Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Teach Writing in Writing Courses

I read this today on the New York Times' site and had to agree with the opening paragraphs. Stanley Fish is right - too many of our composition and rhetoric courses aren't teaching basic writing skills.
(See: What Should Colleges Teach? by S. Fish )

What Should Colleges Teach?

New York Times
Stanley Fish
August 24, 2009
A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college's composition program....
I am not convinced that most graduate students are prepared to teach, in any subject. Unlike on K-12 system, we assume graduate students can teach without a period of apprenticeship.
In terms of writing, I have found that literature experts are not always the best writers. MFA students do tend to be more familiar with the grammar and mechanics, maybe (and this is only a guess) because you need to learn the rules before breaking them.
I ... asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.
It is ironic that professors teaching these graduate students did have traditional, liberal arts educations and learned to be "critical thinkers" and innovators. If the "old radicals" thought about this for a time, they might realize that basic skills are required before higher-level skills can be employed effectively.

Unfortunately, graduate students want to emulate their faculty mentors. They want to be advocates and activists, not "mere" teachers. They want to research social issues and those hot-button issues Prof. Fish mentions. The graduate student with a passion for grammar is rare. He or she with an interest in the history of English and its wonderful story is likely to be drawn to other fields, sadly. History and linguistics are capturing the grammarians.
As I learned more about the world of composition studies, I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research.
A course can have a theme, which helps "contextualize" the writing assignments, but the theme should always be subservient to writing. We have promoted the themes of courses ahead of the actual purpose of the college writing class. I'm not sure how to change this trend without being accused of "conservative" tendencies -- the worst of insults in academia.

Of course, I am a "classical liberal" and don't mind being called a bit old-fashioned. I want my students to have basic skills. In the sciences, you do have to memorize basic facts before delving into theory. Knowing equations and data is necessary before you can discover and create knowledge. But, in the writing course, we talk of creating knowledge from the first day of courses.

I hope we do come to realize that the basics don't mean forgoing discovery or even activism. If anything, the basics are a step towards self-discovery and self-expression.