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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.


  1. Mary, this is brilliant! Kudos to you for finding this way to excite and encourage your students.

    You've made me think about my blogs with this post. I love posting photos and when I first began my photo blog, I thought it was only about that. However, the longer I've done it (with occasional entropy breaks) the more I find I relish coming up with a clever or interesting bit of wording for the blog title. Additionally, I always want to write something clever (in my mind, at least) to go with the photo. Just posting photos without comment seems boring and dull to me. And so does posting photos no one looks at. I wonder how your students feel about having their blogs read or not read?

    1. Thanks, Linda. I love your blog and the photographs often speak to me -- but I often don't know what to reply. I'd love to have you share your thoughts, feelings and imaginings about your art.

  2. Mary, Hooray! I want to show this to my "Approaches to Teaching Writing" students...and I hope a whole lot of people read your blog....and a whole lot of students write blogs for you--and me--and, most important, for THEMSELVES. Let's all keep asking--and trying to answer--these very questions! As always, you and Graves and Murray and Edward Gorey "nailed it." A marriage of investigation and reflection indeed. Your students and your contract-givers are lucky lucky lucky. I miss you, but your words will help me start my semester. Yay for you!!

    1. Thanks, Bonnie. Seems to me that this approach is the only way I write well. I can't imagine having to write straight essays again! Ack! I sent this off to one of the NCTE groups will look forward to comments, if any.

  3. Just what I needed this morning as I head into high school teaching this fall armed with Graves and Murray beside me. Thank you for a marvelous post.

    1. Thanks, Penny -- Have a great year!

  4. I am sorry to rain on this parade, but I am not convinced. The essay was started a long time ago, but it has been proven to be a flexible genre that can endure changes in all directions. It can be very personal and free floating as well as more firmally structured, like the science research paper with expected sections in expected order. The news is, blogs are also essays; the blog is not a new genre, just a new technology or medium.

    The bottomline is that all essays--written in pen, or on computer try to make a point and support that point somehow. Otherwise, no one would want to read mindless rambling. Teaching students the many options they have in making a point and arranging the support is what I perceive the college teacher's job to be. I personally do not like the anything goes, be yourself, spill your guts approach because it disadvantages the underprepared students. It looks like your students were not underprepared and met your expectations. I am not sure, however, that making the teacher happy should be the only standard or measure for good writing. Students have to develop a sense for writing in many genres, not just blogs.
    I am not a supporter of standardized tests, but some of them and if they are used with moderation can be useful to measure familiarity with writing conventions or reading comprehension.

    I have been called "current traditional" and other names at conferences, so I expect not to be popular here. I studied writing for many years to earn my PhD in rhetoric, and it always makes me sad how so many in writing teaching are still drawn to the idea that essays(defined by them as rigid and meaningless) are bad and if we don't teach students how to write, they will write wonderful things (wonderful defined as anything to the teacher's liking, or anything that gets many readers, even from Russia?!).

    1. Thank you so much -- you clearly care about teaching writing! You didn't rain on my parade-- just introduced a brisk wind :)

      As you say, the essay is flexible. It makes a point and supports that point--as does all good writing: a sonnet, an article, play. Even a grocery list can be compelling. What I object to is not so much the essay as how it has been interpreted in schools, whether K-12 or in academe. I also studied many years to get my Ph.D. in literacy, and I was fortunate to study with the likes of Donald Graves, Donald Murray and Jane Hansen. They made me question everything I did in the classroom.

      Graves used to say that the most important question any teacher could ask is "What's it for?" What is this class for? What is this assignment for? "Because what it's for has everything to do with what we're for." He also encouraged us to always follow that question with another, "Does it make sense?"

      I teach at a community college now, although I've also taught in high schools, universities and eminent liberal arts colleges. The general understanding throughout these institutions is that the purpose of the intro writing class is "teaching the academic essay"-- that, and some kind of citation system. The writing class has evolved, in my opinion, to serve a form rather than the form serving students' thinking and learning. As long as the form equals purpose, the constraints of that form will be paramount.

      If my goal is for students to grow and change through their writing, this doesn't make sense. Nor if I want to show them that writing for a real audience makes them more responsible and thoughtful writers.

      I think you have confused me with some teachers who actually do have a Summerhill approach. We work hard in my class, narrowing topics, finding the information necessary to write with authority, making sure that what's been written is ready for audiences when they at last hit the "publish" button. My goal is not that they please me with their writing, but that, over time, I can see growth and that they recognize what they've done well and what needs more work.

      There is much more to say. Perhaps we should collaborate on a book in the style of Screwtape Letters. :)


    2. Ildiko and Mary, I think we can benefit from accepting new forms and media for expression while recognizing that good writing has and will continue to require a disciplined,logical process such as that taught in the traditional academic essay form.

      I have always had my students focus primarily on purpose and audience, whether they are reading or writing, the point being that no matter the genre or level of technology or time period, the successful communication of a writer's ideas must consider the entire writing situation and its constraints.

      There is no good or bad form of writing. There are only different situations. An academic essay is perhaps a bad way to communicate one's amorous interest in a potential mate, and a personal letter may not be the ideal way to broadcast a scientific breakthrough.

      Blogs and other social media posts are legitimate forms of communication with their own rules for good writing. Preparing students to communicate effectively in the 21st century must go beyond fruitless attempts to inculcate the belief that the formulaic academic essay is the only legitimate way to write. The focus should be on the art of writing to accomplish one's purpose with one's audience in an appropriate forum and medium.

