Much like the debate over the literary canon, the process vs. current traditional composition pedagogy debate proposes some high-stakes claims about what should be taught in the writing classroom. And with the advancement of Post-Process theories the ramifications become even more urgent as “post-process theory seems to resist pedagogical application because of…claims that writing cannot be taught.”
As the theorists reprimand each other, however, the teachers on the ground of the composition classroom are forced to contend with the fact that, as in any field, theory and practice are often on opposite ends of the professional spectrum. Despite Lad Tobin’s obvious enthusiasm for the revolutionary paradigm shift of process pedagogy, he ultimately admits that “the bitter debates…in the professional journals…caused much less conflict in the classroom, where practitioners usually found something to borrow from each approach.”
Since I am still a novice instructor – a mere seven years of instruction reflected on my CV – these debates are of some interest to me. However, the pedagogical imperative is always at me heals, and when I walk into the classroom unconscious action must replace conscious speculation. I have learned that the composition class is a living organism of which the instructor is merely one organ. The wisest move, I have found, is to approach each new group of students with a malleable syllabus and an open-ness to borrow heftily from whatever theoretical bent gets the students thinking and writing. There is a time for process, a time for rhetoric, a time for collaborative group work, and a time to throw down and open the classroom to the inherent slippery playfulness of language. At the risk of being labeled new age, I would argue that this instinct for the rhythm of the group dynamic is an ever evolving and subtle sense of the classroom energy. With this idea in mind, it is in their best interest for composition instructors to familiarize themselves with the breadth and scope of pedagogical theory, and then forget it. Relegate it to the unconscious mind. Fill your improv bank, and then trust it.
It is in honor of this drive towards the improvisational that I wish to explore some of the theories that have taken up residence in my mind. So, each section of this article will focus on a different theoretical stance that has enhanced my classroom performance. It is my hope that these pedagogical meditations will help focus my teaching and deepen my trust in my own dancing mind.
THE WRITING CENTER AND ME
…the unique circumstances of every instance of application require a unique appropriation and implementation of theory into practice … [N]o single theory can dictate writing center instruction. Instead, we must reshape theory to fit our particular needs in the particular historically located situations in which writing center practitioners find themselves.
I begin with this interesting instance of Eric Hobson citing himself because, although it refers to the writing center specifically, it perfectly encapsulates my overall theoretical bent of composition pedagogy. I have already referred to myself as something of an improvisational instructor, one who prefers to fill myself with theoretical fodder and then enter the classroom with cannons blazing. This is always an exercise in self-trust. And where this self-trust begins to wear thin is where the writing center becomes relevant to my thinking.
I love the fantasy image of the enlightened professor breezing into the classroom to transform the minds of the students, but the realities of the pedagogical situation rarely adhere to this ruggedly individualistic idea of instruction. Alas, several times in my still-fledgling teaching career I’ve had to admit my limitations and refer my students to the campus writing center. However, as my ego wounds healed, and after I started working as a tutor myself, I realized the vastly different dynamic at play in the classroom vs. the one-on-one tutoring session. In the classroom, it is much easier to identify the handful of active students that will support your pedagogical performance. The shy and silent types, which are often the struggling students, tend to fade back and let the more active students, who tend to need instruction the least, dominate. Despite an instructor’s best efforts, this dynamic is very difficult to transform in the classroom moment. The ramifications of this problem are immediately apparent in the writing assignments. The more proficient and outspoken student exhibits deeper analytical ability and more complex compositional feats. The silent tend to struggle with various grammar, style, and/or syntax problems that only one-on-one instruction can effectively address.
Yet, I am as concerned about the ramifications of this split as Hobson is. In his essay “Writing Center Pedagogy,” he discusses the history of the writing center and reminds us of a particularly ugly period when, as he puts it:
The relationship was not pedagogically pretty: writing courses dealt with writing
Putting aside the ethical ramifications of this problem for the moment, I would argue that the writing center should never be a dumping ground for the issues that the composition instructor would rather not deal with. The classroom environment should be stretched to its limit and office hours adequately utilized for one-on-one conferences. These efforts by the instructor should be supported and enhanced, not compensated for, by a writing center staff.
THE FLOW OF THE INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCE
…it is time to call a truce in the old warfare between primary experience, seen as supposedly separable from intellectual interference, and secondary talk about experience, seen as devoid of creative and personal qualities.
