Monday, 5 March 2012

Readers! (And Writers?)

Good lord, I feel like a kid who just got his first upvotes on reddit* - we still have readers! :) Hello, all!

And so, after shuffling back through my papers, I realize I said I would post about pedagogy.

At Gothic Revival University, as at many such institutions across the country, a system has evolved whereby graduate students from the English department are conscripted to teach the teeming hordes of first-year students to "write." Not just the first-year English students, mind, but *all* the first-year students.

In actual fact, as at many institutions across the country, the majority of first-year students in these classes are *not* English students, because most English students "test-out" or "AP-out" of the requirement. This leaves English graduate students in the unenviable position of teaching everyone *but* English students how to write.

Perhaps you can see the problem.

Have you ever heard a professor in a non-English discipline complain "why hasn't anyone taught these students to write?" Well, someone has, probably to the best of her abilities. The problem is, Dr. History/Anthropology/Physics/Theology/Whatever professor, English graduate students rarely have the call to write History/Anthropology/Physics/Theology/Whatever papers, and so have a bit of a challenge teaching students (who could be going into any or none of the above fields) to write for those fields.

"Oh, but surely someone could have taught them how to write a paper!"

Le sigh.

What I love about being a Medievalist is that we are, like all cultural studies fields, forced to work in multiple disciplines simultaneously. I hate it a little too, but it's in the same way I hate exercise, eating well, and going to bed early enough to not be completely knackered at 6:30am when I get up (all of which I do my best to do). American Studies is probably the closest modern analogue from a methodological standpoint (even if they do at times complain about their supposed lack of sources**). Basically put, we know better than most that there are profound and subtle differences in the way one writes an English paper, a history paper, an art history paper, and an archaeology paper. Primarily, it has to do with what's assumed.

In English, it's taken for granted that your reader has read the text in question (summary is the cardinal sin). It's also taken for granted that the text's relationship to the present reader is at least equal to if not vastly more important than its relationship to its time and place of origin.*** Pretty much only Historicists and New Historicists think that texts are inseparable from their origins. I can't tell you the funny looks I get for asking what the cultural relevance is about certain readings of texts ("yes," I might say, "but what does this tell us about the way we can read the culture at the time of the text's composition?" ... crickets).****

In history, it's assumed that you will be skeptical of your sources. It's assumed that primary source documents are historical artifacts. It's assumed that an anthropological study is pertinent evidence that can be used to support your thesis.

And I have it on good authority that for the most part art history these days is as "presentist" as English (and just as "theory-bonkers", to borrow a phrase).

Basically, every discipline teaches "how to write" differently. Yes, I can try to teach students to organize their thoughts, to analyze a rhetorical situation, to use topic sentences; but I can't make them adept at writing in whatever specific discipline they're going to move into, because I'm not an expert in that field.

Me, I think each department should have its own first-year writing classes. You're an art history major? Congrats, here's the "words and images" class. You like business? Here's your "commerce communication" class. Doing anthropology? Here's your class on "the scientific method in writing".

But until such time as your department decides to teach the specifics of writing in your discipline, please don't rag on the poor English graduate students. We don't know your disciplines; some of us barely know our own.

Hell, at this point we'll be happy if they come out of our classes with the ability to write an argumentative thesis and to use the right "their," "they're", or "there".

*also, I did just get my first upvotes on reddit, for pointing out that making one's bed in the morning is not an indicator of success in life. Go figure.

**Come on, Americanists: if we Medievalists had a tenth of the surviving documentation you have, we'd have stomped out the moniker "the Dark Ages" a century ago. Just sayin'.

***Their originary geotemporality, if you will. Hats off to JJC for being both brilliantly incomprehensible and perfectly reasonable at the same time.

****The author is dead; long live the author-function.


Jonathan Dresner said...

I don't think of those disciplinary differences, important as they are, as "learning to write" differently. Those are thought processes specific to our fields, and we do know that we have to teach those. At least I do: I stopped assuming that my students know how to think historically a long time ago.

When I say "why don't they know how to write?" what I mean is that they don't know how to cite or paraphrase, don't know how to express a thesis statement -- even a blazingly ahistorical one would be an improvement over "spread some facts around my guesses and give wishy-washy conclusions" -- and don't seem to understand the difference between evidence, opinion, and reasonsed judgement.

While I certainly wasn't much of an historian as an undergrad, I learned most of those skills in HS, so that what I was learning in college was ways of thinking, not writing.

At the very least, intro writing courses should explain the structure of academic writing, and the basic ethics of source use. From what I see, there's more emphasis on grammar, rhetorical theory, and self-expression, most of which is really quite wasted effort.

Janice said...

Every discipline's first year class should be, in some part, a writing in the discipline course. It should also be a reading in the discipline, analyzing in the discipline and discussing in the discipline course.

All this in a wildly over-enrolled classroom! *sigh* I try. But I'd still never expect our first-year English class (which isn't even mandatory) to do my work for me.

Vellum said...

JD -- I understand where you're coming from, but in many ways, disciplinary differences really are about learning to write differently. Be sure that when you say "all I want is for students to learn these basic skills" that what you don't mean is "all I want is for students to learn the basic skills of my discipline." Citation and paraphrasing standards are very different depending on what discipline you're in (for instance, I use MLA formatting and standards, which is about as useful as a box of rocks for non-English students). Even your point about thesis statements is indicative of the problem -- off the top of my head, I can think of two groups of students for whom thesis writing isn't of much use: science students and business students. Science students write from a standpoint of "here's a problem; here's an experiment to address that problem." White papers (political & business formats) are quite often couched in similar terms -- "you have a problem; I have a solution" -- but sometimes they're just explorations of an issue. There is no "basic structure of academic writing," is what I'm getting at. There are commonalities, but most of those are rhetorical and analytical, things we try to stress.

Also, if you think every first-year writing course *doesn't* cover the basic ethics of source use, you're mistaken. Why it doesn't seem to stick may be more about the methodology of teaching it, but it's always on the syllabus.

As for the place of self-expression... I'll write a post on it. I think in some ways you're right, that its inclusion may not be the best use of time and effort, but I also think there are some uses for it, if geared in a certain way.

J -- It's never simple, is it? At GothRevU we're really lucky in that the first-year writing classes are capped at 15 or 16 students.

Anonymous said...

I agree with disciplinary writing focus being the primary aim of introductory classes in any field, but there's a minimum level basic English grammar that freshmen today lack. Sadly, rather than try and work through this, my department (history) has recently decided that our avowed policy should be to just throw our hands in the air, give up on assigning papers, and leave such trivial matters "where it belongs" - the English department. This enrages me betond measure; after all, if we're not teaching them how to think in the manner of our discipline, why the hell are we teaching them at all?