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.


Prof. T. said...

Great post, Rebecca . . I just realized I'm about to start my tenth (!) year of composition teaching (along with other things). I really didn't get Fish's point at all: are we supposed to teach writing with no other content? How are people supposed to write if they don't have anything to say?

As you point out, lots of non-English teachers complain about the students' writing, but don't engage it, because, "that's not their job" - so students get the message that only English teachers care about such things, and what's the point?

One thing I'm not sure I completely agree with is teaching only essays: I'd never teach Moby Dick in a comp. class, but good profs. can do good things with well selected memoirs, short stories, poems, etc. It's true that you want to expose them to good writing of the kind they're doing, but a personal essay by Didion or Orwell doesn't really bear much relation to anything they'll write in college. Another problem is anthologies-dependent courses that are all essays tend not to have much of a thematic focus and lead back to the content problem.

Iris said...

Excellent commentary on Fish's column, which I skimmed early today. I hope you've posted it as a comment on his blog! You make a lot more sense than he does.

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