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Today's guest blogger is Mark Blaauw-Haraa Professor of English and the Writing Program Coordinator at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Michigan, where he has taught for seventeen years. His interests include transfer theory, threshold concepts, developmental education, student retention, and adult learning pedagogy. See more of Mark's biography at the end of this post. 

 

 

Not a lot is being said about how the writing-about-writing approach might play out at a community college, so in this post I hope to provide a window into the experiences of using Writing about Writing at a two-year school.

 

For the past year, we’ve been scaling up the use of a writing-about-writing curriculum at my school (a rural Midwestern community college, where I teach English and coordinate the writing program). We started in F15, when a part-time faculty member with an MFA in poetry looked through the three textbook options I’d provided and settled on Wardle and Downs’s Writing about Writing. She liked the book’s focus on writing as a subject matter, not just a skill, which, she said, meshed well with how she had learned to approach writing in her MFA.

 

She ended up being thrilled with it. The reading was challenging, she said, but the book inspired better discussions about writing than she’d ever experienced. Encouraged, one of our full-time faculty adopted the book for S16 and had a similar experience: the book supported a deeper level of engagement with writing, more thoughtful discussions, and more interesting papers. Three more of our faculty—including me—tried it over the summer in face-to-face and online sections and were equally impressed.

 

As a department, we decided to make Writing about Writing the default text for our FYW sequence, which meant that new instructors (and those who didn’t submit their book adoptions on time) would have to use the text. We developed sample syllabi, including sequences of readings and assignment prompts, and advocated for the book’s widespread adoption during departmental meetings. This semester, about half of our writing instructors have been using the text.

 

To be fair, the book can be challenging for both teachers and students. Its organization is quite different from that of most other FYW texts, and frankly, the readings can be challenging to instructors without a background in rhetoric and composition. Much of the concern about the book that has been voiced in department meetings is tied to the idea that the book assumes a certain familiarity with scholarship in rhet/comp—a familiarity that many two-year college English faculty do not have. But out of our first five instructors who used the book, only two had degrees in rhet/comp: one had a MFA, one had a MA in lit, and one had a MA in English education. To us, that indicated that the book would work for teachers of different backgrounds.

 

Additional concerns about writing-about-writing pedagogy have centered on the fact that many students at the two-year college are academically unprepared. Around 60% of our incoming students end up placed in developmental coursework, a number that is common at community colleges across the country. Over the past few years, our writing program has brought an accelerated-learning program (based on the national ALP model begun by the Community College of Baltimore County) to full scale, and we retired the lowest level of developmental writing. This means that every incoming student takes our college-level writing sequence right off the bat; those who place into developmental writing have an additional co-requisite course that is designed to support their success in the college-level writing course, but all students work through exactly the same curriculum. Some instructors were still concerned that even with co-requisite support the material in Writing about Writingwould be too difficult for our developmental students.

 

Time will tell how these concerns play out. However, those of us teaching in ALP have been pleased so far. Certainly, my developmental-level students have needed some extra support with the readings, but our co-requisite course structure allows time for just such support. And they have grabbed hold of the concepts in the readings and responded better than most of the courses I’ve taught in the past. This reinforces the contention that while some students may be “pre-college” in their writing or reading skills, they are still adults who respond well to weighty ideas. Many books that are written for a developmental audience feature readings that tend to be simplistic; I have found that developmental writers are eager to discuss big ideas. This may seem obvious—again, we are talking about adult learners, after all—but many developmental courses are not very intellectually challenging and focus instead on skill-building. To be sure, developmental writers can improve their skills, but they need a rich intellectual environment in which to do so.

 

 

Mark Blaauw-Hara earned his Doctorate in English from Old Dominion University, with specializations in writing-program administration and pedagogy. His dissertation focused on supporting military veterans in their transition to the community college. He received his Master’s in rhetoric and composition from Arizona State University, and his Bachelor’s from Michigan State University. Mark currently serves on the Executive Board of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, he is the Reviews Co-editor for Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and he is a manuscript peer-reviewer for the Journal of Veterans Studies. Mark’s writing has appeared in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Teaching English in the Two-Year College,Community College Week, and Writing Center Journal, and is forthcoming in Composition Forum and the edited collection WPA Transitions.

Joseph Teller recently authored a provocative piece titledAre We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The article criticizes trends in composition pedagogy which focus on process (as opposed to product), engage students in the exploration of complex social issues, and integrate reading and writing instruction.  The article generated a number of comments and (occasionally snarky) exchanges about what it is we do as composition instructors, and a number of bloggers from the composition world have responded in detail (see, for example, this post from P.L. Thomas).

