English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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The Elf in the Book Bag

by Jill Harbeck

"While I had thought initially to matriculate into the English Department, it seems to be more heavily weighted toward theory than application, whereas the pedagogical training that I consider necessary for teaching is available through ETAP." So I had thought and so I wrote in my application for admission to the doctoral program in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany. At the same time, realizing that I still would need a solid grounding in my subject area to teach composition and rhetoric, my goal for pursing a Ph.D., I co-matriculated the next semester into the English Department's M.A. program on the writing sequence. Returning to school from a corporate background meant that, while I had trained individuals and small groups in the workplace, I had had no classroom experience with teaching writing. As well, the sun has risen so many times on my memories of learning to write myself that those memories are fairly well bleached out by now. Yet, after almost two years worth of education and English courses, I have learned little about effective teaching practices in the writing classroom.

Iíve read about issues of culture and diversity (Apple, 1996; Banks, 1997; Bruner, 1996; Freire, 1998; hooks, 1994) and Iíve been exposed to the history of composition and different approaches to teaching writing (Berlin, 1987; Durst, 1999; Elbow, 1973; Haswell, 1991; Herrington & Curtis, 2000; Lindemann, 1995; Miller, 1993, for example). The better part of class time has been spent discussing racism and feminism and sexism and classism and Marxism and structuralism and expressionism and post-colonialism until the appearance of "ism" makes my eyes glaze over. The teaching of anything concrete or structured, such as the specific formats put forth by current-traditional rhetoric or grammar, has been treated as anathema to teaching writing (Elbow, 1973; Haswell, 1991). Actual application -- how any of this translates into practice in the classroom -- receives short shrift as well. This leaves my pressing question of "What do I do in the writing classroom?" like an elf in the book bag. It accompanies me to and from class, peers up at me with quizzical eyes whenever I reach for something and asks, hopefully, "Will I get any answers today?" Each day I sadly reply, "No, apparently not today" and the elf sighs, "Well, perhaps tomorrow."

But tomorrow never arrives, in accordance with the axiom. A typical course sequence is one in which the greater part of the semester is spent discussing theories and issues surrounding the teaching of writing, practice and application are mentioned briefly or in passing, and at the end of the semester students are charged with creating a writing class syllabus. That being the end of the course, presumably students are now prepared to actually teach the course they have designed. However, that most demanding educator - experience -- has taught me that this is not a good strategy. Despite spending an enormous amount of time reading and compiling materials and resources for a class I agreed to teach, despite having numerous discussions with peers about their experiences with teaching a class along the lines of what I was developing, and despite doggedly writing, revising and re-revising the syllabus, I walked into my classroom unprepared for the realities of it. I had cobbled together the class without supervision, without guidance, and without the practical training that I needed, and suffered the consequences on the second day when my students revolted. Although we were able to work through the difficulties, it is not an experience I would care to repeat. In fact, it most likely could have been avoided altogether or, at least, I could have been better prepared to be at the front of that classroom.

It is my suspicion that this shift in graduate courses from the practical to the theoretical is partly the result of the overall shift in higher education from teaching to research (Richlin, 1993) and partly because of the ongoing schism between literature and rhetoric in university English departments where "composition is usually the minor term in the literature-rhetoric polarity, disparaged as utilitarian, marginalized as an editorial service to other departments" (Clifford, 1991, p. 39). In response, composition studies have veered away from anything that might appear too "utilitarian." That does not stop me from feeling that something has gone terribly wrong that when I ask the question "What do we do in the classroom?" and it evokes silence, sidestepping, fast-talking, smirks, or something similar to this reply from one professor: "That's for you to figure out." Imagine a medical student who has learned all about the theories of and medical issues surrounding surgery, but has never been taught how to use a scalpel, or an electrician who has studied the theory of electricity but has had little training or experience in wiring a house. Without skills training they would be considered incompetent to practice, yet would-be writing instructors are sent into the classroom with little or no training in the craft of teaching writing. Although theory is paired with practice in the titles of many program and courses, theory is usually given a seat at the main table while practice is relegated to the back porch to await the leftovers.

My attempts to find substantial treatment of classroom practice in the course readings have been rewarded with only bit and snatches of information. Peter Elbow argues that he fears "there is a conflict between the role of writer and that of academic," yet what he reveals in terms of actual classroom practice is that he spends ten minutes having students freewrite (1997, p. 506), that students "spend a significant amount of class time writing" and that he publishes a class magazine four times a semester (p. 491). We learn little about what happens after students finish freewriting. What then? What kinds of writing do they do? How are the assignments set up? How are assignments assessed or prepared for publication? His book, Writing Without Teachers (1973), by title alone suggests that answers won't be found there and Elbow even admits that he himself is indebted to someone else for "showing [him] how" to set up the class magazine (1997, p. 491). Patrick Hartwell goes on at length that we shouldn't spend time on grammar instruction; however, he offers no substitute other than to "predict" that his model for teaching writing will be ďa rich and complex interaction of learner and environment in mastering literacy' (1997, p. 186), and he never informs us how his model is actually constructed and enacted in the classroom. James Berlin discusses an interdisciplinary study of hamburgers that one teacher used in her classroom, but we don't learn much about the writing component and how it was carried out (1997, p. 696).

