Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Paula Beaudoin
The student who is preparing for preservice or inservice teaching in any field must answer two crucial questions: “What is learning?” and “What is teaching?” The student preparing to teach writing must also answer the question, “What is the purpose and the value of writing?” Writing is a subject area in which the teacher cannot easily state why writing itself is valuable or what purposes are served by learning the “art and craft” of writing, except as a tool for communication in other subject areas. In his article “Who’s Afraid of Subjectivity,” Robert P. Yagelski (1994), offers some answers to these questions about knowledge, education, and writing, as well as addressing related questions concerning individuality.
Current writing pedagogies value writing and writers in different ways. Yagelski compares the underlying epistemology of expressivist approaches with postmodern epistemological theory. Expressivist theories claim that knowledge is found within the individual, and writing is a form of self-discovery. “Process-oriented” writing instruction is connected with this pedagogical approach. Postmodern theorists define knowledge as the fluid, shifting, and selective perceptions of reality that are tied to particular times, places, and cultures. Proponents of postmodern theories claim that expressivist practices reproduce ideologies that conceal both power structures and the position of students within these structures. Such practices are also thought to reduce awareness of social differences related to gender, class, and race between individuals in the classroom. By encouraging only constructive criticism and harmonious group work, expressivist teachers avoid confrontation over real-world issues. For postmodernists, writing is valuable when the writer is aware of the socially constructed nature of the self and of truth. Yagelski’s aim is to reconcile what is valuable in process-oriented writing pedagogies with increasingly cogent and useful postmodern definitions of knowledge and individuality.
Yagelski notes the apparent contradiction between postmodern valuing of individual difference, and rejection of “individuality” as an idea (210). These positions can be reconciled by seeing individual differences as a function of differing positions in the social construction of reality. The “self” is a mental construct of the relations of that individual to others in the society (211-212). For Yagelski, this definition of self provides a valuable framework for writing teachers. It allows for the recognition of the socially constituted nature of the individual writer, as well as the social nature of writing itself. The “process” of writing is reconceived as an event in which the socially constituted self is engaged in a profoundly social activity (211). “Finding [one’s] voice” through writing is not a matter of self-exploration, it is a matter of recognizing one’s relationship to other individuals, institutions, and ideas within social contexts (212), and of understanding the roles that society makes available to certain individuals and unavailable to others.
Yagelski notes the way in which society distributes these roles by co-opting the idea of individual autonomous selves and narrowly construing individuals as purely cognitive entities. Schools value those who have inherently powerful cognitive abilities, yet those same schools define what constitutes a cognitive ability (211). In other words, you are smart if you can read and write in a particular way, or you are smart if you can calculate and solve problems according to a particular brand of logic. Society then harvests the “smart” individuals who have been born with inherent cognitive powers, which have been fostered by educational institutions, and gives them the most prestigious, lucrative, and powerful jobs. Those who do not display the current valuable cognitive commodities, are remediated and sent out to perform the manual labor and other low-paying services that society requires.
Yagelski suggests that writing courses should be reflexive, focusing on the nature of writing itself, and also, since writing is a form of learning and thinking, focusing on the meaning and structure of education. Writing then becomes a way of knowing and exploring our “social, political and cultural selves” (214). I assume that such courses are designed to encourage inquiry into the hidden effects of particular pedagogies and their exploitation by political/economic entities. It seems to me that focusing on the social nature of writing and de-emphasizing the cognitive skills the individual possesses, enables students’ understanding of postmodern ideas about discourse and identity. Specifically, that the world is a written world and that we ourselves have no discrete existence, rather, our identities are the result of a positioning within a set of intersecting and conflicting discourses.
I am concerned about the way this epistemology becomes an ontology. This theory not only says something about teaching, learning, and knowledge, it also makes statements about who individual students and teachers are, about what constitutes their being. Teaching is ideological. It will always be a way of telling the student something about himself. It always makes assumptions about what the self is, and these assumptions are communicated overtly or implicitly to the individuals occupying the position of student within the classroom. If we take postmodern discourse in regard to writing as revealing a truth about “being” itself, how does this affect the people, the teachers and students, who work together in the classroom?
