The Chronicle Review

A Rescue Plan for College Composition and High-School English

Jordin Isip for the Chronicle Review

July 27, 2009

The new administration in Washington promises fresh resources for our failing school systems. The need is great. Yet at a time when every penny counts, we had better be sure that new investments in education don't chase after bad pedagogical ideas.

I propose a rescue plan for high-school English and college composition that costs little, apart from a shift in dominant ideas. For the sake of convenience and discussion, the rescue plan reduces complex matters to three concrete steps.

First, don't trust the SAT Reasoning Test, especially the writing section of that test, as a college diagnostic, and don't allow the writing test to influence the goals of high-school English.

The news last year that Baylor University paid its already admitted students to retake the SAT in order to raise the school's ranking in U.S. News and World Report would be funny if it weren't so sad. The test is a failure.

Even the manufacturer of the SAT admits that the new test, which includes writing, is no better than the old test, which didn't. As The Boston Globe reported on June 18, 2008: "The New York-based College Board, which owns the test, released the study yesterday showing that the current SAT rated 0.53 on a measure of predictive ability, compared with 0.52 for the previous version. A result of 1 would mean the test perfectly predicts college performance. Revising the SAT 'did not substantially change' its capacity to foretell first-year college grades, the research found."

How could this happen? College professors frequently ask their students to write. Shouldn't a test that includes actual writing tell us more about scholastic aptitude than a test that doesn't? Yes, unless the test asks students to do something categorically different from what college professors generally ask their students to do. Is that the problem with the SAT? You be the judge.

The following essay question appeared on the December 2007 SAT. It was reprinted on the College Board's Web site as a model for high-school students to practice; it was subsequently disseminated by high schools and SAT-prep Web sites. The question runs as follows:

"Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

"'Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to believe that every issue has two sides—no more, no less. If we know both sides of an issue, all of the relevant information will emerge, and the best case will be made for each side. But this process does not always lead to the truth. Often the truth is somewhere in the complex middle, not the oversimplified extremes.'

"[Adapted from Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture]


"Should people choose one of two opposing sides of an issue, or is the truth usually found 'in the middle'? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations."

Take a stand on where truth is found and support it with reasons. Could anything be more straightforward? Here is a question that promises not to exclude a single thinking student based on cultural bias. No reading imposes itself to the advantage of some students and detriment of others. There are no instructions about writing correctly, proofreading, and the like, and graders are advised to play down surface errors. The prompt threatens no one and nothing, least of all standard operating procedures in high-school English and college composition, where the brief argument essay is the coin of the realm. As the Globe article reports, "the College Board had said the SAT changes were meant to make the test 'more closely aligned with current high-school curricula.'"

Yes, and that's exactly the problem: The College Board bought stock in the ideas it was supposed to regulate.

Most college professors—especially those outside the humanities—would view the SAT essay prompt as significantly unlike their own writing assignments. First and foremost, we ask students to read. Though we may not say so directly, we also expect students to weave faithful renditions of other writers' ideas into their own papers. A student who can whip up an argument about where truth is located is not necessarily a student who can read Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (or any other challenging text) with understanding sufficient to frame an intelligent response. The SAT writing test fails for the simple reason that it ignores reading comprehension, overrates argument, and plays down grammar and prose mechanics. My advice: Toss the test; upgrade the skills it neglects.

But that's not enough. We owe it to our students to trace the influences shaping this failed test. My second remedy for high-school English and college composition is also inexpensive: to examine the assumptions of the critical-thinking movement, which underlie the SAT essay prompt and the field of composition generally—indeed, to think critically, about critical thinking.

Consider the question more closely. What does it ask our students to do? State and support an opinion about how the truth is discovered. This is a question about the methodology of inquiry. Is a dialectical procedure taking in opposing viewpoints a good way to locate the truth? Or does this dialectical procedure cause an oversimplified focus on extreme views at the expense of more nuanced positions in between?

Those of us who pursued advanced degrees in the humanities in the 80s and 90s will be familiar with the assumption behind the question: Humanistic confidence in the value of dialogue is naïve in contrast to a more strenuous exercise of critical reason. The question unmasks the pretensions of dialogue and invites students to apply their critical-thinking skills reflexively to think about thinking. You might assume a standardized test administered to millions of high-school juniors and seniors would be an odd place to rehearse an old theoretical battle, long since won by the antihumanist camp. Yet the critical thinking, reading, and writing movement is obsessed with the process of thinking, and we see that fascination visited upon our students here. The theory seems to be that students become more literate, better able to succeed in school and profession, when they learn rhetorical techniques of critical analysis and reflect on their own thinking processes.

