• December 18, 2014

A Rescue Plan for College Composition and High-School English

A Rescue Plan for College Composition and High-School English 1

Jordin Isip for the Chronicle Review

Enlarge Image
close A Rescue Plan for College Composition and High-School English 1

Jordin Isip for the Chronicle Review

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]

"Assignment:

"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.

"Processes

"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.

Comments

1. mscriven - July 27, 2009 at 06:50 am

Certainly the most intelligent critique of the critical thinking 'movement' that I've seen in 40 years of working in that effort. But the key players in that movement have always been fully aware of the points made, and extremely careful never to take the position ascribed here (ignoring the importance of subject matter knowledge). In the big biennial meeting last month at the University of Windsor, exactly this issue was, as always, seriously addressed several times by speakers. The usual answer was, as always, that C.T. instruction can partner with but never supplant the best area teaching. But don't forget, it was also stressed, that writing instructors often really mess up argument analysis and argument presentation, and their students often find the C.T. approach extremely helpful in improving their writing of functional prose. Read the online journal Informal Logic for the better approach. michael scriven

2. quidditas - July 27, 2009 at 07:30 am

I find it hard to believe that the test scorers actually score that question in a "culturally neutral" way when the whole assumption underlying the shift off questions based in "reading comprehension" to supporting an argument from the materials in one's head is that one gets at "the truth" through subjective means. ie., standpoint epistemology (which I find useful, but limited). I don't see what's culturally biased about reading comprehension. I am finding the way that the millenial generation pulls its opinions out of its butt and doesn't even recognize that as "opinion" more than a little annoying. I would hope that people would start realizing that releasing people from evidence based support only empowers the usual suspects. I would far prefer holding everyone to something the rest of us can verify.

3. aaronbarlow - July 27, 2009 at 08:49 am

As Michael Scriven says above, the problem with "critical thinking" isn't the concept, but the utilization. This, in fact, seems to be the heart of Prince's arguments overall: we've often let methodology trump everything in the teaching of composition outside of quantification. I was criticized by an observer for, on the day Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, mentioning her and the prize in class. "She is irrelevant to their needs," I was told, "They will never read her. Similarly, last fall, I was observed a day or two before the election. Half way through, I stopped the lesson and turned the discussion to the election. I was told, later, that I should have been using the time to take the students through an exercise on the structure of a paragraph... that I was wasting valuable class time by moving off subject. But what, in both instances, was the subject? What was more important than bringing the students into the broader discussions of our time, and then leading them to join in, intelligently? What was more important, in both cases, was process, the means of communication, forgetting that a means is useless without an end, a goal. Though much of it is already being discussed, if not quite openly enough, there is so much here that really should be part of the extensive and ongoing conversation within the community of teachers of composition. The concept of modelling for the student, for example, has been damped down by misunderstandings of (among other things) the concepts put forth by Paolo Freire (the community of learners, for example). Let's hope this article pushes debate further into the sunlight.

