On the Teaching of Writing, No. 1

Though most of my training is in literature, I’ve become more and more interested, over the years, in writing and writing pedagogy. This started back in grad school, when I worked for a bit in Lou Kelly’s writing lab at the University of Iowa—where I was introduced to the likes of Mina Shaughnessy, James Britten, Peter Elbow, and many of the others developing new ways of teaching writing in the 1970s. After my four years in Africa in the late 1980s, I taught part time for a bit at Long Island University, where Deborah Mutnick introduced me to the work of David Bartholomae. I quickly lost interest in teaching, though, and turned my attention to building and running a café and a gift store.

By the time I returned to teaching, about a decade later, I assumed that the methodologies that were being developed in decades past had come to be standards—that the teaching of writing had evolved, and that I would find myself entering a whole new world of writing pedagogy.

Of course, I was wrong. If anything, by the early years of this decade, much (not all, fortunately) of the teaching of writing had slid backwards into grammar-based pedagogy, had become dominated by a new breed of Comp/Rhet PhDs who are more interested in theory about classroom teaching than in actual classroom teaching, or was mired in strategies—like Ken Bruffee’s small groups—which had worked well with an earlier generation of students but were not meeting the needs of a new generation in their old configurations. Not only that, but there was a new emphasis on testing that was turning the teaching of writing into the teaching of puzzle solving, of how to put the right pieces in exactly the right places.

Now that I have been back in this dodge for a couple of years, I’m beginning to feel that I know my way around again. I’ve even come to terms with a few of the changes: no matter how little I like them, for example, I accept that standardized writing exams are here to stay. Some of them aren’t even all that bad. In fact, the City University of New York (where I teach) uses both one of the worst and one of the best. One entrance to the basic Composition class is through the CUNY-ACT test, an exam based on the five-paragraph theme with a grading rubric that emphasizes making a point, organizing an argument, elaborating on that argument, and mechanics. It’s a horrible test that focuses the student on the piece of paper and not on communication. On the other hand, the CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE) that all students must pass to continue after their sophomore year, is actually a useful exam. For it, students are asked to respond to two pieces of writing, one they take home (a longer one) and one given to them in the second test session. For the first session, they are expected to write a summary of the essay they had earlier taken home. For that second session, they are expected to use the two articles together in an essay.

Standardized writing tests, then, though they are generally not very useful, aren’t necessarily bad things. Just most of them are. I’ve learned, though, that I can live with even the bad exams, as long as I remember to make sure that students don’t see the type of writing they are doing as addressing that piece of paper (or a machine) but an honest-to-God person.

With that in mind, I no longer talk about the five paragraph theme (in classes where I am preparing students for the CUNY-ACT exam) as consisting of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Wanting students to think in terms of their audience while they are writing, I have re-named the first two parts, calling them “contact” and “convince,” both words that carry within them a sense of audience, of other, that “introduction” and “body” lack. This also gives me a nice little mnemonic, three words all beginning in “con.”

In fact, emphasis on “contact,” on audience, has become the touchstone of much of my pedagogy. If we’re not writing for somebody—or to somebody—just what are we doing when putting fingers to keyboards? Some of us, once we have reached a certain level of ease, are able to write for the pleasure of it or simply for ourselves, but most people cannot do that—and have no reason to. I even see grammar in terms of “contact”: the only reason to use “good” grammar is to facilitate communication, to make it easier for the audience to understand the writer as precisely as possible.

My focus on audience has a long history, going back to my childhood as the son of a “radical behaviorist” follower of B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s basic stimulus/response model was something I was aware of even in junior high; in graduate school, I read his Verbal Behavior and started to understand writing itself as a dynamic represented by an S/R continuum.

It is from Skinner that I developed my concern that much of what we do is ask students to talk to a piece of paper rather than to another person. We focus on what is on that paper, sometimes to the detriment of the ultimate purpose of the writing—communication, providing a stimulus that elicits a response that either reinforces our writing (success at communication) or shows us that we need to try something different.

This concern has led me to begin to use blogs in my classroom. Through their blogs, students see much more clearly that they are involved in something more than designing a problem-free page. They start to take pride not only in their presentation but in the conversations they spark….

Enough. If I don’t stop now, I will go on far too long for one post.

And, after all, this is my first blog entry on writing pedagogy. I’ve done what I wanted, have provided an overview of a few of my current concerns—along with a bit on what I am doing these days.

My plan, for this occasional series on the teaching of writing, is to focus on meeting the needs of developing writers and on how Verbal Behavior can be used to provide what may be a new and effective way of examining the writing process. If what I have written so far seems at all of interest, check back every week or so and see what I’m about.

We’ll then see how it goes.

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