Tuesday, August 25, 2009

all form and no content?

I saw a mention of the following article on a facebook post, so I went to check it out. I'm posting the first three paragraphs here. What do you guys think about Dr Fish's article?

What Should Colleges Teach?

A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart. I became even more alarmed when I remembered that these same students were instructors in the college’s composition program. What, I wondered, could possibly be going on in their courses?

I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.

As I learned more about the world of composition studies, I came to the conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, and I advised administrators to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research. Now I have received (indirect) support from a source that makes me slightly uncomfortable, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which last week issued its latest white paper, “What Will They Learn? A Report on General Education Requirements at 100 of the Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities.”

In the article (blog post, actually, I don't know that it makes a difference how I refer to it), here, the ACTA and the white paper are linked, so you'll have to head over to the NYT for the link. The article was posted yesterday.

A couple of quick thoughts:
- How do we teach writing without some kind of content?
- I believe that the more I read and the more I do my own writing and thinking and the more feeback I get on my work, the better my writing becomes (although, it doesn't necessarily help me avoid passive tense...ah, well). I believe the same is true for my students.
- There is more to what goes on in a classroom than what is listed on lesson plans. I'm just going to put that out there.
- How does a person even find the time to read ten to fifteen weeks' worth of lesson plans for 104 courses?
- I cannot teach at least twenty-two students to perfectly compose in a class that meets for 150 minutes a week for sixteen weeks. The entire burden does not rest on one single instructor, nor does it ever rest entirely on the instructor.
- Good writing is defined in part on the context in which that writing happens.

I could go on (and on and on), but I won't. I'm interested in how experience might hone or change my views on this article. Perhaps I'll save it and come back to it in thirty years.


lotsofglue said...

"The entire burden does not rest on one single instructor, nor does it ever rest entirely on the instructor."

Ah HA!!! I knew there are others in this lack of accountability society that do not buy into the "it must be the teacher's fault my child is an idiot and cannot learn" thinking.

Kat said...

It is the same argument again again again. I think he is right. And completely wrong. When I first began teaching I hardly covered the craft of writing at all. It was all critical thinking and argument. The problem with writing classes is that they are not long enough. In one 17 week semester are writing instructors supposed to 1) correct all the writing myths the students bring w/them 2) cure them of their fear of writing 3) expose them to critical reading, writing, thinking, and discourse, 4) grammar 5) form 6)argument 7) research skills 8) MLA, APA, Chicago format,and more, and do all this w/o any percievable content?

The task is impossible. This work has to be done throughout all their other schooling.