4. dwilliams5 - July 27, 2009 at 10:45 am

I would be very pleased if all (most even) of my students felt confident enough to write a thesis driven seven paragraph essay in which they utilized evidence drawn from a previously read document, or two or three. I never quite understood why many couldn't. If it's true that the pedagogical approach to composition is "the priority is response, not understanding," I can now see why. That model disincentivizes reading at all (why read the book if you get a pass for writing about your personal experience related to the prompt). It seems to me that the solution to the issue of solipsistic writing is not to 1) ignore the SAT, 2) ignore critical thinking and 3) teach like the master in Zen and the Art of Archery (afterall we do want students to graduate in a reasonable length of time). The SAT and ACT writing scores do in fact serve as a modest tool for placing students in appropriate writing classes. I suspect those measures don't have much meaning at selective Boston College, but at junior colleges and open-admissions colleges and universities, those scores, when analyzed against student performance in composition classes over a few years, can assist academic advisers with freshman enrollment. It appears that Professor Prince's critique of the C.T. movement (and the SAT for that matter) requires setting it up as a strawman, a little rhetorical slight of hand (tsk, tsk, for someone preaching against rhetoric). If I recall the logic course I took back in the 80s correctly, it seems that the strawman was one of those fallacies for which one was to be on guard, and I think I remember seeing it mentioned in a CT booklet recently, too. My own reading of the materials produced by the Foundation for Critical Thinking leads me to believe that C.T. approach asks students to read first for understanding and meaning, then to dissect the argument, analyze the author's purpose and the logic of her conclusions, and then to write in order to commucate ones understanding clearly, informed by reflective awareness of one's own logical consistency, fairness, etc. I think that what Professor Prince is really highlighting is what years of trendy solipsistic post-modern criticism, not the critical thinking movement (at least as formulated by the Foundation for Critical Thinking), have done to the fields of composition, literature, and some other humanities fields. While I believe it had its place in the academic dialogue of the late 20th century, I believe that Professor Prince's argument is evidence that the hegemonic position that pomo criticism has achieved is over ripe. As a result, asking students to mimic their teachers may not produce the results that Professor Prince desires. Instead of ignoring the SAT, C.T., and creating either parrots or little Benjamin Franklins (the latter might not be so bad actually), there may be a few other approaches that can achieve the goals Professor Prince desires. Among them, one is pairing (students co-enrolled and faculty teaching as a team) composition courses with content rich general education courses (history, chemistry, literature, philosophy, art appreciation). This is a logical extension of the writing across the curriculum movement I suppose. It can work well provided both courses set the bar high for student performance in regard to articulation of content understanding in light of context and the original author's rhetorical purpose. Such an old school, liberal arts college strategy is afterall what Professor Prince seems to really be advocating...teaching basic communication skills in the contex of a content rich learning environment.

5. wthelin - July 27, 2009 at 11:04 am

For just once, I would like to see advocates of "new plans" for composition actually cite some of the research about how students learn to write. Retreating back to current traditionalism is not the answer. Understanding the difficulties confronting students in this day and age is. Yes, students do need to learn the basics. But the basics are grammar and imitation. Rather, the basics consist of the rhetorical concepts listed in the WPA Outcomes Statement. The field of composition definitely has to commit itself to more classroom-based research to continue learning how to best assist students, but a focus in the classroom on what Prince calls "craft" has already been debunked and never produced the results that Prince implies it did.

6. barnwani - July 27, 2009 at 11:36 am

As a current high-school and former college English instructor, I find this kind of dismissal of the entire field of composition appalling. The simplification of "process pedgaogy" to mere "personal response writing" is uninformed at best, and mean-spirited at worst. And to suggest that "writing" itself is not a content area worth studying and practicing is simply foolish. So much has been written debunking this kind of argument that there's no need to rehearse it here. One thing I will suggest, though, from my vantage point "in the trenches" at both levels: I would love it if students were able to comprehend "content" in Prince's sense and merely use the tools of rhetoric instinctively to explore it and deepen their understanding of it. My experience with typical students is that they are incapable of doing so, and my experience with typical college professors is that they are uninterested and unwilling to spend the time and effort needed to inculcate and improve their students' rhetorical skills. It seems more level-appropriate, in other words, for high-school and lower-division college students to improve these fundamental skills so that they will be equipped to deal with the various subject-specific reading and writing challenges in the other departments at the university. These skills have to involve ideas: students have to read and interrogate their own writing as well as the writing of others, and that means they have to be able to understand texts accurately. That's assumed, and part of the work of the writing instructor is to ensure that appropriate texts are chosen for the course. Usually these texts are part of the content of the course as well; but the focus has to come back to the writing, since that's what the students don't know how to do and are trying to learn. I have found that the language and tools of rhetoric have enabled fairly weak students in the humanities to get a sense at last of what the point is of reading stuff and writing about it. This is the target audience: students who have not figured out on their own how to digest and produce clear prose with solid reasoning, students who are unlike most of their professors. Once they see the point, they are usually much more willing to do the work that good writing requires. It's much better to meet them where they are and help them up the path than to simply cry out how great the view is from up here and exhort them to come meet us. They may not all make it to where we are, but more of them will get a lot farther along this way.

