Q&A: An Admittedly Heretical’ Point of View on Teaching Writing

October 23, 1991 3 min read

In March 1990, the English Journal, a periodical by the National Council of Teachers of English, published an essay by Karen Jost, a Wisconsin high-school teacher with an “admittedly heretical” point of view. Her contention, a rebuttal to the prevailing wisdom in the field, was simple: High-school writing teachers should not write.

Response to Ms. Jost’s article was overwhelming, according to Ben F. Nelms, the Journal editor.

“We got more responses to that question within the first month than we usually do within a year,” he said. Though the Journal no longer publishes the replies, the debate continues in the field.

Ms. Jost, who has temporarily stopped teaching to care for three small children, discussed her views with Assistant Editor Debra Viadero.

Q. What prompted you to write the article?

A. For a long time, I had been hearing this word that it’s important for writing teachers to be writing .... Then I read a book, A Writer Teaches Writing, by Donald Murray, and he really pushes the idea ....

When I finished the book, I was wondering how long it had been since he had taught in the classroom. When l checked the credits in the book, I found he had never taught in a high-school classroom ....

It seemed rather arrogant for an academic who taught three classes that met every other day and for whom writing was part of the job description to be recommending to high-school teachers that they should write ....

Q. Why shouldn’t high-school writing teachers write?

A. Because our workload is so large, it isn’t feasible. Even if it were feasible, I raised the question of whether or not it was beneficial. At the time I was writing, there was no research indicating that students in classrooms where the writing teacher writes perform any better than students in classrooms where teachers don’t write.

Q. Was it just a matter of a lack of time, or did you have pedagogical reasons for your position?

A. I did an experiment attempting to write along with my students ... and found it extremely frustrating both as a teacher and a writer.

As a writer, the things I felt like writing weren’t necessarily high-school assignments. And I knew if I was going to be reading my writing to students, I had to gear it to an adolescent audience. I felt boxed in.

If I was going to concentrate on my writing, I would be less effective as a teacher. Normally, if students are trying to write in class, I would be watching them trying to spot those students having trouble. Sometimes kids aren’t brave enough to ask a question, and I would see them looking confused. I would miss all that.

Q. Aren’t you perpetuating the image, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach?”

A. I’m not saying that teachers shouldn’t ever have written, and I’m not saying they should be incompetent writers. One of the things I point out is that teachers already do a lot of technical writing. But [the academics] are suggesting a kind of writing that goes beyond that ....

No one seems to believe that highschool science teachers need to be actively engaged in research while teaching science. It just seems unreasonable to expect that of English teachers.

Q. were you surprised by the volume of the responses?

A. I think it touched a chord. It was the first time anyone had come out and said what a lot of people had been thinking.

Q. Weren’t most of those responses opposing your view?

A. The Journal told me the responses were 4 to 1 against my position. The people who most support me are probably the last people who are going to be writing letters into the Journal because they’re overworked as it is.

Q. Did the responses change your mind?

A. I don’t think so .... For people who like to write, and it nurses their spirit, I bear them no ill will. But I don’t think the presence of that [teachers who write] should become an expectation of highschool teachers. I do feel they are two different fields, and a person should not be maligned because he wants to be a teacher and not a writer.

Q. Do you think some good came out of this debate?

A. I think there is a need for more communication between academics and high-school teachers in the field. I did receive several letters from academics who were critical of me, but l felt it was good that they responded. Just to engage those two groups of professionals in a debate is healthy.

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1991 edition of Education Week as Q&A: An Admittedly Heretical’ Point of View on Teaching Writing