This article recalls the struggle undergraduate students endure when painting their prose to appeal to a particular audience. The theory perfectly fits my undergraduate experience; however, I believe the idea can advance one cynical step further.
The anxiety regarding the academic standards for a particular class was often manifested within the first assignment. Who doesn’t remember the panicked, urgent question, “WHAT does this teacher expect?” Generally, the apprehension was soothed by the return of that assignment; the students realized whether the professor emphasized grammar, deducted points for page-long paragraphs, or firmly enforced the citation rules. However, there was another prejudice that could not be so easily determined. True, a student understands her audience better after she has received the red-inked feedback. But the process of writing for a particular reader has another layer to it. In college, a student learns to cater her writing not only to a particular audience, but to a particular individual: she may spend the entire semester unpeeling her professor’s classroom rhetoric to reveal personal prejudices that affect his role as the reader. When a student pays attention to the specific language of her professor’s lecture, or his attempts at humor, she can more clearly understand her job as a writer. For example, a progressive historian might wince if he read a student paper referencing “Viet Cong,” while another professor might not consider the term pejorative. Similarly, a professor who espouses traditional grammatical theory might tear apart a student’s haphazard or arbitrary use of the feminine or collective pronouns.
But does this mean that successful college writers perform background checks on their professors to determine the particular ideologies that dictate how each will receive a paper? Must a student put on her libertarian hat for one professor, then adopt a socialist perspective for another? Of course not. A college writer must find the balance between knowing her audience and maintaining her integrity. Thus, she needn’t pretend to adopt all the biases of her audience; rather, she must have an understanding of these biases such that she will know how her reader will interpret her essay. When a writer can more fully anticipate the reader’s response, she can write more persuasively, perhaps more successfully.
Peter Kittle’s essay first attracted my attention because of the title. I thought that if he did not consider the problem the high school teacher’s fault, he couldn’t be all bad! His essay brought to mind my own “pilgrimage” in teaching writing. I have come to some of the same conclusions he has, although by a different route. As a teacher at the high school level for 31 years, I have often struggled with teaching students who are unprepared for high school writing as well as how to prepare students for college writing.
I totally agree that blaming the previous teachers serves no good purpose. I decided that if I blamed middle school teachers for the students who could not write at the high school level, I would also have to give them credit for the ones who could. That idea did not particularly appeal to me, and it also made me realize that students come to us with all kinds of talents and abilities (and lack thereof) that must be taken into account. In the end it just does no good to try to figure out why they arrived at a particular level of ability when we get them; we just have to teach them. It reminds me of what my neurologist said about my migraine headaches. He said that trying to find the cause of the headaches was such a chore that it was usually better just to treat the symptoms.
I arrived at the idea that “students write best when they have something to say and someone to say it to” as I coached debate, mock trial, entered student writing in contests, and conducted various projects at school. I noticed that when I made writing assignments just to teach a particular mode of writing, such as persuasion, description, etc., I would often get groans, sighs, and complaints, and often not good quality writing. I would also find it hard to get students to help one another. They just didn’t seem to care one way or another.
However, students would spend hours poring over debate or mock trial briefs, arguing over wording, placement of ideas, or effective examples of support. They would also seek my advice and listen to my suggestions. Students learned persuasive technique willingly when it offered them opportunities to earn trophies and recognition in debate and mock trial. They had an audience other than the teacher.
In the 1980’s one of my friends decided to design and implement a recycling program at our school. He asked me to work with my students in developing a brochure to inform the school and community of the program, and later asked us to design a manual explaining how the program worked which could be used by other schools to replicate similar programs in their schools. I found that my students paid attention to their writing and sought help in wording the brochure and the manual.
In the early nineties I partnered with the American Literature and American History teachers in our school to lead students in conducting research on our community. Our plan involved interviewing many older residents to learn their individual stories and to publish them in a booklet. We decided to use the format of a magazine article, similar to a profile of a person, for each of the articles. This booklet was to be sold in the community for a nominal fee to cover printing costs. Again, students responded positively and were eager to learn, because they had something specific to say and had an audience.
I continued to seek ways to make “real” writing assignments to students and coach them in the process. In 2002 my students produced a video to promote our school’s service learning program. The intent was to provide the school with something to show incoming freshmen to encourage them to participate in this voluntary program. It turned out to be an impressive statement, written and produced by the students.
During all these projects, not only did students produce better writing, but they also learned to give valuable, meaningful feedback to one another as they talked about how their potential audience would perceive their messages. These projects also helped me to become more of a mentor or coach to the students as they wrote instead of always being the authority figure.
Throughout my teaching career, I encouraged (and sometimes required) students to submit writing for specific writing contests. I also coached them in writing speeches and presenting them for various contests. Although the audience may not have been quite as clear as some of the other projects I have mentioned, there was an incentive and a wider audience than the teacher, so students usually wrote better. I had several students who won money, trips, etc., for their work, and this inspired others to try. Two students (at different times) won a week in Washington, D.C., to participate in the Washington Workshops. Their written responses to these opportunities were evidence that they understood the importance of good writing.
I realize that this does not really address the issue of “What is college level writing?” directly. However, I believe that when students have multiple opportunities to do “real” writing in high school they will be more likely to be successful in college.
A Response in Several Keys
–Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Ellenmarie Wahlrab
In responding to these essays, we harmonize our words and ideas with those of Kimberly Nelson, Ellen Knodt, Susan Schorn, Muriel Harris, James Gentile, Lynn Bloom, Jeanne Gunner, and Kathleen McCormick in an orchestration of different voices arranged to suggest a set of common patterns and practices within the complex thing called “college-level writing.”
“College-level writing is a dynamic term that means a suite of things,” Kimberly Nelson writes. A dynamic suite of things! This phrase captured our imaginations—for its abundance of metaphoric possibilities, its ampleness, for the way its collects multiplicity.
Definition one reminds us that first-year writing curricula (and we, the retinue who teach writing?) are in service to institutions and rulers. As a service, college writing can all too easily become commodified (see Jeanne Gunner below). Definition two, in its heterogeneity, highly resonates with our research and experiences. “A group of things forming a unit” can be rooms, music, dances, rocks, furniture. Or, in our metaphor, collected within the complexity of college-level writing are, at the very least, the material realities of curricula, audiences, institutions, and students.
We felt our toes tap and heads nod in response to Ellen Knodt’s choreographing of the many diverse goals and curricula in first-year writing courses—ranging from courses that emphasize classical rhetoric or socio- political inquiry, to those that enhance the first-year experience or teach writing across the curriculum.
We found a similar diversity in first-year writing courses at our own institution. But rather than lamenting non-standardization, we celebrate with Susan Schorn the differences in definitions of college-level writing. For, as Schorn writes, these differences “sharpen. . . [our] awareness if writing’s myriad uses,” and attune us to the necessity of understanding writing as a complex product of the time and situation out of which it is born.
The potentially uncountable uses for writing remind us that writing is like dancing. It emerges—not from merely following a codified set of rules—but from material reality, a performer facing an audience and a world, meeting and calling writing into expression. Perhaps this is what students mean when they say writing “flows”—or fails to. They are expressing the inter-related rhythm successfully established among writer, audience, context, and purpose.
Schorn sounds this chord when she writes that “the ‘standards’ for content, correctness, purpose, and so on, ultimately reside in a tacit agreement between writer and audience.” “Thus,” she points out, “developing any [single] standard for college-level writing requires spectacular generalization of what is really a quite individual relationship.” Fluency as a writer is being able to perform in a suite of venues.
“Composition in several movements of different character” evokes, too, the learning process of developing inquiry, a process that James Gentile notes characterizes college-level writing. Our own experiences as teachers at two- and four-year campuses affirm that the college writing classroom cannot focus on just teaching formal proficiency but must foster intellectual engagement. Our campus-based research on writing program development also supports Gentile’s claim that definitions of college-level writing depend on departments’ and students’ “needs and expectations,” and that such definitions change over time. Historically, college-level writing is indeed a suite of things!
Lynn Bloom offers an example of a writing curriculum in which students write in multiple genres, attend to writing situations, and address “real-world writing assignments” that “transform [them] from outsiders to insiders.” This kind of transformation was a central goal of the course we describe, an inquiry into work that both encompasses and theorizes personal experience and institutional forces.
Kathleen McCormick makes the inquiry of research a visible and social process by asking students to perform collaboratively. She scaffolds the work students need to do in responding to a large research question by making the steps explicit and thereby demystifies the intellectual work that most contributors agree is a central component of college-level writing. As she says, students “develop theoretical knowledge by enacting it.”
Not only are we excited by McCormick’s collaborative research assignment, but we applaud her attention to teachers’ reflective practices. “If teachers theorize the very material ways in which genuine learning occurs for different types of students in different contexts, “ she writes, “they can enable many more students to become actively engaged and productive learners.”
We can only wonder how the student Ronald Lunsford dubs “Donna,” who argued for the right to pray in school, might have developed her draft if she were a member of a collaborative research group in a class like McCormick’s. Would her group mates have asked her to explain why she set the opening of her paper seven years in the past? Would a scaffolded assignment have led her to research and explain Supreme Court decisions that have affected prayer in school? Would classmates have perhaps pushed her to be more detailed in presenting other points of view, given a sequenced assignment to elaborate other positions?
Working collaboratively with a group, she might very well have developed awareness of an audience that might question her assumptions and the logic of her assertions. If she could experience and practice these intellectual processes in a writing class, she would be developing the orientation to inquiry—what Lunsford calls the “attitude”—necessary for college-level writing.
Coda: Attitude: 1. A position of the body or manner of carrying oneself, indicative of a mood or condition 2. A state of mind or feeling with regard to some matter; disposition 3. Aviation. The orientation of an aircraft’s axes relative to some reference line or plane, such as the horizon. 4. Aerospace. The orientation of a spacecraft relative to its direction of motion. 5. Ballet. A position in which a dancer stands on one leg with the other bent backward.
