COMPOSING TO COMMUNICATE: A STUDENT'S GUIDE takes a conversational, "how to" approach to show you how writing connects to your academic and career goals. The textbook's jargon-free instruction provides you with accessible strategies that can be applied to all of your college writing tasks. The textbook focuses on teaching you how you can use writing and communicating to solve real problems and address issues that matter to you. It supports this theme by presenting student writing samples that demonstrate how writing for class can be more than just an academic exercise. Learning objectives open each chapter so you can focus on the most important points. The variety of writing projects, readings, and interviews with student writers aim to make your composition course more interesting than you may have imagined it could be.
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Preface for Students
When I graduated from college, I had no intention of becoming a teacher. I was interested in journalism, advertising, or some other line of business, but the economy was bad, and good jobs were hard to come by. I ended up processing claims for an insurance company in Los Angeles. In principle, it was a job I was lucky to have. It offered the possibility of a future. The problem was, the work seemed dull and repetitive to me. Even as I kept showing up and collecting decent paychecks, I knew I wanted to do something that I found more interesting with my life.
One day, I skipped work and drove across town to the University of Southern California to inquire about graduate school. I wasn't sure it was what I wanted to do, assuming I could even get in, but a few months later, I was a student again, attending a university rightfully known (in no particular order) for its excellent academics, athletics, beautiful campus, famous library, and attractive women. The classes were interesting. I read great books, listened to eloquent lectures, took copious notes, and now and then, made nervous contributions to the class discussions. There was nothing not to like until a few weeks into the semester, when I had to complete my first writing assignment.
I started four or five days before the deadline, which was smart, but even so, after several hours at my desk, I managed to produce only a few lame sentences. I gave up and tried again the next day, with similar results. Writing "papers" had never been a problem for me as an undergraduate. I wrote them, and usually earned good grades, but unfortunately, I had no awareness of how I did it. By the end of the second day, my frustration turned into panic. I had produced a half page of jumbled ideas. What had I gotten myself into? I didn't know how to write. I decided to take the next day off. I still had a few days left until the deadline. Desperation might inspire me. If not, maybe the insurance company would have me back.
I believe in the adage that we make our own luck, but now and then we are beneficiaries of sheer luck, too. On my self-appointed day off, I received a letter from my best friend, a writer and teacher from Albuquerque, who was then living abroad in Paris. His letters came about once a month, never less than four or five pages long, typed, single-spaced, and double-sided to save on postage, and they were like movies arriving in the mail (before anyone had heard of Netflix), full of humorous incidents, odd characters, rants, and vivid images of life in one of the world's great cities. I read his letter that day, savoring every word and marveling, as I always did, at how his words came alive on the page. When I finished reading, I wrote him back--no doubt, an anemic letter compared to his, but still, two or three pages, in his postage-saving format, about life in Los Angeles, a city that has its own share of quirks, charms, and odd characters to write about. As I was folding the letter into an envelope, I thought, "I can write this letter, but I can't write that paper. What's the difference?"
The next day I went to work on the paper again, writing it the only way I apparently knew how, the way I had written the letter, focusing on what interested me, why I was interested, and why I thought someone else might be, or should be, and saying all of that as clearly and directly as I could, not worrying about how it sounded or might be judged. The writing went much better. I submitted the paper on time, and the professor's judgment wasn't terrible--a "B," with a comment along the lines of, "Interesting but doesn't add up to much." Well, at least, I had proven I wasn't completely out of my depth.
As the semester progressed, my papers improved and were a little easier to write. By the end of the term, I had done well enough in my coursework to earn a fellowship to teach first-year composition. I was given a crash training course while I was already teaching my first class. What I mainly learned from the training course, as well as from teaching the class, was that I didn't know much. I was teaching a skill I was still learning myself, not a skill I had figured out or mastered. Yet I did know something: how difficult, humbling, and even scary writing could be, how easy it was to get stuck and fail. Fortunately for my students, I also had a few unfledged but viable ideas about how to address these problems, how to help students move past them, write with more confidence, and see better results.
Today, those formative experiences as a graduate student and student teacher are "long ago and far away." I have taught college writing for more than twenty-five years, and I know much more now than I did then, but not so much that I have forgotten what still matters and applies most: what it is like to be a student, how difficult writing can be, and above all, what writers can do to make writing easier, more effective, and enjoyable. Those basic goals, and my belief in the value that writing has for students and the value of what students have to say, remain the foundation of my teaching and go to the heart of why I have written this book.
Robert Saba is the associate director of undergraduate writing programs at Florida International University in Miami. He has taught college writing for more than twenty-five years, specializing in first-year composition, advanced research, approaches to literature, courses about the history of the essay, and personal narratives. His publications include articles on writing, politics, and film, as well as short fiction and French-to-English translations.
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