Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Elizabeth Ahner
Experience shapes us, randomness shapes us, the stars and weather, our own accommodations and rebellions, above all, the social order around us.
Adrienne Rich, "Of a Women Born"
My four-year old daughter now has the yearning to learn how to write. She scribbles illegible swirls, which she says is her story about a princess. She prints her name "Olivia" on books, magazines, and on her drawings. When she has a pen or crayon in hand she has an immediate urgency to write her name and where ever there is a flat surface she prints her name incorrectly. When I tell her there are not two "I"s in her name and attempt to show her the correct spelling, she throws her crayon in the air. What is essential and what I must remind myself is that at the moment, in her world, the spelling of her name is Oliia. When I hover over her shoulder as she scribbles, she stops writing. She feels inhibited, so now I resist teaching her writing. This is how I imagine many teachers feel when faced with a pile of essays written by high school students, which are streamed with grammatical errors and incoherent sentences. They feel apathy, as do many students, about writing. After reading texts required for our composition theory class, I sympathize with students', teachers' and my daughter's frustration. Time is spent on error identification and what constitutes a finished piece, rather than on the potential of a piece of writing and the process of completing that piece. Time is not spent on how to create a "good" piece, or as Donald Murray describes, "rehearsal, drafting, revision and connecting." In a sense I could say Olivia is rehearsing the spelling of her name. It is no wonder she is throwing her crayon in the air, because I am correcting her versus applauding her rehearsal. I am afraid if I continue to merely correct her she will, over time, feel ambivalent about writing.
In Lucy McCormick Calkins' book titled "The Art of Teaching Writing", she speaks about students' disinterest in writing.
We forget that we, too, would yawn and roll our eyes if we were asked to write about our summer vacation or our favorite food. We do not consider how we would feel if the only response to our hard-earned stories were red-penned "Awks" and "Run-ons." We forget how vulnerable we are as learners and people, and how easy it is to protect ourselves with layers of bored resignation. Instead of thinking honestly and deeply about why students have learned to dislike writing, we rush about, pushing, luring encouraging, motivating, stimulating, bribing requiring…" (4)
Throughout high school, I remember receiving back papers covered with teacher's corrections. Typically, the papers were on subjects, which were pointless to me, so I chose not to feel accountable for the errors.
How can we make writing meaningful so students take pride in what they create? Peter Elbow suggests teachers need to step down from their authoritative position and have nurturing student-centered classrooms in order to have a productive writing classroom. Students would read each other's work as it evolved, and tell their reactions to the prose. His contention is that writers discover meaning by the act of writing, and it is productive to have students react to a work in progress. He advises readers "never quarrel with someone else's reaction" and "no kind of reaction is wrong." (94) He also gives practical exercises which teachers can use in the classroom in order to start the writing process. Students today are often fearful of writing and his exercises might help students begin, but I would be hesitant to set up a classroom exactly the same as Elbow describes. As Susan Jarrett contends in her article, "Feminism and Composition", Elbow does not account for the social inequalities of race, class, and gender outside the class room and unless these issues are addressed within the classroom, some students are at risk at being violated by Elbow's pedagogy. Writing exposes. If a student is told "never quarrel with someone else's reaction" about their writing, and they found a comment to be racist or sexist, doesn't that not only perpetuate racism and sexism but also contribute to the fear so many students already have about writing? I believe as Jarrett does that we need to address these issues inside the classroom. She asserts that many feminist theorists need to "turn from personal back out to the public." ( 121). Expressionist theorists spend "too little time helping their students learn how to argue about public issues."(121>
Because of the isolation of school from life, it is understandable that students feel apathy toward writing and indifference toward public issues. Lucy McCormick comments on why students do not want to write "After detouring around the authentic, human reasons for writing, we bury the students' urge to write all the more with boxes, kits, and manuals full of synthetic writing stimulants."(4) Students need to write about what is pertinent in their lives and need to be heard. A student who lives is the inner city might not be eager to write about the American family farms, which are ceasing to exist because of the corporate monopolization of farms. That student might be more interested in exploring and writing about the reasons for inner city poverty. Students should also be encouraged to understand realities beyond their backyard, but the task of writing in a high school and freshman college composition class at the start can be made meaningful by letting students write about what directly affects their lives. I contend that students should be encouraged to write about their personal experiences. By showing on paper past moments of time which have shaped who they are, students will, in turn, feel empowered and take pride in their stories By making sense of their lives through writing, students will over time, turn the personal to the public.