We believe we can teach students to orient themselves to college-level writing when we invite them to join the dance—by introducing them to the myriad uses for writing; by letting them practice the processes of inquiry, research, and revision; and by staging moments in which they can experience the joy of performance, of achieving the delicate balance between writer, reader, text, and context.
Two things drew me to your essay — my daughter’s name is Amanda, and “bam,” the title. OK — so the first is an invalid, involuntary response. But the second, “bam,” is perfectly valid. It drew me to the text.
I very much enjoyed your essay, as much for the humor as for the fluidity of your prose. AND — it answered the question! You artfully connected the importance, futility, and absurdity of the standardized placement tests. They are so important, yet they cannot and never will be able to determine the ability of the college level writer. Talent cannot be standardized. The desire to write to communicate … to engage in ideas … to explore one’s personal style — the grappling of academia, syntax, colloquial language (and, punctuation,,,), with the “conventions of correctness” is immeasurable. So … whether one tests out of introductory courses, skips them, takes them, or not, has little to do with the writer’s inherent ability or impulse to write for meaning.
I also like your passage regarding a desire to find “balance” in your writing. That’s it, isn’t it? There is no formula for good writing — it’s the writer’s ability to balance concepts with diction with grammatical correctness, with focus (answering the question or addressing the issue) that ultimately leads to great writing. Did I use enough commas, ellipsis (sp?), dashes, parenthesis? Bam.
“Writing in college, as elsewhere, happens among people, in real places, over time, for a vast range of purposes. When people writing in college environments write, we see embodied instances of college writing.”
This quote, from Jeanne Gunner’s anti-essay, really resonated with the rich description of a “college writing” experience given by Kim Nelson. Nelson’s piece precisely embodies a kind of college writing that is predicated not simply on an institutional demand (although a class assignment set the ball in motion), but on an explicit desire to engage in an academic, intellectual community. And while Nelson mentions that she considered making a list of skills to define “college-level” writing, her decision instead to take us through her own literacy practices provides a wonderful anecdote in support of Gunner’s adamant desire to resist the reification that simple list-making fosters.
I was struck as well by the similarities between Gunner’s ideological critique of the desire to delineate a somehow always-applicable definition of “college- level” writing and Sheridan Blau’s discussion of the types of communities housed in various educational institutions. While reading his piece, I found myself feeling uncomfortable with the ways that Blau (despite many qualifying statements) seems to essentialize high schools as non-intellectual, even non-academic spaces–but I think that, in part, this is because I simply do not wish to believe that such is the case. The grim reality is that public schools, as institutions subject to the whims of policy makers, are enmeshed in a system which disembodies learning so that it may be quantified and branded as successful or failing. A grim sadness is elicited in me to think of our school system as being non-academic and even anti-intellectual–even though I know of many teachers who actively resist institutional inertia–but it makes Gunner’s call to resist such boxing of college writing all the more imperative.
A final connection that I noticed was to Muriel Harris’s discussion of the intricacies of audience and writer. I couldn’t help but see that so much of the content of the essays in this collection is necessarily political, having ramifications that go far beyond our disciplinary concerns. In this era of No Child Left Behind, when our professional lives as educators are increasingly under fire, I wondered how we could think differently about an audience for this book. I suspect that, like Harris’s student whose paper didn’t satisfy the engineering professor, our work in this volume would likely be shrugged off by many politicians and bureaucrats who don’t only know the “business” of education from their experiences as students. While I applaud this book, and the work we did as contributors, I think that we need to find a way as a discipline to make ourselves heard beyond the discipline. I thank Harris’s essay for helping me to think about doing something about the serious threats to writing instruction raised in the works of Gunner and Blau.
— Ellen Andrews Knodt
An interesting thread emerging from several essays (Schorn, Gentile, Mosley, and Blau among others) is the need to discuss writing among various participants in the academic community. Perhaps if we academics would leave our hermetically sealed specialized towers, we would begin to understand what the multidisciplinary faculty would like to see in their students’ writing (Schorn), what high school teachers see as their mission (Mosley), and how improvement in writing really is developmental (Gentile and Blau). All the essays in this volume will help us along this path.
What your paper seems to show so clearly is the difficulty of actually enacting a particular task definition (Linda Flower) for writing a paper, even if it has been apparently clearly articulated by the teacher.
This is part of the mystification that I address in my paper, “Do You Believe in Magic?” You point out the numerous ways in which you try to alter your “high school” writing with its emphasis on form, rather than content when you came to college, but also show that even the most conscientious of students can’t make the transition from high school writing to college level writing in one paper, or in one course.
I think your task would have been easier—albeit more work for the teacher—had you been allowed to write multiple drafts. Clearly, you saw problems with your paper after they were pointed out to you. Some of those problems may just have been transitional problems (high school to college), but others seem to be caused by the anxiety you felt—the lack of certainty that you were doing it “right.” I believe that college faculty need to allow students to write drafts, particularly of a “final” paper, to aid in the learning process as well as to reduce anxiety that never leads to one’s best writing. Students are deeply receptive to critique while in the process of writing—indeed, some writing skills can probably only be taught effectively when students are engaged in writing, and even then, they will have to be taught in a number of classes.
You seem to have entered college with a higher degree of meta-cognitive awareness than the average student, and still you demonstrate the difficulty of the transition. I’m curious to know when and how you feel you “mastered” what you felt was expected of you as a “college level” writer. Your answers can help all teachers begin to realize the degree of redundancy needed in the teaching of writing in college and also can help to specify to college and high school teachers alike what kinds of teaching and assignments students might best learn from.
I just want to express how much resonance this part of Ronald’s essay had for me:
This assignment invites the writer to enter into and, indeed, struggle with the complexities of this world.
These two sentences pretty much sum up the primary source of frustration for me as a teacher: the depressing frequency with which students who could learn refuse to do so (often framing their refusal as a Constitutional right). Thanks so much for dissecting the problem so thoughtfully and so reasonably on the rest of this essay!
Since writing “Whistling in the Dark” a few weeks ago, I’ve been reading the essays and comments by other writers attempting to answer the question “What Is College Level Writing?” and trying to synthesize the information into something which might be helpful from the viewpoint of the high school English teacher trying to prepare students for college. Despite the fact that it is very difficult for college professors to agree on a specific definition of “college level” writing, I have come to the conclusion that high school teachers do need more information in order to help students be ready for college writing and that these essays do, in fact, provide some ideas about what could be done.
Let’s begin with why we need more guidance in preparing students for college level writing. It is obvious that most of the time high school teachers have focused almost exclusively on grammar, mechanics, and formulaic kinds of writing, and colleges have increasingly expected students to focus more on content. Generally there seems to be a big gap between what we have often told students they need to know and what they actually have to do in college level writing. The fact that more and more colleges are refusing to fund remedial programs means that parents are expecting high schools to get their kids ready for college. Some school systems (like the system I taught in) are now starting accelerated programs and “guaranteeing” college readiness. If the system promises that its students will be ready for college, English teachers need to know what that means in terms of writing.
But it’s difficult even for college professors to define college level writing. There are several reasons for this as mentioned in many of the essays. First of all, we have to determine whether we mean entry-level college writing, writing during college, or exit requirements. For the purpose of this discussion, I think we’d best stick with entry level expectations if it is to mean anything to the high school teacher. I say this because many of the essays talked about whether students were ready for college level writing or not. But then we also have to deal with college level writing in other ways in our definition. The student who has been praised for his/her flowery writing in creative writing classes may be sorely disappointed when a science professor reads a lab report. College level writing differs greatly according to the task, and unfortunately, many students enter college with the idea that he/she only needs writing skills in the English class. They have little idea about different kinds of writing except the sense of modes of writing (i.e., descriptive, narrative persuasive, etc.). Another difficulty in defining college level writing has to do with different expectations at different colleges and/or universities. Some prestigious private colleges may expect much more than others and some areas of the country have differing requirements.
But even with all these difficulties, we see some common ground among the different essays regarding what college level writing is. This common ground gives us a starting point and could lead to some helpful insights to the high school teacher who wants to get students ready for college. First of all, the high school teacher has not been totally wrong—college level writing does assume a competency in grammar and mechanics, as well as organization of thought. Although the college professor may not be as tough on these areas as the high school teacher thought, it is still evident that college writing demands a good command of the language, including accuracy in usage, as is evident in Patrick’s and several other’s essays. Beyond accuracy in writing, another rather common theme in many of the essays is an assumption that students will have developed some critical thinking skills. This idea was mentioned or implied in most of the essays in some way or another. Audience awareness is a definite expectation in college writing also, according to most of the essays. Unfortunately, many high school students are quite oblivious to whoever might read what they have written. Some other elements of college level writing were mentioned, but those mentioned above were the most common.
So how can we make use of what we have learned? Assuming that one of the goals of this discussion for me would be to learn how to better prepare secondary students for college level writing, I would suggest
What your response, Merrill, to Peter Kittle’s essay illustrates so well is not only the value of students’ writing in multiple contexts, but of working collaboratively for a genuine purpose. As you note, this kind of writing is “real” writing. We don’t always have enough of it in high school or college, but when we do, most students develop a high level of engagement (and can surprise themselves as well as their teachers).
Nicely done! Thank you all for your eloquence, your patience, and your very thoughtful engagement of the many issues related to “college-level writing” that we set out to explore together. I was especially delighted to see our student writers post such insightful, elegantly written essays.
In fact, I read all of the essays with great pleasure.
I came to this project hoping to promote dialogue about an issue that I consider vitally important. As a teacher at a community college who regularly teaches developmental courses and who is also actively involved with a large English department that has grappled in good faith with the complex issues related to assessment, placement, and designing curriculum for the many types of students who come to our college, I had also hoped that this collection would offer me clarity, perspective, and strength.
And it has certainly done so.