While Lisa Delpit, in her essay on the silencing of non-Whites in education (1997), at least presents examples of actual classroom exercises, she too only provides isolated assignments rather than a fully-developed, cohesive plan for teaching writing. James Sosnowski, in writing a response to Contending with Words and considering how to apply post-modern theory in the writing classroom, asked himself such questions as: "Should I have a syllabus? What writing assignments should I give? How should I grade them?" Then he finds himself "in a dilemma: could I turn anything I had read into a pedagogy?" (1991, p. 198). He observes that "for the most part, the writers in this volume give us few details [although] they imply several kinds of assignments" (p. 213) and, while he can "imagine an arrangement that uses all the different assignments to involve students in alternative modes of discourse," not all of us have the experience he has to drawn upon, or training to fall back on until we do.

Few of the readings from my course work have included case studies; none have ever presented a cohesive lesson plan; most of the readings and discussions of the different rhetorics, such as current-traditional, expressivist and transactional, provide few supporting examples or only offer suggestions in passing ("have students journal write"). In spite of the frequency with which designing a course has been a major assignment in college courses, fully-developed and preferably actually executed syllabi or lesson plans have never been presented for analysis and discussion. In only one course have I seen theory directly tied to practice -- via a video tape of a school that operated according to the principles of John Dewey (1997). It was illuminating but the exception to the rule, so the poor elf has had to make do with crumbs.

It's not that I agree with the students of mine who didn't care to spend any time reading about or discussing theory and issues but, instead, wanted to get right down to matters of application. Just as musicians study music history and theory to come to a richer understanding of the music and how to play it, so too must writing teachers consider the competing and often conflicting theories that exist and the issues that must be considered to come to a better understanding of what is involved in writing and how to teach it. To do otherwise would be to teach in a vacuum. But if we are going to walk confidently and effectively as writing teachers, wouldn't we would do best with a grounding in both theory and practice? Yet, as Delpit relates in several stories about Black students and professors, should anyone challenge the regime du jour, which currently favors theory over practice, they often find themselves rebuffed with recitations of theory or research (1997, pp. 565-6).

Apparently I am not alone in my concern. One fellow student who felt as I do set up an independent study to observe a writing class as a way of investigating classroom practices. Another related how she had the same frustration over the topic of cultural/diversity issues. Just as with writing, she finds that much is being written and discussed about the issues themselves, but little is being offered as to what to do in the classroom to address them. Yet another cohort approached me recently to ask, "Do you think that at any point we will receive mentoring [in how to teach]?" I told her "probably not," which is what I had been counseled by students further along in their programs. Not only do professors lack the time to mentor students, the higher education system as it currently exists rewards research and theory over practice. Her concern was that, while she was eager to gain experience in the classroom, she was at a loss as to what to do once she got there. We have now begun a discussion about team-teaching a course; while both of us admit to feeling unsure of what to do once we get into classroom waters, our hope is that we at least can keep each other from drowning.

The message is clear B writing as a skill (and teaching writing as a practice) has gone out of style and woe to anyone who suggests otherwise. That elf is bound to cause mischief, like the estrangement Delpit feels "when writing-process advocates dismiss us as too >skills-oriented'" (1997, p. 567), the same estrangement I felt when I began to write this essay and tried to twist, pull, stretch and otherwise contort my real concern into something that sounded more theoretical and, thus, more "academic." Although I initially shied away from the central question of what to do in the classroom, I am more convinced than ever that it is a question that needs to be directly addressed. Unfortunately, for now, the elf is still in the book bag.


Apple, M. W. (1996). Cultural Politics and Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Banks, J. A. (1997). Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society. New York: Teachers College Press.

Berlin, J. A. (1987). Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1980-1985. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Berlin, J. A. (1997). Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class. In V. Villanueva, Jr. (Ed.), Cross-Talk in Composition Theory: A Reader (pp. 679-699). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Bruner, J. (1996). The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clifford, J. (1991). The Subject in Discourse. In P. Harkin & J. Schilb (Eds.), Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age (pp. 38-51). New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

Delpit, L. (1997). The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children. In V. Villanueva, Jr. (Ed.), Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (pp. 565-588). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience & Education (First Touchstone ed.). New York: Touchstone.

Durst, R. K. (1999). Collision Course: Conflict Negotiation, and Learning in College Composition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing Without Teachers. London: Oxford University Press.

Elbow, P. (1997). Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals. In V. Villanueva, Jr. (Ed.), Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (pp. 489-500). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans. New Revised 20th-Anniversary ed.). New York: The Continuum Publishing Company.

Hartwell, P. (1997). Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar. In V. Villanueva, Jr. (Ed.), Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader (pp. 183-211). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Haswell, R. H. (1991). Gaining Ground in College Writing: Tales of Development and Interpretation. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.

Herrington, A. J., & Curtis, M. (2000). Persons in Process: Four Stories of Writing and Personal Development in College. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Lindemann, E. (1995). A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers (Third ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, S. (1993). Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Richlin, L. (Ed.). (1993). Preparing Faculty for the New Conceptions of Scholarship (Vol. 54). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sosnoski, J. J. (1991). Postmodern Teachers in Their Postmodern Classrooms: Socrates Begone! In P. Harkin & J. Schilb (Eds.), Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age (pp. 198-219). New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

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