I agree that rhetorical acts are profoundly social. On the other hand, exploring only “social, political, and cultural selves” through writing, and stressing the notion that there is no such thing as a purely independent and stable identity, belittles much that is relevant to students’ lives. Social exploration may lead to personal feelings of indignation, even anger, in terms of recognizing the controlling power of invisible and unquestioned political and educational ideologies. However, strong feelings about more domestic aspects of reality may be suppressed if the social, political, and cultural domains of life receive such exclusive emphasis. I am thinking particularly of the spheres of love and family life, which, although they are undoubtedly entangled with society, culture, and politics, may be obscured by an emphasis on writing as social discourse with political implications. I am also thinking about students who experience a sense of social estrangement that has nothing to do with Marxist alienation or even with the marketing strategies that make many young adults feel ugly, awkward, and impotent in social situations, but about private situations and activities that must be kept secret from the general public. These may include domestic violence, drug abuse, and other dysfunctional personal and family situations.
Of course, the writing classroom cannot become a personal counseling center, but is it any more realistic to believe that it can become a vortex from which future social reformers will emerge? Is it possible for a single writing class to enable individual political agency that will effect social reform? If these are the teacher’s ideological goals, how does the teacher manage conflict and confrontation that might arise from classroom discussion? It is clear, especially at the level of middle or high school, that teachers must explicitly foster attitudes of mutual respect and tolerance, even as they open spaces for confrontation and debate. Yagelski grants that “some conception of the individual is necessary if we want to understand how writers write and how to help students learn to write effectively in various contexts” (210). Given this concession to the notion of individuality, I believe that writing instruction should be based on a theory of knowledge that not only recognizes the socially constituted nature of knowledge, but also recognizes that individuals evaluate these bodies of knowledge, accept for themselves those points they deem valuable, and actively inquire into their environments in order to highlight facts and theories that dominant ideologies repress. It must also be recognized that writers reshape the contexts that have shaped them by sending their writing out into the world.
In “Community-Referenced Learning and the Inclusive Classroom,” Paula Kluth (2000) has remarked on the similarities between postmodern theories and recent theories of differential learning that are gaining credibility in both special education and general education classrooms. Kluth endorses “community-referenced” learning, which she believes advances the goals of progressive educators while taking individual differences into account. She cites Foucault in advocating educational experiences that “promote students’ freedom and responsibility to create an autonomous self.” She also applauds postmodernists for asking “teachers to continuously question what they know and how they know it” (2000, [from Ebsco Academic Search Elite Database, 4]).
I suggest that teachers should also be continuously researching and reflecting on what their students are learning and how they are learning it. I believe that insights taken from theories of multiple intelligence, and practices connected with differentiated learning and community- referenced learning, though decidedly not as philosophically sophisticated as postmodern epistemological theory, can be extremely useful to teachers as they assess the impact of their ideologies, whether postmodern or traditional, on students’ sense of self, on their attitudes toward writing, and on their predictions about personal success or failure in the classroom.
A student’s sense of self in an academic setting is thoroughly entwined with cognitive comparisons to other students. Considering the fact that many classrooms are “inclusive,” teachers should explicitly teach students about multiple intelligence theory. The negative impact of cognitive labels resulting from scores on achievement tests and the questionable use of the term “intelligence” in regard to I.Q. tests can be reduced by explaining that intelligence is multiple, not unitary, and that, like other aspects of identity such as gender, class and race, certain forms of intelligence are valued more highly by society than others.
In order to stress the concept that the kind (not the degree) of intelligence differs from person to person, and that each person may be strong in several “cognitive” areas, I would reinforce the idea that individual needs, goals, and purposes for writing differ, and I would allow students some amount of freedom in choosing their own writing topics, rather than using an exclusively metarhetorical curricular content. On the other hand, I believe that it is crucial for students to reflect on their writing, so I would have students keep a journal in which they reflect on the idiosyncratic writing process itself as well as making observations about the social nature of writing, including: events and/or other writing or speech that influenced the piece; the possible effects of the writing on an actual or intended audience; and the ways in which this piece of writing could be used in the world after it leaves the writer’s hand. This blend of theory and practice will increase the student’s sense that she will be successful in this class, even if previous academic performances have received low cognitive ratings or have led to remediation.
