This week, we had the good fortune to interview Dr. Susan "George" Schorn. Dr. Schorn is the Senior Program Coordinator and Curriculum Specialist for Writing at the Center for Skills and Experience Flags at UT Austin, where she works with faculty across campus to strengthen undergraduate writing instruction. She is also a writer, martial artist, self-defense advocate, and author of the book "Smile at Strangers and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly." She spoke to us about writing education and about overcoming teaching anxiety.
Praxis: What is your role in writing education at UT?
SGS: I coordinate support of UT's disciplinary writing requirement, the Writing Flag. That means I work with faculty to strengthen writing support in a wide range of disciplines. I also work with the administration to ensure that university policies are consistent with faculty decisions about student writing.
Praxis: You work with writing educators and recently directed a workshop on writing education for UT faculty. What is a challenge you see teachers struggle with, and how do you help them resolve it?
SGS: All writing instructors face daunting workload issues, because improving students' writing skills requires intensive, one-on-one reading and feedback. This is increasingly an issue here at UT, as the trend toward "super-sizing" classes accelerates. Writing instruction simply doesn't scale well to 200-student lecture halls.
When I work with faculty, I typically advise them to be strategic about how they give feedback. Line editing student papers, for example, is not an efficient teaching method; it takes a ton of the instructor's time and it relieves the student of any responsibility for identifying problems in the first place. I recommend alternative pedagogical methods that are supported by research, such as minimal marking and peer review.
Praxis: What is one thing you'd like to see change in writing education or curricula in higher education?
SGS: I'd like to see all writing-intensive classes capped at 20 students, as recommended by the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication.
Praxis: How can writing and composition teachers at UT get more involved in developing their skills as teachers, or in developing curricula?
SGS: They can connect with instructors from across campus at one of our writing instructor workshops, or apply to attend our regular writing faculty retreat. I'm also available for one-on-one consultations, which are often the best way to start: Looking at one class, with a specific set of goals for the writing.
Praxis: Your book "Smile at Strangers" is about overcoming anxiety and living fearlessly at home and at work. Does the book apply to writing education? What advice would you give to anxious writing teachers?
SGS: Teaching can definitely be an anxiety-provoking activity. Writing instruction is perhaps more fraught than other disciplines because there are many "correct" answers instead of just one.
Instructors who are experts in their discipline sometimes feel uneasy when they work with student writing, because they'e "not grammar teachers." I've found that re-directing their attention to the familiar relationship between a reader and a writer usually puts them back in their comfort zone. They don't need to tell a student "everything that's wrong" about a piece of writing, or "what will fix it"; they only need to respond as a reader, identifying attributes of the writing that seemed clear or unclear. That feedback, more than anything, is what helps people become better writers.
*Photo credit to Larissa Rogers