Venn and the Art of Writing Instruction


Collaborative Learning, Higher Education, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Uncategorized, Undergraduate Students, UW-Madison Writing Center Alumni Voices, Writing Center History, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, September 10th, 2018

By Shifra Sharlin –

Photo of Shifra Sharlin.
Shifra Sharlin.

Shifra Sharlin has been a Senior Lecturer at Yale University in the Department of English since 2013. In 2007, she received her Ph.D. in the Composition-Rhetoric Program from UW-Madison where she worked in the Writing Center. She has also taught at UC-Berkeley, the Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute, UW-Madison’s School of Business, Department of English and Integrated Liberal Studies, Columbia University and City University of New York, Graduate Center. She has published essays in Salmagundi, Raritan, Southwest Review, New Letters and Hotel Amerika. One of her essays was a “notable,” in Best American Essays. Her most recent essay is published in the L.A. Reviews of Books.

The Two Circles of Venn: Student Needs and Classroom Objectives

This post is about a class I teach at Yale University, how it both brings writing center practices into the classroom and, to my surprise, enhances and extends those practices. I was a tutor in the Writing Center at UW-Madison in the early 2000s when I was a graduate student in the Composition-Rhetoric Program. I was a non-traditional student because I was in my late 40s when I started graduate school and in my 50s when I was a tutor in the Writing Center, that is to say, I already had a fair amount of experience teaching writing, all of it pretty horrible.

I could say that being a tutor at the Writing Center was such an enormous improvement on my classroom experience because it solved the problem of stage fright that afflicted me so badly. That’s true. For shy people like me a one-on-one conversation is much more congenial and, as a mom who had reveled in raising four children, the more personal, dare I say more nurturing, setting of the Writing Center just felt better.

And yet, I have come to believe that my difficulties teaching writing are only partly explained by my personality. A Venn diagram gives a better explanation. Imagine that student needs are one circle and classroom objectives are another circle. In the Writing Center those two circles overlap nicely. In my classroom teaching, the two circles felt miles apart.

Beginners’ Venn: One Circle
A photo of the exterior of Grainger Hall, home of the Wisconsin School of Business, on a summer morning.
Grainger Hall, home to the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, on a summer morning in, 2016. Photo credit: Jeff Miller, University Communication, UW-Madison.

As I began to figure out how to make teaching feel less horrible, I more or less gave up on the Venn diagram. Two circles became one. My classroom objectives were coextensive with my students’ needs and their self-selected ends. I kept class requirements to a minimum. I told my students I was their coach (which I saw as a variation on being a tutor). I told them my goal was to help them find their voices. I did not correct, I commented on their papers. Students spoke freely. Discussion ranged widely. Students surprised themselves and me with their writing. I loved teaching.

These classes succeeded as self-discovery and empowerment. Students developed their writing along their own self-selected trajectory. Still. I worried if not exactly about rigor and standards since I know that those are relative terms, then about whether or not I was adding to the students’ writing skills. The dynamic between class objectives and students’ self-selected ends is productive. A Venn diagram represents an active sphere of mutual influence.

A photo of the exterior of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, 5th Avenue, New York, NY.
The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. Photo credit: Alex Irklievski.

When I began teaching at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center in a Master’s program, Masters in Liberal Studies (CUNY-GC, MALS), I held onto my love of teaching and I was doing a bit better with my Venn diagram. I taught an introduction to graduate studies, which prepared students for graduate level reading and writing. It was first-year composition for graduate students. The two circles were not entirely equal. I imagined the smaller, weaker student circle distorted as it was pulled into the bigger course objective circle. The course served students’ professional ambitions and intellectual curiosity, but I still wished that each circle had been more robust.

More Venn: English 120 at Yale
A photo of the exterior of Linsly-Chittenden Hall on a spring day at Yale University.
Linsly-Chittenden Hall, home of the English Department at Yale University. Photo credit: Michael Marsland, Yale University.

I do not use any of the writing center hand-outs that proved so useful when I was teaching academic writing at CUNY in the writing course I now teach at Yale. Nonetheless, there are unmistakable methodological similarities between the writing center and my course.

