Habits of Mind: John Warner on Teaching Writing

“You fall short and then you wonder, 'what could I do differently next time that gets us a little bit closer?' I love that process.”
Photo of John Warner

For over 20 years, John Warner has been a college teacher, a writer in multiple genres, a renowned blogger (at Inside Higher Ed’s “Just Visiting”), and an editor at a range of publications, including McSweeney’s. His polemic Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) is a contemporary classic in writing studies, while The Writer’s Practice (Penguin, 2019) emphasizes and unpacks the implications of what writing teachers have long emphasized in their classes: that writing is not a magic act, but a recursive intellectual labor, a practice—not pure inspiration. His most recent book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Higher Public Education (Belt, 2020), mounts a powerful argument for free college as democratic “infrastructure” in a system wracked by student debt and reliant on exploited adjuncts.

In November 2021, as Congress and the Biden administration scrapped ambitious legislation that would have increased funding to public colleges and universities, Warner sat down with writer and professor Ryan Boyd to talk about teaching, writing, academic labor, and the vast complex of institutions and people that we call Higher Education.

Ryan Boyd (RB): Why is there this widespread, seemingly historically durable perception that college students can’t write? Does someone benefit from this narrative?


John Warner (JW): A lot of this is wrapped up in a notion that when students arrive at school, be it college or high school, they are defective. They are somehow falling short of what we wish them to be, and the role of the school is to turn them into whatever is not defective.

When we say college students can’t write, it usually means they are unfamiliar with academic writing. That students are judged lacking is not surprising, because these formal genres are something students haven’t done before. If I asked a highly proficient academic to write something they have never done before, we would probably look at the results and say, wow, that person really can’t write. Lack of familiarity and lack of practice are confused for lack of ability.

RB: In terms of students’ intellectual development, is there a special role for writing classes, or are we just thinking this because you and I are writing teachers?


JW: Writing courses are an opportunity to ask students to do the type of critical thinking that will serve them well regardless of their major or what they go on to do. I want to introduce them to a way of processing the world through what I call the writer’s practice: the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits-of-mind of writers.

In a lot of places, the resources dedicated to something like first-year composition are incredibly limited; sometimes we have the least experienced instructors teaching it, or the lowest paid instructors. That is absolutely upside down. First-year writing is a fundamental class that should be treated as one of the most important classes. First-year composition should be a gateway to what comes next.


RB: I love how you frame this as a question of resources. And as you point out, writing classes are fundamental. We teach pretty much everyone who comes through the door of a university or a college, and yet within the political economy of the university system, we are often considered the least important relative to things like science labs, the business school, or the engineering program.


JW: If institutions were dedicated to things like reducing student attrition and increasing mental health and well-being, they would put a ton of resources into common first-year courses. But they do the opposite. That there is so much good writing instruction—and I have witnessed it, both at the institutions where I have worked and elsewhere—is a miracle. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the dedication of an individual instructor to make bad conditions work means that the system doesn’t need fixing.


Good Teachers Know That Bodies Matter

By Koritha Mitchell

RB: After 2020 there was a shocking stat that higher education as a sector lost a tenth of its workforce, and I thought, surely that is going to lead to something seismic happening. The question maybe isn’t “How do we wait around for the beneficence of administrators to descend upon us and change things?” but more one of forcing schools to change.

Could you speak to the role of labor action and unionization and things like that in the fight for better pedagogy and better teaching conditions?


JW: These things are inextricable. And to the extent that unions representing instructional faculty and staff can make that argument, it can be persuasive. This is not an argument just for improved salaries or benefits for the people doing this work, it is an argument for additional resources to support this activity that everybody says is important.

You will not find a single administrator who says, “We don’t care about the quality of our general education or first-year courses,” or “We don’t care about our students’ mental health.” It’s the opposite. And I believe they are sincere.

So if we accept everybody’s sincerity, we can use that as leverage in the argument to improve conditions for the laborers who do that work, to create better conditions for the instruction to happen, which will ultimately benefit students.


