Do Writing Teachers Know What They’re Doing?

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Joseph Teller recently authored a provocative piece titledAre We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The article criticizes trends in composition pedagogy which focus on process (as opposed to product), engage students in the exploration of complex social issues, and integrate reading and writing instruction.  The article generated a number of comments and (occasionally snarky) exchanges about what it is we do as composition instructors, and a number of bloggers from the composition world have responded in detail (see, for example, this post from P.L. Thomas).

One line in Teller’s piece, in particular, stood out to me: “How can students make effective rhetorical choices if they do not know what choices exist?” Yes, indeed. And I would add this: How can they make effective rhetorical choices if they do not know that there are choices to be made, and that they have both the right and the obligation to make them?

In short, rhetorical choice is a threshold concept in composition, one which many students—convinced that there is a single, right way to write—struggle to understand and internalize. And while Teller rightly points out that background knowledge and context are critically important for reading comprehension, I would argue that fact does not diminish the importance of teaching reading in a writing classroom: close reading trains students to recognize the existence and range of rhetorical choices available to writers, as well as understand the impact those choices make on a reader. Moreover, instruction and practice in close reading make students better readers of their own work. (One wonders if the lack of student revision witnessed by Teller stems from poor rhetorical reading ability; it’s certainly a possibility worth investigating).  Finally, readings (and reading instruction) supply a context for lexical and grammatical development (and situates both vocabulary and grammar as rhetorical choices to be made).

Teller also criticizes theme-based composition courses, suggesting that the content in such courses swallows instruction in “writing at the nuts-and-bolts” level, and that most composition instructors are “not academically qualified to be teaching disciplinary content…with any semblance of expertise.” This objection to theme-based reading is also addressed in a seminal article in the Writing about Writing movement, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Intr... by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle. The answer for Downs and Wardle is to make writing itself the disciplinary focus of the course, an answer which addresses both of Teller’s concerns. In a Writing about Writing approach, course readings address scholarship in composition, reading, and language, reinforcing concepts (such as rhetorical choice) while providing multiple opportunities for practice.

Several commenters took issue with Teller’s rhetorical choices, which included derogatory and sarcastic words to describe certain composition pedagogies. The title, for example, while including the author in its first person “we,” nonetheless hints that an entire field may be ineffective—and in fact, wrong. The paper ends with the author’s “manifesto,” a term that suggests the need for a paradigm shift.

There is much for compositionists to discuss in Teller’s article, and I suspect we will do so by making a variety of rhetorical choices of our own. But I think we also need to make some room for “pedagogical choice” as a foundational concept in the composition classroom: just as there are multiple possible rhetorical choices, some more effective than others, there are also multiple pedagogical choices we can make, some more effective than others—in our specific pedagogical/rhetorical situations.  Perhaps rather than suggesting that those whose choices are different from our own are doing it “all wrong,” we can analyze the effectiveness of our various pedagogical choices in the specific contexts in which they occur. I suspect most of us aren’t convinced our pedagogies are right all the time; after all, we are constantly revising and editing what we do in the classroom.

The fact that we make such changes suggests to me that we do in fact know what we are doing—and while we may not be “all right,” surely we are far from being “all wrong.”

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.