The course is a multi-section, introductory writing course, “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay,” English 120. The course has a shared syllabus and methodology. The course director and assistant director believed that my background in composition rhetoric and my experience at the Writing center would prove useful in English 120. It was.

English 120 uses different terms than the writing center, but the method is similar. In English 120, as in the writing center, we analyze texts in order to use them as models for student writing was nearly identical. What writing center calls rhetorical analysis or genre analysis or the identification of conventions, the course directors of English 120 call “close reading for craft.”

As a Writing Center tutor, I would help a student write a personal statement, for instance, by studying other personal statements for to learn conventions of that genre. In “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay,” I help students write their modern essays by studying other modern essays for craft. In both my writing center tutorials and in my English 120 classroom, I dismantle the texts into parts useful for imitation or adaptation.

In both tutorial and classroom the text is the textbook. Good writing is contextualized. There are as many different kinds of good writing as there are texts. In both tutorial and classroom students talk about models. Good writing is not something abstract and absolute. Students can talk about what works and what does not, which models they like and which ones they do not. In both tutorial and classroom students work at adapting models to their own purposes. This work foregrounds differences in situation, in audience and the student’s own goals and inclinations. In these and other ways, English 120 is the classroom version of a writing center tutorial.

There is one key difference that arises from the simple reality of scheduling. A class meets more often and for longer stretches of time than a tutorial. The classroom showed me what would happen if students had more time to spend on each aspect of the tutorial.

Writing Center Tutorial as Classroom
Photo of the upper-right part of the stone archway at Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University.
Architectural Detail of Archway at Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Yale University. Photo credit: Michael Marsley, Yale University.

What if students had weeks, not hours, to study their models? What if they had weeks not hours to figure out how to use these models in their writing? And what if the models were varied enough for students to choose ones that speak to them? How would the classroom change? What would this semester-long close reading for craft look like?

In this kind of classroom version of a writing center tutorial, the general objectives of the students and the class are nearly the same insofar as the whole class is a joint inquiry into the craft of the essay. There are also irreducible differences, the ones that make the class rewarding to teach. Each student brings their own points of view and needs to this inquiry into craft. The two circles of class objectives and student’s self-selected end are separate and also overlap.

Close reading for craft makes both circles larger; in part, because of an expansive definition of what counts as craft (Anything can count as craft); and, in part, because the course gives instructors freedom to take their own approaches to close reading for craft. Some are more directive than others. Instructors focus on a different aspect of the text depending on their own training and professional experience. Instructors assign entirely different kinds of texts. Some are more literary; others more journalistic. There is no one essay that all instructors teach.

These current and former English 120 instructors explain:

I give specific reading prompts whenever I ask students to read in class. Never just “read this paragraph” or even “read this paragraph and look for things you’d like to emulate.” Rather, “read this paragraph and circle all the adjectives.” Or, “read this paragraph and mark the place where narrative time slows down the most.” “Now re-read the same paragraph and mark the place where the writer’s ethos changes.” Etc. What I’m looking for here is descriptive responses to text rather than evaluative responses to text. I think it’s most fruitful to get my students to identify writerly/rhetorical choices and the effects of those choices on readers rather than to explain what they liked or didn’t like, etc.” Aaron Ritzenberg

Definitely reading passages aloud, as well as asking students to tick off kinds of words (action verbs, words with negative connotations) in particular passages. Also stressing the notion, from the first day of class, of an essay as a machine for reading. What inspires readers to begin, continue, and finish reading a given piece? Adam Sexton

Reading for craft is reading for “how” rather than reading for “what”—looking for strategies that students can import into their own writing. To this end, I often ask students to read aloud to get a sense of how particular sentences, words, and paragraphs “fit” together, and I occasionally ask students, after reading aloud from a passage, to write a paragraph in which they imitate the passage they just read. Early on in the term, I give students instructions about what to imitate—Didion’s images, for instance. But as the course develops, I then tell them to choose what to imitate, an exercise that provides some surprising and rewarding discussions. Matt Hunter

