Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

the activity of composition

For the last two years I have given a lot more serious and purposeful thought to composition than I have probably in the last decade, maybe ever. I have never been one who made FYC the subject of my scholarship, and for 8 years I taught in a professional writing program and had my focus on a different area of the writing curriculum. I followed the conversations, of course, and wrote some on the matter here, but it is only since taking this WPA job that I've had to think about composition in a specific institutional context. What follows isn't specifically about my program, which isn't really of much interest (I would think) to you, gentle reader. It's more about composition in general.

Certainly part of my thoughts have been on my general ambivalence regarding the humanities, especially in relation to teaching writing. For the last month, I've had this line running through my head: rhetoric predated the invention of the humanities by more than 1000 years and may outlast it just as long. Rhetoric doesn't fit into the humanities because so many of its offspring–education, sociology, psychology, communications, etc–are not strictly humanities disciplines. As such, it seems to me that thinking of composition as a humanistic enterprise is far too limiting. This isn't to suggest that the humanities aren't part of teaching writing, only that they are insufficient, that the humanistic wing of rhetoric is insufficient to the task. This is reflected both in disciplinary values and methods, and I'll just offer a couple examples.

The most obvious example in terms of values is an almost implicit assumption about what kind of writing should be done. Once upon a time, maybe a century ago, probably longer, there was an active cultural practice of essay writing. Few people write essays anymore. We have journal articles and scholarly book chapters in academia. We have feature articles and op-ed pieces in journalism. There are extended blog posts. There are things that look like essays, but I would argue that they are only essays in the sense that they may have descended historically from that genre. Even in university life, the genres of student writing have proliferated and differentiated. So we can discuss our hopes for generalizing and translating writing skills, but that still doesn't explain why one chooses to start with the "essay." Related to this selection of ersatz genre is the selection of topoi, where writing addresses in a limited range of topics following a limited dispositio. We shouldn't have to wonder why students might not offer their best rhetorical performances in this context. I can create writing situtations (assignments) where anyone might struggle and argue for their importance in relation to some external set of values (i.e. values other than developing as a writer or rhetorician). The question is why do we do that, and I believe the answer is, in part, that we are caught up, or limited by, our attachment to a particular view of the humanities.

My second example deals with method, specifically with responding to student writing. By far this is the most labor intensive part of teaching composition, not only in time on task but in mental effort. If you haven't taught multiple sections of composition in a single semester you really have no idea how difficult it is. The question I think we are most afraid to ask though is how effective such comments are. Those of us with experience know that we can lead our students through a death march of prescriptive comments over multiple revisions resulting in a product that looks fairly close to what we wanted it to be. If students take anything away from that experience besides a distaste for writing and a sense they can't do it, I would be surprised. On the other hand though, we know that more open comments can have little effect on student writing. They ignore them or misinterpret maybe. Open comments don't tend to result in the products we want. And, typically, students want to produce the products we want them to produce because that's how one gets a good grade. And even though open comments aren't prescriptive, we still are left wondering how effective they are, particularly in relation to the cost-benefit of the labor involved in producing them. Maybe there's something else we should be doing…

All of that is a giant mess.

Furthermore, I would guess our commenting practices are a combination of humanistic close reading methods, editorial/proofreading marks, and some mild rhetorical observations (e.g. you need a transition here). There's a strange kind of humanistic scientism of commenting here in the sense that close reading was meant to make interpretation more objective. No wonder our brains get pretzeled doing this. Why don't we just respond to texts as if we were the human beings we actually are? I'm afraid that teacher comments tend to fail the Turing Test. 

For more than ten years, I've been thinking and writing about philosophy, theory, digital media, cybernetics, cognitive science, motivation, evolutionary psychology, and so on and trying to understand how composition actually happens. It is obviously a complex process. It's embedded in 60-70K years of human symbolic behavior. It's intertwined with assemblages of technologies, cultures, and histories. It rests upon fundamental ontological conditions for composing/becoming and a minimal rhetoricity that permits relation, thought, and action. Writing is also situated in the specific actor-network of the writer at the moment of writing. As far as I can tell, our standard composition pedagogy stands upon extensive, unexamined assumptions about all these matters. And while I am hardly in a position to tell anyone what writing "is" or what composition "should be," few people seem to think what we are doing is actually working.

I don't believe the humanities, as currently conceived, is well-placed to address such concerns, largely because the humanities, for the most part, rest upon the same assumptions. No doubt there are minor traditions in the humanities to draw upon, and I believe the humanities could transform to address such questions. I don't know if that transformation is more or less likely than the one that allows us to see student writers in terms other than lack. Perhaps they are connected.

So in good pedagogical fashion, allow me to send you off with a few more practical suggestions:

1. Students need to write far more words than any teacher can hope to read. If students wrote a page a day, that would be well over 2000 pages per class each semester to read. And 250 words per day might a minimum for where students might begin to see a benefit from developing an actual writing practice. It doesn't so much matter what the topic or genre of their writing is.

2. Though you can't read it all, students do need an audience. Not every text needs to be read. If you've written a dissertation, then you know that! However, students will benefit from some response, so you have to create some mechanism for students to read and respond to each other. Think of it as crowdsourcing feedback.

3. Students should have some freedom to pick their own writing projects. Maybe that means writing proposals for projects to be negotiated with you. Maybe it means picking among some shorter assignments the one or two that interest them the most. 

4. And here's the one where I get into trouble… I think that we overemphasize revision in composition. It's not that revision isn't important, but it's really the third rail for composition pedagogy. It's all too easy to verge into prescriptive editorial commentary. In part because that's easy to do and guiding someone else's revision is very hard, and in part because that's what students want and that's how they will tend to interpret your comments. It might be better to avoid revision altogether. Or de-emphasize it by only giving open comments. Or better yet, teach revision through an assignment that asks for a radical transformation of a text. E.g., turn a proposal into a brochure or, less radical, take a 3-page article and turn it into a 7-page one. Revision, like style, are primarily the concerns of the more experienced writer. Perhaps this is why comments offered for purposes of revision so often focus on stylistic concerns.

5. Rather than imagining the goal of composition is to "improve" student writing, perhaps one might think of the goal as providing students with introductory rhetorical skills that will allow them to investigate and reflect upon their own writing practice and the rhetorical practices of others. If writing is indeed a highly situated activity, ultimately what students require is the ability to recognize what they do and why they do it. From that point, they are positioned to change their behaviors. As such, "improvement" in writing becomes a possible secondary effect of the course.

From this view we might ask how much of our pedagogy is focused upon helping students to develop these rhetorical-reflective methods. I don't think we have to give students a complex disciplinary understanding of composition (anymore than one would get a complex disciplinary understanding of biology in BIO 101). We are offering students an introduction to such matters. Not with the idea that students will go on to study in our field (most students in BIO 101 don't become biologists either). But rather that this introductory understanding will give them a foundation for pursuing writing further if they choose, whether that's in a disciplinary way or not.

However, to circle around, doing this means being able to step outside the humanistic framework. In the end this isn't a critique of the humanities, even if it is read as such. I would make the same observation about the social sciences or the hard sciences for that matter, but most compositionists don't come from those places. They come from the humanities. If it's helpful, think about this from a Derridean perspective. Derrida observes how writing precedes philosophy. Rhetoric precedes writing. As I have discussed in my more theory-driven posts around here, a minimal rhetoricity opens the space for agency and thought in the relations among withdrawing objects. We might say that the humanities has operated on the silencing of these rhetorical relations. The humanities modernizing scientism seeks to exact a control over writing, and so much of composition pedagogy is about control, right? All of that is really a denial of rhetoric. So can we get outside of that?


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