procedural pedagogies for composition

Yesterday, I convened the first (at least in anyone's memory) end-of-the-semester meeting of our composition program. I was very pleased with the turnout (despite the typical Buffalo lake-effect whiteout) and the conversation. We spent some time trying to identify what we considered to be the goals of our curriculum and we tried to organize them into goals that were common to any university course (e.g. critical thinking), goals common to any humanities or English course (e.g. close reading), and goals that were specific to our composition courses (e.g. writing process, revision). The categories were a little sloppy but the point wasn't to create something definitive. Instead, the point was to recognize that composition has goals that are specific (i.e. goals that make it different from Intro to Poetry, or Intro to Philosophy, or Western Civ), and that like, for example, intro to poetry, which tries to teach close reading or critical thinking through the reading of poetry, composition seeks to achieve larger disciplinary or academic goals through a focus on the specific goals of its curriculum. That is, we don't pause the teaching of composition to teach critical thinking any more than we would pause the teaching of poetry to teach critical thinking. So we did a good job of identifying some of the values or concepts we associate with composition, and we recognized (or actually I pointed out) that our next step was to operationalize those concepts: that is, we needed to think about how they operated in our courses and how we design and approach of syllabi, reading lists, assignment creation, class planning, and so on in support of that operation.

I do think that there's a kind of magical reasoning that goes on at universities in regards to teaching, as if the efficacy of pedagogy is out of our control. That's a little odd since as researchers we would never accept such thinking, but it is understandable to the extent that very few disciplines provide doctoral training in teaching. Often it seems that good university teachers feel they are either naturally good at teaching or they made some extraordinary effort to focus on teaching (often with little reward or recognition). But certainly teaching is no more magical than research and can be taught.  On the flipside, if one has skepticism about Education as a discipline, and the way it approaches pedagogy, I can sympathize with that. But I'm not going to discuss that today. Instead I want to think about an alternative approach to the professional development of teachers that draws upon object-oriented procedures, mixed to a certain degree with more Deleuzian machines.

The tough thing about composition is that it isn't really about students acquiring knowledge. Yes, students learn specific bits of information about rhetorical situations, compositional processes, and research practices, but we don't test them (at least not directly) on their acquisition of that information. The real task of composition is changing students' writing habits. This turns out to be damned near impossible unless the students demonstrate some willingness to change, at least provisionally. For example, we can teach students revision strategies, require them to revision, and give them lower grades for lackluster revision, but we can't actually change their writing habits. If their habits don't change then nothing they learned in the course will make a difference. That is, knowing that exercising will make you fitter doesn't make much difference if you don't actually exercise. 

So, as I've been writing here for some time, the point of composition is to create opportunities for students to change their writing habits. Students are heavily habituated by K12 schooling, and other experiences, to view writing as mechanistic, impersonal, and unpleasant. If one takes up a critical-cultural approach, one might try to make this ideological-cultural reality visible to students and try to convince them to take an alternate stance, to stop identifying with this writerly subject position. And honestly I think those kinds of arguments sound really good in an essay, but I don't know that they actually work. Why? Because it's much like physical fitness: it's not enough to tell people about the benefits of exercise; you have to change their habits.  As such, it makes more sense to me to ask students to engage in specific procedures where their habits are decontextualized and often cannot function: collaborative writing, composing with images and other media, regular, short bursts of writing like blogging, and so on. Many of my examples might employ digital media, but technology is not necessary for this practice: the point is to move away from the space of the word processor and the academic essay. 

How does this connect to the promised object-oriented procedure? Well, we have many existing procedures in composition pedagogy. The five-paragraph theme is a procedure. Many writing procedures, like the five-paragraph, are heavily deterministic. They are fill-in-the-blank procedures, topoi and formulae that extend back to Aristotle. Sometimes those things work. They are tried and true after all. The error arises when one mistakes a single procedure, or a small group of procedures, for the entirety of composition. This is what has occurred to our students, in part, I fear, because their K12 teachers often do not receive much education about writing.

[Just as an aside, let's think about "writing" for a second. It's evolved over millennia. It is a founding technology of civilization. It's an integral part of knowledge production in every discipline and profession. It is the intimately bound up with of our laws, our beliefs, our history and art.  It has a flexibility and scope that extends from lists and love notes to the most erudite dissertation. It has now extended its practice into countless technological contexts. I would contend (as would many others) that writing is inseparable from our thinking and identity…  Why would anyone imagine that it was easily understood or taught?]

So we simplify writing in order to make it teachable (and testable). We teach students predictable routines that produce predictable results. And then we drill them and drill them on those routines until their results become more reliable.

But what if we developed or identified and introduced non-deterministic procedures? This is what we see with Deleuzian multiplicities. I would suggest that if there is a generalizable writing that encompasses all the activities we might consider writing, then it would operate as a series of non-deterministic procedures. Like the procedures of thought, which by definition engender all the things that we are capable of thinking, the procedures of writing would provide for all the things that we write. In our students, those procedures have been captured by more limited, higher order procedures like the five-paragraph theme. What I would be after then is some intermezzo procedure that would precede the five-paragraph business and reroute students toward new procedures.

It's not post-process cultural studies that tries to alter habits on the level of rational critique. It's not expressivist pedagogy that operates on the level of writerly subjectivity. It is an impersonal procedural pedagogy that inserts itself at a pre-subjective level to crack open existing writing habits and increase the opportunity for students to develop new ones. It wouldn't predetermine what those new habits would be, though it would provide students with knowledge about rhetoric and composition that might inform new habits.  Ultimately what I hope for then is the development of a new, self-sponsored writing habit, as it is only under the condition of being a self-sponsored writer that one has an likelihood of long-term writing growth.

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