For me, the cumulative experience of reading these essays brought a number of vitally important issues and concerns into sharp focus. It seems clear to me that strong writers develop only over a long period of time and only with considerable support from their teachers and their learning communities.
As Sheridan argues, this process is complicated because we find ourselves at an historical moment when the culture itself seems to have become hostile to any conception of education that is not traditionally and narrowly defined (and it appears to be hostile to most forms of intellectual inquiry as well). It seems very clear to me that we have important work to do.
On a more positive note, I found very real and worthwhile connections between Ron’s comments about “attitude,” Alfredo’s focus on “voice,” the professor quoted in Susan’s essay who talked about college-level writers needing to move away from the “self-centered focus of youth,” and Muriel’s “Reader-Based” writer.
For me, “maturity of outlook”–a disposition toward ideas and the world that is open-ended, patient, and curious–is one of the key markers of a college-level reader, writer and thinker.
I’ve learned a great deal from my involvement with this project, and I want to thank you all for your great work!
Your examples and analysis of students’ skills and attitudes are deeply informative, whether you are discussing Adam’s syntax or his attitude of openness to learning or Donna’s “toothbrush logic”—a term I plan to steal from you, if I can have your permission! I also think that your notion of giving students texts to read and assignments to write that “encourage them to interact in situations where people think and define the world differently [R]ather than asking them to imagine hypotheticals” is very sound.
I wonder, however, if changing assignments or readings will be enough to help students like Donna or Nancy develop the kinds of sophisticated thinking skills exhibited by Adam. In the pre-college course that you envisage, where would be the place for the kind of explicit articulation of what comprises strong reading, thinking, and writing—the kind of articulation you provide for Adam’s paper? Adam, himself, may not even have been aware of his strengths until you pointed them out to him. All students can benefit from the kinds of analyses you provide—it is easier for students to develop and transfer skills when they can be named and seen in other work, particularly, I believe, in other student work. Where, in your curriculum, does that naming occur? Will it happen in the pre-college courses as well as the college courses? And, finally, how do you teach students to recognize particular skills? Peer review? Analysis of published work? Thanks for a stimulating essay.
As many of you pointed out, it is difficult to define what college-level writing is because the number of variables is infinite; however, we all agree that college students should show more interest in their writing in order to become competent writers; they should not throw their papers in the trash, but read our comments. However, not all instructors are as passionate as we are when it comes to teaching writing; many are just there, crowding our institutions, counting the days until their retirement; others are stuck in their own uniformed world and focus only on mechanical errors (minus 20 points for a comma splice, minus 20 for a fragment . . .) instead of focusing on teaching writing that is rich in content. I always tell my students: “don’t just count the words; give me content, give me substance, show me some knowledge . . . enlighten me.”
Just like many of you, I believe the writing of the research paper is one of the most important assignments not only in college but also in high school writing. I just don’t understand why other subjects such as Science or Social Studies classes ignore the documented essay even though their students use outside sources for their writing assignments. I believe, if we all teach the MLA style of documentation, our students will perform better on all research-type assignments; then we, the English instructors, will not be blamed for our students’ incompetence, and we don’t have to teach the process in every grade level, but we can just go forward and help students produce meaningful, well- developed, rich with content documented essays; I was surprised to find out that our AP World History students are not expected to document when they write their DBQ essays (Document Based Questions) even though they use six to eight sources; our AP English Language students were not required to write a research paper until just recently when a new flyer from the College Board showed the changes in the future AP language exam where students are expected to know how to document outside sources. Scholars have been talking about writing across the curriculum for years now, and I believe writing some type of documented paper in each grade level in most subject matters should be one of the requirements to meet this goal.
As I was reading your essays, I found something interesting in each one of them; some of them reminded me of teaching techniques I use in the classroom (group research paper) or observations that are parts of my philosophy on teaching and writing. For example, I enjoyed reading about verbal and mental drafts; these are the processes that I go through in my writing, and I am trying to help my students to think and talk about their writing. I always tell them “you can not create a masterpiece in one sitting; you have to revisit your piece of writing many times, share it with others and get some feedback before you make the determination that your piece is ready for submission.”
Also, I agree about the importance of the scoring criteria; implementing the criteria is one way to assure that students are satisfying the writing requirements. Last semester when my students were practicing for the New SAT writing requirement and for the Practice Writing Assessment Test, I wrote on the board the scoring criteria (especially Score of 6) for my tenth grade honors students and explained and modeled everything so that they could aim for the highest score.
Most of all, just like many of you, I believe collaboration is an important aspect; high school teachers need to know what college instructors expect students to know. We need to start a dialogue so that we, the high school teachers, can prepare our students better for college; this way the college instructors do not have to start from the beginning and teach basic writing skills, but can help students create worthwhile college-level compositions.
Once again it has been a great pleasure to participate in this project and read all of these well-written essays. I believe they are not only informative, but they are also very instructional. They reminded me of the time when I was working on my writing degree and read similar material and fell in love with rhetoric and composition; it was the time when my instructors were trying to convince me that I was a writer, and I kept saying “no, I am only a teacher who loves writing.”
When read together, your three essays intersect so well to help to establish a clear distinction between teaching writing in high school and teaching it in college. The bottom line is that high school regular English classes and college-prep courses are not college courses, nor should they be. I think that these three essays should be given to the kind of faculty Peter discusses at the college level who complain that freshmen students are “unprepared for college writing.” As Sheridan notes in relation to those college faculty who find their students unable to synthesize, analyze, etc. to their satisfaction, “if students could do all of these things at the time they entered your class, why would we need you to teach them?”
All three of you demonstrate clearly why high school writing may well need to be largely “formulaic” and show that this is not necessarily a negative-high school students frequently lack the experience to write well without explicit guidance or formulas from the teachers. You show us that high school writing under most circumstances necessarily seeks to conform-and why wouldn’t it, given the material conditions of standardized testing, pre-determined curricula under which students and teachers are working, and large class sizes. You explain how class size usually prevents the assigning of more or more complex writing. Most high school English teachers clearly work hard to teach literature and writing while inserting PSAT, SAT, SAT II, and AP prep into their lessons. But what they are teaching about writing must often be different from what college teachers emphasize.
At the moment, all three of you argue that Writing Projects are the best way that English teachers in the schools can find support for more creative ways of teaching writing-teaching revision, teaching ownership of one’s writing, etc. But, as you point out, these methods require more work and cannot be embraced by everyone. There are times when it seems that Sheridan’s essay was written to provide further evidence for Peter and Mika’s essays. He astutely notes in reference to those teachers who collaborate with Writing Projects:
“Of course, smart, experienced, professionally sophisticated high school teachers, who are themselves writers, know the advantages of helping student writers learn to be guided more by the shape of their reflective thought than by a prefabricated outline. But such teachers will be the first to admit that their instruction generally runs counter to the culture of their school and even the culture of their department and certainly to the current national culture of assessment.”
If the teaching of writing in most high schools will ever truly become more obviously “college preparatory,” we would need a thorough overhauling of the material realities of high school English teaching-class size, testing, textbooks, and of course a change in how writing is addressed in schools of education. In the absence of all of this, we should adopt more realistic assumptions about the relationship between writing in high school and writing in college. Your three descriptions of how different students are in high school and college-something that doesn’t seem to get addressed enough in the literature-should help all of us to recognize that, under the current conditions of public schooling, we cannot and should not expect students to have a seamless transition from high school to college.
The issues that you raise about “good enough” writing connect well with so many of the other essays in the book, as you articulate ways of going beyond what Peter Kittle calls “form and correctness.” As you discuss what you do in your “Coming of Age in American Autobiography” course, and explore the ways in which you help students to feel like “insiders,” we see that the kind of collaboration in which you and your students engage. This collaboration echoes discussions we have seen in other essays—whether the collaboration is with class members, the teacher, peer mentors, or some combination. These points about collaboration are central in my paper as well on teaching research.
The bottom line in all of these discussions is that they don’t simply require a change of “criteria”; rather, they require a change in the teacher’s pedagogy—perhaps Peter Kittle’s point about the differences between high school and college contexts needs to be taken more deeply into account here. Such issues in teaching at the high school level as maintaining discipline in a class; preparing students for state and national tests; “covering” a pre-established set of texts and skills may impede the extent to which high school teachers can genuinely represent themselves as “part of a team” and enable students to see writing as the joyful experience that you and many writers on the college level talk about in this volume. I applaud what you do, and hope that my best teaching approaches yours, but I do wonder about the extent to which teaching in particular institutional settings can enable or disenable certain types of collaborative teaching.
I would like to begin my response to you with a wonderful quotation from your own paper: “I learned that to write at the college level requires not only a thorough knowledge of the material to be discussed, but also a cogent, thoughtful, and passionately presented synthesis of that material.”
These are clearly some of the key components to college-level writing, and they overlap with skills discussed in many papers in this volume; I think particularly of Adam in Ronald Lundsford’s paper. What simultaneously most impresses and disturbs me about your essay is that you came to college with a vast repertoire of writing and study skills and that, at least as I read your essay, the reason you excelled in college level writing is because you were taught all of the skills you needed in high school. It seems that your college teacher—again as represented in the essay—put you and your classmates in a “sink or swim” situation that worked for you because you were already an extremely competent student, but that could, I imagine, result in failure for students coming to the class much less prepared than you. It seems that the course you describe mystified what college level writing was by giving you an open topic with little guidance. This is the kind of course that I write about in my paper as failing to help students who, in essence, don’t already possess the skills to succeed. It appears to be the kind of course in which “the rich get richer…”
Let’s begin by just listing many of the skills with which Kim entered college. I think they should be divided into two types: behavior skills and writing skills. Behavioral skills are not exclusive to college level writing, but without them, it is hard to achieve anything, and they are skills that few of us articulate as explicitly as you do, so I think they deserve to be underscored.
