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Teaching Composition: A Reconsideration

Teaching Composition: A Reconsideration
July 22, 2008

When I tell new acquaintances that I am an English professor, they generally react two ways. First, they express dismay that they now have to watch what they say (as if I were grading their performance). Second, and more to the point, many of them ask an inevitable question: “How well
do your students write?” That people outside of academia recognize a crisis of communication within speaks to one central fact: The average college student is remarkably challenged by the age-old practice of putting ideas down on paper.

Very few people would argue with the truism that success within the university and beyond is predicated upon students’ achieving a certain level of proficiency as writers. Thus, if the inability to communicate is begrudgingly taken as a given at the beginning of the freshman year, it becomes -- in the general lament -- a tragedy by graduation. Who, then, is to blame?

English departments are a common target. I was stunned when, as a work/study graduate student in the department office, I answered the phone during lunch only to be berated by a physics professor who wanted to know what the hell we were doing over there. Things had apparently become so critical that even the good people in the sciences were beginning to notice. Leaving aside for a moment the unexamined presumption that only English departments should be responsible for writing -- as if we alone knew how to impart the wisdom of subject-verb-object -- I do in fact want to
take his complaint seriously.

What are we doing over here?

I have no interest in the now clichéd grumblings over English departments and their esoteric if not onanistic engagement in high-octane literary theory. I will only say that there is merit to the criticism. On the whole, however, such censure really isn’t going anywhere; these exercises in cryptic marginalia are simply what we do, much in the same way that hyenas eat carrion. Both have their place, and whether one is more useful than the other is a matter for disputation.

My questions are more practical, if not more overtly political: Why is the teaching of writing so readily given over to the novitiate? If writing is that important as a university and life skill, why do we assign its teaching to graduate students and part-time instructors? Where are the associate and full professors of English, for it is exceedingly difficult to find them in writing classrooms?

I am not at all suggesting that teaching assistants and part-timers are incompetent or careless; perhaps no one in the English department works harder, save for the staff. And there’s little doubt that the composition classroom is the best training for the part-time grunt work that often follows the Ph.D. in English. Even today -- after more than 20 years of empty promises -- the dirty little secret
that doesn’t often make it to graduate orientation is that a large number of doctors of philosophy will be stuck in part-time employment fixing thesis statements and correcting schizophrenic syntax.

It is a familiar enough story, but useful to rehash. Graduate students and adjuncts are cheap labor. They fill untold numbers of sections and receive miniscule pay and laughable benefits, if any. But graduate students receive tuition remission, you say. True enough, yet this is an exchange administrations can live with. If universities couldn’t afford to forgo the tuition, they wouldn’t. In
return, the university places 20, 25, 30 freshmen in a classroom with a part-time instructor where it otherwise would have to place a comparatively expensive professor who enjoys a modest salary and other benefits. From an administrative point of view it’s a system that works.

More insidious, however, than the short-term economic benefits to the university is the way in which so many English departments both enjoy and perpetuate this status quo, so much so that I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the teaching of writing appears secondary to the other, more lofty work of professing literature. Since when did writing become anathema? If writing is so important that
virtually every student at nearly every college and university must take at least one composition course (and usually two), why aren’t more professors of English teaching it?

The current system allows us to maintain our own esteemed position as professors of literature and theory. Writing pedagogy is work for the masses -- graduate students, adjuncts, and those oddballs in rhetoric and comp. I find it strange that in some universities composition instruction has been completely removed from English departments into its own unit, and the English . . . er . . . literature professors like it just fine. They don’t have to grade those awful papers. They don’t have to undermine their status or misuse their expertise with something as mundane as composition. Life is good when you can spend it with Gilbert and Gubar rather than Elbow and Belanoff. The argument can be made that a separate department assures that those who teach composition are there because they care about what they’re doing. But it creates two separate and unequal entities: one for the rock stars and one for the roadies. And I would like to see some empirical evidence that the folks in rhetoric and comp -- whom I respect -- have more success than the rest of us.

Why does every graduate instructor in composition clamor to get one of the coveted spots teaching literature? Watching my fellow graduate students at Indiana University yearning to escape from the writing classroom was like witnessing an academic version of white flight to the suburbs. In retrospect, there was something slightly unseemly about the feeling of relief when we were finally anointed to teach a literature class. I should know; I felt the same way. When I was granted my own literature class I knew I was finally becoming a professor. The composition classroom was for amateurs.

