When I wrote the proposal for the book that would become The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, I described it as an alternative to the text They Say/I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein for a couple of reasons.
One was that They Say/I Say had sold several million copies and is one of the most widely used textbooks—regardless of subject—and publishers like to know that there is a potential market for a book before they decide to publish it.
Another reason was because my sincere intention was to write a text that served as an alternative to They Say/I Say. I had used They Say/I Say as a text in my own first-year writing courses, and while I liked its overall framing of academic writing as being part of a “conversation,” my experience with utilizing the templates in They Say/I Say revealed what I felt were some shortcomings around transfer of knowledge from one writing occasion to another and helping students develop as writing problem-solvers.
It did not occur to me that my book might be an opportunity to declare “war” on an approach with a different emphasis from mine.
Thank goodness, because after reading a recent Chronicle article about the so-called wars over math curriculum, it seems clear that engaging in a curriculum war is the worst possible outcome for all involved.
Don’t get me wrong—I think my approach to teaching writing is superior to the method outlined in the They Say/I Say. But that belief is not something that we can measure according to an objective standard that everyone will agree upon. It is contingent on what one values about writing, the kinds of writing products you want students to complete and writing experiences that you believe are important for students to have.
It didn’t occur to me to go to war with a different curriculum, because while both curricula concern student writing, the underlying values that animate the approaches are quite different.
They Say/I Say is a superior approach if you want students to produce artifacts that read and act like “academic” writing.
As I say in The Writer’s Practice, while I want students engaging in what I call “scholarly” thinking, I’m less concerned with the production of academic forms per se. My values are rooted in my background as a nonacademic teaching inside academia and a writer whose work ranges across many different genres.
When we say one thing is better than another, we have to ask, “Better at what?” Even an answer to the question like “better at teaching students to write” depends on a shared definition of what learning to write looks like. We do not have universally accepted answers to these questions, so a tug-of-war over which approach is “better” is fruitless unless we first agree on our criteria for evaluation.
I do not have the disciplinary knowledge to weigh in on the specifics of differing approaches to teaching math, but it is easy to recognize that one of the roots of these arguments is a failure to hash out the values that underlie different claims of efficacy—or, even deeper than that, the values that animate the core purpose of school itself.
The math wars have been going on so long it seems difficult to even know what they’re about anymore.
At times, I have wished for groups of parents, armed with another of my books—Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities—to march on school board meetings and demand the end to formulaic assignments and the prescriptive teaching that goes along with them.
I will, and do, criticize these things any day of the week, but I have no desire to go to war on them, because I know that underneath their use is a system that supports them, for example, the Advanced Placement exams, which are generally terrible at determining how much students have learned, but, as an accepted proxy for college credit, they have great value to students and parents.
There’s a hearts and minds campaign that must be won to get a critical mass of people believing that learning is more important than schooling and that a change in approach will not harm a student’s future prospects, that it is in fact the opposite.
This is very slow going. A recent essay by Ian Bogost discusses the tenacity of belief in standardization and ranking as meaningful parts of our system of education. Bogost believes that the status quo is wedded to the “social function” of these tests and so much energy will go into how to make them “fair” in a generative AI world, rather than putting that effort into reimagining what we ask students to do and why. As long as those assessments matter, giving students tools that help them succeed on them will be valued, regardless of their relationship to learning.
Maybe my distaste for going to war on these issues is rooted in my belief that if I was to truly go to war on these things, I would be quickly crushed.
After many years now of advocating for this different framework for thinking about student writing, while I’ve met many like-minded people along the way, I have no hopes that my preferred values will ever be widely shared. This sense has been reinforced by interacting with the like-minded who describe their own efforts as a kind of resistance against an intractable opponent.
I suppose that is also the language of war, but not a war anyone believes they’re going to win.
I had hoped, briefly, that people seeing ChatGPT (and now GPT-4) chew through the kind of writing assignments students are often asked to do would get more people questioning the value of those assignments, but the closing of ranks to protect the status quo seems well underway.
My view is that a war over the curriculum only serves the purpose of freezing things in place while the war rages, but maybe I’m wrong, and I’m missing the moment to overturn the old ways for something better and new.
Deep down, though, I know I don’t believe in going to war over these issues, even when know I’m right.
The only thing left for those of us who believe in different things is to keep believing in them, live those values as best you can and see how many others you can bring towards those beliefs along the way.
If you are looking for a different way of thinking about teaching writing, check out my course, Teaching Writing in an Artificial Intelligence World.