Training Teachers to Integrate Writing Across the Disciplines: Dr Shyam Sharma

Dr Shyam Sharma

Dr Sharma is a scholar of Writing and Rhetoric who teaches at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. Recipient of the Nepal Vidya Bhusan (Nepal) and the Cross Award for Future Leaders of Higher Education (USA), Dr. Sharma in his research/publications and teaching focuses on academic writing (especially writing in the disciplines and graduate-level writing education), international education and students, and cross-cultural rhetoric and multilingual/translingual issues in writing. He writes a regular op-ed column in The Republica and writes about “language, literacy, and life” in his personal blog.

Our Choutari editor Jeevan Karki talked to Dr Shyam Sharma about writing education in Nepal, focusing on areas like beliefs and assumptions about writing, need of writing today, issues and challenges in our writing education, and some ways forward. This exclusive interview sheds light on writing in general and teaching writing in particular. We hope you will enjoy it! [Choutari Editors]

1. Whether children or the grown-ups, people are usually not ready to pick a pen/keyboard and start writing. Why are people scared of writing? Is writing a really painful and difficult task?

I am actually not sure I would frame the challenge as people being scared or hating to write, because research done in some countries has shown that people are writing a lot more today than they used to in the past. And that’s likely true in any country, including ours. We should instead ask who writes and who doesn’t, what kinds of writing people do, why they write and why they don’t (whether that is a question of liking or something else). That is, I wouldn’t worry about maybe just a few people not wanting/liking to write at all, or, perhaps, I would try to understand why not; that might have educational implications. In fact, I would go one step further and ask: Why should they? Maybe that’s where we can start a different kind of conversation, especially educational and pedagogical conversations.

That being said, there is such a thing as anxiety (and even fear) of writing, or writer’s block (though systematic teaching of writing seems to have made this largely a non-issue in recent decades), especially when it comes to doing certain types of writing. So, for example, I don’t think we can find a lot of people who are afraid or hate to write text messages to their friends and family. Most people like to do a variety of writing, or just do it (and not have fear or dislike of it). Maybe they struggle because of the screen size of mobile devices, the lack of input application for their language on any device, or the lack of spelling or other writing skills (especially if they’re afraid of being judged). Maybe they dislike having to write because they know that their writing is primarily meant to be judged, and judged negatively–such as when students who haven’t been taught social studies well wouldn’t want to write social studies exams. However, what I just mentioned are “factors” undermining writing, not a matter of dislike of “writing the message” itself, which, in that case, is the objective. And if the purpose and motivation is there, then the negative factors may disappear or diminish. This means that maybe we should as teachers focus on the factors that facilitate writing (trying to mitigate others that undermine writing).  Also, finally, if “writing” means the process rather than getting something done (with or through writing), then, yes, there may be resistance or anxiety having to do with challenges related to the amount and types of skills needed for the process of writing, or for producing the desired text.

The educational question, then, is how can we as teachers teach and facilitate writing in ways that our students can develop the skills and confidence about the process of writing, can focus on the purpose of writing, and, indeed, on its joy sometimes? This will require us to break down the meaning of “writing” in ways that our students can focus on not just the act of writing, certain skills and tools they need to master, or the vague ideas and myths about writing. Instead, we should give them purposeful writing tasks (not just any writing tasks) and help them along the way. We should design tasks so that students either have or can discover what to say/write in the first place. We should stop teaching skills through drills and rules, unless we can do so within purposeful and inspiring contexts.

Writing–as in writing in exams, in timed situations, or when it seems to have no purpose other than to do it because you have to–can be painful. Our job as teachers is to make it more pleasant, or at least more purposeful and therefore more motivating, whenever it may not be so pleasant otherwise.

People (including students) are not just going to start “liking” writing — even if there is just one thing we can call writing. Most people already do and like and know how to write, and when we teach new kinds of writing, we can help them overcome any (possibly natural) anxiety by developing our own professional skills and knowledge about writing and writing pedagogy.

We can help students overcome any (possibly natural) anxiety by developing our own professional skills and knowledge about writing and writing pedagogy.

2. Writing is not a cup of tea for everyone and it is also believed that good writers are geniuses. To what extent do you believe this?

This extremely common assumption, honestly, is total nonsense–and I don’t say that to criticize the question, for, in fact, I am glad you asked it. The idea of writers as geniuses comes from literature and creative writing, and there too, it is a rather outdated idea. Modern writing education in many parts of the world is light years ahead of that kind of mythology, so I think it is time for us to do a lot more to ramp up and teach and write and research and publicize more up-to-date ideas about writing as in academic writing, day to day writing, professional communication, writing in social media, and so on. In the North American academic context where I now work, for instance, academic writing is taught by helping students analyze the context, audience, medium, and purpose (CAMP, as I tell my students) or by further using samples or peers’ work to critique and discuss how to write, so students can emulate how more experienced writers write (often learning how they too don’t always write perfectly). It is taught by taking students through the “process” (one of the god terms of modern writing studies), starting with reading or discussion, research or brainstorming, then pre-writing by outlining or mind mapping in a variety of ways, then drafting, then revising and peer reviewing, often rewriting parts of or the entire draft, then editing, and then proofreading. Teachers can teach component skills during the process, including how to read with writing as a purpose in mind, how to use necessary tools effectively, how to do research purposefully and reading strategically, how to turn off the internal editor while reviewing the overall draft, and so on and so forth. The ways in which we design the writing assignment or task makes a big difference, so this is another area where teachers must be educated or trained. I could go on, but here’s the point I’m trying to make: Some people have better aptitude for doing some things than others, and that is certainly true about writing, but the idea that good writers are geniuses is a dangerous mythology that educators need to give up and also teach their students by showing how it is not so.

