Monday, June 13, 2005

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.


Laura said...

Do you think the more complicated the topic, the more grammatical errors there are?

I just finished up helping with a workshop on teaching writing in the quantitative disciplines and there was an awful lot of talk about "unclear" writing and grammar problems. The writing teachers among us tried to convince the science faculty that these problems might reveal a greater problem in understanding the underlying concepts and not, as they thought, reveal that the student is a bad writer (necessarily). Interesting I should run into this just after I spent three days thinking about this very issue.

Michael said...

Absolutely. If there's one thing that the cog psych people who work on writing seem to agree about, it's that the more difficult the topic, the more problems in the writing, at every level from the thematic to the grammatical.
It drive me crazy sometimes that our colleagues think that writing is somehow different from all other skills. An analogy: if you've coached or watched kids' ice hockey, you will have seen that kids who can skate pretty well go all to pieces when you first hand them a stick. Then they master that, and fall apart on the fundamentals again when you give them a puck. Then put some other kids on the ice playing defense and they forget how to skate again. Eventually the earlier skills are mastered enough (though tons of practice), that they can do the more advanced stuff without losing their fundamentals.
I think writing works the same way. The only way to succeed is continued practice and correction, which is why a genuine writing-across-the-curriculum program, one that continued to provide instruction in all classes at all levels, would be the ideal. We're trying to build one at Wheaton, but it is--as your experience suggests--a very difficult proposition.

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