Tag Archives: teaching

“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.

The ideals of learning versus authoritarian corporatism in higher ed

Coming out of a California JC in the 80s, paying only $640 a semester at UC Berkeley, and having valued what I learned at both places before going to IU-Bloomington, I don’t recognize all the complaining about terrible professors. Not all professors in my experience were incredible, but I never had a truly terrible professor. As far as I could tell, they all cared a lot about their work and wanted their students to appreciate their fields. Now, if we are talking about students not always being committed to the ideals of learning, and what effects that can have on the morale and justification for what happens on a campus, e.g., the oft-repeated circumstance of faculty being pressured to lower standards, make classes easier and less demanding, etc., then we are more on the right track. Resentment against professors and academics isn’t going to fix things. Figuring out ways to help students see the value of education, to do other things with their lives until they are ready to study seriously–that’s more constructive.

The Neoliberal corporatization of colleges & universities is a national, global tragedy. The money flowing disproportionately to management and away from the actual missions of instruction, learning, and sustained critical inquiry via a huge and growing reliance on adjunct faculty, paid poverty wages, and denied many of the dignities, like phones and offices, of the worthy work they do, is unethical & immoral. We’re already beginning to pay the price of less democracy and more authoritarianism in our lives.


Elites get seminars, masses get drilled.

Having read Elizabeth Green’s NYT March 2 piece (http://nyti.ms/auN8rG), “Building a Better Teacher,” I have to say that while I admire the polish of the teaching from Doug Lemov’s Taxonomy clips (http://uncommonschools.org/usi/aboutUs/taxonomy.php), I was struck by the snap-to, military flavor of the showcased “best teachers'” methods, the utter control of attention they commanded, not from the inherent fascination of the content, but with practiced behavioral techniques.

The desire to operationalize good teaching with 49 approved techniques is very seductive, but I’m probably not the only one who was put in mind of Jonathan Kozol’s “Educational Apartheid” article from Harper’s (2005): http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2005/American-Apartheid-Education1sep05.htm. In that article Kozol discusses “SUCCESS FOR ALL, the brand name of a scripted curriculum–better known by its acronym” SFA. Or as fourth-grade teacher “Mr. Endicott,” an exemplary practitioner of this “classroom management” technique describes it: “‘It’s a kind of “Taylorism” in the classroom.'”

Lemov’s findings are based on test scores.  He found the best teachers for students to do better at taking tests. The big promise of this emphasis on technique is that it improves students’ test scores. What about teachers who are good at helping students do other things besides taking tests?  What do they bring to the table?  Does what they bring matter in our era of accountability?  We can’t fairly compare the mass schooling that so many students are bound to with the elite schooling that Kozol compares it with, e.g., Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  I take the point that for the majority of especially under-privileged students, these techniques may be the only means of social advancement.  I am fascinated that there are marketed and operationalized, pedagogically effective behavioral control mechanisms detailed for one group of students and Harkness table seminars for their future leaders.

We will still have the two educational worlds that Kozol complains about: The world of Harkness table seminars at elite academies and the world of operant conditioning for the rest of us.  My hunch is that this sort of dichotomy will drive more middle class folks to home school.  So then our social choices are authoritarianism or fragmented privatization.