from rhetorical theory to composition classroom

It should go without saying that the pedagogy and curriculum of our composition classrooms should bear some relationship to the theories, methods, and research that drive the discipline. It "should go" but probably doesn't. And this is particularly a problem for first-year composition where the instructors on the ground are often disconnected from the discipline. Largely they aren't rhetoricians and have had little contact with the field beyond maybe some introductory course that they took at some point in their academic careers. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of support for professional development for writing instructors. The closest one gets to professional development in most instances are composition textbooks, which hypothetically could do the job of translating contemporary research to the classroom. Unfortunately, textbook production and sales is not an effective system for accomplishing this task in part because the economic imperative of publishers is to meet their consumer demand (i.e. the demand of the instructors who order the books) rather than the intellectual demands of the discipline (which are a consideration but are clearly secondary). Even a cursory examination of textbook content will reveal that many are fairly outdated in the disciplinary paradigms they promote (e.g. modes). 

I don't believe it is necessary to be an active scholar/researcher in a field in order to teach an introductory course, but I do think it is necessary to be aware of contemporary research as it might inform the course. And in the case of composition the link between research and introductory course is more significant than in other fields. That is, from history to chemistry, I doubt that research very often has a large impact upon the content of an introductory course. In composition this is not the case for two reasons. First, and most obviously to those in the field, composition studies takes that introductory course as a primary object of study. As a result, much of the research produced is specifically about that course. Second, composition studies is a relatively new field. Sure, rhetoric goes back millennia, but the active, disciplinary study of college composition is only a few decades old. I am among the first or second generation of rhet/comp scholars that were trained in rhet/comp graduate programs on a national scale. As a result many of the legacy notions of teaching writing in K-12 and universities, which remain heavily in effect, are reflective of non-disciplinary values. So, for example, when one is preparing a new group of graduate students to teach composition, they will have had little or no contact with the disciplinary paradigms of teaching composition but they will have extensive experiences and ideas about writing and even the teaching of writing. In fact, one could say that if a first-year composition class works to undo many of the received ideas and attitudes students have about writing practice, then a teaching practicum has an analogous task in relation to new instructors. Indeed one might argue that consistently failing at the latter task means having little opportunity of succeeding at the former on a programmatic level. 

Of course it's not that simple (what is?). Research isn't prescriptive of practice nor intended to be. Scholars disagree (surprise, surprise). One cannot simply read the research and act on it; one requires a larger paradigmatic/discourse-community understanding of the field to evaluate and situate research properly. To put it simply, while one doesn't need to be an active rhet/comp scholar to design and teach an introductory composition course, it's very difficult to do so if one is not trained in the field. Can anyone name any other discipline where it would be controversial to state that one needed to be a professional in the field in order to teach in it, even at the introductory level? The short answer is that this has always been acceptable for composition because of historical and institutional reasons rather than scholarly ones. The composition class was invented before composition studies and emerged from English departments at a time before those departments split with rhetoric and became so specialized in the modern version of literary studies.

For decades, expertise to teach composition was evidenced by demonstrating that one had the practical knowledge to succeed as an academic writer (i.e. by demonstrating one had an English degree). This remains the de facto criteria. This criteria makes a degree of sense, and it is also the basis for a WAC/WID curriculum (e.g. if you are a biologist then you are qualified to teach students to write as biologists). There is no doubt that literary scholars are best positioned to teach students about the discursive features of literary scholarship. So following that logic, composition, as the teaching of a general writing practice, should be eliminated and replaced with discipline-specific writing courses, which would at least eliminate the problem of instructors teaching outside their field. However, just because students can benefit from learning about the discursive practices of their chosen major/profession from faculty in those fields does not that composition is a course devoid of valuable content, content that is valuable enough to remain a requirement of general education. Rhetoric offers methods for investigating a wide range of communication (personal, civic, professional, etc.) as well as understanding compositional practices (as they emerge differently in different contexts) that can support writing practices in a general way (just as having a general education, introductory understanding of science, art, or history can be beneficial). 

So this brings one back to the original problem. To teach an introductory composition course, one needs an expert-level understanding of how rhetoric and composition operate. This understanding informs both the content of the course (i.e. what one would define as introductory and foundational that students should learn) and the pedagogy of the course (i.e. one's understanding of how rhetoric/writing operate would inform how one would go about teaching these things). Again, the relationship is not prescriptive: theory and disciplinary understanding do not provide a roadmap to pedagogy. Furthermore, pedagogy demands flexibility to the singular conditions of each group of students. Such flexibility only further exacerbates the need for expertise. 

Given the situation at many universities, including my own, where composition is largely taught by TAs with limited experience who will go on to become experts in literary studies and likely never develop expertise in rhetoric and composition, how does one create intelligent expert systems that can provide the support that would benefit instructors without muting the strengths the instructors do have? In my view simply providing a universal set curriculum is a blunt instrument answer to this question. On the other hand abdicating the responsibility for curriculum design to individuals who have not been provided adequate resources or training to make those decisions (the opposite end of the spectrum) is not a better option.

As a WPA with 65 literary studies TAs, figuring out how to strike this balance is continually on my mind. When I took this job, the practice at UB was very near the total freedom approach. Seeing that, I tried to take on the task of providing the general expertise that would be necessary to support that. I don't really see that working, which I don't believe is anyone's fault. It is unreasonable to imagine such a thing would be possible in a single semester of a teaching practicum. Anyway, this blog post has gone on far too long. Ultimately the point becomes identifying where strength and expertise exists and/or can be reasonably developed (which then become the spaces where instructors focus their activity) and then providing a network of expert systems and support to undertake the rest of the work. In some respects all teaching operates this way. No one is out there teaching naked without a network or context. My concern is becoming more strategic about the composition of that network as it addresses the need to support disciplinary expertise in the classroom.

 

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