new book, new assignment cycle

It’s a little funny to be getting excited about a semester that starts in late August, but I’ve ordered my textbook and crafted my syllabus for next semester. And I’m getting very excited.

First, I’m excited to teach with The Short Guide to College Writing. It’s everything that most college textbooks aren’t. I don’t mean to be too critical; most college writing textbooks are adequate. But there’s a lot of bloat out there, for financial reasons; the more you include, the more you can charge, and the more different modules you stuff in, the more types of classes you can credibly argue the book is appropriate for. The Short Guide, in contrast, is… short. Blissfully short, actually, coming in at less than half the pages of many of the popular textbooks that are out there.

If that was all it had going for it, of course, this wouldn’t be much of an endorsement. But it’s not really the brevity but rather the focus that I like so much. Far too often, introductory college writing gives short shrift to prose. That might sound odd, like saying that calculus classes give too little attention to math. What I mean, though, is that college writing tends to focus so much on tasks– on persuasive needs, contexts, and mechanisms, as well as on vocational forms such as white papers and business letters– that there isn’t much focus on the actual writing, the written language one uses to accomplish those tasks. The average college writer can now make a very credible analysis of someone else’s written argument; she can use a variety of rhetorical tools to craft her own argument; she can accomplish a number of tasks for a number of exigencies, such as researching, summarizing, advocating, or critiquing.

The question, though, is if she can do so with grace, a personal voice, or style. I can’t argue that there’s a clean dividing line between aesthetics and effectiveness in writing, but I certainly feel that most college writers I work with have a far better grasp on the latter than on the former. I’m sure a lot of people will say that that’s how it should be, and I’d probably take that if I had to choose. But we don’t have to choose. Developing aesthetically pleasing prose isn’t adjunct to the more important task of developing effective prose, but rather an intrinsic part of that task. Some believe that genuine style can’t be taught, but I strongly disagree. I think that dedicated teachers who make style an important part of their syllabus can help their students develop style– not by dictating it, but by facilitating its development.

That’s what makes the Short Guide so refreshing. Prose style and voice are bound right up with the larger vocational and genre tasks that are being taught. Rather than treating prose development as a discrete, separable element of writing, the Short Guide makes it a  part of every writing task presented in the book– and does so quite well. There are downsides to the book; if you’re looking for the digital elements that are so inescapable in college writing education right now, you’ll be disappointed. (I personally always teach those on my own with supplements from the Web, anyway.) And the book’s interior, in contrast to the glossy sheen of most big textbooks these days, is drabber than drab and totally grey. But I’ll take that if it keeps the price down.

While I admire the book’s diffuse approach to developing prose, I’m going to go in the opposite direction this coming semester by teaching a unit dedicated to style. In a six week, three part unit, I’m going to have my students write with the specific focus of developing their prose. Obviously, this is a major investment of class resources, and it’ll be imperative that I work other, more directly task-focused aspects into the unit. In particular, our weekly computer lab time will be crucial. The assignment sheets are embedded below or can be found at my Teaching Portfolio tab above.

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