Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Back-To-School Politics - the Politics of Composition

One of my friends posted Stanley Fish's NYT article on college composition courses on facebook today. There are lots of well-informed comments from different perspectives on the NYT page.
Since I taught writing in the kind of composition department that Fish decribes,I feel qualified to school the bemused Professor Fish.

Part of Fish's assessment of trends in the teaching of college composition courses fits my experience. I taught college-level composition for six years - first as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and then during my first two years working as an adjunct at CUNY, where I also read and evaluated ACT exams. I share some of Fish's frustration with college comp classes; I often felt I was doing something more "old-fashioned" than what others did because I did teach grammar and sentence structure, and because I insisted that the course material could not consist of watching movies, but had to engage the written word. I was, as Fish is, appalled to find that some of my colleagues did not give their student any reading assignments at all.
The reason that people did this wasn't really political; it was a strategy for dealing with the existing skills of the students they met in their classrooms. The majority of people teaching college writing courses today are graduate students who do not want to alienate their students, and want them to enjoy their classes. Confronting students with difficult reading assignments and practice with grammar is not an obvious route to teacher-popularity.

Some of these courses my colleagues taught involved lots of direct instruction in writing; one model course that was very popular with teachers involved students critiquing each others' writing as a group while the instructor marked up essays on an overhead projector. Those teachers couldn't be faulted for not teaching writing; there was no content in those courses at all. However, I never used this approach because I thought that exposing students to really good writing was key to improving students' work. If the students aren't that familiar with written language, they aren't equipped to teach each other how to write. Their criticisms of their peers might not be anymore valid than their criticism of Joan Didion; (my advanced journalism major students claimed that her book Miami was full of "run-on sentences" because she wrote in long -grammatically correct- sentences.

In his article, Fish blames bad composition teaching for the tragically bad writing of American university students. However, the real problem is that as television has replaced print as the medium of news and entertainment, the majority of our students are not literate in "print culture." It is more common now to encounter college students who simply do not read - not newspapers, not magazines, not books. Those who do read don't often read models of what college classes ask them to produce. At the beginning of the semester in my history class, I ask students what the most difficult book they read recently was. Almost all of them listed works of Shakespeare which they had read (and had not understood) in their English classes, and a few named Harry Potter books. Very few of them read anything for pleasure - unless they were reading internet news or sports articles.

The problem that writing instructors face is not the result of bad schooling. If people do not read, they will not be good writers. If they are not familiar with written language, which is not like spoken language, they will not be able to produce elegant prose.

Why don't people try to familiarize their students with this more difficult writing that would be a model of what they want their students to achieve? Is it because of a multi-cultural agenda? no.
One group that seriously objects to teaching essay-writing by assigning essays to read are the English literature faculty who want to teach their students the great works of literature. They are on the canonical mission for which Fish criticizes ACTA. Those lit people are holding back the teaching of writing just as much as those who teach the smarmier versions of comp-rhet.
They're not teaching writing either; they're teaching the appreciation of literature - and the students be damned who don't appreciate it. In order to engage students at all, many of these literature teachers ask their students to respond with an experience they once had which was similar to something in the book that they just read - but teaching students how to write autobiographical narratives does not help them write better essays in their college courses - although it may help them "relate" to literature.

One of the comments on Fish's article comes from a student who just couldn't relate; he's not interested in literature, but who says he would learn to write better if he could write about something that interested him:

I have always found it difficult to write about writing or literature, but easy to write about things that exit in the physical universe.
So it appears to me that rhetoric and grammar should be taught incidentally as students consider other things. After all, people who are actually interested in grammar are destined to become English professors.
Or to put it another way, I always want to learn to write better, but please spare me from writing about, or even thinking about Moby Dick.

That's an example of a larger general truth; I recall reading about a shocking study that revealed that students' writing improved when they wrote about subjects that were interesting to them. Maybe it's tragic that everyone isn't interested in Moby Dick, but being so shouldn't be a pre-requisite for learning how to write a decent college paper. Comp/rhet scholars who do the "writing across the curriculum" and writing-intensive courses that ACTA finds disdainful agree. They say the goal should be to teach students how to write argumentative essays that will help them in college courses in many disciplines, and to assign readings that help them learn about argument.

