Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition

who needs to write?

Perhaps you've seen the recent NY Times opinion piece from Andrew Hacker, an emeritus poli sci professor from Queens College, who argues that our math education is misguided in its emphasis on algebra (and more advanced maths). Instead, he suggests that we should be focusing on mathematics that are more relevant to everyday people, like statistics. He does a good job of addressing the obvious counter-arguments. For those who would suggest that learning algebra and so on is enriching on its own terms regardless of its usefulness, he points out the many, many students who drop out of HS or college because they can't get through the math. For those who would point to our rhetoric about the need for STEM professionals he points out that "a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above." Specifically, what the report says is that only 5% of jobs will be STEM jobs. However the report also contends that

the market for STEM competencies far exceeds the 5 percent of science, technology, and engineering occupations. As a result, the demand for STEM competencies throughout the economy diverts STEM workers into nontraditional STEM occupations—making what seems like plenty, not enough to go around.

So while the 5% statistic is accurate, this report actually argues for a reform of math education that links math more directly with STEM professions. Not the elite jobs but the middle-of-the-road jobs that will require some kind of postsecondary certificate and some targeted math competencies rather than a general education. In short, the Georgetown report makes an argument for reforming math education rather than reducing it, which is similar to Hacker's point, though Hacker focuses more on the importance of math literacy for citizenship than STEM-related careers.

Nels Highberg got me thinking about Hacker's argument in relation to writing. He observes the commonalities between general math education and general writing education. Though students don't fail out of composition at the rates they do in math, it's mostly because we are willing to set a standard that most students can meet. We certainly see the same frustrations and disinterest in composition. The main commonality though is the comparability of "general skills." Few would argue that our students do not require a basic literacy and numeracy, which we expect K12 to provide. As with STEM, we might also say that there is a small percentage of people who actually need to be able to write well for their profession. And here by "writing well," I mean being able to write something that others will read freely (or even pay to read) as opposed to those who compose texts that others read out of professional obligation. Professionals in the latter category also require writing competencies, but as with the math issue, these competencies are not in a general writing ability but rather in a specific discourse. This is old territory for us. Technical documentation and scientific reports are important documents that need to serve their rhetorical purposes for their communities and audiences. But no amount of humanities-style academic writing or mainstream wide audience writing will help students develop that specific technical-rhetorical capacity.

On the other hand, like Hacker, we could argue for the importance of citizens parsing political and journalistic rhetoric, as well as the ability to contribute to democratic debate. I suppose this is the view that I have come around to as well. Certainly students need to learn to write for their professions, but that really needs to happen through a WAC/WID approach in their majors. In turn, an introductory composition course focuses more on reading and composing for public rhetorics: the web, journalism, and research written for larger audiences (like the Georgetown Center report). 

One could reasonably ask whether such a course should be required of every student. And the answer to that question depends on what you view as the purpose of higher ed. If the sole purpose is to create a well-trained workforce for transnational capitalism, then you would probably say no. Certainly the students who walk into composition classes (and college in general) soley with the intention of becoming certified for a job would agree with you. If you see education as a cornerstone of our democracy then your answer might be different. But that viewpoint is a tricky one in our nation: what does this view suggest about the large number of undereducated citizens? The fear of the masses is as old as modern democracy itself, so I suppose a large college-educated class is an insulation against that (much like the electoral college). 

Now I will say something surprising about composition. It might also be a place for undoing the negative attitudes that many students have about learning as a result of their K12 experiences. This would be surprising for many (at least those not in my profession) who would probably view this course as an exercise in pedantry: correct style and grammar, learning to write a thesis statement, organizing paragraphs, etc. However for many students, especially at larger universities, composition is the one small (<25 students) classes they have. It's the one class where they can discuss ideas and sheape the overall experience of the semester. It's a place where they can have the oppotunity to be creative (if we structure the course appropriately). Understandably, after 12 years of schooling, they think they know what school is, what academics are, and what it means to be intellectual. But of course they don't; they've only been exposed to the narrowest, most mechanistic view of knowledge, learning, and inquiry. We see this in their compositions all the time. We see how when they uncover some potentially explosive or interesting insight they back away from it like it was a bear trap. 

Composition (and I would imagine much other general education) isn't so much about the content, either in terms of profession or citizenry. A composition course can focus on public rhetorics but it is equally about reorienting students views toward their learning. For me, the main obstacle in helping students become better writers is in changing their attitudes toward the classroom from one that always looks for the shortest path to an A to one that might find some excitement in the journey and possiblity of learning. I know that sounds hopelessly maudlin, even to my own ear. But I do think that a student who is only looking for the shortest path is not going to get a worthwhile experience. If that's their approach to composition, then that's too bad. But if that's their approach to college, then it's a disaster, especially if that's a widely-held approach. 

So "who needs to write?" The answer isn't so much about "writing," which is not a useful abstraction here. For me, the real question is who needs to develop the practices of intellectual inquiry (as professionals, academics, and/or citizens) that are intertwined with writing?  And here I think you'd find a solid argument for writing being integral to education, just like math. However, as with Hacker's argument, it may be that we are going about it the wrong way.

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