

  1. Thank you for the post. The Steelman Library (library.seu.edu) has the ebook version of this book if other professors are interested in reading it.

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