Teaching Writing

Data of the Heart

Photo by Laurence Simon via Flickr
Photo by Laurence Simon via Flickr

By: Helen C. Sitler

This post is a thought piece on how important aspects of the student learning process are sometimes obscured by the assessment expectations placed on professors.

Helen Collins Sitler teaches in the English Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her favorite class to teach is Basic Writing. She is a composition specialist and also works with the English Education resource pool, teaching some methods courses and supervising student teachers.  You can reach her at

The lightbulb moment. The moment when we see understanding flood a student’s face makes the hard work of teaching writing worthwhile.

In my basic writing course some years ago, Jeremy struggled to find his voice. His papers were forced and predictable. Near the end of the semester, our class took a day to wander the campus in small groups and write about what we saw. There was no pressure to write a thesis statement, to use perfect mechanics, to develop ideas. The task was simply to write. When we returned to the classroom to share our experiences, Jeremy regaled us with his vivid, humorous account of a few minutes he had spent in the library. It was a startling shift from his usual stiff formality, and the first time his voice appeared in his written words. The whole class loved it. A few hours later, Jeremy presented me with a typed copy of what he had written, reporting that when he got back to his room with the hand-written original, he had written more. He said, “I couldn’t stop writing.”

Two years later, Jeremy enrolled in my Research Writing section. In place of the timid, uncertain writer who had sat in my Basic Writing classroom, there was a sophisticated thinker, adept at researching and much more fluent at expressing his thinking on the page. Two years’ worth of opportunities to write in composition classes and in his criminology major added up to substantial improvement in his work. I remain certain that a lightbulb moment had occurred on the day we were writing about nothing.

Remembering Jeremy triggers my thinking about a new expectation imposed on my English department for its current 5-Year Review. The review will contain something new this year: data, i.e., numbers related to the student learning outcomes the department assesses in required English courses like College Writing. This data will eventually find its way into an upcoming university accreditation report, as well.

The necessity of counting things has raised some concerns. Our departmental writer of the review report caught everyone’s attention at this year’s opening department meeting. He said that for the first time, he sees consequences for departments not meeting the outcomes in the report’s questions, which have been provided to every department by our Provost. There is evidence that some departments, having submitted reviews a year ago, have been denied tenure-track hires based on lack of reaching performance outcomes. This is not based solely on student performance, but student performance is part of the mix.

As my colleague spoke, I realized that Jeremy probably had not meet desired outcomes from our Basic Writing course. Yet he emerged two years later as a competent, capable writer who met the outcomes for a more difficult course. What if our department had been required to submit data in his first year? Would we have been marked as not having adequate performance because of students like Jeremy, students who simply needed more time and more writing in order to develop? The words of Kittle, who writes about teaching writing to high school seniors, resonate when I think of Jeremy: “I’ve … seen … kids use something I’ve taught them months later… Sometimes it takes a new writing piece and a new need to bring back [earlier] teaching” (148-49). Jeremy is a perfect example.

I think also of Nathan, who, like Jeremy, had been in a previous Basic Writing class. He revised his narrative assignment, the first essay of the semester, so much that his first draft practically disappeared. In a late draft, the lessons he had learned about writer’s craft through an excerpt from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood became clear. In an office conference, he pointed out how his opening paragraph imitated hers; it described an incident that seemed tangential to the rest of his essay. He told me where, later in the text, he had inserted the sentences that referred back to that paragraph showing that it was not tangential at all. This sophisticated organizational structure is exactly what Dillard does. But this was not Dillard. This was a first-year college student with a reading disability who was taking Basic Writing.

A few days before the assignment was due, Nathan spread seven drafts across my office table, identifying the changes in each one as he talked. He was working to identify which two drafts he would include in his portfolio. Nathan was becoming a writer. He had come to speak the language that writers use, to view himself as inside the world of writing.

The rich context of Nathan’s stretching to become a writer is appreciated in my own department, which assesses student progress through review of portfolios and reflective cover letters. But the 5-Year Review report, for the Dean and the Provost, limits space. Student proficiency will be largely relegated to tables reporting on things that can be counted—numbers of students who successfully describe their writing processes, who can develop and follow through with a thesis, who can integrate researched material with their own voices. Nathan met exit competencies for Basic Writing. Yet the reporting of a number obscures the leaps his writing took. The agency of his growing writerly-ness was probably the single most important learning he carried out of my course.

Ivanic argues that “the teaching of writing should be, above all, helping students to take an identity as a person who writes” (85). And according to Robert Brooke “’Composition teaching works … when part of their [students’] identity becomes a writer’s identity, when they come to see that being a writer in their own way is a valid and exciting way of acting in the world’” (40). Nathan succeeded in claiming this new identity, a concept much too complex to capture in a spreadsheet where simply reporting that he could write a thesis statement demeans his actual accomplishments.

Given events with Jeremy, Nathan, and numerous other students I’ve taught, I see an emerging conflict between the new insistence on performance outcomes and the joy of teaching that keeps teachers motivated. K-12 educators have felt this conflict since the emergence of No Child Left Behind in 2002. Performance outcomes have taken their toll on teachers, in extreme cases nearly stripping them entirely of agency in their teaching.

As today’s universities become increasingly data- and outcomes-driven, I worry that the same demons that have overtaken K-12 teachers are making their way into higher education. Teachers thrive on the joy of the lightbulb moment which confirms their own agency in devising curriculum to ensure the success of their students. Newkirk recognizes that strong teaching motivation. He writes of the dangers of a focus “on expectations, benchmarks, standards, or ‘where they [students] should be’” (169) versus being fully present in order to notice small student achievements. The small achievements, he argues, are where learning is more permanent (Newkirk 173). Whether those small moments will always be reflected in performance outcomes remains dubious. For Nathan they would have been; for Jeremy, probably not.

For teachers in other disciplines, outcomes assessments may be equally worrisome, especially if discipline-specific writing proficiency is one of them. Kittle writes about her commitment to teaching process more than product (187). Knowing that writing is developmental, she understands that rehearsing strong foundational practices will, over time, produce strong products. Whether the product is a lab report, a business plan, or some other document specific to a discipline, faculty need to trust the process, even with students like Jeremy. It is likely that his criminology teachers experienced the same kinds of lightbulb moments with him that I did.

I call Newkirk’s small, notable moments “data of the heart.” Jeremy’s breakthrough to voice. Nathan’s ability to articulate how his writing is like Annie Dillard’s. It is essential that this data of the heart continue to find space in classrooms. These are the spaces where teachers experience students’ writerly moments, those important leaps that cannot be quantified. That must remain our primary data. During a lifetime that includes writing in any form, this is the outcome that matters most for our students and for ourselves. It is the data of the heart that brings joy into teaching and learning.

Works Cited

Brooke, Robert. “Modeling a Writer’s Identity: Reading and Imitation in the Writing Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 39.1 (1988): 24-41. Web. 24 August 2014.

Ivanic, Roz. Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1998. Print.

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2008. Print.

Newkirk, Thomas. Holding onto Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009.