 

One line in Teller’s piece, in particular, stood out to me: “How can students make effective rhetorical choices if they do not know what choices exist?” Yes, indeed. And I would add this: How can they make effective rhetorical choices if they do not know that there are choices to be made, and that they have both the right and the obligation to make them?

 

In short, rhetorical choice is a threshold concept in composition, one which many students—convinced that there is a single, right way to write—struggle to understand and internalize. And while Teller rightly points out that background knowledge and context are critically important for reading comprehension, I would argue that fact does not diminish the importance of teaching reading in a writing classroom: close reading trains students to recognize the existence and range of rhetorical choices available to writers, as well as understand the impact those choices make on a reader. Moreover, instruction and practice in close reading make students better readers of their own work. (One wonders if the lack of student revision witnessed by Teller stems from poor rhetorical reading ability; it’s certainly a possibility worth investigating).  Finally, readings (and reading instruction) supply a context for lexical and grammatical development (and situates both vocabulary and grammar as rhetorical choices to be made).

 

Teller also criticizes theme-based composition courses, suggesting that the content in such courses swallows instruction in “writing at the nuts-and-bolts” level, and that most composition instructors are “not academically qualified to be teaching disciplinary content…with any semblance of expertise.” This objection to theme-based reading is also addressed in a seminal article in the Writing about Writing movement, “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’” by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle. The answer for Downs and Wardle is to make writing itself the disciplinary focus of the course, an answer which addresses both of Teller’s concerns. In a Writing about Writing approach, course readings address scholarship in composition, reading, and language, reinforcing concepts (such as rhetorical choice) while providing multiple opportunities for practice.

 

Several commenters took issue with Teller’s rhetorical choices, which included derogatory and sarcastic words to describe certain composition pedagogies. The title, for example, while including the author in its first person “we,” nonetheless hints that an entire field may be ineffective—and in fact, wrong. The paper ends with the author’s “manifesto,” a term that suggests the need for a paradigm shift.

 

There is much for compositionists to discuss in Teller’s article, and I suspect we will do so by making a variety of rhetorical choices of our own. But I think we also need to make some room for “pedagogical choice” as a foundational concept in the composition classroom: just as there are multiple possible rhetorical choices, some more effective than others, there are also multiple pedagogical choices we can make, some more effective than others—in our specific pedagogical/rhetorical situations.  Perhaps rather than suggesting that those whose choices are different from our own are doing it “all wrong,” we can analyze the effectiveness of our various pedagogical choices in the specific contexts in which they occur. I suspect most of us aren’t convinced our pedagogies are right all the time; after all, we are constantly revising and editing what we do in the classroom.

 

The fact that we make such changes suggests to me that we do in fact know what we are doing—and while we may not be “all right,” surely we are far from being “all wrong.”

I imagine that I’ve made things seem pretty sunshine-and-rainbows in these last few posts, as I have shared my discoveries from discussing peer commenting practices in FYC and creative writing with my colleagues.  And while I may have noted some logistical challenges in adapting creative writing workshop practices to the FYC classroom, the truth is that there may be a far more fundamental challenge: student creative writers care about their writing in a way that student FYC writers generally don’t.

 

I discussed this challenge with both Becka and Papatya.  Both suggested that perhaps a piece of personal writing early in the semester might move towards solving the problem in the FYC classroom.  My experience as a teacher of writing makes me dubious, although Papatya did note that’s precisely how FYC was taught at one of her previous institutions.  I suspect, though, that the required nature of FYC would be the fundamental challenge.  I often feel like students walk into my classroom wanting to be anywhere but there, wanting to take a course that they do care about (which generally means something within their majors).  I work hard at making my classroom fun to counter these feelings and, generally, I think I am successful.  But I don’t know that I can resolve that core issue.

 

Becka, I think, put it best: “Creative writing students are more invested in their writing because they think it comes out of their souls.”

 

Of course, I usually want students to produce writing that comes out of their thinking and not out of their souls.  After all, one of the basic things I feel I need to teach in my FYC class is critical thinking.  But surely there is a way to bridge this gap, to help students invest in their critical thinking and the writing that comes from it.

 

Honestly, though, I don't have an answer today.  But it’s a question I will carry forward as I continue these explorations of peer practices in different disciplines, so you can expect we will be discussing it again.  In the meantime, if you have a way of getting students to care about their writing in your FYC class, please share it in the comments here.