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Faculty Highlights

John Mitchell 

March 2014

Picture of John

Hi, John! Okay, here’s my first question. If you had to compare your style of teaching to a certain type of weather system or to certain ecosystem—like a jungle or coral reef—what would you choose and why?

Um, I would say…um…I’d like to think of my class as an ecosystem where there is a lot of diversity and color.

Cool! How long have you been teaching and why do you teach writing?

I’ve been teaching around 10 years. And why? I think, because I can. I mean, my personal opinion—which you can put in—is that you can’t teach someone how to write, but you have to put them in a situation where writing is their only choice to move forward. I teach the way I learned way back when I was an undergraduate.

I took this Shakespeare class where we would read a play every week. We had to write one paper for each play, and it could only be two pages. And if you wrote more than two pages he would just drop it into the trash. So, that situation forced you to figure out that you had to focus on one really important idea and relate it to the whole play. The discipline of having to read that much and write that little taught you not to procrastinate because you don’t gain anything by putting it off. I had to say, “okay I need to do this now, get it done, and move on.”

The other thing, kind of related, is I earned my living as a technical writer, and there the situation was, you know, “here’s what we need, and we need it now, so get it done.” So that’s what I try to get across to the students. If they spend hours and hours worrying about it or not doing it that’s a total waste of time.

I see. So your approach to writing is to be efficient, clear, and to the point, both in form and in process.

Yeah because it is all practice anyway. I have my 10,000 hour theory that I stole. 10,000 hours of practice makes you an expert. So if you use directed practice for something for 10,000 hours you become expert at it. So practice, practice, practice.

Okay. So is that the homework time requirement in your class? <laughs>

Yeah, well some students certainly act like it is or they think it is. <laughs> 

No. But I do have them write something in almost every class. I mean I use the analogy of learning to walk and talk. You just practiced all the time. No one taught you, you just practiced all of the time. You learned by doing. That “doing” concept: just do it.

Right, quit talking about thesis statements; Let’s just write one and then another.

Right. And then eventually you’ll stumble across a good one

What were you like as a student writer?

I didn’t like to write much, and I still don’t, but I like to read. I still read a lot, broadly and not deeply. When I was a graduate student, my excuse for not writing was, “I write all day at work, I’m not going to come home and write.” Technical writing was a different kind of writing.

People, even people with really advanced degrees and everything else, think there is a magical component to writing, you just put it in this magical machine and out comes writing, polished, clear, and precise and specific. Because they don’t see the effort: the 27 times you revised that one sentence.

For technical writing, it sounds like the research would have taken a lot of time too?

Yeah, yeah. That was my favorite part: figuring out the questions to ask because dealing with so many experts—who are really technical—you have to know what you’re talking about. It’s all about languages, because they all have different languages. The other thing about it—which was really what I did during the second half of my career—is translating, what they call “globalized,” to 16 different language. That means you really have to narrow the vocabulary and it has to be standard, consistent English. Minimal vocabulary.

Wow! So it sounds like your approach to teaching GEW is simply, write it, get it down, get it done…

Yeah, it’s practice. But the other part of it is the reading. The language comes out of the reading. A lot of the students have really interesting ideas, but they can’t explain them because they don’t have enough language. And with reading you get the feedback of having seen ideas presented in a clear and reasonable way, so you are able to get in to the habit of operating in that way, I think.

So they read a lot, and they writing a lot in your class.

I hope so.

What outcome then do you feel is most important for GEW student writers to achieve by the end of the semester, and why?

I think it is revision. They should recognize that writing is really allowing time to do revision. Because any time you write something, even if it is an email, if you don’t take the time to read it over and make revisions you will almost always make mistakes. So I really try to emphasize the habit of revision and the value of revision. My students always discover what they really want to say in a paper at the end of writing it, and I encourage them to put that at the beginning of the paper, and use that as the focus: the upside-down cake I call it…because the kind of writing they will be doing in other classes after GEW is so different, the skills and the practice are what matter: close reading, asking good questions, revision.

I know you volunteer for the Freshmen for a Day event each semester. How long have you done that and why do you do it?

I’ve done it for two years, and I started mostly because someone asked me too. But I think the value is it shows the students who come that college is really different than high school. I mean, I’ve had students say, “you should make me do this.” Sorry, those days are gone. The kids [at the Freshmen for a Day event] that I see haven’t really thought much about college. They may not have parents or support telling them “you need to do this or that” to prepare for college. The book Reading Classes talks a lot about cultural capital, how middle class parents create for their children cultural capital that they can use in college whereas working-class kids, college may not be what they’re thinking about. I came from a similar, working-class experience. 

Alright, so then what resources on campus do you support or recommend to students wanting to engage writing that has real and lasting impact?

I encourage them to use the library; the library is really important. I think the Writing Center is a good idea. I don’t get a 100% response, but I tell them every day to go. And the computer lab because I know I have students who don’t have internet access at home, which I think is incredibly unfair for them. Those are the main things. Counselors and tutors also can be a real benefit.  

Alright, cool. Thanks, John.

Okay, good. Easy.