Students need to find their voice, and writing about personal experience not only helps students listen for their voice but also shows them how experiences have shaped their uniqueness. As Calkins states, "we write in order to understand our lives". (3) Our best writing comes when we write about what we know. When I first entered college, I was placed in a remedial writing class. I still feel ashamed about this. The writing class was set up similarly to the writing segments in my English classes. Improvement of grammar was the main focus. We were told what constitutes a good essay versus taught the process of how to create an interesting essay. Error identification was the teacher's guideline for grading. I did not do well in the class. After taking this class, I felt defeated and dreaded the task of writing. Calkin states "No one can write well and learn well when fear and shame are so persuasive" ( 106). The next semester I was required to take another writing class titled expository writing, which was taught by another teacher, Professor Hill. He required us to write primarily about personal experiences. It was his contention that our best writing is the personal, or as he put it, rests in the chambers of our heart. For the first time, I became deeply involved in what I wrote. Calkin prescribes, "we can tap the human urge to write if we help students realize that their lives are worth writing about." (6) For the first time as I wrote my story I lost myself in my writing and after I finished, I changed sentences, words, and paragraphs. I wanted to make sense of my story and experience. When I brought copies of my essay to class so students could respond, I felt fear, but also pride, in what I had completed. Students read aloud their stories and as I listened I grew to understand the powers of words and how we can bring others closer to our experience by writing. From writing many personal essays for this class, I learned how poignant moments of time can shape who we are. My writing improved.
After looking back and reading essays required for our class, Composition Theory, I now see the risks of having a class like Hill's, which focuses primarily on personal writing. Students need to feel safe and not forced to expose. I went to what was a predominately white Midwestern college started by Norwegian immigrants. Most of the students were from Norwegian descent and came from middle class families. It was no wonder we all felt comfortable to share in Hill's safe and nurturing classroom. We each had different personal experiences but our social positions were equal. Needless to say, in Hill's classroom there was not, as Jarrett describes, "political conflict and negotiation" (112). His class did strengthen my writing and help me find my voice, and later prepared me to write more "critical" essays.
What happened to me in Hill's class was as Zawacki states in her article "Recomposing as a Woman-An Essay in Different Voices," that I was letting "the inside out and the outside in." (33) I think before the personal can turn to public we have to understand the validity of our personal experiences, and let others come inside and acknowledge those experiences. Before taking this particular class, I was unable to write successfully critical essays. When I was required to write, I found myself trusting other voices, and at the end of the essay I would arrive at a single conclusion which was not my own. What I found from Hill's class is, as Zawacki states, "Differences can be cultivated in the personal essay -there is room to talk and room to listen."(33). Inside the classroom, by listening to stories about our experiences we were embracing versus shutting out poignant moments which have shaped who we are. This helped create a classroom where it was safe to share even if we felt fear. Audre Lorde expresses "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood." (40) I think students have a need, even at the risk of feeling vulnerable, to write about their lives. By writing, we are allowing "the inside out and outside in" and by listening to other students stories, reacting and sometimes conflicting, we are beginning of to turn the personal to the public.