Following this notion, I assigned reading to students in composition classes that were models of what I wanted them to write. I did not assign Moby Dick because I wasn't teaching them to write literature. I assigned essays - on the topics that Fish thinks are standing in for what should be the real content of the course.
One semester, I used sports writing as a focus to try to engage students' interest. Another semester, I had students do research on ongoing debates about their own university, reading the school newspaper and documents in the university archives. I taught "composition with a cultural diversity" focus that got students to write about racism, class, gender, and media bias - all using great essays - James Baldwin, Cherrie Moraga, Noam Chomsky. I taught them about the value of evidence and logical fallacies by assigning Pierre Vidal-Naquet's work on Holocaust Denial for a couple of semesters. I used some excellent composition anthologies and some newergrammar books.
My favorite grammar book of all time was Scott Rice's Right Words, Right PlacesR, which used sentences from canonical works of literature to teach sentence structure and style.
That book, now out of print, brings me to the last point: Grammar.
Everyone talks about how bad it is, and yet no one really wants to teach it. Grading students' papers one grammatical-error at a time is not teaching, it is editing. I met countless students whose main lesson from high school had been that they "couldn't write" and "didn't know grammar". They were actually traumatized by people's attempts to teach them grammar; they avoided writing at all costs, finding classes with no papers required. They didn't think of grammar as something creative or interesting, but only as a something that they would "mess up" without knowing it. They learned that they were "bad writers" and they believed that "good writers" were superior people who were born, not made.
Meeting those students is what causes writing teachers to avoid doing much about grammar; they don't want to compound the problem. If they can just get the students to engage a little with writing in a positive way, they hope, grammar correction can come later. This doesn't work either.
But how do you teach grammar - at a college level? If I stand up and give a lecture about parallelism, it is unlikely to result in improvement in students' writing. The best method is all the "active-learning" and "critical thinking" stuff that the ACTA people Fish cites would probably hate, especially in college. My approach to teaching grammar was to stress to students that written grammar was a set of rules that they weren't comfortable with, that "good writing" wasn't a natural talent, and that they would not improve without practice, much as if they were learning to play tennis, or the guitar. I used grammar books that had creative exercises or got my students into games involving sentence structure so that instead of focusing on error, students could engage with grammar as a tool that they could use to express themselves more clearly. These grammar lessons were quite lively - but they took a lot of their methodology from creative writing courses that I had taken in the past. The comp/rhet people probably thought that was old-fashioned of me; and the ACTA people probably thought that if the students still needed that work in college, they just shouldn't be there in the first place. After all, the thing that Fish really doesn't mention is that the teaching of these important skills is done by graduate students and now adjuncts, because the "real professors" think that teaching grammar is beneath them, along with the students who don't know it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What to Do, What to DO?

A number of third-party enthusiasts are gleefully pointing out all the ways that Obama has failed to live up to people's expectations of him. For an example, note the comments after Dave Lindorff's recent piece exhorting people on the left to get active for Single-Payer at the Town Halls. I don't think that this "I told you so" glee directed at Obama voters is any better than the "I told you so" finger-shaking I got from Dems following the election of George Bush in 2000 (I had voted for Nader.) The answer is still to put pressure on whoever is in power through grass-roots action for single payer all the while knowing that in the end, we will probably not get it.

I agree with Lindorff in general about the need for the left to out-organize the right at the health-care reform town-halls. In fact,I have read that single-payer advocates have been visible at every town-hall meeting so far, but the media is rarely reporting the story (note the previous blog entry). However I'm a bit puzzled by his recent comment on counterpunch that "obstruction" is the only viable option at the town-hall meetings. He goes on to say,
Instead of opposing the right-wing hecklers at these events, progressives should be making common cause with them. Instead of calling them fascists, we should be working to turn them, by showing them that the enemy is not the left; it is the corporations that own both Democrats and Republicans alike.
The only proper approach to the wretched health care legislation currently working its way through Congress at this point is to kill it and start over. At these "town meeting" staged events, Obama and the Democrats need to hear, in no uncertain terms, that we don't want no stinkin' ObamaCare. We want Medicare for all.

