One major goal of this text: to advocate for student-centered pedagogy that fosters learning communities. Most of the texts that make this section of our reader-rhetoric are actual student work that Abrams encountered over his career as a teacher. This is a deliberate choice which responds to an observed problem: the texts in anthologies are almost always and almost exclusively by professional writers. While this sets, perhaps, a higher standard, it also trains students to think that polished, publishable, and impactful writing is not accessible to them—that it is a different echelon of creativity and mastery. It teaches them that they should imitate the people who write well with the understanding that their writing will never be quite as good.
By the same logic that representations of people of color, different genders, different ability statuses, and so on are important to those who experience oppression, representing student writing in this book allows students to envision themselves in the role of author. This text showcases outstanding student work as evidence that students are very capable of producing beautiful, moving, thorough, thoughtful, and well-informed rhetoric.
To this end, student work is edited as minimally as possible, foregoing stylistic and some mechanical issues. The use of student writing, in addition to its primary objective of representation, also relates to this book’s focus on writing as process, not product. Be warned that the student essays included here would not meet some readers’ standards of “perfect.” They exemplify some strategies very well, but may fall short in other domains. Therefore, it’s important to regularly remind students that no text is perfect; no text is free of bias or ideology. The texts might spark discussions; they might serve as exemplars for assignments; they could even serve as focus texts for analysis. Regardless, read critically with your class, unpacking not only the content but also the construction of the rhetoric itself.
Professional authors and teachers know that a piece of writing is never actually finished—that there are always ways to challenge, reimagine, or polish a text. I encourage you to teach both professional and student model texts with this in mind: ask your students: What does this author do well, and what could they do better? In what ways are they fulfilling the imperatives of the rhetorical situation, and what advice would you give them to improve?
To support this critical perspective, each text included in the main sections of the book is followed by a “Teacher Takeaway”: ideas from college professors reacting to the work at hand. While these takeaways are not comprehensive, they offer a starting point for you and your students to interpret the strengths of a model text.
With Abrams we believe in student-centered curriculum as necessarily invested in learning communities. Opportunities for growth multiply exponentially with the support of their classmates and college resources (like a Writing Center or research librarian).
We build a good deal of time into our classes for community-building for a handful of reasons:
Writing is hard. Writing is hard because learning is hard: growth only occurs under challenging circumstances. Additionally, whether our students are writing a personal narrative or a research essay, they are putting themselves in a position of vulnerability. While the concept of an entirely “safe space” is largely a myth, it is important that they feel supported by their classmates and their instructor to ensure that this vulnerability is productive.
Communities are, to some extent, horizontal. The vertical power dynamic that plagues many college classrooms, where the all-knowing teacher deposits knowledge into their ignorant students, must be dismantled for true learning to take place. Students need to be able to claim the knowledge and skills they build in the classroom, and they can only do so if they feel they have a stake in the mission and operation of the class.1
Communities have shared goals and values, but also diversity within them. Each member might have a different path to those goals, might have different needs along the way, might have additional individual goals—but there’s value in acknowledging the destinations we pursue together.
Learning communities are not just communities of learners, but also communities that learn. It is crucial to acknowledge that no matter how much planning we do, our communities will have unanticipated strengths, needs, successes, and failures. Communities that learn adapt to their internal idiosyncrasies in order to make shared goals more accessible to everyone. Furthermore, the skills and concepts for building community that your students learn with carry them forth to shape their future communities.
Writers write best among other writers. Learners learn best among other learners.