Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Following Up on Johnny's Teaching Ability

Last fall I wrote a response to a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece that was critical of how we teach composition.

I've never had a post get as many hits as that one, and I get it. This is a popular debate.

While I was happy for all the visits, I know my response could have done more. I kept my blog's casual tone and stopped short of going into much of the research to support my response.

I am pleased to see that the Chronicle has published a response in which the always brilliant Doug Hesse did the heavy lifting I did not do.

His response cuts the snark and is backed by the knowledge of a well-established community of scholars.

Here are some highlights:
A 2005 article, "The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing," analyzed why formalist approaches — like the back-to-basics kind that Professor Teller advocates — remained so popular in teaching composition, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they were significantly less effective than other methods.
The teaching of writing happens — or should — within a deep field of practice, theory, and research. It’s also an enterprise marked by a fair amount of what Steve North, in a 1987 book, The Making of Knowledge in Composition, called teaching "lore." Lore consists of ideas and assumptions that are grounded in local experience ("what worked for me") and then passed along informally, for the most part, from one faculty member to the next. Lore is sometimes informed by research, and thus transmutable and generalizable, but more often it is not.
Teller’s essay participates in the tradition of lore. Not having been in his classes or having read his students’ work, I can’t judge his local experience, but I can judge how well his approach compares with the most effective national practices.
For example, his assertion, "Substantial revision doesn’t happen in our courses," might speak for his own classroom, but it surely doesn’t speak for mine or those of thousands of other professors. Consider his claim that students "do not use the basic argumentative structures they need." Again, while perhaps true of students in Teller’s own classes, that broad claim is unsubstantiated by my experience, by research on my campus, or by the wider literature in the field.
I am happy to belong to a community of scholars that includes the likes of Professor Hesse.

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