Now that I’ve put some ideas on the table – Vygotsky, coaching, lecturing – I want to describe four different courses, three of which I’ve taught, one that I took. All of that took place in the ancient days before personal computing and the web. My objective is simply to get four different kinds of courses together in one document.
What affordances to these course have for co-learning?
I was trained in English literature, which means that, like just about everyone with such training, I also had to teach composition – first, to earn my tuition while getting the degree and then when I got my first (and only) teaching job. The fact is that Ph. D. training in literature doesn’t even train you to teach literature – at least it didn’t back in those days – much less train you to teach writing, with is an entirely different kind of activity. The two have only one thing in common: the written language.
One consequence of this disparity is that many a freshman comp course has been taught as a “content” course that just happens to have a lot of writing assignments, generally weekly. Between graduate school and my faculty job at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) I taught freshman comp, say, a half dozen or more times. I doubt that I taught it the same way twice and I forget what I did most of the times I taught the course.
But, one time at RPI I taught the course using a reader – a common thing to do. I forget which of the many such readers I used, but, like all of them, it had a large selection of pieces, both fictional and not, which you could use as the basis of a writing assignment. The weekly assignment, then, is simple: Read such and such a selection and write such and such a piece based on what you read. I’m sure I had some strategy with which I selected the weekly assignments, and I’m sure I allowed various alternatives as well, but I don’t remember that.
As I recall, the major difficulty was in making useful comments about student writing, where the problems ranged from grammar and spelling to theme, organization, and logic. I often thought that it would have been easier for me simply to re-write a sentence or paragraph than to explain what was wrong, why it was wrong, and how to do better. I note in passing that this was before the days of personal computers, much less before the time when every student had one.
I came away from this experience with two general impressions: First, what you need to do to learn to write is, above all, to write, a lot. More than you do in a one-semester composition course. Writing a lot may even be more important and useful than having an instructor make sometimes helpful sometimes obscure remarks on your paper. Second, this really would go better with weekly one-hour one-on-one tutorial sessions, like music lessons.