Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Teaching, Part I: College Writing

I want to write about teaching quite a bit this fall, discussing various methods I use as well as larger questions of teaching.

A good place to start is Stanley Fish's latest piece on college writing and changes in college curriculum more broadly. I basically think Fish is a pompous blowhard who constantly reverts to "back in my day" whining, and this article doesn't change my mind. Hilariously, Fish finds his own propositions being endorsed by Lynne Cheney when it comes to teaching the standards and he doesn't quite know what to do with that fact.

Fish's complaints that students can't write anymore are not without merit. In fact, the writing level of 18 year old students probably has declined over time. Fish complains that writing classes are in fact covers for the teaching of race, gender, and sexuality when he thinks they should be about sentence structure and composition. The first part of his argument is not untrue though the second is quite debatable.

I want to defend the students here and also talk a bit about teaching writing more broadly.

First, while our students can't diagram sentences, they can do a lot of things that are really valuable in the modern world. Unlike Fish's generation, they are incredibly literate with computers and other technologies. They can analyze film and other visual media with surprising fluency, even at the start of their college careers. They are far more tolerant of diverse races and sexualities than students of 50 years ago. These are all really important things for today's world, arguably as or more important than sentence structure.

Second, I certainly found my experience in the two quarter college writing program during my freshman year at the University of Oregon to be a sort of indoctrination into University of Oregon ideology 101. At the time, I found this a little annoying, even as I agreed with most of my instructor's positions. However, what better way to inspire passions and to get students into writing than talking about these issues? What are you supposed to teach in these classes? First, a class just on grammar sounds more boring than dirt. That's not a strike against the class as such, but inspiring busy and distracted students to diagram sentences does not sound like a fun task for a teacher. Second, who is going to teach such a class? Fish can complain all he wants to about the quality of college writing, but part of the problem is that we have a huge number of students coming into colleges and a lack of qualified people to teach these classes. Not only are English graduate students forced to teach these courses, but many graduate students from around the university systems are recruited to fill the many sections schools have to offer. Not all of these people are particularly qualified to teach such courses.

The reality is that universities rely on cheap exploitable labor to teach freshmen. If Fish really wants to change how college writing is taught, dealing with this problem is the first step. But I suppose bitching about it is a lot easier.

This brings me to an important issue that I face. How do I teach writing? It wasn't until my Ph.D. program that anyone really sat me down to teach me to write. And from reading this blog, no doubt readers still wonder at my sentence structure. But the chair of my dissertation committee was not about to have one of her students writing poorly. So she beat all the bad habits out of me (almost literally). I found this depressing, though I appreciated it. No one had really dealt with my writing problems before, even in master's program. Sure, I could write complete sentences and get my thoughts across, but I also constantly reverted to the passive voice and wrote in a circular way that made me take forever to get my point across (why use 5 words when you can use 50!).

I became determined to not have this happen to my students. I was going to work with them on grammar and sentence structure and help them succeed. I was going to turn their lives around! This was an especially important task at the University of New Mexico, where you have a lot of Native American and Latino kids for whom English is not their first language.

Then reality set in. First, most kids just don't care. Yet we have to get them through college. Or maybe we don't, but if you set out to be a hard-ass by yourself, it doesn't help the situation. You'd need a school-wide or at least department-wide movement. So what are you going to do? You can spend an hour writing comments and line editing, but if the student is happy with a C, they aren't going to spend 30 seconds reading them.

Second, I have other responsibilities. I am trying for tenure-track jobs. I have to publish. I have to apply for jobs. I have to research my book. I have to do public history. I have to work with the environmental students. I have lots of responsibilites. So does everyone else. If it's our sole purpose to teach good writing, then I can spend my time honing this skill. But it's not. And it's not going to be. If I spend an hour per paper line editing, that's a lot of time I'm not spending doing the other things that advance my career. Again, what I am supposed to do about this? So I've pulled back on the number of writing assignments I give. I don't spend as much time as I did when I was teaching one class in graduate school on writing. Becuase I can't. The incentives just aren't there to make this my top priority.

Finally, there is the question of what skills I want to teach my students. Should my courses actually revolve around building writing skills exclusively? For instance, this semester I am teaching a course called "U.S. Civil War in History and Memory." I'll be talking a lot about this course throughout the semester. I want the students to think about the importance of the past to the present in a very explicit way. One way of doing this is to give them the choice of a final assignment. The first is to write a paper allowing them to explore an issue of interest to them. Standard stuff. The second allows them to create a mock museum exhibit using online sources, then interrogating their own Civil War memory and discussing why they chose these materials to create their particular exhibit. I want to allow students to build public history skills and to gain consciousness about their own subject position in interpreting history. This is not exclusive of writing; of course, they have a writing component to the assignment. But it's also not the primary goal of the class. I have a couple other short papers that I assign to evaluate students who have real and significant writing problems, but for the most part, if a student is a decent writer, I'm going to help them improve in small ways and that's probably about it.

I think one bit of reticence I have in teaching writing too much these days is that I don't really know what it means. We constantly hear about teaching writing in our courses. But we never receive much in the way of guidance. Certainly there is not a set of standards that we are required to push. Without some kind of standardization, I suspect we are all going to teach to issues we think are important. Whether or not the combined effort of all faculty members is somehow going to make better writers out of students remains quite an open question. In my case, it didn't really help until I got to the Ph.D. program.