My most common practice is to ask students to imagine alternatives. When they offer an observation about a text (“This word/this passage/this essay is X”), I ask them to redraft the passage (aloud) to make the passage “not-X” (to ruin it, to improve it, or simply to change it). The goal of this exercise is to encourage students to think of writing as a series of choices. Andrew Ehrgood

Usually I ask a question that will get them focused on a mystery, whose answer will be a nonce term I’ll use all semester—e.g., why does Brent Staples begin by potentially alienating his reader (“I’m a criminal”)? i.e., why does he create a “false impression”? Then we define the nonce term, here false impression, and analyze its use here, consider whether we’ve seen it before in other essays or in essays assigned same day, discuss its advantages, usually in a way that implicates other nonce terms/concepts we’ve discussed so far in the class. Each lesson is a step in a semester-long conversation and is essentially connected to all the others. Kim Shirkhani

As different as the instructors are, all of us share the same objective: to conduct a semester-long inquiry into the essay. As students have the opportunity to study more models more closely, they discover new possibilities for their own writing. The systematic and extended study of essays as potential models expands student horizons. In this course, students can discover new ends and learn new means to achieve them. All of us would agree with our colleague, Mark Oppenheimer:

I like the idea of close reading for craft, but I also think we’re reading closely for excitement, for fun, and to build community in the classroom, all of them worthy goals.

Sometimes it is just fine when a Venn diagram feels like a perfect circle.

An image of some single and some overlapping circles, in different colors, against a black background.
Photo credit: Sam Haddad at Unsplash.

13 Replies to “Venn and the Art of Writing Instruction”

  1. Each of us has to figure out how to be the best teacher we can be. There is no “one-size fits all.” Shifra Sharlin’s lucidity and candor make it easier to think about what works best given our own personalities and students’ needs. Her approach of giving students so much latitude requires that extra commitment of getting to know students so well that we can understand what they write because of who they are. An inspiration!

  2. I teach at the high school level, but the idea of of a venn diagram is a useful way of articulating the multiple roles all teachers play. When I first started teaching, I also let the “student needs” circle dominate my classes, to their detriment. Now that I have a handle on the standards and objectives for the courses that I teach, I’m thinking more about how to meaningfully integrate student needs and personal relationships back into my classes.

  3. I teach writing at Yale, including English 120, and I also work in a university writing center. This metaphor of the Venn diagram works really well for thinking about the shape and structure of a classroom lesson. I’m not sure I’ve ever so consciously divided my objectives from student needs in my mind, but I think it’s a useful way to check myself and make sure I’m not leaning too heavily toward one or the other (or to ensure that, if I am leaning, it’s toward student needs!). As you describe here, the ideal situation is one where the two merge beautifully! One interesting difference in my experience from what you describe is that my Writing Center work hasn’t leaned so heavily on close reading for craft or identifying genre conventions. I’ve done this with expository writing to a certain extent in my work in the writing center (identifying an author’s claim, sub-claims, use of evidence, etc. as models for expository writing), but before teaching English 120, I had hardly ever done it with creative/journalistic writing. So I’m interested in the fact that it felt to you like this work came straight out of your tutoring experience. Maybe this is something I should be doing more of in the writing center?!

  4. If I apply a Venn diagram to my writing classroom – whether I’m teaching composition or creative writing – I need to add a third circle. Student needs and classroom objectives overlap messily with ideas about writing, which are actually a whole constellation of circles, because there are my ideas (shifting, evolving) and all the varied ideas that my students bring, too, which might align with their needs but maybe just as often don’t. We talk about these ideas alongside their drafts and revisions. It seems useful. As for classroom objectives, ideas about writing are embedded, aren’t they? And sometimes the ideas are useful (writing is a social practice, writing is rhetorical, writers learn through imitation) but depending on the institution or simply, life experience, the ideas can be crippling, too. (Writing depends on talent; writing must follow all the rules; great writers are unique and inimitable, i.e., not me.) My students do a lot of writing about writing – their own process and how their lives are implicated in acts of writing. Probably this is not entirely different from what your students do, too, Shifra?

