Tag Archives: writing

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years

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After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested  in teaching students to write and communicate clearly.  The group’s agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting’s 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against “marginalized” groups and restrict self-expression.

Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is “good enough.”  The Internet, thankfully, has freed us from our previous duties as “grammar police,” and Elbow heralded the day when the white spoken English that has now become the acceptable standard, will be joined by other forms, like those of non-native and ghetto speakers.

Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as “performance,” as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their “agency.” Expressions are made through “the body,” images, and song–sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet.  Clothes are rhetorically important as “instruments of grander performance.”  

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“Feelings” Education—It Starts in Ed School

The teenage girl standing with her father in line behind me at Kroger was clearly annoyed with her teacher. “I just gave her some b.s.,” she said.

They were discussing the school day, and a writing assignment. Her father asked her what the topic had been and between loading my items onto the conveyor belt I gathered that the assignment had involved a journal entry regarding feelings about family and living arrangements.

“Well,” her father replied, “you could have answered that with fewer than twenty words: ‘My parents went through a ten-year custody battle and now I live with my father.'”

“Yeah,” the daughter replied, “she has no business knowing about that stuff.”

I cheered her on inside, for her resistance to an intrusive English teacher.

When I started teaching college English as a graduate teaching assistant in the 1990s, I dutifully assigned the journals that were recommended in teaching workshops and instructors manuals. Such prewriting was supposed to free up the student’s creativity.

But the journaling ended up producing exactly “b.s.” Still, my colleagues lug around heavy piles of spiral notebooks with emotive scribblings of college freshmen. They also assign topics from the required textbooks.

I did too. In response to one topic that asked students to describe a learning experience, I received essays about first jobs, joy rides in parents’ cars, and joyful births of out-of-wedlock children.

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The Poetry Wars

Last semester, in an unguarded moment, I did what literature teachers should never do. I told a student her interpretation of a poem was wrong. From that moment I was regarded as an enemy to freedom.

I invited my students to engage with me in online debate on whether an interpretation could be wrong. What follows is their side of the argument. My arguments failed to dent their belief that a poem means whatever a reader thinks.

The debate erupted with Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi,” where Browning, impersonating a Renaissance painter and with much complexity, presents his artist’s credo.

My students resolved that complexity by leaping to conclusions. One young woman found the poem disgusting because the wayward monk enjoys a night out with the ladies. For her, this poem was just another male pleasantry purchased at women’s expense. That was her personal feeling, and therefore, the class argued, a perfectly acceptable account of Browning’s poem.

Another student, who disliked religion, saw Browning’s objective to expose the monk’s hypocrisy. Religion – he was ecumenical in his contempt – was a lie, and Browning showed how true this was.

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Indoctrination In Writing Class

As Charlotte Allen points out here, required summer reading for college freshmen is often highly politicized. That goes double for freshmen introductory writing courses and textbooks. Teaching composition to new students ought to be an ideology-free effort, but for many years on many campuses it hasn’t been.

For example, take Ways of Reading: an Anthology for Writers, compiled by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky of the University of Pittsburgh and first published in 1987. In its various editions (the eighth appeared this year), Ways has served up a steady diet of post-modernism, critical theory, post-colonial studies, identity politics, post structuralism, Marxism, hard-line feminism and other isms of the academic left. Featured authors have included Edward Said, Paolo Freire, Susan Bordo, Michel Foucault, Adrienne Rich, Stanley Fish and Patricia Williams.

Here and there, a mainstream writer appears: Virginia Woolf , Joyce Carol Oates and James Baldwin (all three gone in the current edition) as well as Walker Percy, who has survived several purges. But the ideological component is overwhelming, and meant to be. Ways of Reading is an immersion course for unsuspecting freshmen into the discourse and values of the academic far left. The basic message is: this is the way things are on this campus, so get used to it.

The essays are long and run from dense to nearly impenetrable. How freshmen, many of whom write poorly and need remedial help, are supposed to cope with this difficult, in-your-face anthology is obscure.

Assessments of the book are hard to find. In 2004, a freshman wrote to Amazon, “The book is basically a leftist handbook meant to tell the ‘proper opinion’ on every issue.” Presumably many professors adopt the book because it reflects their values and legitimates “transformative teaching” (indoctrination). Tom Kerr, writing in 2001 as an assistant professor at Ithaca College, saw the text “as a way not only of reading but also of proselytizing and subverting the mind-numbing, consumer/capitalist/fascist/sexist/racist/classist ideologies that surrounded us in the form of American mythologies and mass culture.” Kerr approvingly called the book “a kind of postmodern tough love,” “a cultural war machine” and “a multicultural boot camp.” (Not much emphasis here on teaching freshmen how to write.) Still , he thought the book’s negatives outweighed the positives. “For many in its highly diverse audience,” he wrote Ways of Reading is apt to yield more dutiful conformity than critical creativity and, as likely as not, leave the audience dumbfounded.” More importantly, imposing a one-sided ideology on a writing class is remarkably contemptuous of the students involved. Call it intellectual waterboarding.