The risks involved in requesting students to write about personal experiences need to be acknowledged. Some students might feel forced to reveal due to the unequal power relationship of teacher and student, and in turn feel exploited. Also, due to the inequalities in our society of race, gender, sexual preference and social class, students might be discriminated against by other students and feel powerless to defend themselves in a classroom which encourages all to listen and react. First, no student should be forced to write an essay about a personal experience, but instead could write a personal essay on a topic of their choice. Students should be encouraged to write a "personal' essay so they feel a deeper connection to the topic, and not rely solely on others' truths about a subject. They then might as Elizabeth Flynn suggests in her essay "Composing As A Woman", move "toward the development of an authentic voice" when they discover that external voices and truths are not "more powerful" than their own. (429)
Second, I think teachers need to set up a classroom, prior to requesting students to write about personal experiences, where differences are respected. As Jarrett suggests, teachers should "create a classroom in which personal experience is important material but openly acknowledge that differences exist and cause conflicts." (119) Also she states that teachers should be prepared to have " a more open acknowledgement of gender, race, and class differences among students and a pedagogy designed to confront and explore the uneven power relations resulting from these differences." (113) This is so we do not support the marganlization of already disfranchised groups.
Jacqueline Jones Royster, in her essay, "When the First Voice you Hear is not your own" writes about the distrust she has felt of "outsiders" who interpret her writing and voice which has been shaped by the experience of growing up in a "marginalized" community". After describing the historical evidence of this country's, cross-cultural misconduct she states "this means that for people like me, on an instinctive level, all outsiders are rightly perceive as suspect". (32) In the neighborhood where she grew up people would say: "Where is their home training?"
Imbedded in the question is the idea that when you visit someone's "home places," especially when you have not been invited, you cant go tramping around the house like you own the place, no matter how smart you are, or how much imagination you can muster or how much authority and entitlement outside that home you may be privileged to hold.. And you certainly can not go around name calling, saying things like, "You people are intellectually inferior and have a limited capacity to achieve," without taking into account who the family is, what its living has been like, and what its history and achievement have been about." (32)
I believe teachers and students need to be "home trained." They need to be respectful of other students' writing and not assume their point of view about someone's story is the ultimate truth. When someone is writing about a personal experience, they are allowing us to visit their home, and we need to have good manners. This means, as Royster asserts, "Coming too judgment, too quickly, drawing on information too narrowly, and saying hurtful, discrediting, dehumanizing things without undisputed proof are not appropriate."
In a classroom, if we treated each other as if we were homes, where inside there are loved ones, fragile artifacts, paintings, books, instruments, photographs and one of many parts of our identity we might treat each other more respectfully. When conflict arises, inside a house, we would not want to break a cherished piece, but treat it gently, handing it back and forth, so even if we disagree, we are still respecting its fragility. By sharing our personal experiences and our voices through when writing we are allowing people into our homes. This might feel intrusive, but again if we respectfully acknowledge different tastes, interests, experiences and cultures, we are beginning to acknowledge other truths. As Royster advises,"We need to get over our tendencies to be too possessive and to resist locking ourselves into the tunnels of our own visions and direct experiences." I believe writing about a personal experience is a rehearsal, which could empower us to respect, question and speak about the social order around us.
Bridwell-Bowles, Lillian. "Discourse and Diversity: Experimental Writing within the Academy." College Composition and Communication 43 (Dec. 1992): 349-368.
Calkins, Lucy McCormick. The Art of Teaching Writing. New Hamshire:Heinemann Educational Books, Inc. 1989.
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers.1973. 2nd rev.ed. New York:Oxford University Press, 1998.
Flynn, Elizabeth. "Composing as a Woman." Cross Talk in Comp Theory. Illinois:National Council of Teachers of English, 1997. 549-564.
Jarratt, Sucan C. "Feminism and Composition:The Case for Conflict." Contending with Words. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1991. 105-124.
Kirsch, Jesa E. Ritcie, Joy S, "Beyond the Personal: Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research." College Compositon and Communciation 46 (Feb. 1995):7-19.
Murray, Donald M. A writer teaches writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1968.
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.1986.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones. "When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own." College Composition and Communication 47.1(Feb.1996): 29-40.
Welch, Nancy, "Revising a Writer's Identity:Reading and "Re-Modeling" in a Composition Classroom." College Composition and Communication. 47(Feb 1996):41-27.
Zawacki, Terry Myers. "Recomposing as a Woman-An Essay in Different Voices." College Composition and Comunication 43(Feb.1992):32-38.
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