    I can relate to the early teaching experiences described here, and the way Writing Center tutoring can help a writing teacher come at their classroom teaching differently. This is in part because we shared some of those early teaching experiences. I am so glad to get this description of English 120 as “a classroom version of a Writing Center tutorial,” and to have the chance to consider its possibilities even as my classroom remains messy with competing ideas about what writing is and how it does.

    1. How fascinating, Mary. Of course, you’re right, there ARE so many different notions of what writing is floating around there. That’s something I don’t talk about with my students except maybe implicitly. I’m going to try this out.

  5. I love the idea of bringing writing center pedagogy into the classroom. The descriptive feedback that writing centers offer (as opposed to evaluative or prescriptive feedback) is so helpful in getting students to more fully realize the effects that their writing has on readers.

  6. You had me at “Venn diagram.” I doubt a week goes by that I don’t use this concept to explain or visualize the issues of congruence and separation. This essay taught me a lot about the differing needs of teachers and students and how the lessons the author learned might apply in situations outside the classroom. I’m impressed with her self-awareness of what is happening in a tutorial, a writing center, etc., and her drive to keep innovating to meet her students’ needs and the classroom objectives. Many ideas to circle around.

  7. I too teach this course. Reading over the comments reminds me of the strategies we all use to get at what makes an essay a good model for our own writing. In the end, however,for me Mark Oppenheimer sums this process up best: we’re reading closely for the excitement and the fun that reading brings to all of us as well as the pleasure of building a community over our shared enjoyment. That’s why I like to start class with evaluative responses: what did you like? Then we can deconstruct together what specifically we enjoy in what we have read. Even when students aren’t as keen on one writer’s particular style, they can appreciate -and enjoy – skill, the skill in well wrought prose. At the end of the term, students vote on the academy award-winning essays and essay techniques among the essays we’ve read. It never fails to surprise me how often they agree but also how vociferously they are willing to do battle on behalf of their favorites and the skills that make up good writing. This final class sums up the pleasure in reading that we have all shared together.

  8. I love these reflections on how a dedicated teacher can meet students’ needs without compromising course objectives – education doesn’t have to mean imposing requirements on students.

  9. Having followed the trajectory of Shifra Sharlin’s writing and teaching career for decades, I’m often left with the wistful thought of how different my life might have been if I had the opportunity to take a writing class of this nature. Coming from a world far from academia, but with a deep appreciation for powerful writing, how rewarding it would be to communicate in a way that unlocks deep insights and feelings to make them more accessible to myself and others. I am full of admiration and envy!

  10. Helping build a sense of community in the classroom is perhaps one of the most important aspects of our roles as teachers. And this is one of the most moving lines from Sharlin’s essay: “Students spoke freely. Discussion ranged widely. Students surprised themselves and me with their writing.” To create a space to speak freely, discuss widely, and to continually surprise one another as readers and writers–how do these practices provide spaces for various voices (sometimes silenced, neglected, or ignored) to grow, and breathe, and experiment. These environments can be transformative in how we can create spaces to work–collaborative, open, engaged.

  11. I especially appreciate Sharlin’s observation that “[c]lose reading for craft makes both circles larger.’” In my undergraduate days (long ago) I studied literature with Stanley Fish who trained us to pay close attention to our responses as we read, to better understand how language elicits those responses. That kind of close reading both develops our own deep knowledge of who we are as individuals, and our skills in creating texts that communicate and connect us with others through use (or rejection) of countless conventions. What a noble endeavor to teach writing! Would that classes like Sharlin’s were the norm.

  12. Shifra, as a deeply shy teacher of writing myself, I identify with you and appreciate this. The Venn diagram solution is genius, as visual representations of abstract dynamics often are. Even in a course like English 120, I would imagine you spend much of any given semester deducing individual student needs; can you say something about how you do that, question by classroom question, draft by draft? Thank you for this!

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