Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Academics and Writers
by Tim Coffey
One of the biggest debates in composition theory seems to be the notion of fostering the “creative impulse” versus “structure” in the writing classroom. We have run into this argument time and again in class, and it is waged on a larger scale in the “Bartholomae and Elbow Debate” in terms of academic versus writing centered classes. In class we have discussed “structure” as grammar, and the “creative impulse” as the desire students have to break the rules of language in their own creative endeavors. Bartholomae and Elbow provide us with natural extensions of this argument in their own debate. The “academic classroom” according to Bartholomae is more beneficial to students, as they gain a sense of intertextuality and learn how to write and respond to the academic writing that has preceded them ( i.e. critical theory and literature). Elbow on the other hand fosters the idea that students will learn how to write more effectively within smaller writing communities that are created right within the classroom itself and spends more time in his own classes with that side of the issue. This is the conflict that we will run into no matter what facet of composition theory we discuss. The problem with this debate, however, is that both Elbow and Bartholomae are conceiving of these two (supposedly) oppositional roles too narrowly. They are both at odds concerning the role of each in the writing classroom despite the fact that they see the commonalities. It is important for all teachers of writing to address this debate, and be able to see past it, which as evidenced in the debate in Cross Talk, Elbow and Bartholomae were not able to do. I feel as if my first personal essay addressed these matters as well, although I did not deal them specifically without knowing the debate between Elbow and Bartholomae firsthand.
When what Elbow would call “academic writing” did not interest me in high school and community college, I really had no interest in writing or English as a whole. It was only when I was asked to do something creative that my teachers were able to bring and kind of passionate writing out of me. In Elbow’s view, the writing centered aspects of those classrooms empowered me with language, where the work of academics had me lost in the shuffle. Of course, this is hindsight, and I had no idea this was the issue at the time, or even when I wrote about it in my first essay. If I had been asked after writing this first essay, I certainly would have come down on the side of Elbow in this debate. The story of my interest in language, writing and literature has another side to it though. It is one that did not occur to me until it was fleshed out with more certainty in the Bartholomae and Elbow debate. Writing a few poems in high school as an apathetic teenager and again in Community College as a Communications Major (almost the same as the former) was not enough to make me want to commit myself to studying writing and language both in working towards a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in the field. There was something more there.
In my last few semesters getting my Associates Degree in Media Arts, I began to read fervently outside of class. Kurt Vonnegut was my first obsession with an author. After reading a collection of his short stories, I wanted to read everything that he had ever written. Dostoyevsky quickly followed. I felt as if these authors were speaking directly to me. They were voicing thoughts that I believed were particular to me. These writers not only made me want to write more of my own creative work, but they made me want to read and understand more of their work. Perhaps this is an instance where my own intertextulaity with the work of other writers (who in many ways could be termed as producing “academic writing” as Bartholomae means it) did not alienate me from the discipline but rather excited me to the point where I wanted to further involve myself in studying writing and literature. The thought that great authors such as these had written before me was certainly a bit intimidating, but it never made me want to stop writing, or question my own power over the language. Their writing, as well as that of other authors, made me want to respond (as all great writing should do). And yes, I actually felt the need for academic writing, writing that would respond to literature, that would take different paths to discover meaning in it.
Elbow presents some important concerns with the way that academic writing is handled in the University system, and I have certainly experienced some of these problems first hand. It is important not to let a few antiquated teaching methods scare one away from all academic writing, however. “I must fight the tradition of treating these readings as monuments in a museum, pieces under glass.” (Elbow 491). It can definitely be said that many teachers of literature do just that. Students are not allowed to question the validity of what has been written in any way and in a very Modernist approach, there is one correct hidden meaning that we may gain access to in a text, and if a student comes up with anything else, they are wrong, and they have insulted a work much greater than them in the canon. This is not the way to introduce students to academic writing. This method will only serve to do exactly what Elbow says, make students “skeptical and distrustful” of their own power over language. The teacher must not have the ultimate say in how a piece of literature is interpreted in the classroom. Rather, they should be a guide. Elbow’s concern is that “even if a student happens to have a better understanding than the teacher has, the teacher gets to define her own understanding as right and the student’s as wrong” (Elbow 498). Students in this kind of academic classroom are then “writing-up” to their instructor. Elbow is seeking to give his students a sense of confidence in their own writing, so this is not the desired affect. Again, no matter what the pitfalls of academic writing may be, we cannot allow ourselves to turn away from studying literature in the classroom and placing student writing in context with these works.
Bartholomae obviously values academic writing very highly. In his response to Elbow’s work, Writing Without Teachers, however, he falls into the exact problems Elbow discusses in his “eight conflicts between writers and academics. Bartholomae comes off as arrogant and dogmatic when speaking of why academic writing is more important than Elbow’s notions of the free writing, student-centered classroom. I agree with Bartholomae to the extent that “we have to make the classroom available for critical inquiry” (Bartholomae 483). It is this “critical inquiry” that makes a student the kind of independent thinker that Elbow wants to foster in his own classroom. Elbow is not afraid of academia in his classroom inherently, rather he is afraid of his own notion of what academics are. Fostering the critical thinking in the writing classroom that Bartholomae so desires is not the problem. It is when the instructor of this critical inquiry decides to make him/herself the end all, be all of critical authority, as I discussed earlier.
The conclusion to this kind of argument has typically been that we must find some kind of balance between these two perspectives. In reality, however, we must get completely past this conflict altogether. The debate only exists because of our own narrow definitions of what writers and academics are. Dostoyevsky no doubt would have considered himself a writer. Today his writing has achieved a kind of academic status because of the philosophical issues that he addressed, and the amount of “academic writing” that has been done on it. The fact remains that at many point in his life, Dostoyevsky was writing for food. This is a writer if we’ve ever seen one. I’m sure he didn’t think of himself as an academic. The issues concerning what makes a piece of writing “academic” have become too complex, and it is time to look past another of life’s many dichotomies to the real issue: how do we foster a writing environment in the classroom that takes all of this into account?
The answer, I believe becomes a careful formulation of writing, reading and responding in the classroom. Time becomes the biggest enemy here, and depending on the class, there must be a different percentage of time allowed for each of these focuses. When teaching a group of first year students in a composition class, determining this becomes harder. The question not only becomes which works to teach, but if this is a class based on student writing, how much time can be dedicated to reading the works of other writers?
The best solution that comes to my mind is having these students read one major work per quarter (two per semester in other words). Each week, I would expect the students to turn in a short response to what they had read for that week. This (and hopefully it wouldn’t be asking to much) would be interwoven with the independent writing that makes up the majority of the coursework in most composition classes (i.e. the persuasive essay, the statement of position essay, etc.). Hopefully this kind of student writing could be related back in some way to the major work being studied. For the students’ sake and Peter Elbow’s I would try not to be dogmatic about the teaching of these major works. There would be no one right answer to unlock concerning these works. Rather, the students could do the kind of wrestling with these texts that Elbow believes is necessary to foster good writing. Theories and concepts could be introduced regarding critical analysis, but nothing would be set forth as the proper way to view it. All of this however, may be too much for first year composition students to handle. By keeping the number of major works to a minimum and keeping the required responses and writing assignments short but quite frequent, hopefully it would be possible to keep things from getting too overwhelming, and keep this debate from rearing its ugly head.
Bartholomae, David. “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. Washington State University: NCTE, 1997.
Elbow, Peter. “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. Washington State University: NCTE, 1997.
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