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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Some Concerns I have about the Class I Teach

I consider my task as an Intro to Rhetoric and Composition teacher to help my students learn to communicate in writing. I serve other gods though. I want to prepare the students for the types of writing they'll be asked to do in other departments. And I have to address the concerns of the senior faculty in the English department. What bothers me is that despite reams of research I've read in the field of Rhet Comp I've seen nothing resembling an empirical assessment of rival teaching methods. Far too often it seems what ends up being stressed in Freshman Rhet Comp classes is simply what's fashionable among Rhet Comp scholars.

Of course, Rhet Comp scholars are, by definition successful writers, so why shouldn't a writing pedagogy be based on what they concern themselves with? And why not try to equip students with everything that might be of use to them?

Imagine a research program designed to uncover the differences in writing strategies between beginning and expert writers. Upon completion, the researchers provide a list of practices the findings suggest teachers should encourage their students to adopt. Expert writers, for instance, devote much more time to revision than beginners; therefore, students should be exhorted to revise their papers more than they may deem necessary. The pedagogical formula here is to try to make beginning writers behave like expert writers. This idea is likely far too simple, and may actually encumber students on their paths toward expertise more than it helps them. Revision is possible, even irresistible, for expert writers owing to their keen sensibility for what constitutes good writing; insisting to beginners that they revise then calls on them to apply knowledge and skills in the assessment of their own writing they have yet to develop, making revision just another meaningless routine toward the goal of satisfying a teacher.

There is a saying among mixed martial arts trainers that the best way to teach somebody nothing is to try to teach them everything. Attempts to load beginners up with the strategies of experts at too early a stage in their education inhere with the danger of overwhelming them, leaving them discouraged and in despair as to their chances of ever acquiring that expertise which seems so far beyond their comprehension. Prevailing upon students in Intro Comp courses the importance of being attuned to the audience of their writing and the genre conventions by which it will be assessed may speed them along the path toward practices similar to those of more experienced writers, but being forced to consider the added dimensions of audience and genre as they’re struggling to compose grammatical sentences within viable paragraphs will just as likely convince them this writing thing is just too complicated. While it is true that experienced writers routinely consider audience and genre, this observation leaves two important questions unanswered: At what point in their development did they begin to incorporate these considerations into their strategies? And how did they learn to do so?

Instruction, to avoid overwhelming students or saddling them with practices devoid of meaning, must be stage-appropriate, and pedagogy based on research findings on the strategies of experts must consider the possibility that any given practice may emerge, not as a result of direct teaching, but as a byproduct of the refinement of other skills or the general growth of awareness about the discipline. Asking beginning writers to analyze a piece of writing in terms of genre and audience may simply be trying to get them to draw on knowledge they’ve yet to acquire, knowledge they may acquire automatically, without any instruction or encouragement, as they encounter and become more familiar with a greater number of texts in various genres and come to know the types of people, including individual scholars, who will likely be interested in any given work. Writing instructors need to avoid behaving like parents who try to teach their children to walk and talk as early as possible to give them a head start on the road to achievement, even though timing of first words and first steps seems to emerge independent of parents instructions, when the children are ready, and have nothing to do with later proficiency or grace.


Leigh said...

I struggle wit the same issues, and it is the reason I no longer attach a grade to drafts, per se. Instead, I hold conferences for each paper assigned while the paper is in progress. There we can discuss face-to-face some of the changes that will benefit their grade and hopefully move them gently toward their understanding of writing strategies. I dedicate four weeks each semester to this process and have had reasonable success with it. But there is clearly no easy answer to the dilemma.

caynazzo said...

Do you expect to see progress within a semester? Or Do you get feedback from the professors of those students who have taken your class?

What is Rhetoric as it pertains to your syllabus?

Dennis said...

You're astute to focus on feedback, which is the crux of the problem. Really, the concerns I spell out are based on the students' facial expressions and other evidence of mounting frustration. If I had some evidence that suggested the methods are effective, I'd of course discount this impression. But the fact that no one is even trying to find any such evidence is troubling to me.

Progress within a semester? Yes, I suppose I do expect it. Again, if there's no evidence of learning one way or the other, how do I know if what I'm doing is effective?