Real-World Writing

I’m a writing instructor, and, maybe paradoxically, I don’t want students to write for me. I want them to write for real-world audiences. Semester after semester, I’ve struggled to switch students’ thinking from “writing for class” to just “writing,” especially in my first-year and developmental writing courses.

When I started teaching, my main method was to remind students, again and again, that they needed to think about audiences outside the classroom. Me telling them wasn’t effective enough, as I kept getting essays that started with audience killers, like “For this assignment …” or “My essay is about. … ” I’ve since tried to develop essay assignments, grading criteria, and other activities that emphasize writing for the real world instead of just for the teacher. A couple of items I’ve added to my teaching repertoire lately have really helped me get this idea across to students. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a little better.

One item is an extra-credit opportunity. Students can earn extra credit on an essay assignment if they send or show their essay to a member or members of their audience. They can send the essay via e-mail or snail mail, or they can deliver it themselves (hand it to someone or read it to them). To get the extra points, they have to prove that they sent it by copying me on the e-mail or showing me a stamped and addressed envelope. One student intends to take a picture of herself handing her essay to her friend’s father, a military officer who is an appropriate member of her audience. Even if students aren’t bold enough to let their audiences read their writing, the message seems to be getting across. They seem to be getting the idea that their writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

The other item I’m experimenting with is blogging. In the past, one of my class requirements has been a journal-like assignment responding to our class readings. This semester, instead of a personal journal, I’ve made the students put their thoughts online, for the world to see. The host blog for this endeavor is here.

The guidelines for student blog entries are pretty lax. They weren’t quite as lax as the students have interpreted them to be, but I’ve been a little too lenient on enforcing them. While I’m working out kinks with this as an assignment, I appreciate that the blogs have made the students write beyond the classroom. They are reading one another’s blogs, and some of the posts almost ignore the blog assignment completely because they know other people may be reading. Of course, some of the things they’re saying don’t achieve the level of depth I had hoped for, but they’re starting to come around.

While these new additions seem to be helping, there’s still something about writing for class that makes students think that whatever they’re writing can’t exist beyond the class. In many ways, when compared with other disciplines, I have the upper hand when it comes to getting students to think about real-world applications because they end a writing class with a physical product: an essay.

What do you do in your classes—writing classes or other disciplines—to get your students thinking about applications in the real world?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user mrsdkrebs.]

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