      We need to develop wordwrights, skilled craftspeople who can wield the appropriate tools to spin the 26 raw materials of our language into elegant expressions that sing meaning to the reader.

      Why not assign students to post an online review of a product or service? Why not free them to participate in a blog such as this for credit? Why not ask them to demonstrate how they will apply (and increase) their skill as wordsmiths as they publish high quality writing in multiple media?

      I say, "Write on!"


    3. I like your thoughts here, Mary, and can certainly see the value in having students write with enthusiasm. It's clear that you are working at making a positive learning experience for students who may otherwise be unmotivated to write.

      I tend to agree with Ildiko on this one, though. I agree that the blog is a wonderful idea and is one I've used in writing classes, as well. However, I tend to use it as a scaffolding assignment or one among three or four others in a semester-long course.

      While I love the idea of the freedom of the blog, I think students also need to learn that there are different contexts for writing--different rhetorical situations--and that each context has its own set of expectations. I generally begin the semester with a blog or op ed on an issue of my students' choosing and have them build increasingly more complex assignments from that issue as the course progresses. My course usually follows this trajectory: op ed to analysis of the issue to proposal for a solution, and reflection throughout the semester.

      I want my students to see that different tasks require different ways of thinking and writing--that in their disciplines and future careers, not all writing tasks will be essays or blogs and they need to be prepared for the heavy lifting (thinking, stylistic concerns, disciplinary expectations, etc.) that comes with those tasks. What that often means is that they must learn the nuts and bolts of stating a thesis and supporting it logically, with evidence that goes beyond personal opinion and reader response; the essay is still a valid tool for learning those moves.

      It's true that students are more engaged with tasks that pique their interest and less so with "dry" assignments, as the traditional essay frequently is. However, I also think we do our students a disservice by allowing them to think that all tasks (in class and in life) are going to be enjoyable, OR that the traditional essay has to be boring and dry. I give my students the full disclosure statement: writing is hard and sometimes tedious. Does it always have to be? Of course not.

      Blogs can be a great way to introduce pleasure and joy into the process. I just wonder if the students are getting a fuller picture of the complexity of writing if this is the only genre they practice? And I wonder why we feel this urge to move toward a "customer satisfaction" mode of education that suggests that all teaching and learning has to be entertaining, as well?

      Like Ildiko, I may not be popular here, but I tend to err on the side of rigor, and that sometimes means that I can be a bit curmudgeonly in my beliefs about approaches to teaching and learning. I was glad to see in your reply that you do work toward narrowing, writing with authority, solid use of research, and other activities generally associated with more traditional essays. Does each student take a variety of approaches to their blogs in order to explore different writing situations?

  5. I've had my high school student writing in blogs for four years now. Moving their writing to the blog forum is the single most important thing I've done to advance student writing skills and content.

    1. Thanks, Amy! I'd love to hear more about this.

    2. I'd love to hear how they do in college and whether this leads to better critical thinking and writing skills.

  6. Thank you, Mary! I've learned a lot from your class such as finding information, thinking independently, creating survey, and contacting with others. I feel more comfortable about writing gradually. I really appreciate the chance you gave to me. You told me your job was to be nice. And you are doing exactly what you say. I think it's every student's pleasure to take your class. Take care!

    1. Thank you! It is my job, as a person, to be nice, although that's not part of my job description at the college :) Have a nice simmer break!

  7. I write. The more I write, move thoughts into words and words into story, the more I learn about writing.

    This essence of what I love about what you did with your class was that they became excited about writing and discovered their unique voice and it sounds as if they were excited and found value in themselves where the least expected and, indeed, may have dreaded.

    The ones that will, will find classical essay, the ones that will, will go into Rhetoric and Literacy, but for the multitudes that don't further investigate classical forms and higher education-they will have had an experience that was fulfilling and maybe they will just write, for their communities, loved ones and themselves.

    That to me is home run in what you have done. You made writing for many of those people as common as singing. Very few of us sing for a living but we all like to do it; in church, on community stages and in the shower and it gives us something, a way to communicate. So have you had these students show themselves a way to communicate. You let them discover their voice in a new way for them. That ca be/maybe life altering. Brav-f-ing-O

    1. Thank you so much -- what I am coming to understand as I read all of these comments is that the first writing classes in college should focus on thinking, exploring, connecting, questioning and entering into a dialogue with readers. A part of what prompted this change in my teaching was that my students did not approach information thoughtfully, could not speak with authority on any topic, confused media sound-bytes with news, etc. If they continue in academe, as you suggest, the essay may be a useful form to have at their command. However, the "essay course," whatever it's called on various campuses, should be treated as an elective for non-majors but possibly required for an English major.

      Exploratory reading and writing are rigorous by nature, regardless of those who suggest there is a built-in looseness when students have more freedom. Freedom=responsibility.

  8. As your brother and fellow traveler through our shared life, I thought it was funny that you ended your statement with three "questions for review" ala the "Think and Do" book that I hated in Catholic grade school. Great entry and I wish that you'd been my teacher instead of the variations on Frau Blucher.

    1. Thanks, Pete :) You're right about the questions, except they are intended for me to answer rather. Here are 3 for you:
      1) Use a red crayon to circle details in the Illustration from "The Hapless Child" that suggest the child's lack of commitment to schoolwork.
      2) Find three new words and write them neatly in the space below:
      _________ _______ _______
      3) Write a formal essay about the usefulness of essays.