In a recent guest post, Sara Heaser wrote about the metaphors she uses in teaching first-year composition. Her observations have been lurking in the back of my mind since then, and in preparing for our final weeks of class, I’ve been taking a critical look at my own metaphors, specifically those I use when talking to students about their drafts, especially drafts composed early in the writing process.
For example, when I read a piece that seems to lack focus, I may ask students to imagine those devices that are set up in science museums and malls—contraptions in which a penny or nickel is released at the top of a wide funnel, and the coin circles around and around, at times careening in wide loops and at times spiraling smoothly, until it reaches the bottom and falls through the narrow opening into a small container. Sometimes finding a thesis that will control the paper is like that—we have to go through the careening and spiraling until we finally settle into a workable proposition to anchor the paper. It’s normal and helpful, and not at all a failure.
When I’m working with students in later stages of the revising process, perhaps when they need to think about cohesion and what they themselves characterize as “flow,” I might invoke the image of myself trying to learn to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission – with jerks and stops and whiplash-inducing lurches. That sort of metaphor can encourage students to think about a reader’s experience of working through the meaning emerging in a text.
Or perhaps I have a student who is developing a complicated argument but who seems to drop the ball just at the end. Living and teaching in a football culture, I might say that the conclusion to the paper feels like a punt on third down, or a Hail-Mary pass thrown when there is plenty of time on the clock to run a full set of downs and get the ball over the goal line.
But I’ve realized that, more often than not, my metaphors for talking to students about writing are metaphors for problems, for struggles, for what might be seen as inadequacies or error—even though I work diligently to characterize writing as a recursive process, not a failed outcome. Still, I rarely use metaphors to describe what works—only what doesn’t.
In my advanced grammar class—more like an introduction to syntax for English majors—there are a number of students who want to become teachers. In our text (Doing Grammar), author Max Morenberg makes a point of encouraging novice teachers to put grammar skills to work in recognizing not just what student writers do poorly but what they do well—the strong use of a modifier, a cleft-sentence that gives a sentence a rhythmic punch, an existential-there construction that works in context. My students in that class have practiced just such a recognition of rhetorical and syntactic dexterity in their analyses of 50+ word sentences from authors they admire, and in their papers, many have articulated analogies and metaphors to capture their sense of awe at a writer’s craftsmanship or prowess.
I see a two-fold lesson for myself in these reflections: first, in all student papers—whether from freshman writers in a co-requisite section or advanced writers in the major—I want to point out and praise sentences that work, sentences that sing, sentences that sail into the end-zone, punctuated with a ball-spike and celebration dance. Second, I want to develop metaphors for describing those successful sentences, word pictures that will help students understand how a reader experiences their words and why a given sentence carries the weight that it does.
What metaphors do you use to celebrate powerful student writing?