On January 3, 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article I wrote, “We Know What Works in Teaching Composition.” http://www.chronicle.com/article/We-Know-What-Works-in-Teaching/238792/.  The version that was eventually published had benefited from editing by Denise Manger, at the Chronicle, and by Jenna Fournel at NCTE, whose helpful, expertly ruthless chopping helped cut the original draft more than a third.  I thought some readers (especially writing teachers) might find it interesting to compare my original version with the published version; among other things, there’s an example of what gets cut (and probably should!) in moving to a broader audience.  I submitted the piece to the Chronicle in October, shortly after Professor Teller’s piece had appeared.  Within two or three weeks, I’d received an email that they’d like to publish it; then there was a long delay.  In mid-December I received a copy edited version, with a notice the piece would appear in the January 3 issue.  Anyway, for the amusement of a select few, pedagogical and otherwise, I offer the original draft.  I’m happy with the version that was published.


UNPUBLISHED EARLY DRAFT:  Disciplinary Knowledge, Lore, and Teaching College Writing

October 2016


When I came to The University of Denver in 2006, to start a new campus writing program, I frequently heard from faculty that “a lot of my students can’t even write a decent sentence.” So, when I read Joseph Teller’s recent assertion that “my students can’t write a clear sentence to save their lives” (Chronicle, October 3, 2016) I recognized hyperbole when I saw it.

My response ten years ago, joined by my twenty new colleagues in the program, was to gather a corpus of 500,000 words of student writing, from classes across campus, then analyze them for error. We found that well over 90% of those sentences in fact coded clear and error free. Whatever my colleagues wanted in better student writing (and I surely acknowledged and valued their desire), it was clear that fixing sentences wasn’t going to do it. There were larger issues of idea development and deployment, matching disciplinary expectations, and so on. That we could work on.

Professor Teller’s claim joins a long lineage of complaint about the state of student writing. In 1878, Adams Sherman Hill, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard, famously protested that “Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their own commencements without making blunders which would disgrace a boy twelve years old.” Hill and others devised pedagogies grounded in their own experiences and common sense—though one man’s common sense was another man’s folly.

Teaching grounded in actual research took a scholarly turn in 1950, marked by the founding of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the leading journal in the field, now in its 65th year. By 1963, research on what worked—and what didn’t—in teaching writing had accumulated to a point of synthesis in Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer’s Research in Written Composition. In 1986, George Hillocks conducted a new meta analysis (Research on Written Composition, the title differing by a preposition), using studies published in the intervening twenty years. In the subsequent two decades, peer-reviewed research has accumulated in dozens of books and well-established journals including College Composition and Communication, Written Communication, College English, The Journal of Teaching Writing, Teaching English in the Two Year College, Composition Studies, Writing Program Administration, and The Journal of Writing Assessment, to name but a few. In a 2005 article in Research on the Teaching of English (“The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing”), Hillocks analyzed why formalist approaches—the kind that Professor Teller advocates—remained so popular despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they were significantly less effective than other approaches.

What does the scholarly literature say about college writing pedagogy? In a passage now familiar to PhD students in composition studies everywhere, Kenneth Burke wrote: “Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about.” Following Burke’s analogy, it’s reductively daunting to recount, for colleagues outside the field in a single brief article, the lines of argument and research in the teaching of writing developed over past 70 years (or the past two millennia, if one wants to go to precepts and practices at the field’s roots in Greek and Roman rhetoric, grammar, and dialogic). In Naming What We Know (Utah State, 2015) Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle gather the “threshold concepts” of writing studies—“the concepts that are critical for epistemological participation” in current scholarly deliberations on composition studies. Pedagogical traditions more specifically are outlined in Tate, Taggart, Schick and Hessler’s A Guide to Composition Pedagogies (2014, Oxford), the latest in a long series of such analyses (for example, Donovan and McClelland’s 1980 Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition (NCTE)).

My simple point is that the teaching of writing happens—or should—within a deep field of practice, theory, and research. It’s also an enterprise marked by a fair amount of what Steve North, in The Making of Knowledge in Composition (1987, Southern Illinois), called “lore.” Lore consists of teaching ideas and assumptions grounded in local experience (“what worked for me”) and passed along informally for the most part. Lore may be informed by research, and thus transmutable and generalizable, but it more often is not. It may be consonant with research practices, but that’s not its measure, and it frequently is not. North regarded lore with respect but also noted its limitations.

Professor Teller’s Chronicle essay participates in the tradition of lore. Not having been in his classes or having read his students’ work, I can’t judge his local experience, but I can judge how well they represent national practices. For example, while his assertion, “Substantial revision doesn’t happen in our courses,” might speak for his own classroom, it surely doesn’t speak for mine or thousands of other professors’. Or consider his claim that students “do not use the basic argumentative structures they need.” Again, perhaps true of the students in Teller’s own classes—though, as in the case of the hyperbolic assertion about his students’ sentences, I’d need to see the evidence. But the broad claim is unsubstantiated by my experience, research on my campus, or by the wider literature in the field. If anything, students come to college armed with (even frozen into) a basic argumentative structure: thesis and support, assertion and evidence. If Teller had claimed, rather, that students don’t martial evidence as effectively as they need to, we’d have a starting point for discussion. But he doesn’t.

