Composition Theory and Pedagogy
by Alisa Scapatici
When I first encountered Paulo Freire’s work, I was struck with the hypocrisy of my own teaching. I had deluded myself into thinking, to a certain extent, that I was creating a democratic and equal space that was free from the influence of. It was a stark reminder last year when I encountered Richard Shaull’s introduction to Peter Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He writes, “There is no such things as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Freire 16). Then, over the summer, as I delved into Lisa Delpit and Sonia Nieto’s work, I came face to face with the socio-economic reality of our education system, and how in some ways, I was not nearly as enlightened as I thought myself to be. According to Delpit, “Many liberal educators hold that the primary goal for education is for children to become autonomous, to develop fully who they are in the classroom setting without having arbitrary, outside standards forced upon them. This is a very reasonable goal for people whose children are already participants in the culture of power and who have already internalized its codes” (Delpit 28). I think that I fall into the category that Delpit discusses here. So many of my original assumptions about what I attempt to do in the classroom have been blown out of the proverbial water, and I am left with the question of what exactly am I doing in the classroom? I am specifically concerned with this in regards to the teaching of writing, and all that this endeavor entails.
When I first started teaching eight years ago, I was fresh out of grad school and eager to have my own classroom of writers. At that point in time, I leaned more towards Peter Elbow’s theories of teaching writing. I wanted to actualize the budding writers in my classes, and the philosophy seemed to fit many of the reasons why I entered into the world of teaching. When I first started working in writing lab at a large suburban school, Elbow’s work seemed to work perfectly with the students with whom I was teaching. However, after this large public school experience, I found myself in a small private competitive prep school where there was an emphasis on expository prose. I think that at that phase I was still able to work in some of Elbow’s ideal in conjunction with what the school asked me to do. Then, I came to my current position, and somehow, over the past six years, I have changed as a teacher.
Somewhere along the way, I think I started to lose my own philosophy of grading writing. The pressure to grade competitively at my independent school is palpable, and somehow, I let my guard down and become enmeshed in the opposite of Elbow’s teaching. I found myself talking about the weaknesses that I found in my student’s writing, and I focused on the negative instead of the positives. I became a more challenging grader, and I focused entirely on expository prose work in my upper level classes to the exclusion of including creative pieces. In my evaluations from last year, my honors students begged me to incorporate more creative assignments in class, but I felt that I was on a mission to teach them how to read and write analytically and critically, and that if they were not fluent in the academic speak that they would need in college, then I had not adequately prepared them for what they would encounter in the collegiate classroom. I was fitting more into the overall philosophy of my department, but I felt that I was straying further from my own goals of teaching writing.
In some ways, this desire to exclusively focus on the teaching of expository prose, or in my perspective, academic writing, in many ways seems to be quite contrary to what I had hoped to do, for it seems that academic writing is perhaps the pinnacle of full integration into the power dynamic of our society. Academic writing is what is done by college and university professors, and it is often conceived as being dense, difficult to understand, and intellectually superior to the writing of many. And here I am trying to give my students some sort of fluency in this academic speak, to the exclusion of many other types of writing.
After reading the Elbow/Bartholomae debate, I feel a bit more comfortable in my confusion. Bartholomae writes,
To say this another way, there is no writing that is writing without teachers. I think I would state this as a general truth, but for today, let me say that there is not writing done in the academy that is not academic writing. To hide the teacher is to hide the traces of power, tradition and authority present at the scene of writing…To offer academic writing as something else is to keep this knowledge from our students, to keep them from confronting the power politics of discursive practice, or to keep them from confronting the particular representations of power, tradition, and authority reproduced whenever one writes (Bartholomae 481).
The type of writing that I am preparing my students for is the type of writing that is required at many of the colleges and universities that value this type of writing as well. Yet this gets at a crucial part of the debate between Elbow and Bartholomae. The literature that we are reading in school is, for the most part, literature and not expository prose (although we do read the occasional essay and literary criticism). And, when I ask my students, or I ask myself, what kinds of books do they gravitate towards when they have the time and the inclination to read, they overwhelming say that they enjoy works that possess a strong voice. Many lean towards fiction, but the striking thing is that these students do not read expository prose for enjoyment (in general).
My students are reading books that break all of the rules that I teach them in their formal papers. There is a distinct division between what we term academic writing and the writing that is read by the general public for enjoyment. I am not advocating that we stop teaching academic writing skills, but I do feel the challenge to ask, “Why is this the type of writing so valued in an educational setting? Is this a good thing? And what exactly is fluency in this type of writing reflect? A superior knowledge of the structure and power of the society in which we live?” In my own educational journey, I have gravitated towards feminist and women’s study; while many in the academic realm deemed some of this work as being less academic, and there have been questions about feminist studies being a real academic discipline, I found that in many cases (and I am speaking in generalities here) feminist academic writing has combined academic speak with real world experience. “The feminist classroom was the one space where students could raise critical questions about the pedagogical process (hooks 6). I also tend to approach my classes from a feminist perspective, so perhaps I have imparted some of these thoughts to my students. It is difficult to filter through all of the readings and then apply them to the actual act of teaching; the potential to cause harm in the classroom is great, and I struggle to attempt to effect some good as well.
Elbow talks about the dichotomy between being an academic and producing academic writing and being a writer. He says that if he is forced to choose, “I choose the goal of writing over that of academic” (Elbow 490). Yet why is that division so distinctive? That is the line that I feel I am straddling as a high school English teacher. Is it in my students’ best interest for me to teach them about academic writing, or should I be teaching more about writing in general? Why is there a division between creative writing and academic writing? At the high school level, it is unclear what exactly is included in an English course. We constantly debate what we need to be teaching our students. Recently, we have been dealing with the question of standardized testing. Is it our responsibility to teach to these tests? The answer has uniformly been yes. But again, what do these tests really prove? Do they serve as yet another opportunity of sorting students according to socio-political and cultural background? The more I read the more confused I become about what our schools should be doing, and what I should be doing as a teacher in one of those schools.
I found the act of reading the Elbow/Bartholomae debate to be confirming in many ways; reading this debate also helped me to formulate some of the concerns that I have with my own issues of education and how I can best teach my students writing. While I have not come up with any steadfast answers, I think the act of becoming more aware of these issues will hopefully make me a more engaged teacher sensitive to the issues facing my students as we embark on the process of teaching writing. I currently see myself fitting in between the two positions presented in the debate. Perhaps earlier in my career I would have aligned myself more with Elbow, and perhaps right now, I need to incorporate more of his philosophy into my teaching. I found that much of what Bartholomae wrote struck a chord of resonance with me. These ideas have been percolating for quite some time, and I find that the manifestation of this confusion has been reflected in the way that I am once again changing the way in which I view grading my students’ essays. Despite the fact that I have found no clarity, perhaps it is the fact that I am still grappling with these issues, facing them on a daily level that keeps me an actively engaged teacher in the realm of teaching writing.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.
Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. The New Press, 1995.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum Press, 1970.
Bartholomae, David. “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow.” Cross-Talk in CompTheory. National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.
Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being and Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” Cross-Talk In CompTheory. National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.
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