Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Anna Sturges
Thinking about how I would structure my classroom for a composition course creates a dilemma for me. I had a great experience in my high school composition courses. I really responded to how it was taught and made a personal connection to the work I was doing. Originally, I wanted to model my classroom after the one I had loved so much. The readings I have done concerning postmodern techniques being used in a composition course have also seemed very appealing to me, but present a different classroom experience. James Berlin claims “in teaching writing we are tacitly teaching a version of reality and the student’s place and mode of operation in it” (235). Without dealing with the forces students are contending with I would be indoctrinating them with my own ideology and not teaching them the tools to understand and work with these systems for themselves. The problem is how can I reconcile these two teaching styles to fit into my version of a productive and successful classroom?
The initial thing I would be concerned with when teaching a course such as this is how to get the students to want to do the work. I know that most kids do not want any part of schoolwork period, but how can I make the work interesting enough to get kids to at least have some kind of connection to their work? My first instinct would be to assign a short writing task with a few options for topics concerning the kids personal lives, family situations, or friends. James Sosnoski in his essay “Postmodern Teachers in Their Postmodern Classrooms: Socrates Begone!” attempts to create a series of writing assignments for his postmodern classroom. His first assignment would not be as concerned with the individuals issues, but he would have the students write about oppression (213). This seems a little bit much for the first assignment, but I think it could have a real benefit in both upper level high school classes and first year composition classes in college. A real understanding of oppression would help many people build a foundation for understanding many of the issues they will be asked to deal with in their lives and it helps understanding one’s own oppression and subjectivity in the world. At first it is difficult to think about how middle class white kids are oppressed, but they are in numerous ways and it is important to have them understand how they function in society. For me, the issue of gender is raised immediately, not just for women, but the men as well. In lower class or predominantly non-white school settings there would be other issues raised, such as race, religion, oppression by the law or authoritarian figures. All of these should be considered valid oppressions and looked at in combination with each other. John Clifford argues that these subjectivities are frequently seen as “messy accidents” rather than issues that should be investigated (44). Looking at these issues critically could give students who have felt out of place or as though they were not included in the “system” a better grip on the way in which these subjectivities work and how they need to be handled.
I think that this type of assignment would accomplish both of the goals I set out at the beginning of the paper. It would create a sense of community within the class because it would demonstrate how everyone is created as the subject through different systems. It would also create the kind of attachment to the work that is necessary to keep kids interested and actually working on their assignments. The students I would be most interested in are the students who are the least interested in school and those who seem to be, as Althusser refers to them, the bad subjects. These are the kids who are at the greatest risk of dropping out of school and in a sense falling victim to the subjectivities they have been forced into. One of the ways people fall victim to these subjectivities is when they are seen as failures, rather than the system having failed the student. Clifford argues that grammar is not a useful teaching tool, but a sorting mechanism (46). Lower class and people from minority groups may not speak English as well as their middle to upper class white peers. Grading these students on grammar forces these students into remedial classes and discourages them even more than they already were, possibly to the point of leaving school.
The final assignment Sosnoski would assign in his class would be one in which the issues dealt with in the first assignment about oppression would deal with “larger geopolitical conditions” (215). He claims that this would allow students to make connections between their own oppression and the oppression of others, rather than seeing different people and their problems as separate from their own and viewing them as “the Other”. This seems as though it would be productive because it would come at the end of the semester, would still concern the students concerns and oppressions, but connect it to a larger context and help the student figure out his or her place in the scheme of things. It could also help the students to realize that they are part of a system that affects everyone and not just one person as an individual. Many people blame lower class minority people for being in that position. These people must be lazy and stupid, otherwise they would move out of the ghetto and get a good job; this is the attitude that an assignment such as this one would try to address. If students could see that the educational systems are not equipped to deal with difference and that the dominant ideologies in this society favor some people over others from the start, it might help students navigate their way through these systems throughout their lives.
The classroom is not however a space free from the subjectivities that are so present outside of school. The subjectivities of the students and the teacher depend greatly on how the class gets taught (Sosnoski 210, Jarratt 119). These differences “create a classroom in which personal experience is important material but openly acknowledge[d] that differences exist and cause conflicts” (Jarratt 119). There will be differences of opinion between people of different classes, religions, races, and cultures, but they should be investigated not dismissed. A person from a position of less power should not be dismissed by someone with more power without questioning why one feels the other’s point is invalid and vice versa. While these subjectivities are part of the classroom, they should not go uninvestigated in how they function in everyday interactions and in the classroom setting. If these issues were ignored, they would defeat the purpose of the class in a postmodern context.
One of the features of my high school class that I enjoyed the most was the sense that I got to write about what interested me and I could figure out who I was or wanted to be through writing. Does the postmodern classroom address these concerns and what would it look like? Jarratt claims that a classroom that employs postmodern techniques would deal with personal experience, but would deal with it in the context of identity, such as gender, class, and race (119). These are important issues that need to be dealt with, but when I was fifteen I did not want to talk about class issues. I was having problems with my parents, my friends, and my self-esteem; these are the issues I wanted to deal with, that I felt I needed to deal with. I know that these are very middle class issues, but it was so important for me to do that work before I could even think about gender, class, race, or ideology. I would like to propose that the postmodern work be done in college in a first year college course rather than in high school, but it seems like high school students could benefit from these views. While these kids are still living in the neighborhoods they grew up in and affected by “real world” issues, they should be exposed to these theories. Once kids go to college, if they go away to college, they live in bubble and do not have to deal with the everyday lives and chores that most people do. The theories they are learning are about the real lives of people, not just theories to be applied to hypothetical people imagined in a college classroom. Where these theories would do the most good is questionable, but they should be taught because they would do an enormous amount of good for students.
I agree with the postmodern theorists that these issues should be addressed in composition courses. I’m just not sure when these issues should be dealt with, early enough to have a real effect on the student, but late enough for the student to get him or herself together and be mature enough to deal with these subjects. I have not figured out how to incorporate the two teaching methods that have had such an important impact on me or even if the two different theories can be combined to produce meaningful lessons. The goal I have for my teaching is to teach my students to understand themselves and how they fit into the systems that affect their lives in so many ways. How I am going to go about doing that I have not figured out quite yet.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Althusser, Lenin 127-86.
Berlin, James A. “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories.” Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 233-48.
Clifford, John. “The Subject in Discourse.” New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1991. 38-51.
Jarratt, Susan, A. “Feminism and Composition: The Case for Conflict.” New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1991. 105-123.
Sosnoski, James, J. “Postmodern Teachers in Their Postmodern Classrooms: SocratesBegone!” New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1991. 198-219.
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