•Work through “panic” and refuse to procrastinate
•Pace yourself to work on assignment for a whole month
•Seek and find others to help you (mother; teachers; friends at dinner; tutors at the writing center)
•Recognize that critique by a professor, while initially disheartening, is helpful
•Initiate repeated visits to professor
•Value intellectual work and collaboration and validation more than the grade
•Brainstorm in note form
•“Bang out” an outline and critique it
•Develop a thesis
•Transfer writing skills learned in high school to college situation: “ the trick to tackling such a broad question was to reread, reanalyze, and hone the assignment and my subsidiary questions into one, central question.”
•Maintain sensitivity to language use
•Reread texts you plan to write about; underline
•Do library research on your own: sophisticated knowledge to look for the book many writers are quoting
•“Listen[ing] to multiple levels of textual analysis… and … participating in the “Conversation of Mankind”
•Organize notes; color code quotations by topic and argument
•Desire to create own writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa
•Rewrite/revise thesis and writing
What did your college professor do to help you? I can only find two areas of help, and one appears to be after the fact: The teacher:
•Was willing to sit down with you and go over drafts
•Nominated you for Writing Fellows Program
While you praise your teacher for meeting with you when you asked (and who would not want to meet with a motivated student like you?), it seems that your epiphanies occur elsewhere than in your writing classroom or in your teacher’s office; the primary one about your Tolkien paper occurred in the Writing Center, but one senses that you might not have been able to have it without your strong high school courses. We should note that you quite carefully explain how most of the skills you have were taught to you in high school. So if your college-level professor had been teaching you writing skills, it seems that you would have explained the process.
I want to leave all of us who teach at the college level with a set of questions about this course: what happens to students who don’t know how to research or will be overwhelmed by the open-endedness of the assignment? What about students who don’t know how to advocate for themselves by asking to see the teacher repeatedly, or students who, after the first negative feedback from the teacher, plunge themselves into a tailspin because they don’t understand that critique can be highly productive during the writing process? What about students who procrastinate because they have no experience with a month-long assignment? What about students who haven’t ever had a parent to go to for help? What about students who can’t critique their own work? What about students who weren’t taught all that Kim was taught about writing in high school, or students who were taught, but simply don’t remember or can’t transfer their knowledge so readily to the college environment?
Many students I have taught over 20 years as a freshman writing teacher—whether in a private elite university, a private non-elite university, or a public college, and many others whom I’ve met by being a WPA in all of these institutions, have to learn slowly how to evaluate the work of others, how to accept critiques of their own work, and eventually how to become analytical about their own work. They have to be taught how to synthesize, not just told to do it. If they are not explicitly taught these and the many other skills that Kim possesses, they will not succeed. Why aren’t these skills actively articulated in the curriculum of Kim’s college course. The apparent sink or swim method of teaching used in Kim’s class should not be lauded because it gives “open” assignments. Such assignments do not, as some think, free students to develop on their own; rather, they reconfirm the status quo by remaining silent about what it takes to succeed.
In contrast, Kim’s paper and her work as a Writing Fellow, works to demystify for students how one might go about writing various types of papers. Kim, you would clearly make an extraordinary teacher. But while I am an advocate of peer mentoring, it must supplement, not take the place of, honest and explicit writing instruction in the classroom that can level the playing field among students who enter college with varying degrees of preparedness.
Given the diversity of criteria—with some overlapping—that your colleagues suggest, Susan, I think that it could be interesting if a number of us posted the criteria (at least as we imagine them) for our courses and then, after we had a number posted, looked for interesting connections/differences among them. For example, at Purchase, where I am, we have 10 criteria, the basis of which are actually state requirements. We have, however, finessed them in ways that work well for us.
The criteria in my program are not startling in the least, but they actually help us in three different ways:
1. They unify faculty who teach the course, building confidence among faculty teaching who are not in “English.” We too have faculty from various disciplines teaching College Writing (our freshman class), but of course in much smaller percentages than in at Texas, Austin. Some faculty from other disciplines who at first are reluctant to teach freshman level writing because they say they haven’t been “trained”—but who are comfortable enough to assign, critique, and grade upper level writing assignments in their discipline—have their fears allayed when they see our rather “commonsensical” criteria. (Our faculty has the option of using a textbook or of creating their own course so people can teach a discipline based topic which can also reduce anxiety/trepidation.)
2. Faculty develop variations of the course criteria into criteria sheets for all major writing assignments in College Writing because criteria sheets appear to help students understand a paper’s task definition as well as understand the reasons for their grades and how to revise.
3. Many faculty report that they then create criteria sheets for writing assignments in upper level classes for similar reasons of clarity. Some faculty have actually said that creating a criteria sheet has actually clarified an assignment for them and at times has led them to change an assignment to make it more in line with what they have actually been teaching.
So here are Purchase College, SUNY’s criteria for College Writing. I can explain any of these in more detail or how they are assessed should the discussion move in that direction.
Course Goals for College Writing at Purchase College
By the end of College Writing, you should be able to do the following. These goals have been established as part of the SUNY general education program, and you will consistently be evaluated on them throughout the term.
1. Produce coherent texts within common college-level written forms. Papers should be organized and carefully developed with adequate transitions between paragraphs and correct sentence structure, spelling, and grammar.
2. Apply critical thinking skills to evaluate student’s own and others’ writing. Students should be able to think critically when analyzing points of view represented in arguments from various perspectives.
3. Take a position of one’s own and develop an argument, using supporting details. Students should be able to take a stand on a topic of interest to them and on an assigned reading or set of readings, and offer evidence for the position they take up as well as an analysis of positions from which they differ.
4. Synthesize materials from various kinds of texts. Students should be able to develop complex and detailed linkages among texts and issues that exist within the same time period (cultural analysis) and issues that have developed over time (historical analysis).
5. Demonstrate the ability to revise and improve papers. Students should be able to amend, expand, and elaborate on a piece of writing, taking into account new information and/or perspectives and additional approaches. The revision process involves substantial rethinking and significant collaboration in the form of graded peer reviews as well as individual reworking of the ideas and organization of students’ own papers. It also includes editing and proof reading every draft of a paper.
6. Use course concepts to develop in-depth readings of texts and critically literate written papers. Among the concepts students are required to understand and use in College Writing are: dominant, residual, emergent; symptomatic reading; parallel culture; historical and cultural analysis; perspective; conflict, etc. (NB. Courses with a particular disciplinary focus will have other concepts that students must be able to use.)
7. Research a topic in detail and write a coherent, well-organized paper that develops an argument in dialogue with source texts. (NB Please see my paper in this volume for a discussion of how research is taught in our College Writing course.)
8. Demonstrate proficiency in oral discourse through daily class discussions, group oral presentations for the research project, and discussions following the presentations.
9. Evaluate an oral presentation (usually the group presentation for the research project) according to established criteria.
10. Perform the basic operation of computer use. All student work should be typed on a computer/word processor. Everyone must have a Purchase e-mail address by the end of the first week of classes. Students will also learn the basics of using the computer for research.
I applaud the clarity of your discussion of your (and many) high school teachers’ focus: on correctness and form. This focus does frustrate many college level teachers as well as many intelligent students who are struggling in their writing to articulate complex ideas and are frequently told that the answer to their problems is to simplify their ideas. I think it is important to push a bit further and ask why those are the primary areas on which many teachers focus.
You note that there are two primary issues that work to maintain distance between high school and college teachers: first is the dramatically different contexts of teaching in high school and college, and second is the lack of communication between the two groups.
Nonetheless, I think it’s important for us to question why schools of education teach so little about how to teach writing and what this has to do with the larger social inequities that are perpetuated in our country, particularly for those students who don’t go to college and who may never get to learn that writing is about more than form and correctness.
and Teaching and Learning with Investment
Early in her paper, Susan Schorn, who coordinates the writing across the curriculum initiative at UT-Austin, wrote the following about the divergent definitions of college writing that she received from her colleagues across the curriculum:
My sense is that, rather than trying to reconcile these many definitions into a single standard, we can do more to improve student writing by looking for the reasons behind the definitions. In fact, when we look at the range of ideas about writing across disciplines, we may become more comfortable with the level of disagreement we find within our own field. Disciplines obviously have divergent goals, but college writing must meet all of those goals. The differences among disciplines demand a more dynamic set of writing standards which are adaptable, as we assume all writing should be, to purpose, audience, and occasion.
I juxtapose this with two quotations from James Gentile, an English Department chair at Manchester Community College who is ultimately responsible for the mounting of between seventy to eighty sections of developmental and college-level writing courses each semester. His essay addresses the:
tension between “college writing”– any writing assignment completed by a student in a college course–and “college-level writing”—any such assignment that requires a significant level of cognitive engagement.
James observes that:
While each section [of the writing course] does not have to duplicate the others—such a goal would be undesirable and probably unrealizable—each section must be grounded in common philosophical and pedagogical premises.
While clearly working very hard to reach out to other disciplines, James candidly discusses the impediments to developing such commonality even within an English department: from hiring adjunct faculty too late in the summer to train, to the difficulty of maintaining a common set of goals in the English department (and college writing) in the face of other departments which have such divergent goals (“an English Department’s conception of ‘college-level writing’ may not be evident in the ‘college writing’ assignments required of students in credit-bearing courses).
The juxtaposition of these two essays helps us to see important chords running through this book—about standards, about writing that occurs both inside and outside writing programs and English Departments, about how to define college writing and how to train faculty not only to teach writing, but to become engaged in the process. And about why all of us in this book are so invested in the teaching of writing.
As my final posting, I would like to tell a story (with a moral about writing, of course) as a way to put closure for myself on the tension between trying to develop “common philosophical premises” about writing across various disciplines in a college (Gentile) and about the “range of ideas about writing [that exist] across disciplines” (Schorn).
Last week, my husband and I were hosting a dinner at our apartment for a job candidate in a humanities field other than English. As Director of College Writing, I had just been enthusiastically explaining to our candidate that, if he got the job, he would probably be teaching one section of Writing each fall, primarily to majors in his field—even though he is not in “English.” I was explaining that at Purchase, faculty are required to teach a general education course annually and that faculty from many disciplines choose Writing as their gen ed contribution.