By stating this unifying wish at the midpoint of Clueless in Academe
Yet despite his rigorous exploration, Graff does seem to err on the side of a more holistic approach to familiarizing students to the game of academia. In fact, he even extends the metaphorical relationship between what he callsarguespeakus
THE CLUB OF CRITICAL THINKING
…teachers who discourage a student from studying criticism are withholding from him or her the discourse that they themselves take for granted. Such teachers remind me of millionaires who exhort the poor to quit being so obsessed with material wealth.
In the spirited ninth chapter of Clueless in Academe
This self realization carried half my attention away from Graff’s text in favor of a mental revision of my syllabus. I was initially intrigued by the idea of including passages from critical essays as supplementary reading to the primary literature. However, I tend to shy away from anything that short circuits original thought and my fear is that a professional critic’s opinion on a short story would more often than not inspire an intimidated acquiescence from a college freshman. And knowing how students tend to shrink in the face of even my own somewhat official sounding opinion, I decided to tinker with the idea.
What I propose is a coupling of a short story with a critical piece that deals with the social issue tackled by the story rather than a critical appraisal of the fiction itself. I would encourage the students to compare the issue of the critical social problem piece with the theme of the story and/or the author’s motivation to write such a narrative. This could be additionally useful if the professor wished to encourage students to historicize the literature. A short story written at the time of the civil rights movement could be coupled with a short excerpt of a critical appraisal of that movement. A piece of fiction dealing with issues of homosexuality – Ha Jin’s “The Bridegroom,” for example – could be coupled with a New York Times article on the gay marriage debate or a critical essay arguing for or against gay unions. This approach, I feel, would introduce students to the discourse of argumentation, without making them feel self conscious about their opinions in the face of a much more advanced critic.
The aptly named third section of Cross-Talk in Composition Theorywhat
Patricia Bizzel tackles the developmental stages of the college educated mind. She utilizes the schema of William Perry to possibly illuminate the process of development that the training writer goes through on the way to mastery. Mercifully, in the concluding paragraphs of her essay, Bizzel addresses the question that had been gnawing at my ear throughout.
Of what use…is Perry’s work to college writing teachers? I think his scheme can help us to understand why the differences occur in student writing, even if we can not apply his classification scheme rigidly.
A noble sentiment, to be sure, but despite how counterintuitive it is for me to argue against an attempt to understand, I am still left perplexed as to how this understanding will facilitate the teaching of composition. Do we not risk becoming as pointless as the theoretical economist who can explain, in tandem, the reasons for a recession while failing to offer any relief to the folks on the unemployment line? Even Ann Berthoff’s essay, “Is Teaching Still Possible,” with its cognitive theory laden sub-title, “Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning,” seems theoretical to the point of pointlessness. And her suggestion that writing teachers should strive to “assure that students are conscious of their minds in action,” although deeply touching to my heart for its Zen-like quality, seems simply impractical.
Is it hopelessly romantic of me to believe that one still learns to write by writing? Is it merely quaint to see myself as a mentor, someone who has struggled with his own composition for several decades, and may be able to offer a helpful suggestion for overcoming some of the more common obstacles? Yes, I bring my own ideology to my instruction. I do often catch myself attempting to make my students write like me, but isn’t that the cognition I should focus on, my own cognition as an instructor?
In the end, as interesting as it is to speculate about the phenomenology of the writing process, I think the pedagogical imperative renders it useless to the classroom grunt. Let the theoreticians wile away the hours compiling data and speculatively marveling at the mind’s mechanisms. These kids keep writing sentence fragments, so I’m giving them
Berthoff, Ann E. “Is Teaching Still Possible?: Writing, Meaning, and Higher Order Reasoning,” Cross-Talk in Composition Theory: A Reader 2Edition
Bizzell, Patricia. “Hybrid Academic Discourse: What, Why, How.” Composition Studies
Bizzell, Patricia. “William Perry and Liberal Education.” Cross-Talk in Composition Theory: A Reader 2Edition. Victor Villanueva, Ed. Illinois: NCTE, 2003.
Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.
Hobson, Eric H. “Writing Center Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Padagogies
Kastman Breuch, Lee-Ann M. “Post-Process ‘Pedagogy’: A Philosophical Exercise.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Victor Villanueva, Ed. Illinois: NTCE, 2003.
Tobin, Lad. “Process Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Padagogies