The concept of “differentiated learning” goes hand in hand with the theory of multiple intelligence and is another means of ensuring student success. I use the term “success” with some reservation because most students think of success as doing well on exams. It must be made clear that success in a “progressive” writing class can be achieved in many different ways while success on a standardized test favors students who learn most easily by reading and writing. It is important that students learn how to write “successfully” on a standardized test, but it is also important that students who are oriented toward tactile or visual learning, group or solitary learning, are provided with a wide range of writing opportunities. Students in a writing class should also be aware that writing is a unique way of knowing the world, and that all students can engage in writing to expand their awareness of the world, regardless of their primary methods of encountering and exploring the contexts surrounding them. If the teacher can create and maintain an atmosphere in which many forms, modes, and purposes for writing are accepted, student attitudes toward writing should become increasingly positive.
Keeping this in mind, writing assignments should range across a variety of forms (letters, research papers, poetry), utilize multiple materials (posterboard, newspaper cuttings, graffiti-on-brick), and explore both old and new writing technologies (picture writing, word processing). Writing prompts can be musical and visual. Even in courses devoted solely to writing, speaking, listening and reading can be utilized to great benefit without placing undue emphasis on the importance of literature. Students can also be encouraged to explore the world around them and notice how many ways writing is used in society, from slogans emblazoned on advertisements, to the cookbooks in their kitchens. In this way students will gain a sense of the power and ubiquity of the written word as well as an understanding of the underlying ideologies and the discrete techniques used in various discourse communities.
Finally, community-referenced learning can provide valuable opportunities for active inquiry into real-world situations. Community-referenced learning involves moving out of the classroom and into the community to explore “actual environments instead of simulated environments” (Kluth, 2000, [Database article, p. 4]). I can think of no better way for students to connect with their “social, political, and cultural selves” and to “explore their experiences within broader contexts” (Yagelski, 1994, p.214). Research teams can be deployed within the community to write “three-search papers” suggested by Terry O Phelps (1992) or “I-search” papers developed by Ken Macrorie (1988).
These types of research assignments draw on knowledge that is generated in a variety of different social contexts and is documented in different ways. Students may interview family members, or active professionals, or peers using tape recorders or note-pads. They may take pictures of homes, businesses, institutions, and people. They also seek out information from libraries in the community and in the school, both in print and electronic forms. Three-search and I-search assignments also ask students to reflect on prior personal knowledge and experience. Back in the classroom, the entire class can discuss and compare the differing ways in which knowledge is constructed in the “real” world, and consider what is accepted as knowledge in various social domains.
I believe that a flexible, resourceful, energetic, and organized teacher can create a writing curriculum that takes advantage of postmodern theories of socially constructed knowledge while simultaneously drawing on current pedagogical theories that focus on individual differences. Such a writing course will increase inter-personal, multi-cultural and social awareness, thereby fostering tolerance and respect among students even as they come to recognize conflict and contradiction within themselves, their classrooms, and the larger society. I have suggested these practices because I see them as concrete ways in which students can become autonomous and develop a social consciousness that can lead to societal change. This eclectic approach to writing instruction may not be completely cohesive from a philosophical standpoint, but it is pragmatic. I tend to embrace paradox rather than, in Keats’ words, “remaining content with half-knowledge,” and I think that an epistemology and a pedagogy that embraces paradox is rather well suited to the postmodern world.
Keats, John. Letter dated Dec.21st, 1817. Cited in The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (1991) by J.A. Cuddon. New York: Penguin.
Kluth, Paula. 2000. “Community-Referenced Learning and the Inclusive Classroom” Remedial & Special Education 21.1 (Jan/Feb): 19-26.
Macrorie, Ken. 1988. The I-Search Paper. Portsmouth,NH: Boynton-Cook
Phelps, T.O. 1992. “Research or Three-Search?” English Journal 89.1: 76-78.
Yagelski, Robert P. 1994. “Who’s Afraid of Subjectivity: Postmodernism and the Composing Process.” Taking Stock: The Writing Process Movement in the 90’s, edited by Lad Tobin and Thomas Newkirk. 203-217. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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