For whatever reason, the candidate quickly turned to one of the members of the hiring committee—who is the Social Sciences—and asked her if she taught in the gen ed program.
The woman paused and thought, and then said, “No, I guess I don’t teach any gen ed classes.”
I was a bit surprised at her response since she attends virtually every Summer Writing Faculty Enrichment Seminar we have and since she has taught College Writing ever since she came to Purchase three years ago. I rather stumblingly reminded her that she did, in fact, writing. Her face lit up as she looked at the candidate and me.
“I guess I just don’t consider teaching writing as gen ed,” she said. “I get to choose my subject matter, and I get to introduce my majors to the fact that careful reading, writing, analysis, and research are really important in my discipline.” She then laughed and added, “Even though I follow the general CW plan, we all have fun.”
There are multiple morals to this story that I think are relevant to many issues raised in this book:
Don’t make it feel gen ed: The default idea that gen ed classes will be boring and irrelevant is one that many students and faculty maintain as a default position, even if it is not their actual experience. This default idea alone can lower the standards of a course if it is taught from this dispiriting gen ed perspective. Can’t you just feel the high ideals of teaching writing as process, as thinking, as critical engagement slipping away into a discussion of apostrophes and comma splices? Can’t you see students deciding to skip class again, because, after all, it’s just a writing class and not connected to anything else?
Share the teaching of writing with colleagues across the disciplines: Writing can be naturalized, taught (and learned) more genuinely, and enjoyed when it is integrated into a curriculum. I am sure that many of us have been on both sides of the Shorn/Gentile discussion—trying either to run a program in which writing is taught by faculty across the curriculum and facing the dangers of a lack of coherence, or running a program out of an English or Writing Department and facing the dangers of critique from the rest of the institution that students “don’t seem to have learned very much about writing in ‘your’ writing course.” Ah, the Scylla and Charybdis of running writing programs! But we don’t need to be so dichotomous—as Susan shows us: often behind apparently different goals statements are common ideas about what good writing is. If at all possible, I don’t think English or Writing Departments should go it alone. If every program in an institution has some investment in the teaching of writing, the freshman writing course is much less likely to become separated from the curriculum—its goals are more likely to be transferred by students to other classes or to their major.
Students will value a course more (and thus learn more from it) if they perceive it as linked to other classes, particularly, but not exclusively, their major area of study: If students perceive that their writing course is taught by a faculty member whom they will see again, who is known by other faculty who will teach them in a particular area of study, and if they see the course as introducing them to reading and writing in their major, they are likely to see the course as more relevant to their work—as a course that is introducing them to the importance of particular skills and ways of thinking in a particular field. (This initial recognition can be maintained by students even if they change their major: “Oh, writing is important in biology as well as in philosophy.”)
Teachers are (often) invested in teaching writing and feel more competent to do so when they use freshman writing to introduce students generally to a content area with which they strongly identify. The College Writing course can function as a warm up to a discipline (not the intro course to the discipline) with no required content. This environment can give faculty and students a space to work closely on a small number of topics and to be “meta” whenever they need to be.
Such courses, while divergent in content, can have a required methodology (see Susan’s essay, my essay and my response to Susan). Will these methods be perfectly met? Of course not, but holding them hostage in an English Department doesn’t ever seem to have worked anyway. And if faculty in different disciplines are genuinely committed to having their students become better writers (and know that they and their colleagues will likely have to work with these students again), they can be motivated to teach a fine writing course.
Faculty across an institution can enjoy working collaboratively on different course designs that share common goals. We all know this, but part of the “fun” of teaching in such a program is the support faculty give each other in regular staff meetings—this is not dissimilar to Writing Project support that high school teachers contributing to this volume speak so eloquently about.
So, back to my social science colleague. She is a full time faculty member committed to our institution as well as to the faculty and students in her major. She wants students to write well. She, like many faculty, admits to using ideas from College Writing—particularly peer review, multiple drafting, brainstorming homework assignments, and sharing research—to teach aspects of writing in upper level courses. Similarly, she introduces students in her College Writing classes to some content areas she teaches in more depth in other classes. Thus, her College Writing course is integrated with her other teaching. She does not feel put upon by teaching writing; she forgets that her freshman writing course is even “gen ed.” She will probably never contribute to a book like this because her research takes her in other directions. But she is contributing to the teaching of college level writing, and like all the faculty Susan Shorn cites in her paper, my colleague’s story also deserves to be told because it is part of the complex picture of our trying to define what college writing actually is.
John, I particularly liked your “inhalation/exhalation” analogy in your discussion of the reading/writing relationship. As I have been reading comments in our on-going discussion of college-level writing, I have also been mentoring some high school English teachers through the National Board Certification process. One of them told of a persuasive writing assignment growing out of students’ reading of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and M.L.King’s “Letters from Birmingham Jail.” Students read the selections, had extensive discussions about content, form, and audience in class, and later wrote their own persuasive essays in which they attempted to use some of the techniques observed in the selections. Does this sound like the kind of assignment which might be beneficial to students as they prepare for college? It did to me, and I thought about that assignment as I read your essay.
–Ronald F. Lunsford
In “Defining by Assessing,” Ed White says that “merely personal” answers to the question of what constitutes college writing are “indulgences and quite useless.”
I wonder what other kinds of real answers there are. I understand that White and others offer us various rubrics for defining college writing. These rubrics do serve some purposes—chiefly to get us talking to each other; but they don’t settle the issue of what college writing is, because we still have to interpret those general rubrics in light of the individual pieces of writing in front of us. We know what the rubrics say—and we can agree that what they say is right; we have the paper in front of us; but how does this piece of writing embody the qualities called for in our rubric? That is a question of judgment that no rubric can answer.
Let me try to explain what I mean by looking at some of the statements about college (or good college) writing in this collection. In “Testing, College-Level English, and the Adjunct Faculty,” Janice Albert quotes Scott Oury, who says: “I think ‘standards’ are politically driven 70 different ways; but the qualities that make writing interesting and instructive to read are (all but) universally agreed upon.” Are they? And if so, what are they? Ed White answers that question in saying, “It seems obvious that writing without either purpose or audience is at best an empty exercise that, by definition, defies any reasonable ‘college-level’ designation.” Susan Schorn, in “A Lot Like Us, But More So,” would seem to agree: “If I had to pick one thing that separates adult-level writing from adolescent-level writing, it is the ability to reflect the needs of the audience in your writing.” But Susan goes on to complicate matters by reflecting on comments made by a professor of Germanic studies who recognizes her students’ tendencies to avoid the issue of a real audience by assuming a “faux audience embodied in the professor.” Susan comments that in following this course, students “lose the opportunity to interrogate their own views—the very reason many of us in composition stress audience awareness in the first place.” She goes on to assert that in doing so, students will “lack both audience awareness and self-awareness.”
So it’s fairly simple then. We must insist that our students write for a real audience, that they identify with that audience’s perspective regarding the subject they are writing about and, in doing so, they explore, and become aware of, their own beliefs and perspectives regarding the subject they are writing about.
The rubric is solid. Any piece of writing that meets this standard works for me. And I suspect it will work for most teachers of writing. But there is a large devil in the detail of identifying the pieces of writing that illustrate these qualities.
Nevertheless, I agree with Janice Albert that we should encourage dialogue between various members of the college faculty whose charge it is to help students use (and improve) their writing. I also agree with Janice that some faculty may hide behind the label of “academic freedom” and assume “passive-aggressive” stances that cut off the kind of dialogue we need. But not all—if fact, if given the opportunity—not most college faculty assume such closed attitudes. I have found college and university faculty very willing to discuss their views of writing and teaching writing. But I wonder what Janice means in calling for them to do so “dispassionately.” [“Perhaps it is time for an educational reform involving genuine, dispassionate discussion of ideas, probing of assumptions, and civil agreements to disagree upon discovery of conflicts between premises.”] Anything we care about is going to involve some passion. I don’t think I would want these teachers to check that passion at the door. I would agree with Janice that we should all agree to disagree on some crucial issues. Those disagreements can be extremely important learning opportunities for us all, but in the end, we will each have to forge our own answers, over and over again, to the important question of just what college writing is.
And that brings me back to Ed White’s statement that “merely personal answers to social and linguistic questions are really indulgences and quite useless.” I’m puzzled by a good bit here. First, why do we call this a linguistic question? I would consider it a linguistic question only in the sense in which linguistics is taken to subsume rhetoric. And why “social”? Is the first-year writing course in fact a place where students are to be “socialized” into the various expectations, in terms of editing and form, of the dominant culture? I know that some of that goes on in first-year writing courses; it certainly does in the first-year writing courses I teach. But am I willing to reduce what I do in those courses to “socialization”? I think not.
Use of the term “reduce” provides an excuse for inveigling one of my favorite theorists
into this discussion. In “Four Master Tropes” Kenneth Burke talks about the kind of reduction that goes on when we attempt to reduce issues of “substance” to issues of “science.” According to Burke, science can tell us only that “when certain conditions are met, certain new conditions may be expected to follow” (505). If we are satisfied with this “scientific” definition of “college writing,” then we may well be happy to settle for such a definition as “college writing will be that writing that is judged–by the committee that has been appointed for the purposes of such judging–to meet the criteria announced in our descriptions of college writing.” However, this doesn’t seem to me much of an improvement on Ed White’s definition of college writing as “the writing that is done in college by students receiving passing grades from their professors.” But if we agree with Burke, we will feel that “any attempt to deal with human relationships after the analogy of naturalistic correlations becomes necessarily the reduction of some higher or more complex realm of being to the terms of a lower or less complex realm of being” (506). It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to me to say that my attempt, as a human being, to “value” some piece of writing done by another human being constitutes a “human relationship.” I am not willing to reduce that relationship to a correlation.
