qualifications for writing instruction

I think next semester I’ll teach exercise science, sociology, and maybe physics. I think I know a little bit about these subjects. I exercise on a regular basis. I’ve read some sociology texts, and I do live in a society. I took physics in high school…
What’s that?
I’m not qualified you say?
Hmmm…. OK, how about this. I’m going to teach a writing course next semester. I think I know a little bit about writing. I write sometimes. I took a composition course or two when I was an undergrad twenty years.
Sure no problem. Go ahead. Good luck with your class.
And you wonder why students’ writing performance coming out of such courses is roughly analogous to the understanding of exercise science they would get from watching me strech?

I’ve blogged a couple times recently about a writing survey and summit taking place on campus. To reiterate, I think it’s great that we can have a conversation about this important issue. The results of the campus survey were recently made public here. Nothing surprising. Students write poorly. They don’t use proper grammar. They don’t make effective arguments. They need to read more. They need to be assigned more academic writing.

Yes, we need to keep doing what we’re doing but more so b/c the results we are getting so far are so great. That’s Ben Franklin’s definition of insanity, right?

It’s not that I can’t explain why this perception of student writing exists on campus. Nor is it that I can’t offer a range of tactices to help students improve their writing practices (after all we can all improve as writers, right?). It’s just that I can’t tell you how to do it in five minutes or five hours or five days or even five months.

It would take more like five years. And, not coincidently, that would be the amount of time I spent in graduate school earning my doctorate in writing. Curiously, the study of writing and the teaching of this subject are part of an actual academic discipline with courses, degrees, faculty positions, journals, conferences, and all that neat stuff. You could actually dedicate your professional life to the study of such matters.

Now some may say that it’s not realistic to hire writing PhD’s to teach all this writing. In fact, I’ve probably said that here before. Maybe, maybe not. But why is it realistic to hire chemists to teach chemistry and mathematicians to teach math and historians to teach history but not rhetoricians to teach writing?

Call me when you’re serious about improving writing instruction.

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4 thoughts on “qualifications for writing instruction

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  1. Absolutely absolutely absolutely. The attitude you describe seems like a variation of what Anne Stockdell-Giesler recently (http://www.vitia.org/wordpress/2007/03/24/cccc07-a01-institutional-forces/) described as the “anybody who’s done it, owns it” attitude toward writing instruction. At my institution, it’s assumed that everyone can teach first-year composition, but as for other classes in the English department — well, you have to have certain specific qualifications and skills to teach those. And it’s particularly frustrating when I’m running into some unexamined and backward pedagogical thinking in my work helping to refine and develop the writing curriculum.

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  2. This is related to the attitude I’ve seen here that if you can speak English, you can teach people how to speak it. An advanced degree in TESL is a waste of time, according to these folks. (And the only reason they’re not qualified is that they can’t sing and dance.) Grumble grumble…

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  3. Mark, if I understand your question–you’re asking how this argument about the necessity of expertise applies to the teaching of composition in new media. It’s an interesting question, and the answer, in part, relies on how one articulates “expertise” in new media. It’s a great point Mark, b/c I would argue that new media has served to dissolve disciplinarity to some degree.
    At the same time, in this transitional moment to who knows what, I think writing instruction has to look to the remediation of its discipline into the context of emerging technologies.
    When it comes down to it, there are many brands of expertise in writing within our field. No one is expert in everything. No one will expert in new media from all directions. However, there will be those who commit themselves to the study of these matters.

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