RB: These debates and struggles don’t stop at the campus gates. We need to be getting larger publics on board with the project. And yet, when the legacy media reports on higher ed and academic freedom, I hear a lot of focus on stuff that seems to be more culture war–esque in tone. They are less focused on discussion about labor unions or the student mental health crisis or whatnot.


JW: A huge part of that is that the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords and USCs dominate the conversation at the broader public level. And as simple as this sounds, much of that is because the people who write and think and comment on these things went to those schools.

The solution is to try to do much more to raise the issues of real college students. Having these arguments over these elite spaces really serves the interests of people who attended them or intersect with them.

RB: We all have a habit of generalizing about college students, and for many people, especially in mainstream public discourse, the word college or the term college student signifies an 18- to 22-year-old on a residential campus. We, as educators, know that that is not the “average” college student, but the general public doesn’t know that.

Who is “the college student” in 2022, if it is not just people fresh out of high school going off to live in a dorm?


JW: The average age for an undergraduate student in a two- or four-year college or university is over 22. So we know that at least half of these people are older than that, and really, if you get into public institutions like community colleges or regional public colleges, where people tend to go to the places near where they live, they have kids, they have jobs. The image of party-going, football-game-attending debauchery with a little bit of classes thrown in—it’s not that this doesn’t exist. But it is not the majority.

Something like 80 percent of students go to nonselective institutions. When we flatten it out to college kids in the “kids these days” sense, we are really missing what is most interesting and most valuable about these institutions.


RB: The narrative of an ivory tower or enchanted island of campus—the idea that it is cut off from the real world—serves people in power, because, as you say, college students are Americans. They are us. There is no division between the real world and college.

One thing that, to our great frustration, failed recently in Congress was the proposal to make at least two-year colleges in the United States free. Do you see any hope for the proposals to make college free or to forgive some or all student debt? Or are we tilting at windmills here?


JW: If you had asked me this six months ago, I would have said yes to your first question, but asking me today, I am considerably less hopeful. The thing that makes me the most upset is that, by all available reporting, one of the groups that was lobbying against free community college was four-year institutions.

Four-year institutions looked at free community college and said, that’s going to take some of our revenue away because some students will choose that over us. And that may be true. It probably is true. But it is incredibly shortsighted.

What free community college had the potential to do was to disrupt a system that is fundamentally unsustainable and deeply harmful to all institutions. This system is the chase for revenue, the privileging of operations over mission.


RB: McKinsey consultants come on board—


JW: Come on board to do these sorts of things. Millions of dollars in enrollment-management software and consultants. These are all things that are not actually related to the teaching and learning and research mission of the institutions.

Free community college had the potential to disrupt that. It would have done so by telling schools: you are going to have this much money, it is going to come from a combination of federal government and your state government, and now you can use that money for the purpose of educating your students.

But by squashing free community college, four-year schools have perpetuated the conditions of competition that are bad for the vast majority of them. Those who cannot get into an elite institution of some sort will have whatever is left, which is not going to be the rural community college or public institution. Arizona State University will have 600,000 students, the vast majority of which will be online. Southern New Hampshire University will be the biggest university in the world. No offense to those institutions, but that kind of consolidation is not good for the public. So no, I’m not feeling good about this.

RB: Those of us who research and write about universities and higher education often point to history: the neoliberal turn of the 1970s and ’80s; the rise of Governor Reagan, who made his name fighting the University of California system in the 1960s; even the advent of the US News and World Report rankings.

But was there ever a golden age for higher education? Or have we always been up against these forces?


JW: It is a mistake to imagine a golden age, particularly if we are going to measure it against our purported values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When people cite a golden age from the past, it was an era in which women and minority students weren’t welcome. As women and Black and Hispanic and all minority students entered the system, all of a sudden it became something maybe not worth paying for so much.


