Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.
Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.
- I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
- I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
- Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]
William Major had a good column at Inside Higher Ed last week & surprisingly the comment thread generated by Major’s essay is intelligent & civil. (IHE has the most persistent anti-intellectual right-wing trolls on the internet — interesting as an anthropological study, but deeply dispiriting for regular reading.) Major’s main contention is that more full profs ought to be teaching comp & since I’m a full prof who regularly teaches comp I find it difficult to disagree. He also notes that the exploitation of adjuncts cannot be a good thing for writing instruction even though most adjuncts teaching comp do an heroic job under impossible working conditions. I’ve been teaching freshmen to write since 1979 & have developed a few theses on the subject — from the philosophical to the pedestrian — that I will now nail to the classroom door:
- The purpose of all education in the humanities is to disrupt students’ preconceptions about the world they live in. (Disruption is only the first step, but it is necessary.) Critical thinking is disruption of received ideas & conventional wisdom.
- Writing cannot be taught outside of a context of reading & responding to a variety of tests. The texts themselves ought to mix high & low culture, the familiar & the strange. Students often respond effectively to the strangeness at the margins of genre.
- Form follows function: students must have a reason to write before they will learn to write well. Among the writing teacher’s most important tasks is to help students discover the full implications of their particular rhetorical situation:who are they writing to? About what? Why is it important?
- In a typical composition class ten percent of the students will easily master the basics of style & usage, moving quickly on to considerations of paragraph structure, transitions & logical development. At the other end of the scale, ten percent will never master these things — at best, they will “aspire to the semicolon,” as Kay Ryan, the new poet laureate, said of her developmental writing students. The eighty percent of students in between these extreems are the main concern of the composition instructor.
- The five-paragraph essay is a blight upon the intellectual life of the nation.
- Writing teachers ought to be, in however modest a sense, writers themselves. They must share the struggle for high-level literacy with their students.
- Writing teachers ought to be sophisticated & curious readers both inside & outside their narrow disciplines. (When institutionally feasible, faculty from different departments ought to enter the Composition classroom, as visitors or full-fledged participants.
- Too many students are tracked into four-year institutions not designed to serve their needs.
- Conventions are important, but not a goal in themselves. Expectations need to be explicit, especially for the conventions of academic writing: If you want precise manuscript mechanics, fonts, etc., put it in writing. If you deduct a point for each spelling error, make that explicit. (These are really forms of social behavior, like learning to dress appropriately for different situations.)
- Tell students how you will evaluate them. If you are a stickler for deadlines, make them explicit.
- The five-paragraph essay is the enemy of deep literacy. It promotes the idea that thought amounts to a loose accumulation of examples rather than as a structure built for a purpose in which the parts depend upon one another to create an argument. (An argument is not a debate.)
- Colleges must recognize & justly compensate writing teachers, recognizing the labor-intensive nature of the work. The opposite situation prevails mostly under current practice, with writing teachers being at the bottom of the academic class system.
- The purpose of the enterprise — beyond turning out employable workers — is to contribute to the development of students as persons who are sufficiently connected to their world & to themselves that they can act successfully as free agents within our quasi-democracy. Perhaps as reagents. Which will no doubt make them less suitable as workers — we end in paradox, as usual.