Notes from Grad School: Teaching Writing

Dan Allosso

As I prepared this summer to resume my role as a teaching assistant at a large, public, East-Coast research university, I’ve been reflecting on the responsibility that goes with that assignment. Most of the lower level courses offered to undergraduates by my department fill the university’s “general education” requirement, which means that in addition to the historical or diversity outcomes these classes are designed to achieve, many of them also satisfy the university’s writing requirement. So as well as leading discussions on the readings and answering questions arising from lectures, I am a writing teacher.

I happen to like writing, and I’ve had some experience with writing and teaching prior to becoming a grad student. This experience isn’t completely unique (the grad student in the next office was a journalist), but for those of us who didn’t come with these skills, the university doesn’t really do much to prepare us as writing teachers.

I don’t say this to criticize my particular school. Twenty years ago, when my father was earning his PhD in Comparative Literature at a major West-Coast university, the situation was similar. My Dad, whose main interest was teaching literature to young people, made a career there (following his earlier career as a high school English teacher) and wrote A Short Handbook for Writing Essays about Literature, which has been in constant use there ever since.

Looking at the resources available for people like me, who teach writing outside of English departments, it was clear to me that a concise, practical, nuts-and-bolts writing handbook was as needed today in History as it had been twenty years ago in Comp. Lit. So I started with my father’s manuscript, and tried to expand it for use by social science as well as humanities students. It was a fun opportunity to reflect on the thought process he had gone through in writing his handbook, and then to engage in a sort-of dialog across the years. The advantage for me was, I was also able to email my revisions and expansions to my dad in California and get his reactions.

The result of this summer project is A Short Handbook for Writing Essays in the Humanities and Social Sciences. At 80 pages, it’s about twice as long as the earlier handbook, and it includes topics and examples geared for history students as well as readers of literature (although I’m hoping that exposure to examples from outside their specific fields will help make some of these ideas clearer for readers). I hope to use this in the fall, if I can convince the professor and the other TAs I’m working with to let me test it on our students. I’m also thinking of posting some short YouTube videos covering the main ideas of each chapter. One of my Dad’s original motivations was to get all the basics down, so that he wouldn’t have to repeat himself every time a student came to his office with questions. As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I think the web offers us an incredible opportunity to reach out to people both inside and outside our classrooms with material they can use in whatever field they pursue.