The Writing Teacher’s Taxonomy

Just file this one under “thought of the day.”

“Writing is less a profession than a professing — a way of stimulating, organizing and affirming thoughts to give meaning to some slice of life.” — William Safire

I culled this quote from the introduction to a book of quotations called Good Advice on Writing, edited by William Safire and Leonard Safir, (Simon and Schuster, 1992). At first I just liked the way Safire framed the act of writing as something akin to teaching, construing writers as professors, of a sort. But looking over it again, I think those functions he lists are precisely what defines the professorial role:

  • stimulating
  • organizing
  • affirming
  • interpreting [“giving meaning to”]

This list (perhaps incomplete) still functions as something of a “writing teacher’s taxonomy.” We stimulate students to think and act in the world — a stimulus that produces a written response. We organize our curriculum and our syllabi content and our daily class periods, and we arm students with organizational strategies for their own ideas. We affirm what students do right in our comments and we reaffirm the wisdom of the textbooks and literature in our discussions and reinforcement of them. We interpret the world and its culture — and by employing and modeling the methods of our discipline, or by having students interpret one another’s work in peer groups, we help students develop these skills on their own.

The better writer you are, perhaps, the better teacher you can be. I see this all the time in our Writing Popular Fiction program, which on top of having a rock solid full time faculty base of PhDs who write fiction, also brings in professional writers as adjuncts to mentor novelists and teach courses in the craft. I see the transference of good writing to good teaching in the Freshman Comp courses taught by people who enjoy the craft and employ it as part of their career both in the English major and throughout the disciplines; and it is self-evident in the student tutors who work in our writing center, hired because of their strong writing skills. I see it in the writers who have taught me much in their non-fiction instructional books about the art and craft and methods of teaching, learning, writing, reading.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.