Teaching Innovations at Vanderbilt: John Bradley and Teaching Writing
By Faith Rovenolt, CFT undergraduate intern
Talking with Dr. John Bradley, director of the Writing Studio, helped me name critical lessons about writing that that I’ve realized firsthand as a Vanderbilt student here. I think teachers and students like me can benefit from both the abstract approaches and the concrete tools Bradley uses to foster student writing.
To sum up how Bradley views teaching writing, he quoted a recent opinion piece, What Critics of Student Writing Get Wrong, by composition scholar Elizabeth Wardle in the Chronicle of Higher Education,
“…to improve as writers, students need to write frequently, for meaningful reasons, to readers who respond as actual readers do — with interest in ideas, puzzlement over lack of clarity or logic, and feedback about how to think more deeply and write more clearly to accomplish the writer’s purposes. There is no shortcut.”
As Bradley sees it, there are two important things to keep in mind about writing:
- No one is ever finished learning how to write. One analogy is that just like in sports, the better you get, the more you realize how much more there is to learn.
- Writing is context-dependent, and therefore one’s writing context and goals largely determine what constitutes effective writing in that setting.
The first thing Bradley tries to communicate to students is that writing is bound by conventions, not “universal” rules. Each field, from history to creative writing, has its way of doing things. Unfortunately, teachers don’t always frame how they teach writing this way; they often establish a set of discrete rules that students might assume are deployable universally.
I am extremely aware of this. As a Vanderbilt student, I have been told in one class to never use the first person in a formal paper…but in another class, I was penalized for not explicitly starting my thesis sentence with, “In this paper, I will show…” It helps students when professors explicitly state that the norms they are embracing apply in a particular setting, giving students a heads-up that their “rules” may not be universal. No bag of tricks for writing universally translates to all courses or contexts.
What can translate is how we think about teaching writing. There are three things Bradley thinks are useful to any course that teaches writing or uses writing to teach:
- Focusing on the potential
- Student models
The first universal rule is that revision is your lifelong friend. Student writers, Bradley argues, who are challenged to revise—to develop an iterative writing process that incorporates reflection and reader feedback—learn more deeply both about writing and what they are writing about. But teachers should expect an uphill effort. Bradley finds that his students have the misconception that becoming a good writer means that “they’ll learn to do it right the first time” and won’t need to revise. Instead, Bradley tells students that good writing means good revision. To foster revision Bradley creates a dialogue with his students by requiring that they submit a cover memo with every piece of writing they turn in that starts, “Dear Dr. Bradley,” and in which they address what they thought they did well and ways they think the draft and their writing process could improve. This allows for both self-reflection and for Bradley to respond by framing his feedback to each student in the form of a letter, as well, creating a dialogue that spans the semester.
The second recommended approach is that real improvement comes from focusing on potential. Bradley elaborated by paraphrasing Joseph Harris, author of Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts, stating that if you only focus on fixing what’s wrong in a piece of writing you can only ever achieve something marginally better. He says that this results in diminishing returns: you can’t add if you’re only taking away or plugging holes.
Instead, Bradley divides how we look at writing into global vs. local. The local view considers elements like sentence-level grammar and editing, while the global view involves examining arguments and assertions, or the actual ideas the writing conveys. While targeted and explicit instruction in how to identify and improve issues at the local level is important, Bradley encourages instructors to focus most of their feedback time and energy at the global elements, providing guidance on how student writers can maximize what they are doing right. He says that this isn’t just cheerleading. It goes hand-in-hand with his emphasis on revision: sometimes encouraging the potential in a student’s work means challenging them to revise it completely, taking the thought or argument that showed the greatest potential and running with it.
Bradley’s third recommendation is that student models can be a great learning tool. Seeing effective writing from other students shows that it is achievable and can help students identify developmentally-appropriate practices that they can adopt. Beginning in Spring 2019, the Writing Studio took the opportunity to showcase such student work through Scaffold: A Showcase of Vanderbilt First-Year Writing. Not only does this site spotlight first-year students, highlighting great student work and providing examples to others, it also includes an author’s reflection with each example to help students learn about the revision process.
As Bradley put it, borrowing a phrase from his recently retired mentor Bradley Hughes, research universities are writing universities. That’s why these ideas from Dr. Bradley on how to teach writing could benefit faculty and students campus wide. If you’d like to learn more, check out the services the Writing Studio offers faculty and students.