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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Overcoming the Gruesome Legacy of English Composition

Like many in education, I have been plagued for some time by just how useless the whole endeavor seems to be -- and how meddling in education by non-educators has made it even more lame, bored more students and made teachers' jobs even harder than ever (viz., the disproportional amount of time spent preparing for and taking standardized tests that focus only on what can be quantified--therefore multiple choice questions at the expense of  descriptive/analytic responses). It's more than this, though.  It's sacred tradition as well. 

I taught Writing 121 - Introduction to Composition this summer, trying once again to make it both interesting and useful. The class, as you might suspect, is dedicated to the production on large scale of unreadable essays whose uniform badness exerts an intellectual lethargy on those who must write or read them. 

Half-wits will work for less.
The essay as a form was invented in the 16th century by people who were no good at writing poetry. It did not reach its apex of unpopularity, however, until the late 19th century. Then it became the most ubiquitous and effective means of ensuring that students became disengaged from their educations and asked only the questions that would get them through the assignment. After all, who wants the world to be full of thinkers, when half-wits work for less?

In any case, the notion that emphasis on formal essay-writing is not only responsible, but also right and good, has become so fixed in the traditions of writing departments that debate is all but pointless. And as for students, is there any among you whose heart actually cried out with joy at the notion of outlining, creating a thesis statement, adding supporting details whether or not there were any to be had? If so, you were not among my charges who lined up obediently, if listlessly, for their dose of educational castor oil. They knew (because they'd been told) it was good for them, no matter how bad it tasted. Even when I allowed students to chose their own topics, write from experience and share with peers, the writing was lackluster more often than not. It was still something they had to do to get through my class on the way to some other goal.
From The Hapless Child by Edward Gorey (with my textual addition)

Age prompts us to be reflective and reconsider the various decisions we've made in life; for example, I used to require essays. Age also makes us less fearful -- we know where we're headed, so the threat of temporal consequences (losing my contract!) becomes less frightful than a sprinkling of gnats. Age has its benefits.

Taking advantage of the courage age bestows has brought about one of the most successful writing classes I've ever taught. How?  By not requiring any essaysStudents don't want to write them and I certainly do not want to read them. 

So what did my WR121 students doing instead? What they did instead was focus on research and reflect on what they'd found by keeping an online blog. "The blog," I told them at the beginning of the term, "has not yet defined itself as a form. We are pioneers, exploring a new, emerging genre. There is no length, except what your reader will bear. There is no formulaic way to begin or end. It is interactive. There is a real audience beyond the teacher." 

And what were they to write about? Donald Graves, one of my dissertation advisors, was keen on allowing students to "pursue their obsessions". So I told students to write about whatever drove them, fascinated them, made them angry or confused. They were in charge of the topic and the form. Graves' friend and colleague, Donald Murray, famously said, "We don't write with words. We write with information." So they would use the information they discovered as the raw material of thought.

I didn't know what would happen, but I knew that the writing could be no worse than what I had read over the years. I was floored, however, when I read the first posts: it was some of the best student writing I'd ever seen. Topics were important and unexpected: government surveillance, NRA funding, child soldiers, art therapy, rape as a weapon of war... Gone was the awkward flailing about for topic and theme, the padded sentences and crippled logic so often prompted by the need to support a thesis or find accordance with format. Instead, their writing was tip of the pen (or cursor) excitement. 

In some mysterious way, the requirements of the course combined to create a successful writing and learning experience. I have some notions as to why -- the discovery that their readers included not only me and their classmates, but perfect strangers who had stumbled across their blogs ("I have a reader from Russia!"); the luxury of deciding the content of their studies and the time to investigate it over weeks and weeks; the comfort of knowing no one was counting words, telling them how many paragraphs they needed, or even expecting them to arrive at a conclusion. Magic arises from the interaction between reading and writing, and from a marriage of investigation and reflection. 

There's a lot to consider about this pedagogical experiment. For instance:

  • Why did students think that this was one of the best writing classes they'd ever taken, when I didn't teach them about writing? Our discussions focused on where their research was leading them, which direction to follow, what new questions had emerged. 
  • Is this the kind of experience necessary to bring students to the point where a great piece of writing could really be crafted? In the past I'd spent untold hours trying to help students revise writing not worthy of revision. 
  • Why have teachers become an unimportant, nearly invisible audience for their student writers? 
... and more.

I'll try it again this fall with two more classes. I'll let you know what happens.