Monday, October 4, 2010

An Admission

Flavia and Alpheus push back on my contention that teaching Basic Comp should simply be about teaching the craft of writing.

Flavia says:
if students can't make logical inferences[...,] then they can't write logical, persuasive arguments.

And also:
People with PhDs in literature aren't trained in writing pedagogy. Because I write professionally, and I think about argumentation and structure a lot, I can do a great job showing students how a paragraph works, or how to write transitions, or topic sentences. I also believe those things to be fundamental to the mission of a comp class. But basic reading comprehension and grammar are not skills we're trained to teach, and they aren't the intended focus of college composition.

Alpheus says:
when you teach writing you get caught up in these fairly deep issues of how the individual confronts the world's expectations. Basic composition was the hardest course I've ever had to teach.

I don't know if it's helpful to think a lot about "whiteness" specifically, but I think that type of question -- how will different people react to the same ad -- does go to the heart of why a lot of students can't write.

I largely agree with these points, but then I look at my coworkers, all college graduates and some with further education, whose writing I need to read several times before I can decipher what they mean. Incorrect punctuation. Poor grammar. Extremely verbose.

Look, I get it. I took English 101 at a community college not too long ago. A class in which I was one of three or four people for whom English was the first language, and that included the professor. I saw some of those other students' papers. Some were surprisingly good. Others, not so much. I'm not saying you can fail half the class or that it is your job to teach very basic grammar, but we clearly have very poor writers graduating from colleges in this country. And I don't mean to single out new immigrants or foreigners. Plenty of native born, white Americans are awful writers as well.

Maybe people always sucked at writing and I'm just noticing, but I have this notion that decades ago one could count on a college graduate to possess a knowledge of grammar and some concept of style. Today, I don't think you can count on that. Perhaps I was wistfully wishing for a simple answer to a complicated problem.

3 comments:

Flavia said...

Decades ago, the population going to college was much smaller, and much better educated to begin with. I don't believe college has ever been the place where fundamental, sentence-level comprehensibility got taught.

I don't have a problem with colleges offering whatever remedial help needs to be given, if they're going to admit students who need it. But those are different classes than introductory composition is designed to be, and they should be taught by those with the appropriate, specialized training.

Look: comp is hard to teach. Remedial comp is even harder. And those who are trained in that kind of pedagogy are (or had best be!) very smart and very creative thinkers. I think I'm a decent comp teacher, and I like teaching it (or I like aspects of it). But to assume, as many institutions do, that someone with a literature PhD is automatically a good teacher of basic writing is to fundamentally misunderstand, and to disrespect, the specialized training of both the rhet/comp and literature fields.

Withywindle said...

This is my rant ... it's not just that more people are going to college, but that the high schools (and elementary schools) have collapsed as well. It's really difficult to remember, but I honestly think I wrote better in the sixth grade than most college students now. And I wasn't that extraordinary a sixth-grader. We have to teach seventh-grade grammar and spelling in college -- to grown adults, who are much less able to learn than 13-years old, and much less willing to learn. I've had at most 2-3 students, out of some hundreds (have I crossed the thousand mark yet?) who ever sought me out during office hours to ask what they could do to improve their grammar. They don't care about the fundamentals of language and they don't want to learn, and I would judge that most never will.

Then, rant part two: learning how to write clearly is necessary to learning how to think clearly. The most basic essay questions for college presume that you have been writing high school essays of some complexity for some years. Indeed, college discussion requires the sort of analytic mind that has been formed and sharpened by these writing assignments. It's not just that the students on the whole have no background knowledge for anything I teach; they don't even know how to ask questions about what they read.

There's a fundamental mismatch: the sort of essays you want to assign for remedial comp purposes aren't the sort of essays you want to assign for a basic history survey. It's a parody of a college education, and it isn't even well-suited as a substitute for (junior) high-school education.

dance said...

Belatedly agreeing with Flavia and Alpheus---the post was about teaching reading comprehension. The wisdom required was because the student's lack of reading comprehension touched on sensitive issues.

(Although, Alpheus, I'd argue the issues raised were far more about the class gulf between families with money to spend and teenagers having babies, than about whiteness.)

I don't know whether students can write a sentence without having something to say.

 
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