What if it has all been a huge mistake?

The assumptions of the critical-thinking movement have had a deleterious effect on college composition and its forced imitator, high-school English. Anyone concerned with the fate of English composition should know that the fourth edition (1996) of the best-selling and often-imitated Ways of Reading, by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, begins this way:

"Reading involves a fair measure of push and shove. You make your mark on a book and it makes its mark on you. Reading is not simply a matter of hanging back and waiting for a piece, or its author, to tell you what the writing has to say. In fact, one of the difficult things about reading is that the pages before you will begin to speak only when the authors are silent and you begin to speak in their place, sometimes for them—doing their work, continuing their projects—and sometimes for yourself, following your own agenda. … We have not mentioned finding information or locating an author's purpose or identifying main ideas, useful though these skills are, because the purpose of reading in our book is to offer you occasions to imagine other ways of reading."

Note the order: Students make their mark on the book before it has made its mark on them. The priority is response, not understanding. Note how dismissively the authors treat "useful" skills as opposed to "occasions to imagine other ways of reading." The portentous repetition of the book's title signals its iconic status for the movement.

Let's say our students actually learn what we teach them. What result might we expect from their taking to heart this kind of aggressive constructivism mixed with promise of empowerment? Might not the elixir produce habits of fast judgment from little evidence, of looking away from challenging texts in order to opine—habits, in other words, that predict failure instead of success in academic and professional writing?

High-school systems have had little choice but to follow the movement's strong dictates about what "ready for college" means. To grasp the consequences in a nutshell, just consult one of the most successful suppliers of ideas and texts for K-12 education, America's Choice. According to its promotional material, this nonprofit organization provides thousands of schools across America with "a coherent, comprehensive [educational] design that offers exceptional instructional materials and strategies with first-rate coaching and professional development." For ninth-grade English, America's Choice distributes a rhetoric to teach argumentation. It is divided into two multistage, process-based units. The first asks students to read six biographical sketches with the knowledge that all of the people need an immediate heart transplant, and there's only one heart to go around. Who gets the heart? The second unit excerpts chapters from a popular college textbook, Andrea Lunsford and John Ruszkiewicz's aptly named Everything's an Argument, in order to teach ninth-graders how to critique advertisements.

The ideas standing behind both the SAT essay examination and the critical-thinking textbooks received their most powerful institutional formulation in 2000, when the Council of Writing Program Administrators issued a proclamation describing "the common knowledge, skills, and attitudes sought by first-year composition programs in American postsecondary education." The purpose of the document was to consolidate existing practice and regulate the teaching of composition throughout America. The first three stated goals are as follows:

"Rhetorical Knowledge

"By the end of first-year composition, students should:

  • Focus on a purpose.
  • Respond to the needs of different audiences.
  • Respond appropriately to different kinds of rhetorical situations.
  • Use conventions of format and structure appropriate to the rhetorical situation.
  • Adopt appropriate voice, tone, and level of formality.
  • Understand how genres shape reading and writing.
  • Write in several genres.

"Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing

"By the end of first-year composition, students should:

  • Use writing and reading for inquiry, learning, thinking, and communicating.
  • Understand a writing assignment as a series of tasks, including finding, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing appropriate primary and secondary sources.
  • Integrate their own ideas with those of others.
  • Understand the relationships among language, knowledge, and power.


"By the end of first-year composition, students should:

  • Be aware that it usually takes multiple drafts to create and complete a successful text.
  • Develop flexible strategies for generating, revising, editing, and proofreading.
  • Understand writing as an open process that permits writers to use later invention and rethinking to revise their work.
  • Understand the collaborative and social aspects of writing processes.
  • Learn to critique their own and others' works.
  • Learn to balance the advantages of relying on others with the responsibility of doing their part.
  • Use a variety of technologies to address a range of audiences."

