Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Why Johnny Can't Teach

A lot of my colleagues are super upset about an advice piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For those of you who live outside of the world of composition studies, I'd like to explain what all the fuss is about.

I kid you not, the advice piece opens with this:
"My students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives, and I’ve had it."

From barefootattitude
The author has dug himself into a hole right there. This is a teacher who starts the conversation by blaming students.

For professional compositionists, that's like blaming the controller in a video game (or the sound engineers at a presidential debate). Except, in this case, the author is blaming the people who have come to him for an education, blaming them for making his job difficult.

Please understand, this teacher's job is difficult.
Teaching students to write in a college setting is a profoundly difficult task...
But that is not the students' fault.

Students arrive at colleges and universities each semester with some writing skills, and then something frustrating (but important) happens.
The rules change.
Institutions ask students to repurpose those skills and apply them to a set of activities most students have never engaged in before.
Writing is no longer a way to show a teacher that "I did the reading."
Suddenly students are expected to use writing to critique a reading, analyze lab results, generate new understandings of a complex topic, and the list goes on.
Our most fortunate students may have started doing some of that in 11th or 12th grade, but it is an ability that requires years to develop. And while that ability is developing, general writing performance almost always dips a bit.

So, this advice piece starts in a bad place, a place that demonstrates a failure to understand what it is we are asking our students to work towards.

And that's just the opening sentence.

The author goes on to argue there's something else making his job difficult: The discipline of Composition Studies itself.

I'm not going to get into the weeds on this, but here's a breakdown of what happens.
The author lists three core principles associated with quality writing instruction.
The author states he has tried to teach using those principles.
The author claims the principles "rarely work."
The author goes back to blaming students.

From barefootattitude
That's right, back to blaming the students.
The author tells us that... 
  • "Students do not revise." 
  • Students do not know how to give good feedback to their peers 
  • Students don't use good advice when they get it
  • Students don't know how to use basic argument structures 
To which, I imagine many of my colleagues responded with (and please feel free to insert the profanity of your choice), "Do your job!"

It's all hard, but that's the job. 
We are teaching people how to write for academic purposes. Revision is necessary. The ability to recognize good writing is necessary. Understanding feedback from peers and mentors is necessary. The ability to make complex arguments is necessary. 

The ability to "write a clear sentence" is not enough, and if we ask students to do all the necessary work, the students' sentences are going to get messy. 

Stop complaining about how hard their work is. 
Get in there and help them do the hard work.


GG Showcase said...

Thank you for this perspective. This was exactly my response. Our job is to encourage students to act in their own best interests when it comes to writing. Our job is to TEACH WRITING.

The boogeyman of this entire conversation is still the mythical Johnny of "Johnny Can't Write." I thought we got over this 50 years ago. Apparently some people want to return that simpler, more ignorant time.

I went to graduate school with the author of the Chronicle piece. I thought then what I think now: he doesn't belong in a composition classroom. His attitudes toward students are despicable. He's the kind of teacher who sets his students up for failure by creating ridiculously-high standards that even he, himself, could not meet, were he in their shoes. Then he blames the students for "failing."

The truth about him is that everyone around him told him he was headed for some prestigious position in literature at a 4-year university. Instead, he's teaching composition in an area where 60% of people live at or below the poverty level. And he resents the students he's working with for not being the wealthy, white students from prep schools that he thought he'd be teaching medeival literature to.

Hogan Hayes said...

I didn't say this in my post, but much of what prompted me to write was my first reaction to the CHE piece. I read it and thought, "Every damn fall."

Without fail, we see some variation on this piece published somewhere about a week after most instructors have collected their first assignment of the academic year.

I say this because the author of the CHE piece is expressing a view held by many. It's a view that editors seem to think should be published.

That's why I wrote what I did.
If my audience is rhet/comp folks, I don't think I'm expressing anything new.
I think we often assume other people know stuff about our work because it seems so obvious to us. But it's not.

I was walking to a meeting with a whip-smart colleague of mine from another discipline. They told me that they couldn't do what I do because they don't know how to teach students how to construct a basic sentence.
I almost told this person, "That's not really what I do."
But I needed to take a step back and think about how to say that without sounding like a jerk. They were, after all, trying to give a compliment.

That's the kind of reader I had in mind when I wrote this. I thought, "How would I explain Rhet/Comp's reaction to... to my dad? He's a smart guy who doesn't know many of the details about what I do."

I'm glad people hear something useful here.