College Composition Teachers, Unite! In Search of an Ideal Textbook

A spectre is haunting the pathways of college campuses–the spectre is Expressivism.  All the powers of old academia have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Cognitivists, Social Constructionists, the Writing Across the Curriculum movement (WAC).

Where is the party that has not been decried as ‘expressionist’ by its opponents in power?  Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of expressivism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?

Hmm… let me take another sip of coffee before I begin.

Much has changed over the years in college composition.  I’ve been exposed to most approaches to teaching writing.  For instance, I spent a lot of time as a student in CTR classrooms.  In college, I remember using a standard composition textbook called Patterns for a Purpose which covered the rhetorical modes.  I recall being bored to death with the writing assignments: describe a tree in your backyard (a tree?), explain a process such as tying your shoes, compare and contrast two ways of looking at a river (a river?).

If one composition class wasn’t enough, I had a follow-up advanced writing class in which we used St. Martin’s Guide to Writing.  The textbook was like carrying a clay brick about the size of a sheet cake, more like a garden stepping stone.  I’m not sure the instructor used it, but I recall a writing assignment asking us to describe a person.  I wrote about the composition teacher.  His name was Bill.  I drew him as a whisky swilling suburban cowboy.  I think he owned a horse. Whether he rode it was a mystery.  Perhaps he treated the horse like he used the composition book. My portrait of him was mainly apt (he was in his last term prior to retirement).

Ah, yes.  Bill’s class was held in the computer lab.  We composed on gigantic locked-down desktop computers (already gathering dust) that printed essays in dot-matrix.  It took students forever to compose because we were used to typing on IBM Selectric keyboards.  Our essays didn’t resemble essays–they looked like an assemblage of routes Pac-Man takes while consuming mouth-sized dots, orbs, computer kibble strewn on its path. The essays were inked in prehistoric Atari font. Had I printed an essay or the screen image of the game Centipede?  Frogger?

On the other hand, I envied students who had other composition instructors.  They got to freewrite in the sunshine outside the classroom while meditating in lotus positions.  Cross-legged yoga pupils with writing journals.  Trimmed grass.  Birds chirping.  Nothing like my composition classroom with triptych storyboard posters on the walls.  Tenured instructors wore leather sandals, faded shorts, shaggy hair, a “fresh out of bed” look, and spent class time journaling with students under swaying palm trees.  They wrote about whatever came to mind. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or “getting it right.”  Go for the “felt sense,” Baby.

I should be fair to Bill.  He let us freewrite too.  We wrote dialectical journals.  Rhetorical modes.  I came to loathe the modes.  I believed they were pointless.  And I felt like my suspicions about them were right.  Why?  Because when I eventually transferred to the four-year university I was unprepared for the writing assignments.  I didn’t know how to write an argumentative inquiry-based research paper.  The reading assignments were way more complex and complicated.  I went from reading summaries, overviews, and brief expository essays to studying academic language that was entirely beyond me.  Some classes assigned 5-6 full-length books.  I wasn’t ready for the reading and writing demands.  And I felt like a complete loser.  A failure.  No longer did I envy the yoga writers.

I spent hours learning by trial and error how to write college essays.  I felt like Peter Elbow did at Oxford and Harvard.  I managed to slog through the academic muck, as he did.

At some point early in my composition teaching career I heard about David Bartholomae.  He had a John McEnroe reputation–some people loved him, some people hated him.  Mostly the latter. At the time, he was basically like Bane from The Dark Knight.  His pedagogical uprising was dystopic, principaled on reading and writing difficult prose, appropriating (and being appropriated by) the languages of academic discourse.  It was years later that I read his “Inventing the University.”  He co-edited a formidable composition anthology entitled Ways of Reading (Bedford St. Martin’s).

Several composition experts gave it rave reviews, but a lot of classroom practitioners were skeptical.  The anthology (now in its 10th edition) contains very little writing instruction and provides reading assignment sequences on “difficult writers”: Butler, Halberstam, Foucault, Berger, Freire.  Many people maintain that the readings are “too hard” and class preparation is “too time-consuming.”

Perhaps due to mixed reviews and classroom trials, I haven’t decided on what to believe about the book.  As of now, I’m still waiting on the jury’s verdict.

What’s to be done?  For the most part, it seems that the composition field has moved away from “writing process” expressivism.  Most composition textbooks (esp. readers) don’t cover the writing process in much detail.  I suppose we’re “post-process” now, maybe “post-post process.”  No more sandaled gurus.  We’re multimodal.  We’re cyberliterate (or trying to be).  We’re sensitive to   (multi-)cultural literacy.

Now, instructors regularly ask students for thesis statements and evidential support.  Also, we tend to think that students should be able to write essays across academic disciplines.

Regarding the ElbowBartholomae debate, I think I’m right in saying that the field has declared Bartholomae the winner.  That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with him or the tenets underpinning his anthology, but most composition instructors these days stress the importance of academic language immersion.  A slow, gradual shift has been made away from expository essay writing which is generally understood to be the kind of writing we find in The Norton Reader or in the annual Best American Essays–that is, “creative nonfiction”–what Bartholomae calls “sentimental realism.”

Plenty of experts have critiqued freshman composition textbooks, namely those like The Norton Reader.  Most anthology pieces–as good as they are (and some are gems)–do not model the kinds of writing (in academic genres) we expect of students.

Fine, then why not adopt Bartholomae’s Ways of Reading?  Why does it feel too risky?  Perhaps because we presume that some of the critics are right.  The anthology is not for every college student. For example, is it appropriate for underprepared community college writers?  That’s an important question.

Another popular textbook I’ve used before is Lee Jacobus’s A World of Ideas (Bedford St. Martin’s).  I admire the basic concept of this anthology, I really do.  But I’ve run into problems with students’s reading skills and comprehension.  Some of the readings are a tough slog.  Plus, some of the topic areas are more or less dry (boring?), such as the sections on ‘government’ and ‘democracy.’  Aristotle, Rousseau, Madison, Jefferson, Arendt.  I endorse the latter sections of the book on wealth and poverty, education, morals, gender and culture, and language.

Maybe I’m a wimp for being wary (skeptical?) of assigning difficult readings.  But I think my reticence is justified by an awareness of struggling students.  Many beginning writers have tremendous difficulty with the writing process, language issues, feeling comfortable with the writing situation.  Most have a difficult time with self-confidence and linguistic fluency.  All the concerns Mina Shaughnessy points out.

Perhaps we’re aware of Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary (Penguin) and have discussed it with students. He strikes a chord with many observations and ideas.  He emphasizes the importance of orienting students to the “moves” of acdemic discourse, immersing them in “critical literacy.”

Then why not adopt Gerald Graff’s They Say / I Say (Norton)?  It’s very popular and has garnered hundreds of positive Amazon reviews.  It advocates academic moves with the use of templates. Many people love it.  I remain more or less skeptical of it–do templates lead to binary/cookie-cutter thinking?– as I continue to search for an ideal composition textbook.

Recently, I came across a new textbook that holds a lot of promise.  Robert P. Yagelski’s Writing: Ten Core Concepts (Cengage).  It covers ten essential writing concepts and comes in a brief edition.  But the brief edition is too brief and the regular edition runs to well over 900 pages in a format that feels like a layer cake textbook.

Now it’s your turn.  What’s the answer?  Is there an answer?  What composition textbook have you adopted?





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