Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

fundamental composition questions

As I often say to the TAs and instructors in our composition program, there is no magical pedagogy for writing, no one perfect, surefire way to teach. Not only are there differences among programs and teachers. There are differences year to year and section to section. As we have all experienced, an assignment or lesson plan will have different results in the 10am section than it does in the 11am section. The result is that the questions of pedagogy are never fully resolved, though perhaps we can say that some things don't work.

In my view, one of the longstanding disconnects in composition remains the shift from process to product. No doubt, the vast, vast majority of composition teachers say they teach "the process." And they probably do. Yet, inevitably, they evaluate the product (i.e. the "final draft"). The assumption is that if students learn and use the process then their products will improve. Honestly, I find that a strange assumption. I do think the following things can happen in a composition class:

  1. Students who haven't written much, especially over the summer, maybe even in their senior year of high school, get accustomed to the practice simply by being asked to produce writing.
  2. From feedback and class discussion, students start to figure out what the instructor wants. They come to undertand their audience better, even if they don't develop a clear understanding of the rhetorical concept of audience.
  3. Students might apply some specific stylistic techniques (e.g for improving introductions or transitions). They also might apply some specific formulae for arrangement. 
  4. Students can and will carry out specific instructions given to them by their instructors on drafts.

In short, students will warm to the specific rhetorical tasks of writing for this class and engage in a very specific, iterative process of fixing. If an instructor provides very specific, literal instructions in class, on assignments, and in comments, the products will get better. The most extreme cases of this result in student papers that are practically identical (yes, I have seen this more than once). I have seen this, in a slightly different way, in a grad class where a committed Marxist professor results in student papers that all make the same Marxist argument. More typically though, one gets a slightly more individualized version of this, where each student gets customized direction on how to improve her paper.

And isn't this what composition is about? Writing better papers? Isn't this what teacher comments are supposed to do: show students how to make their papers better? I would say that if the answer is yes to these questions, then we have a product orientation.

However, in my mind, if we do in fact have a process-orientation then the answer to these questions should be a qualified no. That is, in a process-orientation one obviously isn't opposed to better products; it's just that better products aren't the primary objective (or measure) of the course. I know this seems counter-intuitive to some, but really anything you're doing in a semester to improve writing is likely superficial. Sure, a student could have a breakthrough of some kind, but programmatically that's not going to happen. Short-term fixes are akin to fad diets where what we are looking for is a more sustained change in practice.

In short, the question for composition isn't how to write a better paper in a semester but how to instill a writing practice that can develop over the long haul. Even when shifting this view, many things, day-to-day, might remain the same in composition. The most significant difference this makes for the typical composition classroom lies in how one responds to student writing. My recollection from my undergrad days was of a dearth of comments from professors (except in creative writing). What I see today though from many instructors is an explosion of comments, and often the comments are of a fixing variety. Now by that I don't mean they are all proofreading or editing comments. More often the comments are corrections to misunderstandings about content, general stylistic concerns (vagueness, paragraph transitions, lack of detail), and larger rhetorical issues (clearer thesis, supporting points, considering counter-arguments). And so clearly, when we respond to student writing, we do need to think about content, style, and larger rhetorical issues. The difference is whether those comments are directed at "fixing" problems or if those comments are rhetorically and pedagogically oriented toward a longer-term writing goal.

As Nancy Sommers showed us decades ago, an important difference between student writers and expert writers is that students viewed revision on a micro level, often in terms of word choice and sentence structure, while the experts viewed revision on a global level in terms of purpose, audience, and genre. The question before the composition class is whether the purpose is to create better "student writers," i.e. better revisers of sentence level problems, or to move students toward expert writing practices. If it is the latter, then one has to question the purpose of instructor feedback that encourages sentence fixing. 

Ultimately what I'm talking about here is how one teaches revision. I'm not saying that it isn't important to revise on the sentence level or that expert writers do not address those concerns. Obviously, when it comes down to it, writing can only be composed or revised word by word, sentence by sentence. Instead, my point is that in order to teach students to develop their writing processes the primary thing we need to do is move them beyond thinking of revision as sentence repair. All through their schooling students have been taught mechanical techniques for composition designed to maximize their chances of producing passable products for high-stakes essay exams. Now what they really need to be introduced to a different meta-cognitive level of rhetorical understanding where writing becomes meaningful for reasons beyond the immediate transaction of passing a test or getting a grade. 

Is there one pedagogic method that assures this result? No, see above. But does prioritizing this goal over the goal of getting better student products mean that one teaches differently? I would say yes, especially in terms of how one comments.