"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Are We Teaching the Real Subject?

February 16th, 2015 by

In another blog elsewhere, I have argued that when it comes to teaching writing, educators sometimes play the blame game. No matter what level of writing they are working with, teachers can blame their students’ failures with writing on the previous level of teachers. If the teacher is instructing a college history or biology course, he or she will blame the English teachers. “Why didn’t you teach my students how to write these lab reports in first-year?” I will hear, as though the teaching of writing in biology were my job.

As I noted in this previous blog, the blame goes down from there. If it’s a first-year writing teacher talking, he or she will usually blame high school teachers.

And so forth. The blame gets cast ever down the chain of teaching until we are blaming kindergarten teachers for our students’ poor argumentative skills.

This is an absurd scenario, but it is not far from the reality of things.

The point, I have contended, is that high school teachers are busy enough teaching high school subjects; it would be absurd to expect them to instruct a student in writing for an upper division college course. That is not even the job of the first-year college teacher. It is the job of the upper-division writing professor who has given the assignment and knows who the audience is for that work, what sort of evidence is needed, and how to go about making it persuasive.

This is true because writing is a far more complex task than algebra. Yes, my college algebra course was just a repeat of my high school algebra course, and so was my college physics course. But my college writing courses were not repeats of anything. Certainly, much good preparatory work happens in high school, when a student is required to write a great deal and can get comfortable with writing in various genres.

But this isn’t what usually happens. When students go through four years of schooling without writing much, there is a problem. I would not blame high school teachers for this, however. I would argue that high school teachers often teach their hearts out. They try their utmost to reach their students and hold them accountable. The problem, as I see it, is that they could be teaching the wrong subject.

In fact, I suspect–admittedly without more than the anecdotal evidence from the students I have worked with who are high school graduates–that many high school writing programs really don’t teach writing. Unlike ancient programs, represented most fully in the progymnasmata, where the reading of great texts, the composing of socially relevant texts, and grammar were integrated, most contemporary high school and college courses are split between two strands: teaching structures that students will never use after high school (the five paragraph theme) and reading canonical novels that they then write five paragraph book reports on. By the end of high school, the average high school graduate is expected to be able to write five paragraph themes about To Kill a Mocking Bird or The Great Gatsby. But they will have not have been expected to become writers. They will not have become rhetoricians able to think about audience needs or genre requirements with any complexity.

What we have done is to misrepresent what our real task is. We don’t really know what is needed. The focus on spelling and grammar issues, or on problems with structure—what most people claim as evidence of teaching failure—does provide an indication that most students do not know how to edit text or simply don’t give themselves the time to do so, having dashed the paper off the night before it is due.

But these same students also might not have a clue about how to prepare to write a paper–to invent ideas. Simply put, inventing, composing text, and editing text are three often very different tasks. Most non-writers conflate only two of them, composing and editing, into “writing.” Not having been given any reason to think otherwise, most students do also.

They could be compared to someone who grew up in California. On taking one trip to the Midwest, the only stop being Dubuque, Iowa, he or she bases an entire view of the Midwest on this one small town. Dubuque, incidentally, is nice. But it’s not Chicago, or even Des Moines.

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