Friday, April 27, 2007
The author (I'm calling her M) tackles these rather daunting questions by focusing on the personal writing vs. academic writing debate. She gives a basic definition of the terms--personal writing being expressive, informal writing designed to tell a story and convey meaning implicitly, while academic writing is the traditional thesis-based argumentative writing. Then she looks at the debate between two highly respected scholars of composition/rhetoric: Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae. Elbow advocates a first-year comp class that is focused entirely on the students' writing--no textbook, no reader, just the students participating in personal writing experiences and learning to be comfortable with writing. Bartholomae privileges the more traditional, source-based argumentative writing. He basically argues that the best way for students to learn academic writing and thus be accepted into the academic community is to imitate the language of their professors.
These are important issues to discuss when considering a teaching career in college-level (or probably even high school) composition, because the teacher must determine his or her idea of what "good writing" actually is before they can teach it. Will they privilege objective academic writing that displays clear critical thinking and reasoning skills or will they embrace personal, poetic stories?
M seems to fall somewhere in the middle. She argues that students need to learn how to read critically and how to write about their readings, but that the language of personal writing is often a good place to begin. In other words, students must learn to connect with complex ideas in a personal manner and the relate these topics to their own lives before they can learn how to discuss them critically and academically. I'm inclined to agree with this viewpoint--and I'll use personal experience to support that. I can remember my undergrad days when I wrote "academic" papers by basically imitating the critical jargon and academic style of papers without really having any idea of what I was talking about. After awhile, however, I began to connect these academic ideas with issues that concerned me within my own life, and my writing began to improve immensely in that it suddenly had a concrete purpose.
My personal belief is that every freshman or basic composition course should begin with some kind of personal writing assignment, whether it be the personal narrative or some other more creative assignment. I think it increases the students' comfort level and readies them for more challenging assignments in which they tackle ideas without necessarily relating them to their personal lives. Yet even this assignment has potential challenges....how do you draw the line between too personal and sufficiently critical for a composition class? (you wouldn't want to write a diary entry for example) Should you have them state their thesis explicitly like in traditional academic writing, or should they attempt to convey their thesis implicitly as is common with more creative, expressive, personal writing. These, and others, are questions that I am constantly considering in my courses, and I still don't always know what's best. It's always helpful to read other instructors' attitudes and ideas about these issues in order to make more intelligent and educated decisions.
Monday, March 5, 2007
This is an important issue to me, because it seems that lately the public school systems have become a public dumping ground for many politicians and media figures who seem to be having a contest as to who can come up with the nastiest, most ridiculous accusations and insults directed towards teachers and administrators. Much of this is politically motivated, of course. Conservative figures often have a field day griping about teachers' unions and the lack of "qualified" teachers in the classrooms (qualified by whose standards?) My own belief about the American education system is that it has suffered greatly under the current administration: I have so many gripes about "No Child Left Behind" that it's not even worth listing them here, and I'm not even a public school teacher (yet, anyways.)
I found Donald Lazere's article "Back to Basics" fascinating because he delves right into the politics of education and literacy. Lazere's piece is so interesting because while he freely admits to being a "leftist" educational theorist, he is also able to objectively critique the positions of many of his fellow leftists. For example, he describes the "anomaly" of upper-middle class professors and intellectuals with their privileged standing espousing revolutionary and radical ideas to their poorer, working-class, less privileged students (126). He also notes how counter- intuitive it is for professors to want to avoid "forcing" the conventions of academic discourse and standard English on their working-class students, when it is precisely the mastery of these standards that will enable the working-class to both succeed economically and to grasp and critically understand the reality of their situations.
Friday, February 16, 2007
I was also very interested in the idea of conflict, of students feeling as though they have to choose between their home style of discourse and the university style of discourse. I was interested in this because I can identity with this concept to some extent. I am not, and never have been, a "basic writer", and I am not a member of a minority ethnic group, but I too feel this sense of conflict, sometimes even today, this sense of having to choose between home and school, and feeling as if I am betraying my home style. I say this because although I am fairly used to the university's discourse style and its emphasis on the abstract, the questioning of societal norms, matters of inquiry that rise above the practical and everyday, I am originally from a rural area. The rural culture emphasizes pragmatism, the concrete, manual labor--it focuses on things like making money and putting food on the table. My dad is pretty well educated and extremely good at what he does for a living, but his field is very technical and very hands on. My mother has only a high school diploma and a semester or two of community college. She has never worked in a job above the entry level. Thus, sometimes when I get particularly carried away in academic inquiry, I feel a sense of discomfort and guilt, as though I am betraying the values that my family has instilled in me. I literally feel as though I go back and forth between discourses: the one I use at school and in my work, and the one I use at home and around my family members. And although to some extent I feel as though this could be an advantage in that I am able to see both sides of the coin, other times I am exhausted and anxious about trying to find just the right balance.
Friday, February 9, 2007
I have mixed feelings about this article--for one, Bartholomae seems rather overly cynical about basic writing programs and the intentions of the academy in creating them, although he does have a point about the almost arbitrary nature of the term "basic writing" and what constitutes a basic writer. Does the university find it necessary to use the term to, in a sense, "create" basic writers...in other words, to make sure that there is always a group of students who fall into this category? Perhaps, because the university's very existence depends on a separate sort of discourse than that of the "regular" society. If they lose this divide, perhaps they lose their entire purpose, or at least one of their main purposes. I certainly see the point he and other critics are making about marginalization. Yet, the fact is, that is the nature of the beast. The university encourages high standards for all for the benefit of society and human understanding, and basic writers just need extra help to live up to their potential. Thus, basic writing seems quite necessary to integrate these students into the academic culture, rather than ignoring or belittling them. Certainly it's a complex issue, and I don't have all the answers.
Bartholomae, David. "The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum." Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras Press, 2001.
Friday, February 2, 2007
I think that reading Adrienne Rich’s essay “Teaching Language in Open Admission” is particularly appropriate to begin our class, because rather than discussing the beginnings of basic writing in a dry, impersonal, “academic” tone, Rich details her ideas by drawing from her personal experiences and describing in vivid, eloquent detail the poverty and difficult situations that many of these students face. Rich’s narrative style allows us to step into her shoes and imagine ourselves in her position–one that makes us possibly more empathetic to these student’s individual circumstances. No doubt, these disadvantaged or challenged students were all lumped into one category–that of the “hopeless students”–before Mina Shaghnessy’s revolutionary work with these students that she details in her text Errors and Expectations, and Rich touches on in her essay. I’m especially impressed by Shaughnessy’s, Rich’s, and their colleagues’ insistence on working with these students on their own terms and respecting their style of intelligence. For example, Rich writes that “students who could barely sweat out a paragraph delivered...dazzling raps in the classroom” and describes inner-city African-American students as being “politically conscious” (4,5). In other words, they may have not fit the standards of white, middle-class academia, but they were in no way untalented or lacking in intelligence. I appreciate the contributions of Rich, Shaughnessy, and the others who worked in these programs, because their work reinforces the idea that true learning comes from questioning the norms, rather than blindly accepting them.
Rich, Adrienne. “Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg.