A Major Response

In a response to the Jerry Nelms criticisms (that I quoted on this blog yesterday) of his piece on InsideHigherEd.com, William Major writes:

I simply offer a number of theories as to why writing instruction often has second-class status in the university, especially within English departments.

Moreover, professor Nelms:

1. I make no assumptions that all English professors are the same. I wonder—perhaps naively—why English profs (rather than rhet/comp) avoid writing instruction like the plague;

2. Grunt work: Indeed, it is. Just ask your local adjunct or five and five English prof. Check out the teaching schedule for both full and part-time English instructors at your local community college.

3. Composition theory: Where did I suggest or imply that there is no past and present history of rhetoric/comp theory and criticism? Foucault/Bakhtin/Kristeva? Please. I worked my way through them and decided that getting my students to understand the art of the semicolon was more important.

4. English profs and interpretive reading: I think I made this very point in my article.

5. Grammar: Ah! the rub! I’m afraid that I can never be convinced that grammar is *not* one of the more important features of good writing. It’s not the only one. Duh. Since when does talk of grammar/mechanics, etc. turn one into an ogre? What are we afraid of? Success?

6. Transfer-based question: Here I am in complete agreement with professor Nelms. I’m not sure where I addressed this issue in my article, however.

7. Language is changing: Did I suggest or imply otherwise?

8. Undergrads and writing: I teach enough basic composition courses to know that, yes, there is a problem. To argue otherwise tells me that we are winning the war in Iraq, too.

I obviously value rhet/comp and its long history. I did not imply—or mean to imply—that depts. of writing are not doing their jobs. On the other hand, I haven’t seen enough evidence to suggest that a more catholic approach to writing instruction might not be a bad thing. After all, if we value writing across the curriculum (and most of us do), we might wish to get the English (lit) professors off the bench and into the game.

Nelms, of course, can probably respond to these better than I, and likely will, but I do have a few comments.

Before beginning, however, I would like to point out that I come to this debate as one with an interest in the problems of teaching Develomental Writing (or Basic Writing). I am not a rhetorician or composition specialist. As my interest does relate, however, I am aware of the larger discussions going on within the fields of Rhetoric and Composition—and appreciate the frustrations that appear when one jumps into the debate without having spent the time examining past workings and reworkings. There is a great deal behind Nelms’ original response, much of which has already dealt with the points Major raises. However, bringing this discussion up once more hurts no one and might do all of us some good, somehow, sometime. So, even though I disagree deeply with Professor Major, and feel he has not properly grounded himself in this field, I do appreciate his willingness to jump into the discussion.

1. Most English professors avoid composition classes for the same reason I should hesitate to teach Sociology: it’s not their field. The study of literature is not the study of composition.

2. Grunt work? It is that only because of exploitation and overload, not because of the nature of the subject.

3. “The art of the semicolon”? Please explain the semicolon as art, and how it is more important than the act of communication itself.

4. If so, why do you continue to conflate the fields of literature and composition?

5. Success? What “success” are you talking about? A flawless page? I think most of us who write accept that errors are a part of life and rely quite heavily on an editorial process that brings ours to light and assists in correction. I suspect you may be demanding more of students, here, than we demand of ourselves. Real success in writing depends on the accuracy of the communication, not on care in the wielding of the comma.

6. You may not address transfer directly, but it is implied in your article—by not addressing the problems of transfer, you assume that there are none (or so it might appear).

7. Because language changes, grammar must be seen as descriptive, not prescriptive. When language changes, rules change.

8. But your solution seems to be to throw more untrained (though senior, though expert in other fields) teachers into the writing classroom!

I’ll close with a few (almost random) passages from the books I was carrying to my office this morning, part of my small collection on Developmental Writing:

most of the sentence-level errors that are salient for the teacher are not salient for the student. The student doesn’t notice most of the errors that the teacher detected and diagnosed and labeled so automatically, and he isn’t aware that he has corrected others. Unlike the teacher, he doesn’t operate upon the text by means of a well-honed set of rules for written language conventions. – David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts, 208

most college teachers have little tolerance for the kinds of errors BW [Basic Writing] students make, and they perceive certain types of errors as indicators of ineducability… — Mina Shaughnessey, Errors and Expectations, 8

People can’t agree on a definition or specification of what goodness in writing consists of. Whenever anyone has a promising theory, it always leaves out some pieces of writing that most people agree are good, and includes some others they admit are bad. – Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, 133

I believe that teachers of written composition must work from at least four major, interconnected sets of theories: (1) composing processes, 92) written discourse, (3) invention or inquiry, and (4) learning and teaching. These theories will necessarily be the basis for the content and organization of students’ experiences in any program intended for helping people learn to write. – George Hillocks, Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, 28

3 thoughts on “A Major Response

  1. Interesting that Major’s response to #3 invokes theorists who he — and most — likely know as literary critics, rather than compositionists or rhetoricians. I wonder if he even has an idea of what constitutes the body of rhetoric and composition theory (which I would hurry to distinguish from criticism, the use of which term implies a literary perspective).