7. davidcornwall - July 27, 2009 at 01:45 pm

Writing is a huge problem at the high school, college, and graduate school levels. While as a faculty member it is really not possible to devote time to students' writing over content at the MBA level, I've found the following resource to go a long way to helping to convey to students that which they have not acquired for whatever reason along the way... www.thelearningaccelerator.com. For the students who want to learn about writing and the effective expression of critical thinking, the tools on this site really play the role of a supplemental virtual teacher. Noting this resource on a syllabus, by the way, goes a long way toward improving the quality of work that is submitted.

8. geochaucer - July 27, 2009 at 02:36 pm

The relationship between general and specific strategies for writing have a rich and complex history in composition pedagogy. I encourage readers to deepen their knowledge of the extensive research, empirical as well as historical and theoretical in this area. Best practice has gone well beyond local knowledge and personal experiences, and many of the practices that Prince applauds have received considerable research-based critique. In addition to journals such as College Composition and Communication, Written Communication, Research in the Teaching of English, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Composition Chronicle, and so on, professional organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of English and College Composition and Communication have distilled empirical research into sets of practices. For example, the NCTE Statements on Writing at http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/writingbeliefs encapsulate what decades of research on the teaching of writing show to be best practices, and these map very well on the WPA Outcomes Statement (which has additional elements, I'll note, that Prince likely had to omit due to space). I'd recommend as an introduction to research in the field Charles Bazerman's (ed) Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text (New York: Erlbaum, 2008). Here at the University of Denver we are conducting a longitudinal study of writing across 75 students' college careers, as they move among different courses and disciplines, and our research (now completing its 3 year) suggests considerable value in teaching rhetorical principles as a component of first year writing. We have been following a research study at Stanford (and an earlier one at Harvard), and I know the profession would be very interested in hearing about any like studies at Boston University. Sincerely, Doug Hesse Director of Writing and Professor of English The University of Denver Formerly, Chair CCCC, President WPA

9. anpadh - July 27, 2009 at 04:21 pm

I disagree with every word in Prince's article EXCEPT the quote from "The Creative Habit." In other words, the only part of the entire article I find rational and agreeable is the part that focuses on process over product. Great writers, artists, thinkers, etc. are not famous mostly for their products but precisely for being masters of the process. It does not take much to paint the Mona Lisa. All you need is a photocopy machine. Want to reproduce Rodin's "Thinker"? A decent digital camera and computerized lathes, to make a precision-cut mold, will actually create an improved version. Almost any kid in middle-school can understand more than 99% of the vocabulary in Hemingway's novels. Shows like "American Idol" demonstrate that there is a vast number of persons who can sing and dance at extremely high levels of skill and talent. But only a few are great. And those are the ones who forget about the product and put their bodies, hearts, and souls, into the process.

10. brucejanz - July 27, 2009 at 04:47 pm

I thought that comp programs had given up trying to look like critical thinking programs, and started trying to look like creative writing programs.

11. joelkline - July 28, 2009 at 12:28 am

Critical thinking is intimately tied to content. It is the analysis of subject matter, not personal stories, which prepares students for all types of writing beyond freshman level. I do not think Prince should blame the system when it really belongs on people. Freshman comp is a job which R1 and mid-size schools have handed to TAs, literature professors without comp. training, and adjuncts. The only content most English PhDs know (and I am one) is, surprise, English. Which ties into another issue, students get better with practice. The people teaching comp often have little incentive to assign the amount of writing (or re-writing) which many students need to get better. While this may sound like an indictment, it is not meant to be. But I get business writing students every semester who say, "I have trouble writing in clear and concise prose while making analytic arguments about business cases" Why, I say? "Because I am so accustomed to bullshitting my way to a good writing grade in philosophy, English, or Religion by using big words, compound sentences, and throwing in some theories or authors." Nice, you are ready to be a scholar, but certainly not an employee of a real business.