Given that one of the biggest fears of this group is that "Obamacare" is actually a "Trojan Horse" for single-payer (which is how Dems have tried to sell the plan to the left) this strategy seems unrealistic to me. Just as the media won't report the single-payer advocates already questioning the corporate Dem plan, the wisdom on the street (and on the Hill) if Obama's plan is defeated (or further watered down) is that America is not ready for a public-option, let alone single-payer.

My sense, based on what I've seen and read about right-wing protesters (beyond the anti-choicers and other religious fear mongerers)
is that
- They don't want "illegal aliens" to be insured and they believe that these illegal aliens will be covered by "Obamacare".

-They fear that if medicare is extended "for all" that it will go bankrupt or the U.S. as a whole will go bankrupt - and their coverage will be reduced - this is why seniors are prominent protesters at the Town Halls. This is not then, an irrational "keep your government hands off my medicare," it is a rational (but misinformed) argument: "I can't afford to share my medicare" (probably with them illegal aliens). Glenn Beck has recently been stoking these fears by suggesting that the health care plan, added to the bank bailout will send the US into an inflationary spin that will lead the government to the solutions offered by Nazi Germany, including euthanasia. One of pieces of meat he tossed out to the far-right base was the notion that the Federal Reserve will just "print money" in order to pay for the health care plan.
and that brings me to the third group:

- They are tea-partying libertarians who think that EVERYTHING is done better in the private sector (note: Ron Paul) and want to eliminate public schools, etc. The powers behind this movement are neo-cons, but the frothing at the mouth base are angry white men who think that the government is helping less deserving others instead of them.
If you want to understand these white anti-government types read Leonard Zeskind's book about them, or follow his articles on the tea-party movement. Don't believe me? - note the guy in confederate t-shirt pictured here, holding the sign reading "Abolish Federal Government."

It's hard to imagine how single-payer advocates are going to make common cause with this crowd.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Town Halls - Angry Mobs? Astro-Turfers? and What About Single-Payer?

If you look at most media coverage of this month's health-reform town hall meetings you would think that crowds are divided between people who support Obama's plan and the conservative opposition. This presentation, which Democrats also encourage, lends credibility to the notion that Obama is proposing the only universal-health coverage plan on the table. What that doesn't tell you, is that the most organized presence at the Town-Hall meeting are real grass-roots single-payer advocates, who don't support Obama's plan because it subsidizes private insurance companies.
Now that Pelosi has finally agreed to actually let the house debate and vote on single-payer plan, it seems even more reasonable that the discussion of Single-Payer at Town Hall meetings should be heard, or at least reported.
Despite the tea-partyish, anti-tax radicals' complaints, it does seem that people other than vetted plants are able to speak at these events (unlike the Bush meetings where people were kept out/expelled for wearing t-shirts or having a bumper-sticker on their car) but it's a shame that a bunch of wing-nuts are dominating the media coverage.

The Republicans and Democrats are both confusing the issue. On the hand, Republicans are arguing that the Obama health plan is a "trojan horse" for single-payer, which, according to most opinion polls, is actually what most people want. On the other hand, Democrats argue that single-payer is politically impossible because of American public opinion, while simultaneously arguing that the "angry mobs" currently disrupting health-care town-halls are a bunch of corporate interests in disguise. The sad fact is that the health-care corporations are likely to win either way. IF ONLY "Obamacare" were the Trojan Horse that the Republicans fear.
Once again, Democrats are in a bind because their corporate ties leave them incapable of defending themselves against right-wing "populists" or supporting the truly populist movement for meaningful U.S. health care reform.

For those who are uninformed, "single payer" means replacing private insurance companies with national insurance that would cover everyone. It is not the same thing as "socialized medicine" because doctors and hospitals are still private businesses, not publicly owned in this model. It is what they have in Canada and France. "Socialized medicine," where doctors are paid by the state is what they sort of have in England. (privatization has been slowly destroying the NHS)

** Just added: Paul Krugman's column has a good analysis of both the mobs and the anti-mob commentary here.