RB: So many students carry a debt burden; I speak as somebody who is still paying off student debt. It seems to me that if we made public college at the two- and four-year levels free, students would be so much more able to live meaningful lives and study what they want to. As opposed to thinking, okay, I have to study business or medicine to make a good income to pay back my debt.

JW: We should embrace the notion that college is not a privilege of the wealthy, and that a life of intellectual growth and opportunity is worth securing for everybody. This sounds cheesy, but so much of what we allow people to get away with is just un-American. What is happening in colleges and universities and higher education is really no different from wealth inequality writ large in society. And that inequality to me is un-American: it is a denial of opportunity to individuals simply because they didn’t have the good fortune of being born into wealth.


RB: That overlaps with a lot of what we talked about in terms of pedagogy and labor and who controls the university system and who goes to college. There is a brewing movement of more radical teachers in higher ed who are doing away with traditional letter grades and 4.0 GPA scales. It often goes by the name Ungrading—systems like contract grading, grade-free classrooms—and it seems to offer a new way of thinking about how we educate people. Do these new, radical pedagogies have a future in a neoliberal university?


JW: Thinking about grading differently for me has the key to transforming my pedagogy into an approach that puts student learning first. The amount they learn, what they learn, how they learn became much, much easier once I thought differently about grades. Not as a ranking or a certification, but as a reflection of how much has been learned.

When I teach, my courses are ungraded. I use a combination of the amount of work students have done, reflection they do about what they have learned, and conversation I have with them. And it works. Students write more, they learn more, and more of what they learned in my writing class transfers to their writing in the future.

This notion is not particularly new. There have been folks who have been writing about the problems of grades for generations, in terms of how they affect students.


RB: As long as grades have been around.


JW: Yes, the grades have a lot of purposes with value. But as an incentive or measure of how much students have learned, they are not a particularly great tool. So much of school is built around this certification of purported knowledge that is actually divorced from real knowledge or actual learning.


RB: It’s a pedagogical theater.


JW: That theater seems increasingly pointless to me. This is where grassroots change can really work because more and more instructors see it as a form of self-liberation, as a way to lessen the burdens of their own job and relate better and more closely to their students.

RB: These pedagogies—those that are more student-centric and emphasize student agency—argue for a leveling of hierarchies in the classroom. They are trying to create more of a democratic space, the ideal classroom bell hooks wrote about in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 1994).

Do you think it is possible to remove hierarchy between instructors and students from a classroom?


JW: My core philosophy on a classroom space is that it is a space for collaboration. But at the same time—maybe this is my age or that I’m just enough of a traditionalist—it is probably impossible to eliminate the hierarchy. And I’m also not entirely sure it is wholly desirable. There might be a benefit to somebody being in charge in terms of structure, in terms of shape, in terms of expertise. For example, I do have many years of experience as a writer and teacher of writing, which students don’t have.

That said, hierarchy as an arbitrary power instructors can wield is a mistake. It is a mistake not to assert student learning. I want to believe it is a mistake for the instructors’ own well-being, too. One of the things that bummed me out the most about my work was having to exercise some of that power when it didn’t seem to mean anything in the context of learning. I’m thinking about power exercises such as counting absences or—


RB: Extensions on papers, things like that.


JW: I did it for years because I thought that was what we were supposed to do. But why am I spending my time thinking about this? Why am I making a student try to prove that they are allowed to be absent? It seemed like a real waste of time, and it felt bad for me, and as soon as I got rid of that, I was happier.


RB: We have talked about teaching and learning and writing, and I was wondering if there are any writers or teachers in your present or in your past (or both) who have shaped you as an educator and a writer?


JW: There are almost too many to mention, but I got very lucky in college going to the University of Illinois, a place where you are allowed to be indifferent to your own education and go through the motions. I had one professor, a guy named Philip Graham, who simply took an interest in me. He sensed not my ability, whatever it was at the time, because I don’t think it was much worth remarking, but my interest and enthusiasm. And in that moment I had an epiphany of thinking that here’s somebody who cares about me as a thinker and creative person. He later helped me prepare applications for graduate school.

