Monday, October 4, 2010

Basic Composition

Dance posted this quotation on her site:
I have the knowledge to teach Shakespeare. I don’t have the wisdom to teach Basic Comp.

FLG thought to himself. Wow. That's a fascinating thought. Knowledge versus wisdom. Writing. Issues that appeal to FLG. So, FLG clicks through to the link.

The author is talking about analyzing advertisements with a student in Basic Comp:
So, one of the students picks an ad from a parenting magazine. OK. In an effort to get her to define the audience more specifically than "parents," I pull up the magazine's web site on my computer. And we are in Glossy-Magazine-Land: a world where practically everyone is white; all parents are slim, good-looking, neatly attired thirtysomething professionals; and all the kids are clean and cute. Where parents spend hours making elaborate costumes for Halloween and fancy cakes for birthdays, and where they can have their pick of jobs at the 100 most family-friendly companies in America. You know, the world the media tells you is normal.

"OK, what sort of parents do you think would be most likely to read this magazine?"


"... What makes you say teenagers?"

"Well, lots of teenagers are having babies nowadays."

I don't know how to deal with moments like this. I think I would be able to find something to say to a student who was saddened or outraged or just plain bewildered at the gulf between Glossy-Magazine-Land and her own lived experience. I don't know what to say to one who is unconscious that the gulf exists. There is no decent way to point it out, for the truth is not decent.

FLG isn't a professor. So, maybe he doesn't fully understand the dynamics. But is it so hard for a professor teaching Basic Comp just to focus on the craft of writing and communication?

Don't get FLG wrong here. "The gulf between Glossy-Magazine-Land and her own lived experience" is something that can be explored at some point. There are all sorts of racial, cultural, sociological, psychological, and economic factors at work, and FLG gets all that. They're worth studying. FLG also thinks that there's a high probability that this student, who obviously isn't terribly pensive, needs help simply crafting sentences and paragraphs.

This post is probably reads harsher than FLG intends, but can't basic comp profs just teach how to write, by which FLG means the basic craft of writing, style, and rhetoric, and leave aside the question of whether the Basic Comp student recognizes the imperfectness of the world? That doesn't take wisdom. It only requires the self-discipline to focus on the issue at hand.


Flavia said...

Composition is designed to teach paper-writing. It's not just (or even primarily) about the sentence-level mechanics of writing.

So most of what we're teaching is argumentation, which has to do with structure: how one sentence connects to the next, and each paragraph to the ones before and after; how to present one's arguments in a logical fashion; how to respond to/incorporate outside sources; how to anticipate and address counterarguments.

The problem Fretful is dealing with is one of reading comprehension, really, and if students can't make logical inferences (are there any teenagers pictured in the photos? no? then why would they be the target audience?) then they can't write logical, persuasive arguments.

I do cover some of the basics of punctuation and usage in my composition classes, but it's more as a review, or a half-day's lesson. If students haven't learned it in high school, I send them to the writing center, or to a course in grammar.

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.

FLG said...


I'm inclined to agree that you cannot have clear writing without clear thinking.

But, the issue wasn't, at least as I read it, just about reading comprehension. It was a whole thing about how parenting magazines, the world of ads in general, offer a false reality, which is true, but isn't particularly relevant to Basic Comp.

Let me put it this way. Okay, parents was too generic and teenagers was a ridiculous response given the explanation of the ad. But there's also exasperation that the student doesn't recognize the artifice of advertising. I'm less convinced this is something that a Basic Comp prof should worry about.

FLG said...

To add:
One of the comments says, "Many of my white students have trouble "seeing" that people of color exist. So they wouldn't even notice the whiteness of the magazine."

Granted, this isn't part of the post, but why does this have to come up in regards to a Basic Comp class? Who gives a shit?

I understand the arguments that language is power. Subtle or even not so subtle bias in language, media, etc can have profound consequences. But let's worry about these students getting a decent paper together before we start worrying about the "whiteness" of stuff.

Alpheus said...

FLG: I think the big question here is audiences. You can't write well if you don't have a sense of the writer's relationship to his readers. The student in Fretful's story had no idea of what readers the magazine was trying to reach, or how it was trying to reach them, or who might be excluded by particular features of the discourse.

Bad writing can be due to unclear thinking, but it can also be due to the Big Assumption. In my experience, a lot of students who can't write simply have no idea of how to judge their words by any objective standard. Some of them don't even seem to get the fact that they need to consciously apply to their own prose the same standards that they instinctively apply to prose written by other people.

So a lot of teaching composition involves getting students to see why they like what they like, why they dislike what they dislike, and how they can apply those insights to helping themselves write better. This isn't easy, since a number of students resist analyzing why they like or dislike particular pieces of writing.

One problem is that separate issues tend to get confused with one another. A student who hates cats may have trouble seeing any virtues in a piece of writing about cats. A student who loves basketball may think a crappy sentence is better than it really is if the writer of sentence was clearly excited about basketball.

What I'm trying to say is that 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.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.