On Sunday I read all of George Gopenâ€™s Expectations: Teaching Writing From the Readerâ€™s Perspective.
What a utterly fine piece of work – easily the best book on teaching composition Iâ€™ve read yet. I almost never mark up a bookâ€™s margins or take notes on damn near anything, but I was commenting away like a madman. Itâ€™s safe to say that several of my major assumptions about how to teach composition have changed – how to grade, how to manage a course, how to critique drafts, run conferences, direct peer-response, and particularly how to approach student material that feels unassailable by any means. And the two chapters on paragraphing are probably the best stuff Iâ€™ve seen on the subject. Thereâ€™s even a lengthy aside on termination letters, my old pet project. This book is going to be worn to a nub before I graduate.
I knew the upcoming semester was going to be different, as I am throughly dissatisfied with the way I balanced my teaching load and my own classes last semester. But after this particular read, I know now itâ€™s going to be a change for the better. I feel freshly armed.
Nothing in the book is particularly mind-shattering; its strength rests instead in how it allowed me to confront my various weaknesses as a teacher. Iâ€™ve been over-preparing, over-commenting, over-zealous, over-accomodating, and several other annoying words with the same prefix. Iâ€™ve been aware of these problems but I didnâ€™t have an good way to fix them all.
First off, my original instincts before I started TAing two years ago were basically right. Good structure can be taught, but it requires an immense amount of one-on-one contact. I can no longer do the minimum and feel adequate. My office hours need expansion and I need to work as many student conferences into the semester as possible. The one asset I have as a teacher (among many faults) is improvisation and this always is strongest one-on-one.
Second, grading their first papers and possibly even their second (depending) is unfair. Iâ€™ve always hated doing it. The book has cemented my opinion of grading – I donâ€™t like it. Marking papers does so bloody little, and it takes up a great deal of time that could be used profitably for face-to-face discussion of their work. Grading gets an overhaul.
Third, my previous experimentations with group work were all flawed in some way. Iâ€™m going to use the multiple submission method that Gopen recommends, and see what occurs in the peer responses.
Four, I should push as hard as I can how to summarize and how to write a thesis. Iâ€™ve developed a quirky way to teach summarization and I can smell a thesis a mile away, but I could do even better. The emphasis on the â€œstress positionâ€ as Gopen describes is probably the clearest way to go about it; I rather like how it allows grammar to creep into the class unnoticed, too. If they leave with only that skill and no others improved, I will have done good, and that is the name of the game.
I have a lot of work still to do today, but thatâ€™s not all I took from that book. That would take a entire review. No time for that. But in closing, Iâ€™d like to come up with a rejoinder for the devilâ€™s advocate claim posited on p. 342: â€œThis approach, like all others, is doomed to failure because writing cannot be taught.â€ It is answered fairly well on p.348 with â€œKnowing what most readers are likely to do most of the time gets us closer to probable communicative success,â€ and further clarified that it is desireable to limit interpetation to the writerâ€™s fancy.
That answer is good. But I think composition can offer more than approximate success, or at least that it needs to offer more, even if it canâ€™t quite deliver. Sometimes I think comp teachers are like those sophists that Socrates/Plato liked to complain about, promising skill in rhetoric when only rhetoric with a more probable degree of success could ever be at their command or the studentâ€™s command. Often I feel like a charlatan when I canâ€™t give them more of my own questionable skills. Effect is an elusive beast to leash to communication. Itâ€™s no wonder prescription still plagues composition – itâ€™s the quick and easy path, to quote Yoda and Obi-wan.
The answer is relatively clear now. I need to work harder.