The director of my graduate program, John Wood, who passed away a few years ago, was a poet and an incredibly inspiring person. Marlene Preston, who was my supervisor at Virginia Tech when I was teaching there, taught a course called Comm Skills that combined first-year writing with public speaking and communication studies and transformed how I looked at teaching.

And then tons and tons of colleagues. I won’t even try to name them.


RB: It is so important to see ourselves as a collective and a community. The forces of the neoliberal university want us to be little isolated monads bouncing around, not forming into unions or things like that, not having these generative conversations with other teachers and other scholars. I have so many people in my past and in my present who have shaped how I do things, and, like you, I often feel like I didn’t invent any of the things I do, I just borrowed them from others who are smarter and better than I am, and whom I’ve been lucky enough to work with.


JW: It is like being a chef. You have your cuisine, and the more experienced you are, the more your cuisine is unique to you. But it is also all of the mentors you have worked under, the people you have cooked alongside. I imagine one of the real losses of having to be online is being unable to have those conversations in those spaces.


Mission Impossible

By Tess McNulty

RB: It’s something that I really miss, because now you see people in the hallway and you are in a mask, you talk for a minute, you go back to your offices. And it makes me all the more grateful for students, because that collective, collaborative space is just something so magical.  You are right that we as a democracy give this up at our peril.

I was thinking of two books. You are probably familiar with both. David Gooblar’s book, The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You about College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2019), which came out a couple of years ago, and then Jonathan Zimmerman’s history of teaching, The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), which I reviewed for Public Books. These two books argue that, yes, personality, charisma, individual talent matter, but there is also a lot of training that we need and that we often don’t get in our graduate programs or wherever.


JW: Did you get much when you were a graduate student?


RB: I didn’t as a graduate student. I was lucky enough to have some good professors that I was a TA for, who gave me a mix of freedom and guidance that really helped.

But I’ve always loved being in the classroom, and I guess one of the things about being a professor is you get to stay in college forever. I’ve always loved the magic of that space. And I’ve always found that I’m pretty OK at being a guide and a facilitator for those moments.


JW: What you describe, and I see myself similarly, is really a mindset orientation that some come by more naturally than others. And I’m sitting here wondering if that is something that can be developed. This idea of charisma is really interesting to me. I don’t think I’m particularly charismatic! I’m not a dud, but I’m not like—


RB: I’m not a standup comedian.


JW: No, I’m not a performer. I don’t get up there and perform. Maybe I could muster the energy to do a 20-minute TED Talk or something like that. But it is the superstar professors who get to their 800-person lecture and do these bravura performances. I would just find that absolutely exhausting, like the thought of doing 16 of those or more over the course of a semester.


Pedagogy of the Depressed

By Christopher Schaberg

RB: I’ve certainly found that you get better at it the more you teach and the more you do it, and that speaks to the need for a well-compensated, well-resourced, stable teaching core in higher education. People who can develop their skills and be the best possible teachers they can be for their students, and adjunctification militates against that.


JW: It makes it hard. As soon as you start to get good at it, you probably have to leave the profession.


RB: Exactly.


JW: Charisma is a vector for connection. If you watch a movie star and they just jump off your screen, you are looking at charisma, and you feel connected to them because they have some ineffable quality that makes you want to watch them. But if charisma is connection, then there are other ways to achieve that in the classroom. Some of it is simply being curious about students, being genuinely interested in their experience of not just your subject, what you are teaching, but of college in general or their lives.

I like writing and teaching for the same reason: they are both extended exercises in failing to live up to your own expectations and your own dreams of what you could do. But that falling short has always been interesting to me. You fall short and then you wonder: What could I do differently next time that gets us a little bit closer? I love that process. And maybe that is what is necessary for teaching.

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

Featured image provided by John Warner