Pawns in the Game

I  was recently interviewed by a writer from The Atlantic who had surprisingly read my book, Going North, Thinking West. I know that when I talked to the writer, I let loose with many of my concerns about the way in which we (un)teach writing in our required writing courses.

In the interview, I was a bit of a loudmouth. I imagine myself (and I really mean ” imagine”) as a reasonably reasonable member of our field–our WPA charge being . . . well, I don’t know what it is; it might be legitimating our profession with helping students improve their writing on the side.

I used to think our purpose was to help students negotiate their rhetorical situations in other disciplines. This line of thinking can lead downward into dirt: our charge is to prepare students for uncomfortable rhetorical situations, the nadir of which would be a timed, five-paragraph essay arguing something about which you don’t give a s&#t for a reader who also doesn’t give a s&#t about what you believed but has to assign on the basis of your performance a number or a grade.

I  have said before (shades of James Sledd) that required writing programs (RWP) are possibly a farce. We know historically that the birth of RWPs were gate-keeping mechanisms to keep the rabble out (Berlin). Our current strategies may not have advanced light-years beyond this placement mechanism in the 1870s that determined writing ability by asking students to parse: “He said that that that that that that pupil parsed was not that that that he should have parsed.”

I may have also let loose in my interview my interpretation of the money-making, highly unethical practice of requiring incoming students to take a year of required writing and then while pretending that the course is soooo important hiring part-time labor to teach it–and in the process making a significant profit to fund non-productive tenured faculty to do next to nothing and administrators to do even less. Although one should hesitate to assign correlation to causality, the statistics of the decline in TT faculty since the 70s, the increase in part-time labor, and the corresponding increase in higher administrative positions should at least occasion pause.

Writing program administrators, as many of us know, are collaborators in the project. I don’t know how deeply I want to go into this: I am channeling Sledd and Crowley. Maybe this is how many of us feel when we’ve been too long in the game. Perhaps we no longer believe in the arguments that gave us a reason for being.

Let me compress my argument. How many writing programs still spend time teaching MLA documentation? Why on earth are we focusing on citation and documentation when most writing situations don’t require them? How many writing programs eulogize argument as the overarching genre when most writing situations fall within other supra-genres (Bazerman, Theory of  Literate Action)  How many programs have students read mind-numbing academic articles about who-knows-what in order to write about who-knows-what for a grade?

In the long line of progressive educators stretching from Whately to Dewey to Freire to Moffett to Elbow, I desperately in what might be the end of my career want to promote the love of writing. I just don’t get why others in our field would want to situate writing within the frame of hard work and pain–the kind of thing you put off until the last minute.  Why do we want to teach students to hate writing?

This is a serious question: why do we do that? What do our actions have to do with social class reproduction (see Bloom, “Freshman Writing”)? What do we do to make sure that our children and the children of others within our social class fraction will more easily negotiate the gauntlet of our RWPs than students from working-class and other minority backgrounds will be able to do? How do we as writing teachers become pawns in the game?

3 Replies to “Pawns in the Game”

  1. My university is just starting a 'new' writing program that suffers most of these flaws. We are now supposed to teach "disciplinary writing" at both the first-year and the junior-senior levels. I don't see the point: sociologists are among the worst writers on the planet. My concerns never seemed to make it onto the committee's agenda; they were much more worried about how to staff writing classes and how to teach 'proper' form. The result has been as you describe: lots of part-timers teaching first-years and fewer creative embedded experiences in upper-division courses. — Jim Spickard

  2. Are you referring to "Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise" by Lynn Z. Bloom? October 1996, College English 58(6)? That's where the search engine steered me. –prof who teaches writing in her non-English-dept courses

  3. Yes. It was a well meaning article but unconsciously demeaning of the working-class environment. Bloom's message was that the middle-classes have superior values to the working and upper classes. I analyzed the article in my book: Going North, Thinking West. If you email me, I'll send the part of the book to you if you're interested.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *