Why I teach writing

Surprisingly, I realised that I’ve been teaching for almost a decade now. I call it a surprise because until now, I’m still reluctant to call myself a teacher. The sole reason why I make my presence felt in the academe is to infect young students the passion to write. Writing, for me, is a noble activity we all need to possess so we get to record human history through text. Memories are ephemeral, says Professor Rica Santos in her TEDx talk at University of the Philippines — Diliman. And what the written word does is to keep these existing forever.

Teaching many Indonesian students is a struggle (not that my erstwhile Filipino students are far better). Since September, I teach a course in writing (in English) at a university in Malang. Their knowledge in the English grammar hovers at a level that needs to be improved — though I can only complain as much. After all, English is not Indonesia’s official language, and in many places here, the regional language is spoken as the first language, next to Bahasa Indonesia, making Bahasa Inggris a foreign tongue only used when communicating with foreigners.

But since my task at school is to make sure  these students improve their writing skills in English, there are some strategies I have developed myself. Take note that, unlike many instructors in college, I hold an non-vertical academic/professional background. I finished an undergraduate degree in mass communication (and a minor degree in sociology), took some units in postgraduate economics, completed a diploma in multimedia  journalism, and at the moment, finishing a postgraduate degree in communication sociology. On the other hand, my professional experience has always been dedicated to the realm of journalism. I do not, however, take that as a hindrance to become an educator for all these experience informed the way I write and my method of teaching. Writing is the common denominator of my previous experience, and such has always been the main skill I use at work.

As an educator, my concern can be captured through this question: how will my students face this chaotic world? We live in a world that rapidly changes — yet the common mindset embraced by many is that technology is the end, rather than the means. We are so engulfed at appreciating the latest way of creating things, rather than focusing on improving the fundamentals of creative work.

Some of my colleagues back in the Philippines have raised a question on job mismatch. Is the academe still relevant in shaping the right human resource needed in the economy? Are they prepared to take the tasks of companies? These questions are important,and as a curious journalist myself, it took me weeks to arrive at my own personal views. My reflections on these questions reminded me of the reasons why I teach writing to this generation who seem to not appreciate writing at all.

Writing is important because it trains us to think critically. With writing, we find the best words that aggregate our thoughts. We put them on paper, and revise them when we feel they do not represent what we think. We publish them, and earn both negative and positive responses. We defend them, and examine our thoughts in the hope to develop a work that makes sense. Critical thinking is so rare in many places where I have practised teaching that when you throw a very critical question, say,
how is your religion relevant in this world where people do not just have one identity?, you are given answers polluted with ad hominems and some sorts of logical fallacies.

Arthur Berger once said, if you’re a creative artist and you don’t know what you’re doing, everything you do is an accident. Writing anchors us to a foundation. Personal essays help us examine our life. If we are divorced from our sense of purpose in life, it will be difficult to move to another frontier

How do I encourage my students  to write? There are some tips I would like to share.

Encourage them to find their purpose in their work. Never let them write without them knowing the goals. You’ll end up collecting half-baked projects, or worse, rubbish. By goals, I mean not just “to graduate on time.” Connect their goals with the goals of the world we live in. Connect the problems of the world with their problems. Give them tools for them to express this. I’ve seen many bored students who’ve finally seen the light when I showed to them how much they matter if we work together for the common good. They’ll own the projects, and they’ll thank you for illuminating their journey.

At a university in Malang where I teach, I encourage students to baper (bawa perasaan). In my class, I tell them, you are allowed to be guided by your emotions. Write them on paper. Be honest with how you feel. Find the best words to depict them. When was the last time you have said sorry? Was it difficult to utter such word? How were able to deal with it? Write as honest as you can. Your thoughts are guarded. It’s only me and you who will know it.

I allow my students to challenge and teach me through their own questions and knowledge of how they see the world.The feudal teacher-student relationship does not work any more. Students need a connection with their educator, who, after all, is a social being.  Match your students’ aims and the things you wish to achieve at the end of this semester. In my case and based on our aim matching, I have kept the lectures short. They own the class. It ends when they have finished writing.

In a non-linear, post industrial, post enlightenment world, critical thinking matters. I suspect that the reason why many students find it difficult to write could be linked to students’ lack of critical thinking. Critical thinking is important because it pierces thought bubbles. It is vital because it creates. It is a life skill because it transcends borders. Ultimately, critical thinking will help transform the world we live in. And what better way to express critical thinking but to write?

Photo courtesy of Roco Julie


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