Where Teller departs most from actual scholarship in the discipline is his claim that “pedagogical orthodoxy” assumes that “composition courses must focus on product, not process.” He could hardly be more wrong. The two most dominant pedagogies in college composition today intricately mix process and produce. Genre approaches have students analyze and emulate conventions as they’re manifested in texts for different contexts, readerships, and discourse communities. (See Bawarshi and Reif, Genre: An Introduction to Theory, History, Research, and Pedagogy (2010, Parlor).) Rhetorical approaches teach what constitute evidence, reasoning, structure, voice, so on for different audiences and purposes, academic to public.

Both approaches use readings for content, certainly; college writers have to locate their ideas and arguments in relation to published sources. But both approaches use readings as examples of approach and strategy. Both teach analyzing the decisions that writers have made: what evidence, what reasoning, what organization, what tone, what assumptions about readers, and, crucially, why for a given writing situation and readership. They do this analytic work to develop the repertory of strategies that student writers can employ.

The key word here is practice, and on this point Teller and I surely agree. Students learn to write by writing, by getting advice and feedback on their writing, then writing some more. What can be told to college students about writing can probably be encapsulated in a lecture of two or three hours. It parallels what meaningfully can be told about playing piano: music notation, the relationship between notation and keyboard, hand and finger placement, posture, pedal functions. But without sustained practice, the world’s best lectures will not—cannot—make a pianist. So, too, with writing. When might we declare that someone can “play piano?” When they can play Chopsticks? “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie?” “Für Elise?” “Take Five?” Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto 3 in D Minor”?

As students progress through school and college, teachers and professors reasonably assign them new writing tasks, related but different, requiring similar but new strategies, with similar but new subject matters and contents, for related but increasingly more specialized and demanding reading communities. The kinds of abilities that aptly serve us in fourth grade won’t suffice in high school, high school not college freshman year, freshman year not a senior thesis in the major, the major not graduate school. We should expect writing repertories to continue developing throughout college and beyond, as Joseph M. Williams famously analyzed in a body of work about stellar undergraduate writers struggling in law school and stellar law school grads struggling in firms (see, for example, “On the Maturing of Legal Writers,” 1991, in The Journal of the Legal Writing Institute). How to teach writing for transfer across time and domains has been a focus of research in the field; for a recent book, see Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak’s 2015 Writing Across Contexts.

Now that I’ve suggested, that there’s an extensive body of research and reviewed practice about teaching writing, let me distill a few characteristics of effective courses:
1. Students have ample opportunities to write. Professors expect them to write frequently and extensively, demanding and rewarding serious effort.
2. Professors carefully sequence writing tasks in ways that build from existing writing experiences and abilities to scaffold new ones.
3. Professors coach the process, giving feedback, offering strategies and advice, encouragement and critique, formative and summative assessments. Some of this coaching is perforce individualized, based on the skilled assessment of what this particular student needs at this particular time.
4. Courses provide instruction and practice on all aspects of writing. Attend to the form and conventions of specific target discourses? Yes. But also attend to issues of invention: how to generate content, not just how content should be deployed. Attend to grammar and style? Certainly, but also to logic, accuracy, and fit to various audience needs and expectations. The longstanding scholarly critique of “current traditional” approaches (a technical term in the field) is that they focus on imitating disembodied modes and models chosen primarily for instructional convenience.
5. Courses use readings not only as context and source materials (which is vital in the academic and civic spheres) but also as models—and not only static models of form but also as maps to be decoded as to how their writers might have proceeded, why, and to what effect.
6. Professors teach key explicit concepts about writing in order to help writers consolidate and transfer skills from one writing occasion to the next—but they recognize that declarative knowledge is made significant only through practice and performance. See #1.
7. Student writing and student writers are the course’s focus. Everything else serves those ends.

I could list more—including about writing as a mode of inquiry as well as of demonstration, about the centrality of rhetorical situations for both impelling writing and judging its success—but I don’t want to overspeak my stay in this Burkean parlor. Further reading is amply available, from the National Council of Teachers of English statement “Professional Knowledge and The Teaching of Writing” to the Council of Writing Program Administrators “Outcomes Statement for First-Year Writing” to the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s “Principles for the Post-Secondary Teaching of Writing.”

In pointing to the best teaching practices indicated by extensive research in composition studies, I don’t ignore the experience of individual teachers in particular situations. Lore is a form of knowledge in every field. Certainly, I could learn from Joseph Teller’s more detailed explanation and defense of his pedagogy and a systematic analysis of the student writers it develops; a fuller exploration of his class would contribute to disciplinary knowledge with which it can responsibly interact, even inflect. However, I can’t let pass unchallenged general claims about the way “we” are “wrongly” teaching composition, especially when they so dramatically misrepresent, even ignore, the field he would aspire to correct.