So that brings me back to Ed White’s statement that is still running around in my head: “. . . merely personal answers to social and linguistic questions are really indulgences and quite useless.” I must disagree. But in doing so, I don’t have to despair about the activity we are engaged in here. Burke offers support for what we are doing in talking about his theory of metaphor. For Burke, the essence of metaphor is perspective. Rather than distorting or falsifying, as some would accuse metaphor of doing, Burke thinks that metaphor allows us to gain perspective when we see A as B. According to Burke, “It is customary to think that objective reality is dissolved by such relativity of terms as we get through the shifting of perspectives… . But on the contrary, it is by the approach through a variety of perspectives that we establish a character’s reality. If we are in doubt as to what an object is, for instance, we deliberately try to consider it in as many different terms as its nature permits”(504).
That’s exactly what we are doing here. And in doing so, we are enacting the very principles that we all agree make for good writing. One of the best “personal” descriptions of what happens when writers began to take their craft seriously is Chris Anson’s:
“I began to listen carefully to the ways students talked about their writing. Those who made the most progress seemed, during the various processes of drafting and revising, very uncertain. They weighed alternatives. They wrestled with rhetorical choices. They shaped, embellished, and rejected directions for their texts. Yet at the same time they seemed to embrace this uncertainty, to relish it. Those who had the most trouble, by contrast, were afraid of admitting uncertainty, as if to guess that good writers (like good teachers) always know exactly what they are doing. The more I examined these two attitudes toward uncertainty, the more convinced I became in their connections to learning. Students who accepted uncertainty were more deeply engaged in the relationship between their thinking and their emerging texts. I started to hypothesize that by reflecting tentativeness and possibility in my response to their work, I would encourage a relativistic and learning–rich view of writing.” –from “Teaching Composition, Circa 1989.”
Given Anson’s observations, it seems somehow very wrong to hope a student will adopt a questioning approach to her own writing in a classroom in which a teacher feels confident that he can place her writing alongside a rubric and tell her definitively whether that writing meets the standards set for college writing. That does not mean that the teacher must offer no opinion on the writing. In the end, he must do so—even to the point of giving a final grade for the course. However, I would hope that my students see my opinions, even my final grade, for their writing as one among many different perspectives they will get on their writing.
Anson, Chris. (1995). “Teaching Composition, Circa 1989.” In Rick Straub and Ronald F. Lunsford, 12 Readers Reading: Responding to College Student Writing (pp. 395-397). Cresskill, New Jersey.
Burke, Kenneth. (1945). “Four Master Tropes.” In, Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (pp. 503-517). Los Angeles, University of California Press.
As I read the essays in this collection, enjoying the insightful ideas, the voices from various corners of the campus and types of educational institutions, and the variety of lenses through which we all think about college-level writing, I realized we’re missing an adjective to qualify that term “college-level writing.” As the scholarship of contrastive rhetoric and my own experience as a tutor in a writing center have convinced me, we’re discussing “American college-level writing.” As we know, the rhetorical ideals we teach are based on those that are valued in American academic writing. But other cultures value other ideals that some of our students bring along with them to college composition courses.
In our Writing Lab, I’ve seen drafts of papers that would appear to be not well written but that in the writer’s mind qualifies as good writing. What I see might be the endlessly long sentences that meander through what to us would be a paragraph or two. But some Spanish-speaking students, especially (in my experience) those who grew up in Puerto Rico and had an excellent high school education were encouraged—even rewarded—for those endless sentences. At other times it’s the seemingly monotonous sentence pattern that marches like a drumbeat across the page. To my ear they need variety in structure and length. But some languages stress (or are almost restricted to) parallel structure, and that limits the writer’s interest in using subordinate sentence structures. When I ask such a writer to read the paper aloud (a standard tutorial practice to let the student hear her own text) and ask how it sounds, the student often looks pleased by what she heard.
Less obvious are those vague papers that just don’t have a clear-cut point because, to me, they are stuffed with gauzy metaphors that don’t help to move ideas forward. And here we meet up with a student from another language group where metaphor is an excellent vehicle in which to couch ideas. A straightforward declaration of the point (what we would term “the thesis sentence”) might sound overly direct, even rude. When students learned to write in that culture, they also learned to move gently to the point, not to announce it overtly at the beginning of the paper.
A major issue that comes up when students from other cultures write research papers is the fact that in some cultures it is an insult to cite a source from an authority in the field or to offer a reference to a literary source. To do so implies that the reader is less than literate, not well-read, or not acquainted with what is known about the subject. American emphasis on citing all sources is a concept that is difficult to grasp for some of these students.
I could go on and on citing examples of student writing that simply don’t fit in the standard mold of American academic writing. These influences are embedded in the culturally derived values that accompany the students’ instruction in writing. Whereas conciseness is preached in American business and technical writing, some cultures value copiousness. Organizational patterns in American academic writing don’t encourage digressions, but digression is acceptable in the rhetorical values of some languages.
The problem with such differences in rhetorical values is that most are never verbalized to the student or to us as these students write for us. The disconnect is when we would assess the writing as inadequate while such students see their writing as incorporating standards instilled in them in previous classrooms (classrooms, that is, outside the United States). Once we recognize this divergence in students’ papers, we can help these writers understand that in American classrooms, they need to learn to write prose that is acceptable by American standards. In my experience, this isn’t as obvious as it sounds. I remember a series of tutorials with a charming Asian woman who simply couldn’t bring herself to compose a thesis statement, much less insert it in the first paragraph of her paper. “I am not such a bad-mannered person,” she would say quietly, but adamantly. I never won her over to my attempt to argue that she would not be giving up her writing preferences, just adding a new one adapted to a different audience.
So, just a final plea to us all that we keep in mind in this conversation that we are discussing American college-level writing, not all college-level writing. We know this, but just as it’s problematic when some students aren’t aware of the standards by which they view their writing, so too can some instructors overlook the possibility that when some writing doesn’t meet their standards, they may need to take a second look in order to figure out what is causing the difference.
Dear Dr. McCormick,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful reading of my essay. I enjoyed seeing my experiences and reflections upon them through your eyes. It gave me the opportunity to realize how much my thoughts on writing have continued to develop and change.
At first, I was concerned that you felt my experience with the Tolkien paper was an example of a “sink or swim” essay assignment, since the professor did spend over an hour with my paper while it was still in the draft stage, I ultimately enjoyed the project, and still greatly admire the professor. However, after reading your article, I see that my experience was much less guided than the seven-step model you propose. Certainly, I would agree that the highly collaborative classroom setting you outline is an exciting idea that sounds as if it could provide the atmosphere required for the incredibly important discussions that, as you note, “often serve as preparation for writing but may also serve to help students learn strategies for critical thinking that they will later use in writing.” As I highlighted in my essay, one of the greatest assets I gained from my involvement with the Tolkien paper was learning to discuss my ideas with my professors, tutors, peers, parents, and even supporting texts. Collaborative discussion and research are vital to the creation of college-level writing, and it would seem logical and beneficial to have that kind of discussion-based learning available to first-year college students on a regular basis.
Yet, in order for collaborative education to work, an underlying structure, created and enforced by the teacher, must be present at all times. As Smith and Wilhelm articulate, “a sense of control and competence; a challenge that requires an appropriate level of skill; clear goals and feedback; a focus on the immediate experience” are the vital characteristics of a writing-centered and writing-friendly classroom, and the responsibilities for fostering that atmosphere rest with the teacher and the institution. This is precisely what made my time in Advanced Placement Language and Composition so valuable; the teacher created hard writing assignments, but in the end, I always felt in control and though challenged, knew that she would not let me fail. By sharing the reasoning behind her assignments with me, as well as her experiences as a teacher, student, and writer, I knew that she understood the challenges or writing for an audience, and would not make me suffer unduly. Together, through longs hours and dozens of conversations and drafting sessions, we took responsibility for my education and growth as a writer, and as a result, I was able to succeed later during my Tolkien paper writing experience.
I am very intrigued by your concern for the romantic ideology and mystification of writing. You accurately note that according to many textbooks, “Things are supposed to happen that are not really explained, so that we see the mystifying of the research process and of writing on the college-level begin again.” As I have continued to write in the company of my peers, worked to become a more effective Writing Fellow, and most recently, watched my younger brother tackle the complications of college-level writing, I have found myself begrudgingly thinking that just maybe, Rainer Maria Rilke was right. Perhaps, truly no one can advise and help us when it comes to writing. However, I think that in this case at least, Rilke is wrong, because I know that when I fail to put in the time and effort necessary to complete thoughtful research, discussion, and drafting, my writing suffers. After nearly three years of continuously struggling to write at the college-level, I am fairly certain that there is no magic wand that can cause the perfect transition to appear suddenly on my computer screen at three in the morning. Rather, as you suggest, it is repeated instruction, discussion, and practice that allows for students’ writing processes to become smoother and more fruitful over the course of their careers.
There were so many points in your essay where I found myself nodding and laughing in agreement, that I do not dare chronicle them all here. Perhaps it will be enough to say merely that your genuine interest in your students and their abilities to function as writers and thinkers is evident through your careful research, description of their trials, and detailed proposals for their future educational experiences.
I enjoyed reading your essay, and found myself quickly engaged by your concerns about student and teacher roles in the teaching of writing. Specifically, I felt internally conflicted about the “adversarial relationship” that you eloquently investigate.
As a peer writing tutor, I have a somewhat more complete understanding of what’s expected in a given assignment than the tutee does, and that position gives me a role very much like an instructor’s in terms of student hostility. As a student myself at the same time, I was often eager to distance myself from my writing almost immediately: even with the fastest possible turnaround from an instructor, it was too late. I’d read the comments — perhaps even commit them to memory, as you suggest — but ultimately, the paper I’d written and the ground it covered had by that point reached the status of exercise. Even a truly impassioned paper, upon return, with the range from brief and laudatory remarks, or genuinely engaging and insightful comments felt very external, and less like a part of me as it had during the writing itself.
