One of the most common truisms about writing that circulates in culture is that you should always “write about what you know.” Setting aside any problematic aspects of the saying (of which there are more than a few), the fact that FYC students bring this idea into the writing classroom, even if it’s just buried in their subconscious, presents another challenge to helping students generate writing.
This idea gets back to the question of authority I was discussing in an earlier post and I feel like it relates to the challenges I’ve seen students struggle with in relation to peer review, as well. Students don’t feel like they know about the readings in the class, or about writing, or about how to offer good feedback. So I have been thinking about how to help students know what they know.
One approach I often use is to bring the readings back to students’ lives. For example, one of the advantages of using Graeme Wood’s “Reinventing College,” or any of the other essays in Emerging about higher education, is that—by definition—they are experts in being in college. While this example is perhaps a bit “on the nose,” I find that most of the readings in Emerging have entryways to connect to students’ experiences and, thus, their knowledges.
Group work is also a great confidence builder, for while no one student may really “know” a reading, I find that having them pool their knowledge and skills helps them realize how much they do know collectively. And that collective understanding travels back with students once they leave the classroom. Building knowledge expands the base of what students know and thus empowers them to write about an essay.
One final strategy I use is getting students to write about what they know they don’t know. I ask students to come into a class with a specific quotation or passage from the reading that they just don’t understand. Working alone or in groups, they break these down into smaller bits and build an understanding. Not only do students leave with a better working knowledge of the reading, but they also come to know they they know what to do when they know they don’t know.
So, write about what you know? I guess. Thing is, in the writing classroom you’re always learning more and so always knowing more.