A first-generation approach

English prof meets one-on-one to improve student writing

As a first-generation college student who became an English professor, Ray McManus understands the stress of many of the students he teaches at the University of South Carolina Sumter. 

He’s used that knowledge and understanding to chart a different course for teaching freshman English classes; an approach that relies heavily on one-on-one conferences to help students become stronger, more confident writers. 

“The goal, especially with freshman composition, is not to make them English majors,” McManus says. “We all know that effective communication, whether written or spoken, is essential for leadership, it’s an essential key for advancement. " 

“Helping students see they can do this develops confidence and allows them to be able to grow stronger as writers, even if they’d never call themselves that. Whether they have to compose an email, write a personal statement or write a job application letter, they’re more familiar with the writing process, and they feel more confident in their ability to approach the assignment.” 

McManus took a fairly unconventional route from high school student to college professor. Growing up in a house on a dirt road in Lexington County, he says he wasn’t expected to go to college, and most of his classmates went straight into the workforce after high school graduation. But he took some classes at Midlands Technical College, and eventually found his way to the University of South Carolina. “I fell in love with the place immediately,” he says. “Something about the campus and growing up a Gamecock fan. I loved it so much I stayed and got all my degrees there.” 

While he was a teaching assistant in English 101 and 102 classes, he found that the traditional method of expecting a student to interpret a professor’s notes on a paper and use those notes to improve the writing wasn’t working for all students. He moved to portfolio-based grading to help students learn how to strengthen a paper by revising it. At USC Sumter, where he has taught since 2008, he started scheduling one-on-one conferences with students on every major assignment. 

The end of the semester is just too late. They have four or five other classes, all their other final projects going on,” he says. “Now, when they turn in the papers to me, we meet, we talk about the comments. They see my face, they see that I’m not mad. A lot of students think that when you point out mistakes ‘He probably thinks I’m dumb,’ or He’s mad at me.’  

By providing that friendlier approach, I automatically remove those barriers. We end up having a conversation about the work. They start to develop confidence in their own ideas.” 

He knows it is more time-consuming to teach English composition his way, with 20-minute conferences per student on four major writing assignments each semester, but he says he sees significant growth in each student’s writing by the end of the semester.  

“I did my graduate and post-doc work on the Columbia campus. I loved the students there. But out where I am, I see more students that were like me. Some of them are not really sure why they are in college,” McManus says. “What I love about it is when I get that student who is not sure, and then realizes why they are there and what it is they want to do. They realize they need to transfer, most likely to the Columbia campus, and they’re excited about doing it. Our success rate for Sumter students who transfer to Columbia is extremely high. We take a lot of pride in that. 

Seeing that wide-eyed amazement and excitement makes me feel young again. We hear so much about millennials, and it’s always from the perspective that these kids are lazy, these kids are entitled, these kids don’t want to work. What I see is the complete opposite of that.  

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