Saturday, February 24, 2007

Missing out on the carnival

I haven't blogged or even read blogs for a few weeks, only to find out today that I have been missing out on a Trimbur Carnival, a discussion of John Trimbur's article in Composition Studies. Because my blog really is a ten-a-day sort of activity, I haven't bothered to go re-read that piece. Instead, I am going to use this prompt to think aloud about Call to Write, Trimbur's textbook, the one he more or less "defends" in that article.

Our first-year writing program has used that text for three years now, but it has never sat well with our long-term lecturers, and our grad students are always slow to appreciate it, if they ever get to the stage of appreciation. Those of us with PhDs in writing studies generally like it; it speaks our language, we aren't bothered by the lack of literary content, and the organization of the text makes sense to us. Some people seem to think the text speaks down to students (Trimbur deals with "composing a shopping list" problem in his article); others think the text is too complex.

Here is what I really want to think aloud about, though. We surveyed students in our first-semester writing course; we got just over 100 returns from those who used Call to Write plus a supplement of the instructor's choice, and just over 100 returns from those students who used texts that are definitely NOT rhetorics, Thinking for YOurself and The Sundance Reader. Students were luke warm about CTW, although they acknowledged that it helped them in various ways. Students generally liked the other two texts, although one students said the he / she thought CTW would be more informational, but these two texts (TFY and SR) were fun and easy to read.

If CTW exemplifies a "meta" approach to writing courses, an approach that wants students to understand writing, and not just produce writing, the students generally seem to find this goal a bit baffling. One student even said that CTW might be a good book for graduate students, but not first-year students. If TFY and SR represent a more familiar and transparent approach to teaching critical thinking and writing, students seem to enjoy the familiarity, ease, and humor. (Maybe one of the problems with CTW is that it is humorless?). As WPA, do I want to administer a popular and fun program, a rigorous and meta-program, some combination of the above, something all together. Or does this little survey--small and flawed as it is--just exemplify a problem that the philosophical / theoretical issues simply doesn't address--writing courses are still taught by those who received or would like to receive graduate degrees in literary studies; those instructors are most comfortable assigning readings and talking about themes, those instructors do not think writing courses should be about writing, because they often think that the writing should be transparent, and the transcendental themes illuminated.

Okay, my tone is slipping here, but that seems to be the heart of the issue for me: Trimbur can convince me and many of us in our discipline that writing courses should be about writing, not just do writing, but he and I cannot convince the many instructors of first-year writing, nor the many students of first-year writing, that it should be about writing.

As one students said, the course should be about poetry.


zat said...

As a person trained in literary studies, I always like writing texts that go meta. At my last institution we tried Writing Analytically, and I was one of the few faculty members to champion keeping it. I teach writing as writing, flawed literature scholar that I am. And how do first-year student surveys reflect instructor attitudes (or aptitudes)?

Sybil said...

To be honest, I like the idea of the writing part of class being "in the background"... it "tricks" students.

"Hey, this class is based on punk-theory; let's write radical essays about language and attack institutions by writing about them."


"Hey, we're assigned to read The Simpsons & Philosophy... this class can't be all bad..." and then as they read, they write about The Simpsons critically.

I think I like how it shows students that writing is a part of life and it's a part of organizing one's thoughts and it's a part of the critical thinking. I remember someone saying once that in order to know what you think about something, you should write about it. Our students need that.

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