August 25, 2009

The radical notion that "all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else."

"This advice was contemptuously dismissed by the composition establishment, and I was accused of being a reactionary who knew nothing about current trends in research."

27 comments:

traditionalguy said...

His remarks are about a truth in labeling dispute, and the truth always wins in a dispute about whether truth has importantance or not. When will they ever learn. Then again, politics is war and truth is the first casualty in war. Throwing pies in his face may soon become necessary unless he repents and submits to the will of the people.

Salamandyr said...

While his sentence structure is superb, perhaps he needs some elementary instruction in essay construction?

As the piece began I thought he was writing to bemoan the sorry state of composition and grammar instruction, then he sidetracks himself with this report by ACTA. He seems to want us to understand he really doesn't agree with thosepeople, while at the same time he does, at least part way. Then he spends several more paragraphs saying "they're right", "no they're not", "except for right here", "Oh, well, yes, they're right there, but not that other place", "oh, of course, that goes without saying".

At the end of the article he seems to have said a lot, but I really don't think I, or he, understands the point he's trying to make.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Fish Said...

For some this development is a sign that a brave new world has arrived; for others it marks the beginning of the end of civilization.

Maybe I'm not understanding him, but isn't he using the phrase 'brave new world' as a positive description? Without trying to reference the book?

And he talks about teaching rhetoric?

prairie wind said...

My twelve-year-old gets good grades for writing even though her writing is not all that good. Her teachers let the craziest things slide--spelling and grammar among them. The only kind of writing that has been required of her so far is what I call the me-me-me style. "I liked the book because...", "Penguins are interesting to me because..." I cannot think of a time when she was asked to write something in the third person. Teachers like to see "voice" in a student's writing, and they get that in spades.

Part of the problem could be the usual grading for behavior. If a child behaves well in school and is reasonably intelligent, he or she gets good grades. Teachers need to spend a great deal of time on behavior issues; a child who doesn't demand that of the teacher is rewarded.

Another part of the problem is that the teachers don't know good writing. (It's an easy sport to pick apart notes written by teachers.) Perhaps they took writing classes in college that did not teach writing.

Zach said...

I wonder if education research somehow subtly misses the benefits of practice and repetition?

It always seems that the goal of education research types is to build up an ability to analyze things in the abstract at the expense of situational knowledge and techniques. But if you want to write strong sentences, you need practice more than analytical ability.

Zach said...

Maybe I'm not understanding him, but isn't he using the phrase 'brave new world' as a positive description? Without trying to reference the book?

The book's title is an ironic reference to The Tempest:

MIRANDA

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in't!

Ignorance is Bliss said...

What if they taught grammar but not rhetoric? What if it only taught punctuation? That seems analogous with the literature/history issues.

I think it depends on the purpose of the classification. If the purpose is to advertise what area is taught, then any subset meets the classification. If the purpose is to meet a requirement for a well educated individual, then I think a strong case can be made for requiring a survey type course.

former law student said...

Teaching writing is a pain because reading and marking up essays is immensely time-consuming. Thus teachers at every level are motivated to assign as little writing as possible.

Chris said...

I've always thought replacing writing courses with "social justice" or "globalization" seminars (with lots of writing!) favors the leftist culture warriors in two ways. Obviously it gives air time to their latest fad (and, importantly, shows that being fashionable is one of your most important virtues). Second, it further deemphasizes objective evaluation criteria (e.g., logical consistency), making the political fantasy that everything is arbitrary and subjective seem that much more plausible.

I was disappointed Fish didn't come out more strongly and say to his readers that part of bad writing is bad thinking (who, judging from the comments would find such a statement offensive and perhaps "dangerous").

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Zach said...

The book's title is an ironic reference to The Tempest:

Thanks for the info. I had assumed it was an ironic reference, though I never knew to what.

However, even given that, the fact that the phrase has a strong negative reference is reason to avoid it's use in a positive case.

Beth said...

What if they taught grammar but not rhetoric? What if it only taught punctuation?

Composition courses occur in a sequence. Native speakers with very poor command of grammar and sentence structure will be placed in non-credit classes that focus more on mechanics than rhetoric, as will international students who are barely fluent in English. These students then move up through progressively more demanding courses. We sometimes schedule non-credit seminars that focus only or mainly on punctuation, and require composition students who are struggling with that skill, but writing coherent paragraphs and recognizable essays, to take them.

