“To alter students’ writing practices”


The quote used for the title to this post is from Alex Reid, cited in a Facebook post recently published. Soon to make its way to the Twittersphere via @vpiercy‘s timeline, and the idea of altering writing practice is one that I will return to at the end of this post. But first: A colleague at another institution asked on the WPA-List,

“Could anyone out there send me an example of a grammatically perfect essay that says absolutely nothing?”

My only fear would be that one might accomplish the opposite of one’s intention: Colleagues in other disciplines might well think that formally correct vapidity was what English comp was supposed to accomplish and nothing else:  “Just give me grammatically correct writers and I will give them the content.”  I’m thinking of faculty members I’ve known in other departments who grade by sheer quantity of error: 4 errors earn a B, 8 errors earn a C, etc.  “It’s simple!” I think too of Stanley Fish’s “Devoid of Content” piece from 2005 (FYC becomes intro to linguistics) and his more recent “What Should Colleges Teach?” (parts 1, 2, and 3) with its endorsements by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni as well as by the traditionalist voices in the comment threads celebrating his article.  What he’s saying there resonates well with a number of people outside of comp studies.  Rhetoric and composition have no content to teach, which of course is a woefully inadequate characterization, given the amount of research in writing studies over the last 40 years that has, in tandem with other socio-economic trends, catapulted Composition and Rhetoric to the forefront of the “English” discipline today. If it’s not the Digital Humanities, New Media Studies, Multimodal Composition, Digital Literacy, then it’s powerfully renewed emphases on design and composition (cf. Clemson’s RCID, i.e., Rhetorics, Composition, and Information Design program and its wondrous placement rate of PhDs. See Marc Bousquet’s piece making that point in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, “Moral Panic in Literary Studies“):

That a large percentage of tenure-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.” (Bousquet)

That said, work like Elizabeth Wardle’s “Can Cross-Disciplinary Links Help us Teach ‘Academic Discourse’ in FYC?” and David Smit’s The End of Composition Studies has made me at least consider spending class time on sentence analysis and stylistics. Why? Because the “service discipline” idea looks like a professional, and certainly a disciplinary, dead end. (The battles and blood let between Literature and Rhet-Comp are too well known to need another rehearsal here. There are too many institutional competitors in that first-year experience space, and while intensive writing courses have a necessity in the freshman curriculum that is difficult to deny, there is too much money and too much at stake, politically, institutionally, and educationally to hope for one version of the serving discipline, or one umbrella discipline, in this case English, to stay in control forever.)

Beyond the Morlockian status as service discipline, we have content of our own too, as Elizabeth Wardle and all the WAW proponents can be trusted to remind us, and notions of correctness, of a misconstrued “phenomenology of error,” are too narrow and flimsy to survive a semester grappling with the actual rhetoric of sentence structure. If that means studying writing studies and discourse, then fine. But see also Smit’s chapter two on “Learning to Write,” Fish’s “Devoid of Content,” part of a sentence analysis chapter from a linguistics textbook (Contemporary Linguistics by O’Grady, Dobrovolsky and Aronoff), etc., etc. Or see the many studies that show that grammar study does not improve or alter student writing, but that developing their rhetorical awareness, and practice with compositional ideas, does. To become better at writing, students have to practice being writers; that’s less a skills-based service instruction module than an existential turning; what some would call an education.

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