Literature and literary theory are essential, difficult, and rarefied (or so we have been led to believe), thus experienced professors will teach it. They will lead the best and the brightest students, often English majors who are beginning to understand how the game is played. Evidently, a class that covers, say, The New Southern Literature is a better use of an instructor’s time than a discussion of the finer points of the subjunctive or how to approach a rewrite. I’m not making an argument about
Southern literature or literary theory. However, the general consensus seems to be that ideas are important but imparting the skills to communicate those ideas is a task best reserved for the worker bees.

Teaching writing -- and doing it well -- is a taxing business. It means thinking about course objectives and how to achieve them in a very practical way. It often means our learning how to impart skills that may come naturally to people whose inclinations and talents lie elsewhere. As a graduate student, my initial experiences in the composition classroom were marked by confusion and fear. I had a general inclination about what a good paper looked like -- having written a few -- but I also had almost no idea how I did it. My process had been to write and rewrite until it felt about right. How and what I was supposed to impart to others out of my intuitive sense of what worked and what didn’t escaped me completely. I began to think that I was there because no one else wanted the job.

So I did what every other beginning teacher does: I fell back on discussions of other writers’ essays and assigned the occasional in-class writing exercise. Classes were comprised of my asking questions about the readings and praying that the students would have something to say. The only problem, of course, is that my approach was literary interpretive rather than vocational: We talked about what the authors were saying and almost nowhere about how they were saying it. We almost never discussed the methods and means by which a writer might achieve a finished piece of work.
Neither did we consider artistry. And as a graduate instructor, I never touched grammar.

I didn’t know what I was doing then; I continue to learn today. As graduate instructors we didn’t confess it to each other, but I suspect that most of my classmates that first year were equally befuddled. I am merely suggesting that if we acknowledge and value writing, if we still believe that composition has a place in the university (and this can certainly be a question for debate) -- as it does in most -- then those who profess the centrality of the written word might wish to carry some of the actual load.

The English professor rarely teaches freshman writing courses because it is beneath her to have to worry over catchy introductions, pithy thesis statements, and thoughtful conclusions. Certainly she cannot be bothered by grammar and form, except briefly and in passing. There is a workman-like quality to the teaching of writing; it is as close to blue-collar as you can get in the liberal arts
classroom. In my first tenure-track job at a community college I taught a five and five load, four of which were composition classes (far too many, to be sure). I felt like Lucy in the candy factory. We’re English professors; why work up a sweat?

That’s an honest perspective. Writing classes are difficult to teach because to do it well you have to assign a lot of …well…writing. Which means you have to grade the papers. Which means late nights and early mornings with some of the most tedious assaults to the intellect. And then you do it all over again, usually week after week.

But it has to be done, and so why not by people with a history of teaching who are not fazed by the prospect of a room full of students who probably don’t want to be there and who suspect they can’t write? In an ideal world, many of these students would be taught by writers themselves who practice their craft. (Leaving aside the snippy but not altogether untrue argument that as prose stylists go, we
English professors might not be the best models. It would appear that we are the only game in town.) Why can’t we all be like Stanley Fish? I was almost floored when, skimming through Fish’s New York Times blog, I found a post in which he explained the challenges and delights that he, after 40 years, finds in teaching writing. Stanley Fish, author of 10 books, Distinguished University Professor and professor of law at Florida International University, teaches writing? There’s hope.

At the very least, full professors of English belong in the composition classroom because they might learn a thing or two about writing themselves. Moreover, the benefits to those students who will not see a professor their first year could be intangible. They would understand that we in the university take writing seriously enough that someone with gravitas and experience is teaching it. They would benefit from close contact with instructors who are not looking to move up or into the more ethereal realm of literature, those who believe that strong, clear writing is as essential as oxygen.

There could be other structural and institutional benefits. Might we see smaller Ph.D. programs because there is less need for composition instructors and because the professors are more fully engaged with undergraduate education? Might we have fewer doctorates awarded? A meaningful loosening of the job market? Imagine a world where positions teaching literature and composition are actually available for the professionals we graduate from our programs.

Bio

William Major is associate professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.

 

 

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