12. nlincolnhanks - July 28, 2009 at 02:42 am

As one can see from the comments from those outraged by Prince's article, he has certainly hit a nerve, but I also think he has hit the mark dead center. Process pedagogy is a only a part of the grand affirmation movement that has now created more than one generation of young people who quickly find themselves as disabled learners as they enter their school of higher education. It pains me to see so many teachers who have invested so much into this failed system of education; and now these teachers find themselves unable to admit that their lack of attention to content, grammar and syntax in the lives of their students has only produced young people with inadequate abilities to cope with the rigors of university life and the world outside of the twelfth grade. However, I must admit that each year I see more freshman entering college with gigantic egos and an uncanny ability to affirm each other for the most unremarkable efforts. I guess that's worth something - like a "D" or an unemployment check.

13. dtfranke - July 28, 2009 at 06:57 am

Wow, that's a blast from the past. The argument about how kids can't write has been re-emerging every few years. Remember "Why Johnny Can't Write" from the '70s? Sure. But how about the vociferous arguments about how Harvard undergrads can't write? You'd have to go back a bit further for that one (back to the 1874 entrance exams). Literacy is the one subject everyone wants to control and everyone assumes expertise on. In a way that's great. I'm glad we all care so much. I've been teaching writing for 25 years and heard it described as "women's work," "window washing," and "teaching the great unwashed." I'm not in it for status, but because writing and thinking are intertwined in important ways. You think better about something (you see the parts, the patterns, the motives at work and the goals) when you write. I was sort of amused (sort of ) by the blunt honesty of this piece. "Rescuing" writing would mean, in the context of this article, finding ways to do it cheaper. I'm sure all the strategies here would work to do just that. Unfortunately, the article has to resort to making really bold either/or statements that any college freshman would question. The explicit claims about how contemporary composition classroom teaching has been discredited are amusing until you realize that the emphasis on critical thinking and process has its roots in Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's *Rhetoric.* The chestnut about how we have to return to the basics is interesting, reminiscent of the Reagan era (and both Bushes), but exactly what are the basics, anyway? Product? Subject/verb agreement? Wooden argument that has exactly two sides (one of which is right?) I think this article skips over careful attention to what professors want their kids to be able to do in their heads and on the page. The straw-man prompt that began the essay is in fact an excellent example of something that would challenge kids to write well. A teacher steeped in composition and rhetoric might even--here we get really radical--ask students to reflect and revise that piece. God forbid. Thanks for the provocative article, but really, is this the best conservative arguments that can be made against the last fifty years of composition pedagogy K-16? In the meantime, check out a history of composition and rhetoric. There's more going on than this article can dismiss: http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/bb/history.html

