Monday, October 03, 2011

An Outsider in Writing and Rhetoric

I do fit the stereotype of a tech geek preferring academic subjects that are "apolitical" and "objective" in nature; the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects are comfortable. I'd add to that list business, architecture, film production, and similar fields that stress applied knowledge over theory.

Though I am a writer, and I'd like to believe I'm a decent writer, people focused on fields with "studies" affixed to their disciplines don't think in the same manner I do. I include the soft "social sciences" in the studies group. These fields are often more interested in advocacy politics than rigorous scientific research methods. This is openly admitted in "writing studies" and its related network of disciplines.

At a recent conference I attended, the "pedagogies" (teaching theories) were "grounded in social justice" and "embrace[d] the pragmatism of Cornel West, Alinsky, and Dewey." I'm sorry, but the "scholars" cited by presenter after presenter are not scientific, objective thinkers. This approach to teaching embraces a political ideology first, and then seeks to find ways to implement that ideology. That's not educational research in my mind, but instead something entirely different.

I'm not a social conservative, but I do not like the fact an academic discipline is anything but disciplined and rigorous. Teaching is my activism. Help me effectively teach writing.

Every conference I've attended on writing instruction has featured the same deficiency. I've never sat through a presentation or panel that included something like the following statement: "Our methods improved writing and reading comprehension by X based on the standardized measure Y." I have heard statements like this: "My students seemed to like writing more at the end of the semester." One of the stranger things I've heard, "I know my students care more for each other at the end of the writing course." Neither of these conclusions is a quantifiable statement based on rigorous measures.

I want to learn how we can teach writing skills most effectively to students with special needs. These students struggle with skills, even the motor skills required to hold a pencil or use a computer. My goal is straightforward. After using method X, does a student demonstrate improved writing skills? I can't relate to the goal of teaching "social justice" and "tolerance" in the writing class because I don't think that way. I want to be able to express myself, using words. I assume the parents and students with whom I work want the same thing: the ability to communicate.

When I attend a conference at which at least half of the sessions address practical, evidence-based ways to teach language to students with special needs, then I will be impressed and feel like I'm part of a serious academic discipline. Instead, I've heard about teaching a lot of beliefs to students, and beliefs are not related directly to writing. Politically motivated instruction risks overlooking the role we play in education: preparing students to write.

I had a colleague talk to me about his new writing class. He was excited to include a long list of progressive political theorists in the course. The course was "College Writing and Research" — not "The Progressive Era." I asked him, bluntly, "How do the assignments address writing skills?" He looked at me and said, earnestly, "I'm teaching the students to think. Writing will just happen when they are inspired to call for change."

And we wonder why our disciplines aren't taken seriously? Too many of our students don't learn to write. I know my colleagues would challenge that, but ask employers and their instructors in other disciplines if the writing skills are acceptable. I know many great writing teachers, but the "stars" of the field focus on political activism. That's fine if you specialize in political rhetoric. That's not okay if you specialize in first-year composition. We are falling short in both writing and critical thinking skills, but we seem to care more about our personal motivations than the results of our instructional methods.

Maybe it is my nature, but I want writing instruction research that is practical. I want to be a better writing teacher. Why can't being a great teacher be the sum total of my "activism" in the classroom? Trust me, knowing how to write will change the lives of my students.

I know I'be more comfortable in a scientific field, but I want to teach writing. So, I have to learn to navigate around the current state of my chosen field. It isn't easy, trust me, because when I ask about instructional methods and research, I'm accused of not caring about social justice. My colleagues have confused their desired outcome (social change) with the best way to achieve that outcome for some student populations (teaching writing skills).

Helping adults with special needs realize their goals of independent living and success is my activism. I do that by focusing on skills. No, that's not "critical thinking" that leads to an oddly homogeneous worldview. It is skills instruction and I'm not ashamed to call what I do skills development. Thinking has to be built on a foundation, and my students are still working on that foundation.

Last week, a colleague said, "We should grade thoughts, not writing." But I'm a writing specialist! I need to grade writing to help the student improve his or her writing. I asked how students would improve their writing without grades, which do motivate young adults more than intrinsic idealism does. "Good people think clearly and write better."

I've always taken the opposite view: learning to write, like learning to solve math problems, helps develop clear thought and reasoning skills. Silly me, I believe you learn skills before you can apply the skills creatively. I had to learn the notes and play other people's music before I could improvise on the clarinet. Skills come first.

Maybe I won't last in academia, at least not within a writing or English discipline. Maybe I belong somewhere else that uses more "scientific" methods to test instructional theories. A discipline in which "theory" doesn't mean "critical theory" or "social justice."

I don't know. Clearly, my goals are not exciting and political enough for some in my field.

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