I think it is time for us to do a lot more to ramp up and teach and write and research and publicize more up-to-date ideas about writing as in academic writing, day to day writing, professional communication, writing in social media, and so on.

3. You pointed out that the writing tasks are not appropriately designed and the teachers are yet to be trained to better facilitate their students in the writing process. In this context, what can we do locally to strengthen the teachers’ skills for teaching writing in the under-resourced context?  

First, I think that administrators and leaders of colleges and schools must be trained/educated. This will help to create an environment and culture where the learning of writing is not seen as something that just “happens” when students know what to say/write. Of course, that’s a major component of writing, which is why just teaching writing skills outside of the context of subject/content doesn’t work well. But conventional beliefs and myths about writing like this–or the idea that you mentioned earlier, that good writing requires genius–must be countered at the institutional level. When training teachers, we can focus on particular purposes for which they would be interested in (or already need to) to teach students how to write better. One good place to start is exams; if teachers are provided training and resources for teaching their students how to score higher marks in the exam, then both students would have the incentive to spend time teaching and learning writing skills. Another purpose that might inspire teachers and students (and also institutions) to promote writing education would be professional communication, such as writing effective emails, crafting effective resumes, drafting and revising application letters and personal statements (or any high stakes writing), and using new media for communication (including social media). Teachers could also be provided a database of activities, assignments, assessment methods, and testing tools from which they can adopt and adapt the material for their classes; this may need to be presented with some illustration, such as through in-person or video training material, by experienced teachers/trainers. It takes a lot of time to change assumptions and habits about teaching and learning, and writing is one of the hardest things to integrate as an element of change.

The ways in which we design the writing assignment or task makes a big difference, so this is another area where teachers must be educated or trained.

4. Generally, our university graduates are not confident to compose a simple essay, application or reflection. What’s missing in our writing education? What’s going wrong in our teaching writing process?

Frankly, I don’t think we have a writing education that meets a fair standard yet. Yes, there are really talented instructors within English Education and English Studies departments who teach writing courses and writing skills. But the curriculum and especially the mode of assessment, faculty autonomy, institutional support, professional development opportunities for faculty, and a community of discourse and practice-sharing is limited–not to mention a robust scholarship that is produced by local scholars. Two years ago, in a brief talk that NELTA Central Office invited me to give, I shared a review of Writing Studies in Europe and North America, and highlighting our unique social and academic contexts, suggested that the discipline of ELT could embrace and advance the profession of teaching and researching writing. Other disciplines (English, Nepali, linguistics, journalism, rhetoric, or communication–in whatever form these exist) may also start more systematically and substantially advancing Writing Studies (with whatever name we give it locally). In fact, I strongly believe that it is important to dissociate writing skills and the study and teaching of writing with one language or another–meaning there should be an independent field of Writing Studies so it won’t be overshadowed by English or Nepali for that matter, although a balance of some kind would make sense–but we must also look at it pragmatically. ELT seems best positioned to advance teaching and scholarship of writing in Nepal, and it could help to advance multilingual/translingual writing and communication skills, as well as making writing pedagogy and scholarship adapted to our local realities. Without a strong disciplinary foundation, there won’t be sufficient production of new ideas through research, sharing of practice through professional events, promotion and advocacy of teaching and teachers of writing, and so on. It is time to advance this conversation on a broader, national scale.

Writing should be an independent field of Writing Studies.

5. Comparatively, the spoken skills are more dominant in our day to day life than these academic and professional writing. Why do we need to worry if everyone is not a good writer?

Well, writing serves distinct purposes–or, rather, a variety of purposes that are usually distinct from those that speaking serves. Fortunately or unfortunately, writing has become more and more important and necessary for more and more communicative functions in our lives, society, and professions–not to mention education. That is, everyone has to be a “good writer”–not in the sense of being a genius you mentioned earlier but in the sense being effective in communication using writing–in order to be successful academically and professionally. Information has exploded due to rapidly emerging technologies, not only in terms of its production but also sharing, retrieving, adapting, repurposing, and so on. And while a lot of information is being conveyed in images, sound, animation, and so on, writing continues to dominate and take more complex, often multidimensional forms. Its genres and functions are also rapidly increasing, making generic writing skills insufficient for all but the most basic purposes. This means that we need a lot of “writing education” in Nepal, an education that integrates full-fledged writing courses that are required of all students in schools and colleges, writing major for those who want to specialize at the undergraduate level, and writing degrees for those who want to develop more advanced professional skills or study it to advance the discipline and teach increasingly advanced courses in writing.

Without a strong disciplinary foundation, there won’t be sufficient production of new ideas through research, sharing of practice through professional events, promotion and advocacy of teaching and teachers of writing, and so on.

6. What are your suggestions for teachers to teach writing with ease in schools and colleges?

I would urge all colleagues, in any discipline (including in business and humanities and social and natural sciences) to learn how to integrate writing skills into their courses. That can enhance their students’ academic success and professional growth. To colleagues who are able to teach writing more explicitly and directly, such as within English Studies and English Language Education, I would urge them to study any scholarship (including essays on blogs like this) about writing pedagogy and research, find more to read from other countries, and continue to help advance writing education in any way they can. It seems to me that there is enough interest in the idea of systematically teaching writing that this could start taking the shape of a new discipline, or at least a rich new community of practice and scholarship. There is the tremendous opportunity for those who are paying attention, whether they be individual scholars and teachers or academic institutions.