14. dtfranke - July 28, 2009 at 06:58 am

Wow, that's a blast from the past. The argument about how kids can't write has been re-emerging every few years. Remember "Why Johnny Can't Write" from the '70s? Sure. But how about the vociferous arguments about how Harvard undergrads can't write? You'd have to go back a bit further for that one (back to the 1874 entrance exams). Literacy is the one subject everyone wants to control and everyone assumes expertise on. In a way that's great. I'm glad we all care so much. I've been teaching writing for 25 years and heard it described as "women's work," "window washing," and "teaching the great unwashed." I'm not in it for status, but because writing and thinking are intertwined in important ways. You think better about something (you see the parts, the patterns, the motives at work and the goals) when you write. I was sort of amused (sort of ) by the blunt honesty of this piece. "Rescuing" writing would mean, in the context of this article, finding ways to do it cheaper. I'm sure all the strategies here would work to do just that. Unfortunately, the article has to resort to making really bold either/or statements that any college freshman would question. The explicit claims about how contemporary composition classroom teaching has been discredited are amusing until you realize that the emphasis on critical thinking and process has its roots in Plato's dialogues and Aristotle's *Rhetoric.* The chestnut about how we have to return to the basics is interesting, reminiscent of the Reagan era (and both Bushes), but exactly what are the basics, anyway? Product? Subject/verb agreement? Wooden argument that has exactly two sides (one of which is right?) I think this article skips over careful attention to what professors want their kids to be able to do in their heads and on the page. The straw-man prompt that began the essay is in fact an excellent example of something that would challenge kids to write well. A teacher steeped in composition and rhetoric might even--here we get really radical--ask students to reflect and revise that piece. God forbid. Thanks for the provocative article, but really, is this the best conservative arguments that can be made against the last fifty years of composition pedagogy K-16? In the meantime, check out a history of composition and rhetoric. There's more going on than this article can dismiss: http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/bb/history.html

15. 22186037 - July 28, 2009 at 09:18 am

"Process becomes its own product." A beautiful irony and an apt summation of our present dilemma. Dr. Prince may have given the pendulum a needed impetus toward the center.

16. langrishe - July 28, 2009 at 11:57 pm

A Rescue Plan for College Composition and High-School English

17. drucker - July 29, 2009 at 03:06 pm

Right now, I'm teaching an online course whose biggest failing is that it ultimately ignores the writing process in favor of "rhetoric" and critical thinking. Now, let me be crystal clear: I like the critical thinking bit. It's great. If this were a critical thinking course, without the demands of form, grammar, structure, and analysis as primary grading markers, then I'd be happy with the curriculum. However, as online instruction tends to be mass distributed (I think the current buzz-word is "facilitator" rather than "instructor" or -- Goodness forbid, Professor!), when a course leans too heavily on process rather than structure, the students miss the point. "Good writing" becomes "good rhetoric," which is effectively impossible if you can't write a complete sentence or a coherent paragraph to begin with. For those who advocate strongly that structure and method are "debunked" methods, I would ask them to do deeper research. Teaching grammar and structure in writing courses, as the main point of writing courses, is important. To quote Eliot: "Good writers imitate, great writers steal." Sadly, writing is an imitative process: it must be (we all share a common vocabulary, so we're all using the same words, grammar, syntax, &c.). Imitation is, usually, the first step in the process of development. Once you can successfully imitate a form (more-or-less, there's wiggle-room here), you can then break from it and find your own voice. Yes, of couse, a course shouldn't be all vocabulary and grammar drills. In my class, we discuss the issues of the day or relevant rhetorical approaches as appropriate, but not at the expense of good and accurate vocabulary, strong and clear sentence structure, and focused and coherent paragraphs. It's when "critical thinking" is more important than "writing" that we fail to teach successfully. That being said, I've also noticed a trend: when my students understand what they're arguing, the grammar improves considerably. So, critical analysis should be a component of the process, of all the process. (So much to say, so little time.) What I find stunning is that we never address the basic issue: the separation of function and form. K-12 needs two courses, not one, for English: writing, rhetoric, and composition (a series) and literary analysis (reading, discussion, critical thinking, also a series) in parallel. Why, when we only spend 40 minutes a day on a core principle or 1 or 2 classes in basic coursework, are we surprised that our students can't read and write well? If we did the same with the sciences (say, combine the math sequence with the physical sciences and expect students to learn both in one class), who would be surprised when students can't add? Why are we so shocked, then, when half of our classrooms in open enrollment colleges enter functionally illiterate? We need to reconceptualize the process, separate it into its component parts, and then teach those in a coherent, linear, progressive system starting as early as possible. Otherwise, you get out what you put in. A jumbled mess of contradicting ideas whose goal is whatever it takes to pass "this professor" is exactly what we're training them to do. Any other result under the current system is anomalous. AD

