Wednesday, March 14, 2007

“Fallacies” About Freshman Composition

Nan Miller’s “study” for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy presents six “fallacies” about freshman composition. I’d like to take this opportunity to comment on them:

Fallacy 1: The purpose of English 101 in “to empower writers to membership in various discourse communities.” I’ll admit, the quote Miller chooses here is poorly worded. Empower to membership? Hmmm. Miller interprets this to mean that students are asked to learn new languages rather than to simply write clearly. She quotes Peter Elbow at length on the reasons for concentrating on clear writing and implies that what Ericka Lindemann, in the phrase she quotes, is saying is that we should be teaching jargon, what she calls “academic discourse.” Thing is, she is creating an opposition where one has never existed.

Even when we try to move our students into a position of comfort within academic structures (and most of them need that—few really understand the demands of college before they get there, and freshman composition is the one class all of them take where they can be taught to be students as they master the subject matter), we are (for the most part) also trying to teach them to write clearly and simply. There is no “either/or” here; the two tasks are not at loggerheads, as Miller seems to think.

Fallacy 2: The best way to ensure quality instruction in English 101 is to hire instructors who are trained in composition theory. Here again, Miller presents a simplistic “either/or”: “To train all prospective writing teachers in composition theory and research rather than in great writing would be to suppress talent, invention, and a passion for the written word.” Gee! I guess I have had all joy “trained” out of me! And, because I have a background in composition theory (though not in the classroom), I’ve had to sacrifice any reading I might have done of “great writing.”

Fallacy 3: “The use of isolated grammar and usage exercises not supported by theory and research is a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.” The quote is from an NCTE resolution. Darn it! Another “either/or”: either we teach exercises or we don’t teach grammar at all! Most teachers of composition integrate grammar into the process of revision and copyediting, but that does not mean we ignore it, simply that we know, as the NCTE resolution asserts, that exercises in grammar to not create writing that is grammatically correct.

Fallacy 4: A “student centered” class provides the best format for “the making of knowledge.” Well, lecturing about writing never did make the listeners better writers. Only writing can do that. The task we face is of getting students to see writing as communication, as something more than marks on a page made to please a teacher. To communicate, one first needs to develop something to say, someone to say it to, and then the means of expressing it well. All of these are part of freshman composition—and all are necessarily student centered.

Fallacy 5: If composition theorists talk about writing in the language they themselves have invented, no one will notice that their mission in English 101 has more to do with promoting theorist ideology than it does with promoting literacy. Here, Miller takes after James Berlin, mistaking his “conversation” with teachers of composition for “conversation” with those outside. Sometimes, a specialized utilization of language is warranted—certainly when the conversation is among specialists. But teachers of writing have never exclusively talked or written in jargon. In fact, most of us try to write clearly and for all audiences, recognizing the importance of what we are doing to many outside of our specialty. Even if that were not the case, however, what Miller presents here is a subjective view of “mission” that has more to do with her own political stance than it does with the actuality of classroom practice.

Fallacy 6: “Freshman composition: No Place for Literature.” Personally, I don’t restrict my choices of texts by category. In fact, I think Miller is creating a straw man here. Her justification for saying we believe this is that we concentrate on discourse—another “either/or.”

The essential problem with Miller’s “study” is that it is not based on observation of actual classroom practice but on a cursory examination of a little of the literature on freshman composition. Most of us who teach composition understand that our debates in writing are distinct from our actions in the classroom, though they do influence them. The classroom is the center, however, and it is there that any discussion of the teaching of composition should start.

Nothing at all in Miller’s “study” helps in the classroom at all. Nothing.

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