Being an effective Instructor of Composition at the community college level requires a variety of skills and talents, many of which simply can’t be taught in formal classroom settings. Facing constant pressure to make judgments that have weighty consequences is just one of the challenges of teaching writing. A writing teacher who is too strict or inflexible can give students the excuse they may be seeking to withdraw or not perform in class. Some students are only too eager to proclaim that they can’t possibly meet high standards in writing, so there is “no use in even trying.” Putting stringent rules in place for a writing class does not necessarily provide an atmosphere that will foster successful student writing. But being lenient and making exceptions to policies can give a teacher the reputation of being one who can be manipulated or worse yet, “easy.” How do teachers of writing negotiate these obstacles and still manage to convince students to produce quality writing not only in their classes but across the curriculum as well?
How do teachers of writing fulfill an obligation to students, and provide them with a basis of knowledge and the writing experience to prepare them for the next semester of writing instruction while still being understanding and compassionate?
There is a fine line between expecting students to do their best work and knowing when to allow them some room for the extraordinarily difficult situations in which many of them find themselves. This is one aspect of the job that very few veteran teachers speak of to laypersons. And yet this is a very real problem teachers of writing face every day. How do we find a way to be compassionate and fair without compromising the morals and character of the teacher or the student? Which students truly have a legitimate excuse that prohibits them from performing satisfactorily in the classroom? Which students are just trying to take advantage of a sensitive and compassionate teacher? And it is fair to other students to make exceptions for students with seemingly extenuating circumstances?
Teaching writing has a way of forcing me to evaluate my principals and ethics on a daily basis. This is an exhausting task. While it could be argued that teachers of all subjects have to deal with this dilemma, the very nature of writing presents a unique situation. Students cannot seem to resist writing a personal essay whether one is requested or not. A teacher of Math or Chemistry is not likely to receive an essay in which personal information is disclosed. Even with my limited years of experience teaching writing in college and high school, I can confirm that students write mainly about what they know. And what they know best is their own lives. Receiving essays and verbal communications of a personal nature-and in turn responding to such offerings---seems to be part of the job. This observation confirms one of the conclusions drawn by Dan Morgan in an essay entitled “Ethical Issues Raised...