What we aren't talking about when we aren't talking about pedagogy

I’ve been interested in Jeff Rice’s posts this week in which he critiques some Rutgers videos on their composition program. What strikes me most is just the sad fact that the two-year colleges in my area, not just mine but others as well, are not even in this conversation. Jeff is contributing to a national conversation about what college composition is, about what it ought to be, and we’re not part of that conversation.

Maybe we have our own conversations, but we’re not part of the one the one that takes place as the scholarly field of composition.

I read Jeff’s first post where he pointed out that Rutgers requires 5 papers all 5 pages in length for its expository writing course. I groaned when I read that. It didn’t surprise me because it’s not that far off from what the closest university to me does, but it still made me groan. We just adopted a policy of 5 papers all 2 pages in length.

And then Jeff has to make me groan again because he says that he likes to assign papers that are longer than 5 pages.

I groan because I agree. Fewer but longer papers make more pedagogical sense. They teach students more about how to write. That is they teach more if your goals are the goals of college composition as defined by the scholarly field of composition, or at least the certain segments of that field that I like best. That is how to develop and sustain ideas, engage in effective rhetorical strategies, and develop a compelling voice…or something along those lines.

When we aren’t talking about composition pedagogy in those terms, we end up approaching it as a class in organization and grammar. And when I say we, in this case, I think I mean a lot of two-year schools in my area.

We operate in isolation from the national conversation. At least we as a collective do. I personally try to stick my nose into every conversation I can find, though I don’t always get around to as many as I would like.

Most composition classes in this country are taught by people who don’t have degrees in composition. They have English degrees but not composition degrees. That’s why universities hire composition directors who do have composition degrees to design and direct writing programs. Two-year colleges don’t always have that luxury. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty common to have no one with a composition degree in the program at all, and to have no writing program director at all. And two-year colleges teach composition to a lot more people than universities do.

And so we are teaching a lot of students while not talking about composition theory or composition research or comparative analysis of composition programs in major universities. That pains me, but I don’t know what I can do about it.

Bravo to you, Jeff. I enjoyed your discussions. I wish I could jump in and say, hey, I think I’ll do that, but I have my own constraints. While we don’t have anyone with a degree in composition designing a program for us, and while we don’t have anyone with a degree in composition on our faculty at all, we do have expectations of uniformity from class to class. I might get a wild hair from time to time to assign a six page paper, but I just can’t do it. Not to mention that I’d never grade it all if I did because I’m teaching over 200 students right now.

But when I read a blog post like that and I feel this nagging longing to be more like Jeff Rice in my approach to composition, I remember something that I read on another blog once. I think it was Clancy Ratliff’s, but I wouldn’t absolutely guarantee that. Anyway, the idea was that if the students and the teachers are trying hard enough, the students can learn something valuable about writing from just about any approach. I do take heart in that, and I do believe it. I believe I see all around me a lot of teachers working very hard and a lot of students benefiting from it.

We’re the working class of the academic world–the two-year college, and more particularly the small, rural two-year college in the state with the highest illiteracy rates in the country. It’s a dream of mine that loads could be lightened somehow so that there would be time enough in a semester to talk with people in my own area and in my own circumstances about what we mean when we say composition, but there just isn’t, and that has to be a tenable fact of my reality. It just does.

I have made it so, largely I suppose, by reading blogs and pretending I am talking back to them.

3 thoughts on “What we aren't talking about when we aren't talking about pedagogy”

  • Hi Sharon

    I don’t think you are pretending you are talking back to us. You are talking with us! And we should be talking. There are obvious constraints in any system – community college or four year university – but the constraints are our own doing. We can take the constraints off. It might not be easy or happen quickly….but the constraints – despite what many others might believe – are not written in stone or handed down from the heavens. They are ideological.

  • I teach 6 3-page papers, so I guess I fit somewhere in the middle. Then again, I am part time; I don’t have the luxury of built-in grading time. At my campus, we have twice as many adjuncts as full timers, because it’s cheaper. If they could pay me what I’m worth, I’d be there full time (they’ve tried a couple of times). That’s another reality of the community college; budgets don’t allow for people who HAVE studied composition theory and pedagogy in favor of moonlighting high school teachers, who do worksheets all day and assume they can do the same thing at night for adult learners. Maybe if they get a Writing Lab, they can afford somebody who’s qualified to direct it, but I doubt it. The people who teach auto mechanics make much more money, anyway…

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