Many of those goals are worthy in themselves. Consider their net effect, however. Taken together, they load composition/rhetoric with an elaborate vocabulary for describing itself. The group statement does not say that these theoretical and pedagogical ideas should stand in the background, informing practice. They should be among the topics of study. They are what composition/rhetoric is about. Process becomes its own product; rhetorical knowledge trumps content knowledge; critical thinking geared to ideological critique of texts and images replaces open inquiry and accumulation of knowledge through reading and experiment. The omissions are also glaring: not a word about the quality of readings, or the modest work of arriving at an accurate idea of the meaning of texts. Although the fourth outcome goal, "Knowledge of Conventions," lists "control such surface features as syntax, grammar, punctuation, and spelling," grammar is a subheading of a subheading, as it is for the critical-thinking movement generally.

Just as critical thinking has passed into policy without losing its rakish edge, so the practices it proscribes—grammar, imitation, précis writing, explication, recitation, reading great works in their entirety—have quietly dropped from view. I urge those charged with leading us out of our educational deficit to consider that ideas long dominant in composition and rhetoric may be detrimental.

I mean no disrespect to those in the trenches teaching high-school English and college composition. Their work is as essential to our schools as it is undervalued in society. But we need to face the possibility that the failure of the SAT essay examination is the canary in the coal mine alerting us to a discrepancy between the skills being emphasized in high-school English and college composition, and the skills most in need in college courses and in all professions. Lisa Delpit has made this same point in defense of students on the margins. She was one of the first to point out a deep confusion among well-intentioned educators who thought they were taking their students' side by lowering expectations, watering down reading lists, ignoring the basics, and emphasizing "process" as much as "product." In "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children" (1988), Delpit says the following about process pedagogy:

"Although the problem is not necessarily in the method, in some instances adherents of process approaches to writing create situations in which students ultimately find themselves accountable for knowing a set of rules about which no one has ever directly informed them. Teachers do students no service to suggest, even implicitly, that 'product' is not important. In this country, students will be judged on their product … and that product, based as it is on specific codes of a particular culture, is more readily produced when the directives of how to produce it are made explicit."

Like most educators, Delpit accepts the idea that teachers should present assignments in a coherent way, building from easier to more difficult tasks ("the problem is not necessarily in the method"). However, she objects to current theories of process as undemocratic. They focus too much attention on the way and not enough on the destination (see the seven bullet points after "Processes" in the proclamation above). Supposedly idealistic and egalitarian, process pedagogy enacts the snobbery of those who climb the educational ladder, and then denounce ladders as hierarchical.

That brings me to the third inexpensive change that faculty and administrators can make to foster the success of their high-school English and college composition programs. In addition to ignoring the SAT and re-examining the tenets of critical thinking in composition, I urge all concerned to grasp the continuing relevance of practices that critical thinking dismisses as teacher-centered and traditional. I refer to imitation-based pedagogies that view students less as budding cultural critics and more as apprentices to a craft.

The idea of "craft" is meant to invoke common sense. What are the ordinary ways that ordinary people learn to install a water heater, shoot a free throw, play a musical instrument, perform a dance routine, or conduct an experiment? Answer that question, and you will have your own justification for applying the practices of grammar, recitation, paraphrase, summary, explication, and imitation to the teaching of writing. In The Creative Habit, the dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp puts the point this way:

"The great painters are incomparable draftsmen. They also know how to mix their own paint, grind it, put in the fixative; no task is too small to be worthy of their attention. The great composers are usually dazzling musicians. … A great chef can chop and dice better than anyone in the kitchen. The best fashion designers are invariably virtuosos with a needle and thread. … The best writers are well-read people. They have the richest appreciation of words, the biggest vocabularies, the keenest ear for language. They also know their grammar. Words and language are their tools, and they have learned how to use them."

So-called basic skills are the muscle and sinew of the best academic writing. Less glamorous than critique, perhaps, they provide the foundation on which any plausible critical interpretation stands. Depriving students of those basics in a rush to make them critical doesn't make sense.

Once high schools and colleges make the changes suggested above, they will be free to uncouple the teaching of writing from the vocabulary of rhetorical analysis. Process will not substitute for content.

What, then, should writing courses be about? Enlightened instructors and administrators will respond that they should be about what all other college courses are about—not writing itself, but a learnable body of information: literature, art history, biology, political science, or any other substantial topic that furthers a students' real education. Yes, there are rhetorical strategies that good writers know and weak writers lack, but those are best taught in every class, by faculty members who themselves have mastered not only a body of knowledge but also the skills for writing publishable work and sharing those skills with apprentices to their craft.

Michael B. Prince is an associate professor of English at Boston University, where he directed the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program from 2000 to 2008.