Tomorrow I will be leading my second TA orientation at UB and thus begin another year running our composition program. Here are some things I'm planning to say to our new crop of TAs. Whether I will or not is anyone's guess.
I have two ways of explaining composition courses: one that is simple and one that is complicated.
The simple version is to say that composition courses are intended to help students become better writers, or more precisely to set them on a path toward becoming better writers. That's simple, but not easy, like hitting a baseball. All you have to do is swing the bat in the path of the ball at the right time. And like hitting a baseball, its mostly a matter of practice. Like baseball, only exceptional and dedicated writers can become professionals, but all of us can get better through practice. So mostly a composition class is a place to develop a writing practice and learn a way of talking about writing that helps you analyze what you are doing and improve, much in the same way as a batter might watch a video of his swing and develop a way of talking about hitting with his batting coach.
Of course writing is more varied and complex than batting, and this brings me to the complicated explanation.
When you are trying to teach writing, you are trying to teach something that, when it comes down to it, we don't know a lot about. Actually, that's not precisely true. We know a great deal about writing, if by writing one is referring to an abstract concept. There is a lot of scholarship that describes and theorizes writing, to say nothing of the scholarship about particular texts. But to understand writing, one would have to understand thinking. While there is a lot of interesting brain research going on, there's nothing that going to tell you "follow these steps to come up with a good idea for your paper." Instead what we have are lots of techniques that sometimes work. Or, to quote Anchorman, "60% of the time, it works every time." The problem lies in mistaking techniques for empirical facts. There is no definitive "how to write." In short, the goal of the course is to help students become better writers, but there is no definition of "better," there is no clear, general writing practice, and there is no set body of knowledge to impart.
So that makes the whole business a little complicated. But here are a few things I am fairly certain about.
- One can learn to be more aware of one's own writing practice, of the objects that make up one's compositional network, and that this awareness, long term, is valuable as one seeks to change and develop one's writing practice. Developing this awareness is something that can be taught.
- One cannot become a better writer unless one wants to (fairly tautological I suppose).
- Becoming a better writer requires spending time writing (again, tautological, right?).
- Most composition students aren't interested in 2 and thus probably aren't willing to do 3 (sigh).
Of course one can offer the stick (grades) or the carrot ("writing will be important in your career") but really becoming a better writer requires intrinsic motivation. So, as I said above, writing is complicated. It's tricky and unfair. Of course, as a student, you want good grades; you want to head off to a great career. But writing doesn't care about that. Writing doesn't care if you are trying to tell the truth or do the right thing. It's not ethical; it's not rational. It's not some modern convenience technology like your cell phone that, however complicated it may be, works in a logical way. Of course you probably can't explain how your cell phone works, so what chance do you have with writing? I'm not trying to be overly mystical or romantic about it. It's just that writing and symbolic behavior bridge the natural and the cultural, the human and the technological.
How does one confront this situation with first-year college students who are likely uninterested in this whole business? The best I have figured out is to be as honest as possible. Generally speaking, in my experience, composition students' experience with writing is analogous to following the directions on a box of cake mix. And they have all managed to make a decent box cake. That's why they are out of high school and in college. They mistakenly believe that making box cake is all there is to baking and thus imagine that improving is a matter of getting a little more precise with their use of the cup measure. So my thought is to say that not only are we not going to use a cake mix, we aren't even going to make a cake. Hell, we'll toss the whole analogy and abandon cooking altogether and start hiking instead because writing is so much wilder and more varied than baking that you can't even stay in the same nomenclature and really get it. When you face the question of "how can my cake-mix direction-following skills help me climb a mountain?" then you're ready to start learning something about writing.
As I would (and do) say to my composition students, this class is an opportunity to discover what it would be like to have a real writing practice, to try to become a better writer. Maybe you don't want to become a better writer, in which case you won't. That's ok, because in this class pretty much all you have to do is write a lot and you will pass. Just do the work. However, if you decide you want to be a better writer, or at least experiment with the idea that you might want to do so, then you can use the work of the course to start down that path.