On the Teaching of Writing, No. 2

An email response to my post earlier this week on the teaching of writing got me thinking about the relation between the teaching of basic writing, in particular, and the Habermasian public sphere. No, that’s not quite true: it got me thinking more.

The book I recently completed, though not dealing directly with basic writing, has a great deal to do with both the public sphere and changes within it, especially as they relate to the written word. The book, right now, is called The Rise of the Blogosphere: Backgrounds in American Journalism and it should appear from Praeger in the early part of next year. In it, I try to detail the constriction of the public sphere through the commercialization and professionalization of journalism in the United States over the past century-and-a-half. This constriction led to the growth of both anger and a sense of powerlessness on the part of the American public in regards to the news media–and these, in turn, are part of what led to the tremendous blog explosion of the past few years.

People want to write to communicate their views. Yet many feel they cannot. For some, it’s a sense that the professionals have taken over, leaving no room for the average person. For others, they simply do not feel that they have the tools to communicate effectively. The first of these two groups have taken to the blogs. The second are often our students in basic writing classes.

Years ago, close to the time I left teaching (for what I thought was forever), I was working with a group of students who were preparing for first-year composition and completion of their GEDs. The students were fairly typical basic-writers–bright enough, but lacking in classroom confidence and mechanical skills. When I could get them to forget where they were, wonderful discussions–even arguments–ensued. But I was having difficulty getting them to transfer their thoughts to paper in anything but the most constricted form.

About halfway through the semester, I decided to take one writing from each student, edit it for mechanical problems, and place it within a newsletter I created. As a former printer and compositor–and as one who had designed various publications–I knew I could present the newsletter in a way that the students would see as “professional.” Because the students did not know they would appear, I kept their names out of it.

When I handed out the newsletter, I said nothing about it, simply sat back and let the students read. They started to recognize the stories fairly quickly (we did a lot of sharing in class). A buzz began to grow, as they associated work they were reading with the authors–and discovered their own contributions.

From that point on, that class was a breeze, and a joy to teach. The students had seen that they could enter into a “public” sphere and succeed–that they could write well and get others to respond.

“Get others to respond.” That, I’ve found (now that I’ve returned to teaching), is the key. Make them feel empowered, as they say, within whatever sphere they are writing for, and students will produce. If they feel someone is listening, taking seriously what they are saying (and not worrying so much about the “alots” and “definatelys”), their confidence begins to grow and they begin to write even more.

Time passes and technology changes, of course, and I no longer use newsletters in my classes (I never did use them for every class–each situation, of course, requiring a unique strategy). Instead, I use blogs to the same purpose. Oftentimes, I use a little bit of deceit, a minor version of tossing someone into the deep end and forcing them to swim: I tell the students to give the url of their blogs to their friends and family without reminding them that they are now writing in public, and will have to accept responsibility for everything they post. That, by the way, is one of the reasons (or so I believe, with the fact that they are graded on their blogs being another) that I find little chat shorthand in their blog entries.

With the professionalization of the media has come a feeling on the part of many, especially those lacking confidence in their writing skills, that they are not welcome to participate in the greater public debates–that all they can do is watch. That their only participation comes as an either/or in the voting booth. The trend toward this was chronicled as far back as the 1920s by Walter Lippmann, who felt that it should be so, that most people are not equipped to deal with the nuances of policy and that the educated elite should present choices only as simple dichotomies.

As for myself, as for most teachers of basic writing, there’s something inherently undemocratic about Lippmann’s attitude. We’re much more in line with John Dewey, who felt that life-long education and participation in the political discussions were cornerstones to the success of any democracy. Rather than telling people about issues, we want to involve them in the debate on those issues–and at a far more integral level than simply making a choice in a voting booth.

The “basic” in basic writing is more than simply an evaluation of student skills. It implies a certain assumed base level for participation in American society, a base everyone should have, one that allows them to participate fully in the public sphere.

The teaching of basic writing, then, has an inherent political aspect. It is anti-elitist, coming down heavily on the Dewey side of that Dewey/Lippmann debate. It is “liberal” on a fundamental leve, for its task is to expand the public sphere, to bring in those who have been excluded.

In this field in particular (to return to one of my favorite hobby-horses), the ratio of liberals to conservatives is probably much higher than the numbers that “scare” David Horowitz so in his campaign against academia. Horowitz focuses on such things as Women’s Studies departments for his ire, saying they shouldn’t be part of academia at all. I don’t think he would dare attack basic-writing programs, however, even though they are ultimately much more “subversive” (from his point of view) than the “radical feminists” ever will be. That would make his elitist goals all to apparent, and he doesn’t want that (right now).

The goal of basic writing is much more overtly political than the goal of any other particular teaching endeavor, for the teacher of basic writing is attempting to alter the public sphere by changing its composition, by bringing more people into it and with greater ability to participate.

If Horowitz ever succeeds in his attempts to bring political control not only directly into classrooms but into wider academic decision-making, you can bet that basic-writing programs will start to disappear. The smokescreen of “individual responsibility” will be used, leaving only the occasional student from outside the middle and upper classes in our colleges. The philosophy of John Dewey will quickly become only a memory.

Separate politics from the classroom? In basic writing, certainly, it can’t be done.

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