Saturday, July 26, 2008

Professors and composition

Everybody knows that Ron Silliman has the best linkspam around. Recently he's linked to an Inside Higher Ed article by William Major titled "Teaching Composition: A Reconsideration."

In it, Major argues that it might be valuable for the whole university system if actual tenured professors taught composition sometimes.
At the very least, full professors of English belong in the composition classroom because they might learn a thing or two about writing themselves. Moreover, the benefits to those students who will not see a professor their first year could be intangible. They would understand that we in the university take writing seriously enough that someone with gravitas and experience is teaching it. They would benefit from close contact with instructors who are not looking to move up or into the more ethereal realm of literature, those who believe that strong, clear writing is as essential as oxygen.

In point of fact, where I did my undergrad, "composition" was absorbed into the core humanities sequence. There were grad students employed as "writing tutors" who would meet with the students in separate groups and grade the papers, but they were for all intents and purposes TAs. The courses themselves were taught by a mix of grad students, postdocs, and tenured or tenure-track professors. The College definitely tried to give the impression that we were doing Very Serious Things in those classrooms, even though secretly they were teaching us comp. (I remember with fondness my Soc teacher, a postdoc who must have had a hard time suppressing her nausea at my terrible writing.)

It does seem a little rough on undergrads -- and nonmajors at that -- to stick them with the least tried teachers in the department. William Major sort of faux-wonders why grad students are so eager to get to teach literature classes instead of comp. He answers his own question: teaching composition is the ghetto of academic life.

Of course, there's a reason for this relating to the prestige of the English department in the university. Everybody agrees that we need English departments, but it's seen as a place of preservation and passing on of The Tradition -- a teaching department, existing for historical reasons. Science departments, on the other hand, are seen as valuable for The New -- research. So English professors are understandably miffed when, after completing a head-hurtingly difficult Ph.D., they're expected by the world to spend their time obsessed with split infinitives (as they're often caricatured by Language Log).

In fact, Major opens his article with the observation that
When I tell new acquaintances that I am an English professor, they generally react two ways. First, they express dismay that they now have to watch what they say (as if I were grading their performance).
And the mild irritation with which the article begins registers the problem in his very reasonable suggestion that professors take on composition once in a while. Nobody with money actually cares about humanities research, and university administrations are increasingly loath to support it. And teaching can take over your life, to the serious detriment of your research. Nobody wants to go back to the misery of having your research stunted the perpetual grading of stacks of very bad papers on Walt Whitman, once they've escaped that life. So for an English department to turn around and embrace the role of a teaching department might seem like a move to cede crucial ideological ground. Major envisions a utopian future produced by the de-ghettoization of composition -- of which he writes:
Might we see smaller Ph.D. programs because there is less need for composition instructors and because the professors are more fully engaged with undergraduate education? Might we have fewer doctorates awarded? A meaningful loosening of the job market? Imagine a world where positions teaching literature and composition are actually available for the professionals we graduate from our programs.
That surely would be lovely. But the fear that prevents us from getting there is the very realistic fear of a dystopia: that the English department itself will become the composition ghetto; that research will never be supported again, even in the limited amounts that we have now; that we will all be stuck as eternal adjuncts, even if we're as brainy as Stanley Fish. (Stanley Fish, perhaps, can afford to teach composition because he's become a public intellectual and probably never has to worry about having his research supported again.) The fear is that the Language Log caricature of the English professor will become true, because we'll never get to work on our research again (an all-too-familiar feeling when one is confronted with yet another stack of grading).

I think William Major knows that this is a danger: he sounds the note before he even begins his argument, after all. And he's writing from the perspective of someone who knows that teaching composition can be rewarding, but that it's also a ton of work that actively siphons away research time. For this kind of de-ghettoization of composition to work, we'd have to have a climate in which writing and complex thought in the humanities were solidly valued, whereas in the current climate both are on the margins, if in different ways.

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I'm puzzled by Major's allegation that English professors "don’t have to undermine their status or misuse their expertise with something as mundane as composition. Life is good when you can spend it with Gilbert and Gubar rather than Elbow and Belanoff." WTF? I am totally assigning my composition students Gilbert and Gubar. And they are going to love it! Seriously.


Will Fitzgerald said...

A comment, completely unrelated except by topic:

My brother just told me that a friend of his told *him* that he'd been given an A in English compensation at the local community college.

Natalia said...


skg046 said...

I guess it depends in part on how one is required to teach comp (by one's program/dept/dean). Comp using literary, historical, wider hum/soc-sci/sci readings: cool chance to teach at least snippets of one's non-comp-based research while also providing comp instruction. Comp as emanation of current comp theory: more direct, and possibly better at conveying Nuts and Bolts, but dry to teach unless one loves comp as a field.

I'm acquainted with someone who does love comp as a field (zie teaches comp, Web writing, and business writing as TT junior faculty). Not sure whether I'm convinced that comp would gain respect were it split off from its current half-life as that thing that lit instructors can be cornered into doing; it might merely be reghettoized.

The snotty, it's-too-early-in-the-morning part of my brain thinks that some (though by no means all) of what's taught in college-level comp classrooms should be shared with students in high school. The rational brain hopes no one interprets the prior sentence as flamebait; it's not intended thus.

Natalia said...

Oh, one doesn't get much flaming here, Sharon. It's true that my department makes the composition pill go down much more easily by letting us teach them as literature courses, and that's partly based on a conviction that writing can't be taught in a vacuum, that writing is always disciplinary and that having an argument is, for lots of students, the hardest part of writing and the part they really need to work on. That leaves a certain portion of the students -- the ones who really do have trouble with subject-verb agreement, etc. -- out in the cold. I'm inclined to agree that these mechanics should have been covered in high school if not before. But then, one often needs to be taught something x number of times before it sticks.