My department is sometimes criticized for being behind the curve in comp/rhet studies, but I'm very comfortable with our old-fashioned focus on writing.

Paul Zrimsek said...

What if they taught grammar but not rhetoric? What if it only taught punctuation? That seems analogous with the literature/history issues.

It does. The distinction Fish is trying to draw between composition and history seems to be just another case of every man being a Tory in his own field.

rocketeer67 said...

My department is sometimes criticized for being behind the curve in comp/rhet studies, but I'm very comfortable with our old-fashioned focus on writing.

Beth, I perceive that you are more comfortable with "old-fashioned" modes in many if not most things. Perhaps I'm wrong, and in a sense it's most certainly ironic. But as I'm conservative, I mean it is a complimentary observation.

Balfegor said...

I was disappointed Fish didn't come out more strongly and say to his readers that part of bad writing is bad thinking (who, judging from the comments would find such a statement offensive and perhaps "dangerous").

I don't think this is necessarily the case. I don't think one's verbal ability or fluency -- the clarity of one's writing, or one's command of good style -- necessarily says anything about one's actual ability to think. But then again, I went to an engineering school and got an undergraduate degree in mathematics, so perhaps it's just my background speaking. Verbal proficiency has always seemed to me a kind of second-rate substitute for real intelligence. Not really fair, sure, but that's been my prejudice ever since I was small.

Big Mike said...

The problem of spelling gets pushed off onto spell checkers (with predictable results) and grammar onto the crude grammar-checker in Microsoft Word. So consequent nobody kin proofread there one stuff.

I think of the phenomenon described by Fish as the Baby Boomer's full employment guarantee, at least for industries where one must communicate with customers, write manuals, draft memos, etc. We can take somebody who learned Java poorly and train him or her to be a good programmer, but we can't teach anybody how to write coherently if they don't already have that skill.

Joan said...

I wonder if education research somehow subtly misses the benefits of practice and repetition?

I can assure you, it does not. However, FLS is right: composition is time-consuming to grade, and many teachers don't want to work that hard.

As for Fish, I agree with Salamandyr. That essay wandered all over the place. Not Fish's best work.

Hunter McDaniel said...

Zach said - "I wonder if education research somehow subtly misses the benefits of practice and repetition?"

There are two corners of the education world that do understand the benefit or practice and repetition - namely, music and sports. Parents will accept incredible amounts of BS from educators, but they see right through a losing football coach.

Kurt said...

Near the end of my graduate program in English (where I taught a lot of composition), I became aware of the techniques and methodology behind "The Little Red Schoolhouse" method of teaching writing in the University of Chicago's writing program. The method offered a great way of talking about the rhetoric of academic arguments, and I used it quite successfully in the classes I taught after that point. Once students mastered the basics of what elements needed to be in an academic paper, it was easier to focus on addressing stylistic and mechanical issues, as well. I have no idea whether or not it would still prove as successful, though, as I haven't taught a freshman writing class in almost 10 years now.

Kurt said...

Balfegor wrote:
I don't think this is necessarily the case. I don't think one's verbal ability or fluency -- the clarity of one's writing, or one's command of good style -- necessarily says anything about one's actual ability to think. But then again, I went to an engineering school and got an undergraduate degree in mathematics, so perhaps it's just my background speaking. Verbal proficiency has always seemed to me a kind of second-rate substitute for real intelligence. Not really fair, sure, but that's been my prejudice ever since I was small.

I would agree with that opinion. There are plenty of people who write in far-left magazines and so on who are gifted writers, but their thinking sure can be addle-headed...

word verification: guadead

Synova said...

"An “important benefit of a coherent core curriculum is its ability to foster a ‘common conversation’ among students, connecting them more closely with faculty and with each other.”"

I think that he must have recognized at some level that his idea that an academic major centered around gay and lesbian studies was a "brave new world" to some and "the end of civilization" to others is really more of what I quoted above than the "end of civilization" for those who oppose it.

Sure, not everyone thinks of it that deeply but the women's, and minority, and what-not "studies" are ultimately isolating and they seem to be isolating very early on. Surely we *expect* people in graduate school to have a very narrow focus of study and research. To the extent that a person even thinks a Humanities degree is worth-while we expect our undergrad *Humanities* students to have a deliberately broad focus.

