I have been thinking about Mark Bauerlein’s article, “The Summer Assignment” (link above), since I first read it about a month ago. As though he could read my mind, Bauerlein poses the question that undoubtedly most of us face on a regular basis: “How often … do comp teachers explain the rules of grammar and norms of style only to find them broken repeatedly in the next paper assignment?” The explanation for what can at times feel like a lack of success in teaching writing, Bauerlein suggests, is that “writing isn’t a knowledge. It’s a behavior, an ingrained set of habits and symptoms.” “Teaching,” he continues, “becomes a matter not of supplying knowledge but of altering behavior. To improve student writing, in other words, we must inculcate better habits and dispositions. Needless to say, a typical semester of freshman composition (or remedial English) isn’t enough.” Although this isn’t exactly an inspiring conclusion that Bauerlein reaches, I do believe it to be true, at least in many cases.
Bauerlein offers a few long-term solutions to teaching writing but details a more short-term assignment he plans to initiate this summer: assigning students particular “great works of clarity and expression” (Thoreau, Wolfe, Baldwin, for example) to transcribe for 30 minutes every day for 100 days. There’s no telling how committed his students might be over the course of the summer; however, he is relatively certain that through such a transcription exercise, students “will advance a deep understanding of written communication, an unconscious sense of where commas go, a feel for sentence length and rhythm, a larger vocabulary, and other usage habits.” That is, the behaviors that during the course of a busy semester might be too ingrained within our students’ writing practices to substantially change or improve, may have a chance of more organically and meaningfully changing when students regularly do nothing more than copy the writing of some of our most gifted prose writers.
I have to admit, I’m intrigued by this idea–but I’m thinking about it with two slight modifications. First, I’m considering implementing some kind of transcription notebook/journal assignment into my regular semester classes (not over the summer voluntarily). I am envisioning this notebook as a place where alongside the original written responses I ask students to write, they are also asked to transcribe instructor-chosen course texts that may, as Bauerlein suggests, slowly but surely affect how the original responses (and essay drafts) are written. The second difference I have in mind is choosing pieces for transcription that may come from our course text; that is, Bauerlein suggests great prose works to help our students improve their writing style and clarity; I’m curious if transcribing intellectual prose essays (like the ones we ask our students to read and write in 100 and 105) may help them learn what, say, a well-structured essay and paragraph looks like, or what a clear and consistent argument looks like, etc.(In other words, this second point shifts the focus slightly through the materials being transcribed from clarity and style to argument and structure/organization.)
I guess what I’m thinking is about the possibility of using some version of Bauerlein’s transcription assignment over the course of a semester to help supplement the work I do in the classroom. Any thoughts? Has anyone used a transcription-like activity or assignment before? Any pros or cons you can report? I’d love to hear from others as I ponder this over the summer!