e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


keeping current: Teaching About Writing.

I do a fair amount of skimming of journal articles. Necessity, I suppose, but then I feel guilty when I read Entertainment Weekly cover-to-cover. I mean, if a journal article takes up issues related to class or race, critical pedagogy, open-admissions teaching, material rhetorics, civic rhetoric, or service learning, I'll almost certainly give the piece a thorough read. And I always at the very least familiarize myself with the arguments of articles in the journals I subscribe to (Rhetoric Review, jac, WPA, College English, TETYC, and CCC). But that familiarizing process sometimes involves the S word: skimming. However, the new issues of College English and CCC have a read 'em cover-to-cover appeal. And, in between grading OWP portfolios (I have one more to go!), I've worked my way though both (go me). Some thoughts:

Downs and Wardle, "Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning 'First-Year Composition' as 'Introduction to Writing Studies.'" CCC 58 (2007): 552-584. This one's getting massive amounts of attention on the WPA list. Downs and Wardle propose teaching comp as an intro to current research in the field of comp studies, and report early data from a series of pilot courses that do just that. Interesting stuff, but I wonder about the (too easy, too pat) analogy the authors make between comp and other introductory courses. The piece implies that introducing students to research in a given discipline is standard and/or default practice in 101-type courses. Not so in a lot of "foundational" type subject areas. Math and foriegn language courses seem comfortable (though I'm not aware of disciplinary debates in those worlds) with workshop and even how-to pedagogies.

Not that the analogy between comp and these courses is a perfect one, but, still, I think it's important to acknowelge that intro courses do a wide variety of things. And very few intro courses ask students to conduct primary disciplinary research in those fields (one of the big things that Downs and Wardle propose). Natural science courses, I suppose, do something like this in labs, but that kind of work seems more like kinesthetic strategies to illustrate scientific principles or do a scaled-down version of what chemists do. And social science courses, too, sometimes assign mini-ethnographies, for instance. So I see the analogy, to a degree. But my point is that the purpose of intro courses if often highly contested. Some intro psych courses have a humanistic pedagogy (let's read Man's Search for Meaning and talk about esoteric concerns) while some have a primary research pedagogy (let's get IRB approval and conduct experiments). Intro philosophy courses, I suspect (and I'm guessing here), are as varied as any disciplines' intro courses: some foreground argumentation, some foreground moral dilemmas, some take a literary or historical or survey approach, etc.

The piece offers a nice overview of misconceptions about writing, too, notably the mistaken notions that Academic Writing means something univeral or monolithic and that "skill" automatically transfers from a semester or two into other courses/contexts. Yes, these are misconceptions...but I don't know how the switch to "intro to writing studies" will fix this problem. I don't know if a switch in pedagogies will have such a seismic cultural (or even campus) impact. Especially given the unlikelihood (impossibility?) that this new curriculum will be universally adopted.

Finally, I question adopting this pedagogy as a means for improving the status of the field. A lot of folks don't understand or take seriously research in the field. True. And Downs/Wardle give some good instances of this, from goverment reports to for-profit standardized tests, both of which ignore our research and its implications. Yes, we all know colleagues on our campus who don't acknowledge disciplinary authority of rhet/comp (I've heard several people on my campus disparagingly say this about a rhet/comp person who used to work here: "she thought she was some kind of expert on writing"...DUH!! SHE WAS!!). We've got a p.r. problem, a political problem, and an authority problem. But I worry about changing teaching methods in order to 'send a message.' I'll speak out on committees (moreso once I have tenure). I'll urge my elected representatives to support education policy that's consistent with what we know about literacy. I'll criticizde standardized tests that are reductive and that hurt students. But I don't think I want to make curricular decisions for reasons aside from what I think will challenge students and benefit them in a variety of contexts. I don't think Downs/Wardle are against any of these things. On the contrary, I think they've developed strategies that are interesting and challenging. But the point remains: there's an ethical question here (one I would have liked to see the article contend with) when we're 'teaching to legitimize.'

Finally, and I'm going to reveal my own expressivist tendencies here, I'm not sure how these strategies get at the magic of language. I'm fresh off of my Writing Project work right now, so I'm probably allowing the expressivist side to speak more loudly than usual, but I do feel strongly about devoting some fy comp time to dealing with voice, expression, and, yes, creativity. I know this isn't a language that's widely accepted, but, I guess, at the end of the day, it's (part of) how I roll.

Would like to say more about Shannon Carter's piece on teaching in the Bible Belt in the new CE which is interesting, but time's short. Also highly recomended: Chaput and Powers on academic freedom, which is in CCC. Cathy Chaput's an old grad school mate of mine and does great work using marxist theory to look at the political economy of higher ed. In fact, U of Arizona's well-represented in the new CCC (go RCTE!).

1 comment:

bonnie lenore kyburz said...

more and more, voice -- DELIVERY -- is important, esp in new media writing/social networking.

i too found many generalizations in the article that do not necessarily obtain. plus, it's FIRST year comp, i keep thinking . . . so much to do even simply w/r/t engagement.

and then, as Kathy Fitch has said, the article seems to want to make our students bear our burden (of legitimizing the discipline . . . and can we even call it a discipline any more, so fragmented . . . it's more about a gen ed course around which we generally cohere . . . but then there is a broader notion of rhetoric that extends that work (as i've said to Doug before, i can see what you are mapping as something for an upper division course . . . ).

i'm happy to hear someone cop to expressivism; i hear and am with you on that ;)