Errors in Expectation
Today, at InsideHigherEd.com, William Major, who teaches English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford, offers a piece called “Teaching Composition: A Reconsideration.” It’s an odd article, considering what we know about the teaching of writing.
The best comments on the article come from Gerald Nelms, who teaches at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Look for “Assumptions and Misrepresentations.” Nelms states on a listserv that he wrote quickly, but I think he gets to the heart of the problem with Major’s piece:
The following are wrong assumptions and misrepresentations that I find in this article:
—That all English professors are educated in the same disciplines when, in fact, many (most?) are not educated in Rhetoric and Composition, which is a discipline dedicated to, among other things, how to teach writing….
—That teaching composition is “grunt work” that no real English scholar would want to do, when, in fact, there is a whole discipline of Rhetoric and Composition… whose membership is committed to teaching writing, not eager to teach literature courses.
—That Composition has no theoretical basis but is simply how-to knowledge, when, in fact, Rhetoric and Composition has a long history of theoretical discussion….
—That all English professors, simply because they are interested in language use and texts, have adequate knowledge and training to teach writing, when, in fact, literature professors tend to be trained in interpretive reading, which is not the same thing as rhetorical writing.
—That the “noviate” (graduate student or part-time instructor, although some of each group may well not be novice at writing instruction) is less trained in teaching rhetorical writing than the tenured English professor….
—That grammar is one of the most important features of good writing, when, in fact, 50 years at least of scholarship tell us that what matters most in all communication is its rhetorical effectiveness, of which absolutely “correct” grammar is only a minor part….
—That the problem with teaching writing in a way that is relevant to writing across the curriculum is content-based (what is taught in the composition course, say) when, in fact, recent research suggests that the problem is actually transfer-based. Writing program assessments tell us that students are learning what they are being taught in composition courses. Recent research, however, suggests that students are not applying what they’ve learning in composition courses to writing situations beyond the composition course…. Research on knowledge transfer tells us that such transfer is NOT automatic, no matter how much we think it should be and wish it were. It could also be that some faculty in other disciplines are judging student writing based on criteria that is dramatically different from that used in composition instruction. A typical example is when a faculty member assumes that all it takes to produce good writing is to produce absolutely correct grammar…. More important is the writer’s ability to clearly define her or his purpose; to “read” her or his audience; to develop a certain level of expertise in the subject matter of the text; and to develop an appropriate ethos for the discourse community which the writer is addressing.
—That undergraduates actually are unable to adequately communicate in writing, and that we need to blame someone for it, when in fact, we have research strongly suggesting that students today are actually better writers than they were in past decades.
Thank you Jerry. Not only have you encapsulated the problems with Major’s article, but you have, in a nutshell, illustrated one problem that all of us who seriously consider the situation of the writing teacher. That is, we have more trouble with the people who think they know something about the teaching of writing (and this includes more than simply those whose real interest is in literature, extending to other professors in other fields who have not taken the time to study the pedagogy of writing instruction, administrators, parents, and—of course—politicians) than we do with our students.
The means of teaching effective writing in a democratic (that is, non-elitist) environment have been available to us at least since the days of David Bartholomae’s ‘Pittsburgh Model’ of twenty years ago, extending (really) back to the seventies and Mina Shaughnessey and the early work of Peter Elbow. The problem is that we have never been able to convince the broader academic community of the validity of what we are doing or to provide the support necessary for real skills transfer into arenas beyond the writing classroom.
Until we do that, people like Professor Major will continue to pontificate on a field they don’t really know and bemoan results they don’t understand.