College-Level Writing: Pedagogy and Its Contexts

In his blog, The Write Space, Director of the Connecticut Writing Project Jason Courtmanche thoughtfully commented on Joseph Teller’s recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” Below, we’ve reblogged Jason’s entry (which you can find in its original habitat here)—

College-Level Writing: Pedagogy and Its Contexts

One of the issues I deal with frequently is the question of college-level writing. Pat Sullivan’s two books—What Is ‘College-Level’ Writing, Volumes 1 and 2, the current College Ready Writers Grant we hold at our site, the MLA Working Group on K-16 Alliances, the Connecticut College Readiness Program on the Teaching of Writing at the University of St. Joseph, UConn’s Early College Experience English program are all books, grants, working groups, committees and programs I have been involved in recently that deal directly with this question. And while I feel the work I do in these endeavors is productive, I think all of my colleagues and I still often feel like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his majority opinion on the first amendment case Jacobellis vs. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”

Unfortunately, if we want to successfully communicate to students, and teachers, an understanding of college-level writing, we have to define it.

Monday’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education contained a wonderfully provocative article by Joseph Teller, titled “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” In this piece, Teller announces that ten years of failed attempts to teach his students how to write effectively have led him to lose faith in a process-based pedagogy, courses that are focused on thematic issues rather than rhetorical modes, and the inclusion of reading instruction in the writing classroom. Instead, Teller advocates a return to a Current-Traditionalist focus on product, teacher-centered instruction, and the nuts and bolts of paragraphing and sentence structure.

Teller does advocate for lots of writing and lots of (teacher) feedback. But he says content should be left to the specialists (history professors should teach history, sociology professors should teach sociology, etc.), reading instruction should be left to, well, he doesn’t say exactly, but not to the composition instructor, and any sort of peer feedback should just be jettisoned. Most students “ignore their classmates’ suggestions. And more often than not, when they do revise based on peer feedback, it’s often unhelpful and inexperienced advice.”

Reading through the article, I disagreed with many things. Teller insists his students will not revise, but I find little difficulty getting mine to do so. He writes that his students have an aversion to reading, and while I find that the digital age has put a serious crimp on traditional reading practices, my students aren’t averse to reading. I also think Teller creates some unnecessary dichotomies that aren’t helpful.

Reading the comments, I’d have to say that a PhD clearly has no correlation with civility in public discourse. (Interesting in light of this other article I read in the New York Times about promoting civil discourse in teenagers!). The meanness and snarkiness was shocking. One of the blandest comments I read was from a man who simply said he’d like to hear more about the context of Professor Teller’s classes.

A little close reading and a little online research will tell you this much: College of the Sequoias, where Teller teaches, is a community college in the San Joaquin Valley, and is the only public college in the area. Many residents are farm workers and almost half are Latinos. Nearly 20% of the population live at or below the poverty line. Teller has about 100 students each semester in four sections of introductory composition. Not exactly compatible with the student population or the teaching load at UConn.

I still disagree with much of what Teller writes, but context truly is everything. One of my principal conclusions is that the man needs fewer students. Even picking up two extra First-Year Experience classes, I only have 47 students this semester. If I were not an administrator and just taught two Writing Intensive courses, my load would be capped at 38. Teller writes that he requires all of his students to submit a short argumentative essay, and receive feedback from him, not peers, within the first two weeks. Even if each of his students writes no more than a page, that’s 100 pages of reading and response in fourteen days.

I suspect that the situation in the local high schools (there are five) isn’t much better.

I think the underlying truth here has less to do with pedagogy’s relationship to college-readiness and more to do with poverty’s relationship to the issue.