  2. Thanks for the opportunity to continue the discussion, which I’m happy to do. Both professors Barlow and Nelms say that I am not in the least “up” on the field: ” he has not properly grounded himself in this field,” says professor Barlow. What I will say is that I am in a position similar to Barlow’s: “I come to this debate as one with an interest in the problems of teaching Develomental Writing (or Basic Writing). I am not a rhetorician or composition specialist. As my interest does relate, however, I am aware of the larger discussions going on within the fields of Rhetoric and Composition.” I guess because my article–which wasn’t about the history of rhet/comp–didn’t rehearse or rehash the substantive debates over the last 30 years or so, that it failed in some fashion. And yet.What’s most interesting to me about this discussion is decidedly not the stuff about rhet/comp, but the fact that so many well meaning people have taken umbrage at the suggestion that we might have some profs of literature in the writing classroom. The comparison between teaching comp and teaching sociology doesn’t hold, I don’t think. It’s as if I were arguing that my accountant should also remove my hemorrhoids. I obviously wasn’t. 1. The study of lit and composition, in my view, are related, in the same way the reading and writing are related. 2. Indeed, the nature of comp is not “grunt work,” but as you put it, the exploitation is. I agree. My piece attempts to offer a small way out.3. I see a kind of artistry in the *effective* application of the rules of grammar–which can change. I see an artistry in the rules of baseball as well, which sometimes change.4. My point is that as an inexperienced teacher of composition in grad school (we had some little training, but not much), I relied on what I thought I knew. It wasn’t terribly effective. Now, the question is whether lit profs would do the same thing, those who have been in the business a while. Perhaps. But they will quickly adapt, as I did, to the realization that other approaches might be useful and necessary.5. I think success depends upon a whole range of factors, including, as you put it, “accuracy in communication,” which depends in part on syntax, grammar, etc. 6. In the context of my article, the transfer question is a red herring.7. Yes. The rules will change. Kind of. 8. My solution–in part to a problem that hasn’t been adequately addressed, namely the job crisis–is not to put “untrained” faculty in the comp. classroom. We’re already doing that. We allow and rely upon first and second year grad students to teach comp courses in the largest doctoral programs. They often have very little training. Some of them were marginal writers as undergrads. We do this, in part, so that the lit profs can have their upper level and graduate seminars without being bothered by what’s happening in the engine room. Thanks for the quotes. Elbow’s seems especially relevant here: “People can’t agree on a definition or specification of what goodness in writing consists of. Whenever anyone has a promising theory, it always leaves out some pieces of writing that most people agree are good, and includes some others they admit are bad.”


  3. Thanks, Professor Major, for responding. In my view, debate like this in public (even if in a small “public” way) needs to take place more often.1. Yes, reading and writing are related. The reason I mentioned sociology is that my own area of scholarship, cultural studies, does draw a great deal on sociology–but that does not qualify me to teach it any more than someone with a degree in literature is qualified to teach writing.3. Yet “artistry” is not what we are teaching when we are teaching writing. “Communication” is. Artistry, if it is to come, arrives long after one has mastered the ability to communicate effectively.4. Yes, we can learn by doing, but a little training can go a long way towards effective teaching of writing.6. I don’t see the question of transfer as a red herring, in your article or elsewhere, for the heart of successful composition classes <>is<> the ability to transfer the new skills to other situations.8. Here, I think we can agree completely. But the problem is more extensive, for there’s an underlying elitism at work, one that leads us to believe that the “better” teachers teach the upper-level courses (and that they teach at the “better” schools). In fact, as you know, the teaching of upper-level courses is actually easier, requiring less skill in the classroom (just as teaching at the “better” colleges is easier–the students come, most often, from backgrounds preparing them for college work in ways my students–for instance–have never experienced). I have more admiration for someone willing to take on the difficult task of teaching composition (and it is not simply the grading of pile after pile of papers that makes it harder) than I do for the person teaching “plum” advanced classes. And I am not sure I want the person who is satisfied with the “plum” to try to engage a composition classroom. I doubt they would have either the skill or the interest to succeed there.


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