To me, that feels less a matter of instructor “claiming” of a paper, and more a problem of the need for these papers to amount to a greater “something”. Perhaps a mode worth investigating is a final selective portfolio at the end of a given class, wherein students would be required to have re-engaged their previous work in a meaningful way. That is to say, not only considered instructor comments or “corrections” (an assumption you address well), but actually then re-envisioning their papers accordingly. No small task, from a student’s perspective, but one that would in some ways could relieve part of the instructor’s burden of individual attention by placing a greater meaning on the paper itself — the instructor’s comments have a meaning and act as guideposts in a real way towards a visible future goal, and ideally would help pull the student forward as a stronger writer in the process.
That’s not to say that that model too isn’t without its pitfalls — in such a scenario, if poorly handled, the final portfolio either takes too much importance, or becomes merely another hoop to be thrown aside later. But if that’s the risk that you run anyway, what can be the harm in an extra level of revision?
Peter, your essay sure did bring back memories for me–and not very fond ones–of high school. I think we, as a collective of educators and learners, can’t look at any one curriculum or program in high school unless we look as well at the high school as an institution.
It’s been a while, so maybe things have changed, but…
When I was in high school, it was less about the work we were doing, the learning, the preparation for college or the real world, wherever that is, but more about the cultural socialization, the social life, being “popular”–the dances, the pep rallies, the sports (or surviving if you weren’t). I remember all the “social” moments–good and bad–a lot more than I remember the schoolwork I did. And did it prepare me for college? Just the opposite. I hated high school so much, the idea of going right into college was so revolting, I took years off. By the time I went to college, I had been writing on my own because I wanted to, and I was thrilled with what was presented to me in the classroom.
If high schools have changed, wonderful, but I’m not sure they have. So students may be unprepared for high school work when they come in, unprepared for college work when they come out–and everyone blames the teachers when the problem may be the system.
But this makes me think. The assignments we give, the writing students do, are much less than the overall experience of high school. And whatever students get out of it (or not) is affected by that. And affected more so in high school than in college.
Yet the ground I’ve worked on has consistently been gray. At one inner city community college I’ve labored it, the exit exam for Freshman English I was the five paragraph essay. In English II, students struggled on how to fit more complex writing into the form they’d been taught and taught and taught. So how useful is it to expect college freshman to achieve what they were supposed to have already achieved, however limiting?
So what does this prove? I’m not sure, other than it may not be the teacher or the teacher’s assignments, classroom persona, or experience that makes the difference. It may be the student, the school, the family, the community that determines what happens with the student in the writing class in high school and beyond. But we cannot talk about the class per se unless we look at the system in which it exists, and look at what the system is doing–and not doing–to facilitate learning.
We get mad at surly store clerks for rudeness or indifference, but when we think of how they’re treated and paid, what else should we expect. When our high school teachers are, as a group, over-worked, exhausted, burned out, undervalued, and often abused, it’s the system that’s made them like that, and it’s wrong to blame them for what happens or doesn’t happen in a classroom when the system remains the dominant problem. Blaming the teachers is easy and cowardly–and it keeps everyone from seeing the true problems.
A really great piece that exposes the many pitfalls in the writing class game.
Many other good points in your essay–how too many people assume that grades mean quality, and your word play–“communicate effectively, not effectively communicate” was both hilarious and mind-boggling. For what is the difference, really? In definition? In product?
Your essay and your own experience of getting a B- illustrated one of academia’s most difficult dilemmas–reaching out to all the people who need to be “educated” while retaining its own sense of intellectual elitism. The fact that you didn’t answer the question the way the teacher wanted it doesn’t mean that you didn’t wander into an answer that was just as profound and interesting–and yet in the name of college writing, that possibility never crossed your prof’s mind, or never made it into his grading decisions.
The function of grammar rules should be to facilitate communication, in and out of school. It is sad to see that they are still used as a club. Hence, many students still come to school thinking grammar is the secret of good college writing, afraid of grammar and afraid of making mistakes, or disliking the whole writing experience because of grammar.
Beautiful job, Sheridan. I appreciate the depth/texture of the ideas presented — the extensive, thoughtful experience those ideas represent. Having been in a few of those battles myself, I enjoyed reading your views — and I wish I would have had you in a chair nearby a few times when I found myself in a scrape with these bureaucratic efforts to make sense — or perhaps nonsense — of what we do. I bet you’re pretty good in a tight spot like that. :0)
Anyway, your last two paragraphs cap the article wonderfully. I am reminded of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s frequent admonitions to “Wake up!” — perhaps the foundational purpose of not just Zen practice, but also all intellectual work — of college level reading and writing, as you suggest. However, in America, as well as the rest of the world, we humans fall short as a species again and again. Content to follow our appetites, fears, and whatever else may float by, we create unbelievable messes among ourselves generation after generation. Thus, anyone attempting to break free of the morass of foggy thinking and misplaced efforts often finds himself or herself marginalized, contending with the various resistances the majority often like to throw in such people’s paths.
The quest to “wake up” is the only game in town, in my view and, I believe, the view of many in our field — as you suggest so well in those final paragraphs. Thank you for taking what we do to that level of heart commitment/quest for truth. Without being nearly as melodramatic as I am being here — :0) You have articulated that beautifully for us all.
A wonderful article, Professor Knodt. I enjoyed your summary of the various writing program purposes, which provide clear specificity to the largely broad impressions I took from my own survey of composition departments a few years back. Nicely done — and thank you!
You say in your article: “However, we might do a better job of talking to each other in our English or writing departments about what we are doing and why. We might also begin dialogues with institutions that our students transfer to or with institutions from whom we receive transfers to discuss what we both think are the important experiences in writing that our students should have.” I find this to be a key point. In my own observation of our field, our classroom emphasis on coherence in student essays appears ironic when juxtaposed against the striking lack of coherence we have within departments, as well as among those systems providing our students and also to which our writing students advance. In my experience, calls for program or even system-wide coherence often encounter resistance as too “Orwellian,” too opposed to academic freedom, etc. For our students, though — as your delineation of the various program foci clearly presents — it’s all the luck of the draw, the roll of the dice, etc. whether they will receive a coherent, useful foundation in reading/writing practice, or whether they will receive a disjointed patchwork of each area’s “flavor of choice.” I find I am the most “academically free” when I know my students are participating in a coherent, effective program/system that is meeting their needs for lifelong reading/writing skills.
As a starting point for dialogue, I agree with you that the WPA framework is useful. As a pragmatist, I would like to see those discussions you suggest include examination of range finders that exemplify group consensus on the execution of each of the values the WPA identifies.
Thank you again for your article. I plan to review it from time to time, as I’ve seen no clearer identification of the various approaches to our field currently in use.
The question posed by the editors of this volume and considered by the contributors—all representing a particular expertise in and perspective on “college-level writing”—might have implied a desired consensus from the editors. Reading the volume it is clear that differences philosophical, pedagogical, institutional, and–on an important level—individual shape the responses. In fact, the contributors seem to disagree not only on what “college-level writing” is but on how it can be talked about. The responses indicate that the question could ask for a consideration of “college-level” as it suggests entry-level abilities (as determined by an assessment mechanism), as it characterizes the familiar first-year college composition course, as it reflects writing done in other college courses, or as it is evidenced by writing abilities demonstrated by the end of a college career. However, that range seems to me not problematic in the context of two larger themes that arise: that college-level writing is grounded in a writer-reader dynamic and that such a dynamic is active (and thus a process).
Many of the responses suggest a common standard in part as a response to Patrick Sullivan’s prompt. Bloom clearly defines this standard when she distinguishes “Academic Virtues” and “Critical Thinking,” though she emphasizes that the former are usually rewarded. Those academic virtues suggest writing that demonstrates control of form and language and general conventions. Those standards seem consistent among the entries. (While Gunner sees this as troublesome, she nonetheless recognizes that there is a consensus). Bloom goes on to distinguish good enough and great writing when she describes the potential of students to “transform, transcend, violate, or ignore a number of these attributes of good enough writing” (119-20). She emphasizes that not all students are prepared to go to the next level, but implicit in her description of college-level writing is the concept of process and of growth of authorial voice.
The writer-reader dynamic is central to the varied responses. The idea of a writer who is engaged is emphasized (and well-embodied in the writing experiences of the student contributors). Bloom sees the leap to critical thinking as involving the writers’ transformation from “outsiders to insiders” (120). Lunsford talks of the strong writer Adam in terms of his engagement, his ability to “to learn from his own writing” (23). He compares this with the second writer who “declines” to “enter into and, indeed struggle with the complexities of the world” (25). Lunsford distinguishes the student who can do something but who instead refuses to do so. He refers to “attitudes that are going to keep them from the growth in writing, reading, and thinking that we want to see in a writing course” (30). Shorn offers confirmation of this through her interdisciplinary inquiry. And Dobson, in his account of his experiences as an adjunct, clearly depicts the lack of engagement of many of his students while also diagnosing the very real factors—such as placements that require a middle of the road approach to teaching the diverse students, too large classes—that shape such an attitude.
The writer in turn sees the connection to the reader. Kearns effectively describes the “fundamentally monological” (6) approach to writing most high school students bring to college and argues for the students not only to “adopt a third position, one capable of embracing both poles from outsider the reader/writer dyad” (9). McCormack depicts a model of research that illustrates the writer-reader issue. The research conducted by the students is valued expressly because it is done for somebody. Further, inculcated in the students through this practice is a sense that they are an audience for the work of others and that their work will be read by an audience.
