There’s an excellent article in the June 2007 CCC that’s had WPA-L abuzz with excited discussions, objections, and elaborations. I think the excitement over the piece — “Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies’” by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle — is merited: there are some startling ideas here, provocatively posed, and Downs and Wardle have certainly got me thinking. Composition, they suggest, isn’t only (and shouldn’t be) about teaching a set of discrete and isolable techniques that help students write good essays in standard academic discourse for their other classes; and they thoroughly demonstrate how the study and teaching of writing has been shown in our discipline’s research to be considerably more complicated than that. (My inadequate account of the article does it discursive harm: please, read it yourself, rather than relying on my poor summing-up.) As some on WPA-L have pointed out, the article is not without its difficulties, and there are perhaps some underexamined terms and arguments, but overall, it’s a smart and exciting piece that’s sure to continue to stir discussion.
One passage in particular got me going, because of my institutional situation here at the Point, but I imagine others might have found it provocative as well. My situation: I’m civilian faculty, an assistant professor, with a PhD. As in most departments here, our faculty split is around 70/30 or 80/20 military/civilian. Military junior faculty come in with an MA, teach three years, and rotate back out into the Army, possibly coming back when they’ve got their PhDs, while civilian faculty tend to be more permanent. This proportionally faster turnover rate for military as opposed to civilian instructors creates some unique instructor training exigencies, as does the fact that the Army pays full ride for its military instructors’ graduate degrees, and strongly discourages (perhaps even forbids?) them from working as teaching assistants. So our Army instructors come to us with no college classroom teaching experience, although of course they’ve held company command and have immense experience leading and managing hundreds and sometimes thousands of soldiers. The military junior faculty are, on the other hand, burgeoning experts in their chosen fields, which tend for the most part to be associated with literature.
And therein lies the rub. According to Downs and Wardle, the pedagogy they propose “cannot be taught by someone not trained in writing studies” (574). Later, they elaborate, describing and indicting
the myth that content is separable from writing — that a FYC [first-year composition] instructor need not be expert in the subject matter of a paper in order to evaluate the quality of writing in that paper, or need not be a subject expert on writing in order to teach writing. Such claims accept the premise that writing instruction can be limited to fluent English syntax, grammar, and mechanics.
The first statement raises some difficult and complex concerns for me, but I very much agree with the latter sentiment. I can’t help but bristle when I get well-meant emails from friends or family equating what I do with teaching basic rules of grammar and mechanics. I am an expert on writing, just as my friends who teach chemistry or literature are experts on their topics, and I teach writing well. And this summer, I’m taking part in our arriving faculty workshop, and helping to talk to junior officers about best pedagogical practices for teaching first-year composition. Some of them — who’ll be teaching sections of first-year composition — have barely heard of our discipline. Certainly, some are enthusiastic: one major, although she wasn’t presenting, registered for this year’s CCCC in New York and took the train down two mornings to attend as many sessions as she could, and came back (to teach her afternoon classes) deeply enthusiastic and quickly put together a proposal for 2008. And certainly, we’re training them, to the limits of our time: we’ve got sessions on the rhetorical situation, the writing process, peer response, conferencing, commenting, reflection; we’ve got a set of required comp-theory readings; they’re watching Take 20 — but does that constitute being “trained in writing studies”?
I don’t know. It’s a start, maybe. But it’s a question Downs and Wardle raise: how does the pedagogy they propose intersect with academic labor practices? Even if the pedagogy they propose is a good thing, which I most definitely think it is, how can it be done? What do we do at my institution, if we have only a tiny fraction of our composition instructors with expertise in writing studies — and what does it mean to have expertise?