18. doctorkip - July 30, 2009 at 12:38 pm

A little critical reflection on the nature, purpose, and rhetorical structure of Prince's own essay shows that: 1) it's an argument; 2) it does what the SAT prompt asked students to do by conducting an exercise in reflexive analysis, posing and analyzing the question, "how should we think about how to teach students to think (and write about those thoughts)"?; 3) it criticizes the assumption that "humanistic confidence in the value of dialogue is naïve in contrast to a more strenuous exercise of critical reason" by engaging in a strenuous exercise in critical reasoning, weighing sides of an issue in order to arrive at "truth" (which is, for our purposes, somewhere in the middle, but less so for Prince); 4) it's much more an essay about the (maligned) "writing itself" than the (preferred) "learnable body of information" (which, for our purposes, resides in the voluminous work of the field, including its substantial base of research).

19. vpiercy - August 01, 2009 at 09:09 pm

Truly there is a desperate need for focusing on clarity and on analytical writing tasks in the freshman composition classroom over the self-expressive tasks, but the all too often unacknowledged and under-appreciated nature of the heavy labor that is writing instruction leads to a chronic abuse of composition instructors with absurdly high student to teacher ratios--community colleges typically have 25:1 (x5 sections) while institutions like Harvard will have 9:1 (x3 sections) in a writing class of the sort Tom Jehn teaches (see the Harvard Writing Project videos "Writing Across the Drafts" or "Shaped by Writing" available online: E.g., http://blog.lib.umn.edu/flash/tww2008/shaped_by_writing.mov). If you want better writing results at the CC level, you need to focus less on the politics of methodology and more on the fundamental material fact of having manageable student to teacher ratios. It's as simple and as costly as that, so clearly that solution will be largely neglected. The conclusion that composition should become technical writing or business writing is not, in my opinion, a breakout idea: Student says, "I can pass liberal arts courses with the proper amount of balderdash and citation, but can't handle business writing's demands for clarity." Joelkline above says, "Nice, you are ready to be a scholar, but certainly not an employee of a real business." Really though such a student might be ready to market or sell something redundant, something of specious value in a glutted consumer society, or may become an "employee" ready to pitch some convoluted financing or sub-prime mortgage scheme to powerful financial concerns. The art of the con is certainly something "real business" folk have promoted and practiced, so I'm at a loss to find any deep coherence in the proposition that students should be steeped in the canons of business communication (and ethical and professional standards) before (or after?) they are set loose on, say, the demanding texts of Machiavelli, Descartes, Rousseau, Mill, or Woolf. What's concerning (and seemingly symptomatic of certain anti-intellectual currents in our culture, themselves not disconnected from low educational standards) is the idea that an effective practice of scholarship is counted as little more than the production of ethically dubious "bullshit," while the only valid alternative aim for seriously educated people is to be employed in a "real business." I am to conclude that no one has managed to live a productive and contributing life as something other than an "employee in a real business," or that no one outside of the business world has made any lasting contribution to our society or developed any rigorous sense of the meaning of integrity. That is inaccurate of course, so please let's not deride the virtues of "scholarship" or the value of academic skills so quickly.

20. srmeehan - August 12, 2009 at 11:55 am

If rhetorical strategies "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," why not grammar and other basic skills as well--presumably they are basic to all publishable work? Why separate out grammar as something only for English teaching? And doesn't this complicate Prince's own desire to have "literature" be the body of knowledge of English? Sounds like we are on familiar ground: basic skills like grammar are the most important things students need for writing--but let's get somebody else to teach it, since my class is about more important things like literature, art, history. As one of the comments points out, this crisis and rescue is longstanding (Harvard, 1870s)--the view that the problems are only a result of process pedagogy since the 70s or 80s is simply myth. I wouldn't accept this replacement of myth for argument from one of my students--poor process, poor product.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.