A Rescue Plan for the Chronicle of Higher Education

I have to admit that I don't spend much time reading opinion pieces in the Chronicle or Inside HigherEd for that matter. Occasionally though, they enter into an area of interest or concern for me. Certainly Michael Prince's recent OpEd with yet another back-to-the-future plan for rescuing composition has garnered some attention on the WPA list, if for no other reason than its citing of the WPA outcomes standards.

But really, this is one strange text. It starts out by describing the "rescue plan" as one "that costs little, apart from a shift in dominant ideas." Oh, is that all? Well, as it happens I have a rescue plan for English Studies "that costs little, apart from a shift in dominant ideas." All you have to do is give up the things that you value and I'll save you. In fact, I have a rescue plan for all of humanity "that costs little, apart from a shift in dominant ideas."

So you can see that's a little silly. It's easy to talk about giving up ideas when they aren't your own.

But even more difficult here is trying to determine what is meant by "dominant ideas." First, Prince meshes high school English with college composition. The truth is that these fields have little to do with one another. Having taught at a college that graduates a lot of K-12 teachers, I can tell you they get little, if any, contact with the field of Rhetoric and Composition. Furthermore, most of the people who teach FYC in America have had little or no contact with the field of Rhetoric and Composition. Perhaps they are grad students who have taken a single composition course. Or they may be adjuncts or full-time instructors who might either have never had a course in the teaching of writing and have had little or no professional development since they began teaching in the field. This is not meant as a criticism of these folks, but merely an indication that you can't assume a seamless confluence of best pedagogic practices as described in contemporary rhet/comp scholarship and what actually happens in the classroom.

Prince ultimately prescribes a back-to-basics approach for solving the problems of FYC. The funny thing is that I'm sure the average FYC class continues to be heavily informed by that traditional approach. Partily b/c the instructors have had little contact with R/C research and partly b/c it is not so easy to get people to give up their "dominant ideas."

However, the strangeness in this article does not end there. In fact, it's just beginning.

Prince's first target is the writing portion of the SAT. The fact that Prince assumes that the College Board's view of writing reflects the mainstream view of rhetoric and composition demonstrates how little he knows of the field. I have no idea why he tries to tar his colleagues with this brush.

His second target is "critical thinking." Again, I'm not sure why he locates critical thinking as an invention of Rhet/Comp. No doubt, there are many comp teachers and comp programs that use this kind of language, but "critical thinking" is more bureaucratic/assessment speak than anything else. Prince seems to conflate it with "critical theory," which is obviously something different, though potentially interrlated. His main complaint here though is that this "movement" in composition de-emphasizes the careful reading of texts. In fact, the opposite is true. If anything, the shift toward post-process, critical-theoretical pedagogies has been critiqued for its over-emphasis on the reading of challenging texts and it lack of focus on teaching writing practices. So here, Prince just seems out of his depth, which is fine since it's not his field, but then why is he writing about it in the Chronicle?

Unfortunately we are not done. Prince goes on to quote most of the WPA's Outcomes Statement and then says

Many of those goals are worthy in themselves. Consider their net
effect, however. Taken together, they load composition/rhetoric with an
elaborate vocabulary for describing itself. The group statement does not say that these theoretical and pedagogical
ideas should stand in the background, informing practice. They should
be among the topics of study. They are what composition/rhetoric is
about. Process becomes its own product; rhetorical knowledge trumps
content knowledge; critical thinking geared to ideological critique of
texts and images replaces open inquiry and accumulation of knowledge
through reading and experiment. The omissions are also glaring: not a
word about the quality of readings, or the modest work of arriving at
an accurate idea of the meaning of texts.

Yes. The discipline of rhetoric and composition has "an

elaborate vocabulary for describing itself." How about your discipline? Should Biology just describe itself as the "study of stuff that's alive" or history as the "study of stuff that's already happened" or literary studies as the "study of good stuff people wrote"? Or maybe we would permit ourselves some further elaboration. And who knows, maybe we would even share some of that elaboration with our students.

Yes. In rhetoric and composition, we study writing practices. We also study writing products. But we study practices too. Yes we study rhetorical theories and practices. They are the subject of our work; they are the content. Then we get to what is probably the heart of the matter here. Prince views "critical theory" as "ideological critique" that is opposed to "open inquiry."

So really Prince's complaint is a political one. He holds a conservative intellectual position opposed to "critical theory" and believes instead that writing courses "should be about what all other college courses are about—not writing
itself, but a learnable body of information: literature, art history,
biology, political science, or any other substantial topic that
furthers a students' real education." Oh, and the courses should be about grammar and basic skills. This, of course, is also an conservative ideological position. The fact is that "critical theory" is a "learnable body of information," whether he happens to approve of it or not.  However I'm not sure that Prince even understands that, as he seems to conflate "critical thinking" and "critical theory" with "rhetorical analysis."

He goes on to say that once the teaching of writing is decouple from rhetorical analysis that writing courses should then be about "real content" like literature. So it's a problem if the teaching of writing is obscured by rhetorical analysis but if it's combined with literary analysis then that "rescues" composition?

This is some seriously muddled thinking here.

The field of rhetoric and composition is itself a learnable body of information, like the other fields Prince mentions. It has a long history. It has an active scholarly agenda. It is a field to which students can be introduced in FYC, just as they are introduced elsewhere to biology, literary studies, pol sci, and art history. It is a field that furthers a student's real education. 

The funny thing is that at the end of his essay, we can at least appear to agree. He writes:

there are rhetorical strategies that good writers know and weak writers
lack, but those are best taught in every class, by faculty members who
themselves have mastered not only a body of knowledge but also the
skills for writing publishable work and sharing those skills with
apprentices to their craft.

Sure, writing should be taught in every class (good luck getting that to happen, btw) by expert faculty (starting with faculty who have expertise in rhetoric and composition). They also should have the skill for writing publishable work (and unless you want to count publishing in the obscure technical discourses of their discipline–which I wouldn't–that's a big should). And, they should have the skill for sharing those skills; in other words they should have some pedagogical skill for teaching writing.

And where do you think one might develop those skills? Who would be studying the teaching of writing and trying to figure out the best way to do it?

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