Teaching composition is often compared to drudgery because the grading load can be intense and because writing pedagogy seems stuck in a rut. In the minds of many instructors, the only way out of the rut is through trickery: special topics courses, special genre courses, and so on. In an essay entitled “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong,” Joseph Teller dares to shake up the proverbial apple cart with some tough questions and some intriguing answers. Posted at the Chronicle of Higher Education website last month, Teller’s essay has generated a bit of chatter.
He emphasizes a number of significant ideas:
- Composition courses must focus on process, not just product.
- Students should compose essays that tackle complex issues rather than imitate rhetorical modes (as in the much-maligned “current-traditional” pedagogy of years past).
- Writing and reading instruction should be combined in the same course.
Teller identifies these ideas as examples of “pedagogical orthodoxy,” ideas that composition theorists and practitioners rarely if ever call into question. While I agree that composition instructors would benefit from heightened self-reflection, I disagree with his assertion that these principles are impractical, that they don’t hold up to experience in the classroom. Based on my experience, Teller presents a false choice between addressing “complex issues” and imitation – these practices are distinct and may represent contrasting pedagogical assumptions, but they are hardly mutually exclusive.
On the other hand, Teller is correct that too many instructors focus more on reading than on writing. Themed courses may well be taught as composition courses, but they may also be taught as literature courses masquerading as writing courses. The pet interests of an instructor (theoretical, political, etc.) may also prove a distraction from writing instruction. For years, I was guilty of talking much more about the readings during class meetings than giving the focus where it belonged, on writing. Only after long reflection did I begin to reprioritize my first-year composition (FYC) courses, and I’m still working on that issue. Many composition instructors were trained in literature programs, so their tendency is to focus more on reading than on writing. Only through careful reflection and solid training in FYC pedagogy may we avoid this familiar pitfall. In A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, Erika Lindemann shows how instructors may construct courses that provide balance between content (reading) and writing activities and assignments (252-80).
Perhaps more surprisingly, Teller seems to underestimate the possibilities for revision. In fact, he asserts that revision does not really happen that often. From my experience, that is true only part of the time. Many students in my FYC classes do attempt to revise, and some of their revisions prove effective. They are often not as effective as the revisions produced by more experienced writers, but they are a start. But for students to succeed in revision, instructors must prioritize iterative feedback. It’s one thing to offer summative commentary on the grade for a final draft of an assignment, but it is another to offer clear and helpful advice to a student during the revision process.
Teller also seems content to believe that workshopping is by and large a waste of time. While I don’t doubt that many students give too little attention to workshops, this strikes me as an overreaction to the tendency of many FYC students to misunderstand the role a reader may have in shaping the priorities of revision. Some students may not take the workshop exercise as seriously as they should, but that is no reason to abandon the practice. A thoughtfully structured workshop will help to maximize its potential. Richard Straub offers excellent guidance on this issue in his article “Responding-Really Responding- to Other Students’ Writing.” A peer review workshop may not in fact result in obvious improvement of a specific piece of writing, but this activity introduces students to reading practices that will enable them to evaluate their own work within the context of a course and in the future. While not as efficient as an instructor’s feedback, the workshop still has many benefits for student writers.
As a writing instructor, I know all too well the ruts of pedagogy. I do not agree with all of the solutions that Teller has offered to the problems that he identifies, but he is to be commended for encouraging his colleagues to take nothing for granted.
Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th edition. Oxford UP, 2001.
Straub, Richard. “Responding – Really Responding – to Other Students’ Writing.” The Subject is
Writing, edited by Wendy Bishop, Heinemann, 1999. pp. 136-46.
Teller, Joseph. “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” The Chronicle of Higher
Education, 3 October 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/Are-We-Teaching-
Composition/237969. Accessed 25 November 2016