Approaches to Comp
A commenter on this entry asked what I thought of Stanley Fish's article in the NYT wherein he says that he teaches comp by having his students spend the semester making up their own language, thus learning about the internal structure of a language. I agree pretty much with all of Prof. Blogger's comments, particularly his point that students really need to learn to read as the foundation of their learning to write. I try to teach "college-level reading" in my Wonderful Life class, with some success. I personally don't find teaching comp boring (at least in this class) because the students have never responded the same way twice.
But back to Fish's approach: I think it is very useful for learning about the structure of language (and something that J.R.R. Tolkien did a thousand times more effectively than Fish ever could, but I digress...). I also think it will not improve Fish's students' writing one iota more than any other approach would.
If I've learned anything from teaching comp for nearly 15 years at various places, I've learned that getting students to be better analytic grammarians--although a good thing in and of itself--does pretty close to nothing to improve the quality of the writing that they produce for other classes. This is partially due to the compartmentalization that Prof. Blogger notes (students will not always carry the knowledge they've gained in comp into other classes), but also because the production of new writing is not really closely connected to analytic grammar. Students produce, say, dangling participles not because they can't learn the rules about dangling participles but because they do not recognize dangling participles when they are engaged in real-time composition. What allows them to recognize and avoid dangling participles is an internalization of style cues, and that they get from reading. Instruction can help: I can point out the dangling participles and explain why they are confusing to readers, and some students will learn to catch them on revision. But you can grammar-drill your students all you want (and I have, and to an extent, still do, just because I love grammar) and they will still produce the same old errors when the pressure of writing about a difficult topic pushes them outside of their comfort zone.
It is a cognitive problem: have a student write a 'what I did on my summer vacation' essay and it will come out grammatically clean. Have the same student write an essay about a difficult topic and all of sudden there will be subject/verb agreement errors or comma splices or misplaced modifiers. I wish faculty would realize that not all of these problems are due to failures in instruction or student laziness: a good prorportion of them are caused by the students not being able to keep all the cognitive balls in the air at the same time: thinking about a difficult topic, constructing an argument, writing clearly and grammatically.
Thus in my Wonderful Life class I try to build up the different steps of an argument and let them get a little practice and confidence keeping one ball in the air, then two, then three. For that you need some content in a comp course, so that there are difficult ideas to think about, but you can't make the writing subordinate to the content. It is, like most things in teaching, a balancing acts. When it works, everyone is impressed. When it fails, well, there are balls rolling all over the floor.