The college-level writer is aware that something beyond communication of information for a particular class is occurring. That the writing enterprise exists beyond such boundaries addresses the whole issue of where we locate such writing. Albert argues that the text read in class serve as a rhetorical model while others see the text additionally as a center for the critical inquiry that centers the writing. Lunsford addresses this—students must read challenging texts so they are forced to interact with different ideas (31). Related to the idea of writing for an audience is the students’ need to understand their own role as audience—to see writing as something for an audience. Kearns describes the student as a reader of his own text, conscious of what is transpiring between the writer-reader dyad.
Also central within the definition of college-level writing articulated is the concept of process. The limits of the high school curriculum is seen in terms of the lack of purpose and process other than to produce a one-time product (this contrasts to the experience of several of the student writers such as Winalski who registered for the most demanding high school classes). Lewiecki-Wilson and Wahlrab argue that “as writers mature, they learn to recognize exigencies and adapt their rhetorical knowledge and skills effectively to the demands of different writing situations” (99). Winalski embodies that idea of engagement and of writing as process. Albert, while focusing on a more rhetorical grounded curriculum (with essays serving as models), emphasizes ideas of development and process(14).
Kittle distinguishes a high school emphasis on “correctness and form [that] attain meaning only through the purposeful communicating of important relevant ideas” (57) and a college-based emphasis on “enthymeme-based inquiry within active engaged classroom discourse communities” (58) This seems to address the issue raised by Gunner who questions whether students are asked to create commodities. If the writer is engaged in the process, then perhaps this is less problematic. For students who are asked simply to produce a product, then that is not college-level writing.
At one point in his discussion, Chris Kearns writes: “But to avoid working through the interpersonal complexities of undergraduate composition is, in a significant sense, to miss both the point of college writing and one of education’s most important opportunities.” Although it is clear that Kearns views undergraduate composition as complex, I find intriguing that he labels, not composition as a whole, but a specific aspect of composition complex: – the “interpersonal complexities.” My understanding is that there may indeed be aspects of undergraduate composition that are not terribly complex, or a way of removing some aspect that is complex and then only engaging what is left over. Would these leftovers continue to be undergraduate composition — or college-level writing – if that complexity is removed? The further implication of Kearns’ statement seems to be that composition is complex, that our choice is not that we can remove it from college-level writing, but the choice is to “avoid working through” these complexities. Kearns’ statement suggests that we can avoid working through these particular complexities – that we can simplify what we do with and for students in the composition classroom, and by extension, what we do in conversations such as the one represented by this collection of essays. I read Chris’s sentence as a call – a call to avoid simplification, or to avoid teaching composition as if it were not complex – an evasion of what he calls, “one of education’s most important opportunities” [my emphasis]. My understanding, then, is that college-level writing is indeed complex, and that to imagine it as anything but complex risks rendering it less than college-level writing. My response here is an attempt to follow, even to create, a bond among the essay in this collection, to suggest that what is ultimately common, what w should try to see as common, is an insistence upon a particular kind of complexity, one I will frame in terms of responsibility.
In her essay, Jeanne Gunner worries about the “boxing effect,” about commodification, reification. Gunner’s concern is for commodification on several levels. Even asking and engaging a question such as ours – What is “College-Level Writing”? – invites commodification of composition through the very process of asking and answering the question. The same goes for commodifying reading, or at least treating reading as product driven – the drive to lift a “meaning” as “product” out of a text as one pulls an object out of a box. I’ll return to this critique of this commodification of reading. And she worries, then, about treating writing as a commodity.
The essays in this volume show us the extremes and then a continuum between writing as it relates to specific tasks in the business world and writing in its role in one’s overall education in the sense of general education. In a sense, the essays from a business perspective, or essays that emphasize rubrics, would seem to represent the view of writing as a commodity – treating it as a measurable product and then the goal of college-level writing courses is to teach students to be able to produce such products. Does this process, this approach, represent an avoidance of complexity?
Lauren Weisberg Kaufman, in her essay about the writing expectations of the business world, describes writing as ultimately a very transparent activity. Any text generated – a memo for example – carries with it a clear, concise, one might say “boxed” meaning that simply transfers from writer to reader. On this view, there seems no complexity other than the potentially complex skill of creating and reading such a text, that is, until we look at what she tells us are the qualities of good business writing: “In business, simple, direct writing is valued, as a primary role is to communicate to one’s superiors in as concise a manner as possible.” Who does not value such writing? How did Kaufman arrive at the idea that the writing she was asked to produce in college did not reflect these qualities? She tells us that in college she “wrote long essays full of ideas that had to be supported by research, with ample footnotes and strong documentation.” What is the difference between this description of the writing Kaufman did in college and the description of the kind of writing valued in the business world? In college, do we not encourage students to be as concise and straightforward as possible? What does college-level writing add, or take away, from this description of writing in the business world? Is the difference Kaufman describes comparable to the difference I have already traced between writing that avoids complexity and writing that does not?
In his essay, James Gentile speaks to this very kind of dichotomy between writing as a complex activity, “full of ideas,” and writing seen, in essence, as a definable and “boxable” commodity, as meeting the requirements of the business world, and he links the question of college-level writing to the larger question of the purpose of a college education, or perhaps, usefully, more specifically, to the question of the general education. Like Kearns, he extends the stakes of college-level writing to include one’s education as a whole. Like Kearns and Lunsford, Gentile sees the business model as writing one may do in college and not necessarily college-level writing (Gentile presents this eloquent distinction as between writing one does in college and college-level writing); it doesn’t qualify because it doesn’t take full account of the complexities of composition. Kearns picks up on his idea of “education’s opportunities” as he extends the picture of writing into the very center of the self. I suppose, to confess a bias, that I am most fond in all of this writing of Kearns’ sentence: “I believe, though, that we seldom achieve clarity about ourselves.” In this sentence, he at least assumes the role of college-level writing to be to open the opportunities for these moments of some kind of clarity about oneself. How is this goal of writing related to the goals of simplicity and concision that Kaufman so clearly articulates?
What do these poles have in common, if anything? Notice that each of these readers speaks about audience and audience awareness. For each, one of the key elements in writing well is awareness of audience. Why? When we teach writing, as many of the authors who write here acknowledge, we engage students in the process of speaking to audiences. Many of the readings, as I have mentioned, emphasize the importance of teaching students to be aware of audience and to make decisions in their writing on the grounds of their expected audience. Do we ask, as well, what they can expect/demand of their readers? The implied reader is implied, and as writers, if we follow Chris Kearns, it is our job to imply that reader — taking imply as a very active word – that reader who is a very sympathetic reader of our prose, willing to engage our expectations/demands. That, too, is being aware of audience, of demanding that an audience to read us, of not simplifying simply for clarity’s sake.
I want to pick up on a thread in a group of these readings: I submit that the thread we see running through many of these contributions is followed with reading. I want to try to weave it into all of the essays. . . . (NO). To push the metaphor, college composition is a thread that entwines writing and reading. (Do I want to push further to discuss how reading and writing themselves are threads? Reading as the ethical enterprise (Here fill in the notes from the front and back of Chris’s essay). To vary the question as this conversation continues: what is college-level reading?
When we have students read texts, what do we expect them to be doing? I suspect there to be an issue of ethics in the sense of responsibility here. As I have briefly summarized, Jeanne Gunner uses the metaphor of the boxing effect to discuss her view of how we should not teach reading – as goal oriented in the sense of taking meaning or purpose from a reading much as we world take a product from its box. Clearly, this metaphor criticizes – but what does it call for? I want to try out an answer to that question here and connect it to the “interpersonal complexities” Kearns describes. Reading is a place of demand/expectations (Epistemological and ethical) – texts ask of us something of ourselves – when we read. To say that it expects something of us is not to say (as Gunner describes) that it tells us what it means or says, but that it is an invitation to an engagement – an ethical call for engagement. We can measure ourselves by the ethical responsibility we take for reading well – even if there is no final arbitrator of our final reading – reading is not a product – a yes we have or no we haven’t understood – but instead, as Lunsford argues for writing – an orientation to understanding, to engagement, to responsibility. Certainly we can say that reading can be a product driven activity, as writing in the “transparent” business model implies; In a sense, it always has to be product driven, but not in the sense of product as simply boxed – there may always be a use to which we put reading, and here, perhaps, there is no avoiding some degree of commodification in reading – unless we can say that we sometimes read with no purpose whatsoever in mind, with no thought to the usefulness of reading.
To what extent, then, is writing and reading more a matter of process than product? James Gentile expresses and extends the idea well when he writes, specifically of assessment, “Within this perspective of college-level writing as a process, assessment is necessarily formative rather than summative?” Gentile shifts the focus from the product to the very process, but further makes that process part of the formation of experience, what Chris Kearns might say the formation of the coherent self, essential, in both their minds, to social relationships – to responsibility, to ethics.
And to what extent, then, are the ideas about specific skills and commodities related to this notion of the formative process of reading and writing? In the “college-level” we are talking about the kind of writing that engages oneself in ideas and the ethical reading and expression of those ideas that James Gentile discusses. The business model certainly assumes that communication is at least potentially transparent. Patrick Sullivan addresses this issue of transparency in his originating article – there he speaks to the idea that all communication is subject to mistake. So that all discussions of audience have something to do with this revelation that communication always fails to be transparent. We can say that writing can be divided between the goal driven and the formative, but aren’t they really continuums of each other? Even if we are performing an apparently straightforward task of reading – say reading that memo – aren’t we still involved in not only an epistemological, but also an ethical, enterprise? Aren’t we engaged in the responsibility of reading well, of engaging even the briefest memo in a way that commits us to the (some would say impossible task of) understanding? By teaching either well – as a responsibility, we may indeed be engaging the interpersonal complexities of college-level writing. So that the commitment, the orientation to, clear reading and writing remain at the center of college-level reading and writing, even if there seems to be a risk of commodifying just because of the drive for clarity, even a kind of closure.
We seem to see in these essays the continuum along the split between looking at general education as training and looking at it as development. Is college-level writing about preparing students to write for the work world or about contributing to students’ overall development or formation? More importantly, do we have to decide between these views of writing, indeed, of college education?