Spending a whole four years thinking mostly about how terrible our world and culture is to some particular small group strikes people as... unhelpful.

On the issue of History, I think that "survey of" courses are horrible. Nearly everyone had American History a couple times over in "survey of" form in grade school and high school. No need to do it again because it's not going to stick *this* time either. I'd rather see a "common" US History course that covered something like the Consitutional Convention... ONLY.

And yes, my feeling on that is political, but how can factual subject matter be political? (And besides, liberty and equality are liberal things, aren't they?) It would be a good thing for the "common conversation" to include something like the thinking behind our constitution in enough detail (not "survey of"!) to actually engender a conversation.

I agree with him on the composition courses but I'd require them for Juniors... or at least not *all* the Freshman year. Split them up. Some now, and at least one later after students have been writing papers for a while.

Synova said...

I think that the wandering of the essay was deliberate and important and I've noticed the same formula before.

The name of the essay form is "agreeing with something conservative in a way that does not immediately alienate your entire audience."

The first paragraph gets moved into the body of the essay and is preceded by at least one of the supporting arguments that would normally follow it. That's why the first argument doesn't apply to the whole... it is actually only one supporting element.

rhhardin said...

A plonking tone should be taught, too.

Kurt said...

That's a very good reading of the Fish article, Synova. One reason a lot of academic writing can be hard to follow is that it can wander around like that, making gestures to all of the appropriate factions and concerns before ultimately getting to a point that would otherwise be unpopular with its intended audience.

John Lynch said...

I took an upper division college writing course. Half the class still couldn't write correctly.

Scott M said...

The first commenter for that article said the following, which points directly at the core of the problem;

Moreover, learning to write is learning to think: to describe, compare and contrast, reason, argue and persuade. Young people who can’t write can’t think analytically or critically, either. They have never used to use language to identify and develop ideas.

Regardless of my professors' political bent, and there were a lot more on the left than on the right in my political science department, they all had the same complaint.

Today's students do not know how to think critically.

Students show up with a bookbag full of surface skills, but those skills are like a scab over a much bigger problem. We do not teach, nor do we incentivise our students to think through problems. We give them shortcuts and workarounds. They get to college, for the most part, completely unprepared.

I was once told that the average dropout rate, counted as those that leave school and never complete a degree, is around 70%. I do not know if that's true, but I would like to know if the non-complete rate (dropout rate) is rising, falling, or hovering around the same thing. I want to know this because I believe the second aspect of successfully completing college is a strong work ethic...yet another thing our society seems ill-equipped to give our students.

Synova said...

Scott, I recall reading about a study that showed that the thing most associated with the ability of students to think critically was free time.

Quite possibly none of the students in the study had any exposure to logic courses (I know I never did) so it would well be that *teaching* critical thinking skills or argument would work even better than free time.

Balfegor said...

They have never used to use language to identify and develop ideas.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that they have never learned to identify and develop ideas. It's probably true that most young people have not. But there are also young people who are tinkerers, who enjoy working through problems, who have developed sophisticated conceptual models -- computer programming, electrical engineering, maths, music, whatever they play with -- but have not done this through the medium of spoken language.

There's a tendency one sees from time to time for people who make their living by words -- lawyers, for example -- to assume that verbal intelligence is the only real intelligence, and that every other kind of intelligence or ratiocination is just a stunted version of verbal intelligence. I don't think this is true at all. You can develop ideas -- in math, in music, in engineering, in computer programming, in art -- without needing to structure those ideas through "language" in the limited sense of the English you use in essays. They're probably translatable into language, but the thinking and the translation into clear English are two quite different things.

That's certainly not to say that it's okay to get through college without learning to write in proper formal style. As a reactionary, I would like it if every college student emerged from college capable of a passable imitation of Gibbon. I'm just wary of these overblown claims about how being able to write clear essays is the hallmark of a well-functioning mind, or how you can't really think properly until you know how to put your thoughts down in an essay with proper topic sentences. Sophisticated, complex, structured thought and clear writing really aren't the same thing at all. And it's only in a narrow range of fields, like law, literature, and philosophy that you can mistake them for each other.