Tag Archives: rhetoric

“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.

Waking up to learning with worksheets?

That is a nice comment (http://chronicle.com/article/A-Rescue-Plan-for-College/47452/). I thought I had exorcised this 2009 anti-academic demon in comment 19. The irony of Michael Prince’s pitch is that I woke up to learning as a freshman via the Bartholomae and Petrosky approach he denigrates and definitely not from worksheets or grammar skill and drill, or from the primitive and limited ideas about writing that brushed me in other disciplines. Prince wants some kind of Writing Across the Disciplines, but my English classes had much more sophisticated and self-conscious ideas about writing than anything I found in my biology, math, political science, or history classes.

We’ve got much of Michael Prince’s same sort of put-outness very recently from Jeffrey Zorn, whose essay against the field of rhetoric and composition was posted on the National Association of Scholars website a few weeks ago. Maybe you saw my tweet:

“English Compositionism as Fraud and Failure” | Jeffrey Zorn’s stimulating, frustrating misplaced jeremiad: ow.ly/ouFjV

The waves of reaction on the Wirting Program Administrator-List were interesting: outrage against this conservative reactionary Classics professor, mellowing to the recognition that this is how the public sees us to we need to write pieces that educate people like Zorn about the richness of the field. Much like Prince’s simple distrust of teaching rhetorical analysis, Zorn sees no value in Sondra Perl’s work, yet her close observational studies of basic writers in college have been huge in the writing process movement. So I don’t know if Zorn believes students should draft and revise or reflect on their writing processes or engage in peer editing, or if he believes these things and uses them but doesn’t know why they are such standard pedagogical moves in the field.

The Material Conditions of Rhet-Comp

As a community college professor, with a PhD from Schilb’s institution, I have to say that I would skip reading CE’s recondite, patiently spun articles on Lincoln’s, or Obama’s, or Bush’s rhetoric. I’m much more keenly interested however in how best to teach FYC, especially in an era when the AAUP is on the ropes, when we as a discipline have lost our voice and authority with the public, when corporatization of the academy is everywhere on the march, when degrees in academic management are advertised on this very page of Inside Higher Ed, and when for-profit “universities” are crawling everywhere out of the web. These things just might affect the quality and direction of what gets taught in Rhet-Comp. The following question then seems small and insignificant until it is linked to a threatened academic freedom, to what will get taught to our nation’s freshman writers, a concern, let me add then, of importance even to the future of the state: What approach should one use in Rhet-Comp? (The title of the article seemed–seemed–so spot-on.)

There are many approaches to choose from. Scholars like Richard Fulkerson have made a mini-field simply out of taxonomizing the different approaches to Rhet-Comp, which seems to lurch from staid textbook encrusted writing-in-the-modes inertia to ethnographic approaches, critical pedagogies, visual literacies, and, now, digital humanities, etc. (The whole “digital convergence” will have humanities disciplines competing for relevance even while it creates, usually snake-oil, opportunities for for-profit and online education.)

Currently the field is atwitter about genre writing, especially teaching discipline specific genres. For some, “academic writing” is considered an empty term, an Erehwonian “mutt genre.” People like Anne Beaufort worry that we don’t teach engineers enough about how to write like engineers. People like David Smit contemplate the elimination of English comp altogether to be replaced by dual-specialists who can teach writing and something else. Stanley Fish wants us to just teach linguistics and grammar and plenty of blinkered, well-meaning traditionalists in his NYT blog comments threads as well as, frankly, reactionaries seem to want us just to teach sentence diagramming. And when will students actually write and what will they write about? Content rears its ugly head yet again, meaning that college professors and English departments–if they have the freedom–have to decide what content to teach in FYC. While actual intellectual and scholarly content from the rich tradition of humanistic writing is there waiting to be read and written about, plenty of people both inside and outside the discipline don’t think our students can handle classic Western Civ texts, let alone textbooks like Jacobi’s World of Ideas or Ways of Reading by Bartholomae and Petrosky.

The MLA left Rhet-Comp years ago in the hands of organizations like NCTE, CEA, CCC, and TYCA. As fine a thing as it is, there are bigger, more urgent fish to fry at this–sorry to urge something so overwrought and formulaic–crisis moment, than Lincoln’s beautiful rhetoric.

Posted at http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/12/30/comp