Who Has the Right to Talk About (Teaching) Writing?

In the last few days, there’s been some really interesting meta kerfluffle over Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay,” which you may recall I flipped some tables over about earlier this week. By now, we’ve reached the stage in the Schuman-fueled fallout where we’re talking more about the conversation that we’re having about the essay than about the content of said essay itself.

And one of the key themes that’s arise from this meta!talk is this: who in academia, exactly, has the right to talk about the teaching of writing?

This discursive tide reached a new peak today with the publication of a post titled “An Open Letter in Defense of Rebecca Schuman” on the ProfHacker blog, one that’s hosted on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website. For readers who dwell outside of academia, CHE is one of the most reputable and widely-read sites within the university world; posting the letter within the in body of that site = how many hits?

Exactly.

Now, depending upon your perspective, this letter–to which any interested party can affix their name via change.org–does one of two things:


For some (including, it seems the folks who run the ProfHacker blog), the letter decries the “snark” and “vitriol” to which Schuman has been subjected on various social media platforms, mostly at the hands of people in academia who, the letter suggests, should really know better:

We believe that social media should allow a larger range of ideas to flourish, and we find it alarming that it is being used for precisely the opposite purpose. Those who believe in the benefit of assigning essays should engage with Schuman’s ideas, as any intellectual would, rather than vilify her.

For others, however, the content of and contextual assumptions at work within this letter serve to privilege Schuman’s hurt feelings above a debate about the problematic and deeply misinformed nature of many of Schuman’s claims.

For example, in her comment to the ProfHacker blog, Cheryl Ball , one of the leading voices  in the digital arena among we rhet/comp types, argues that:

If she [Schuman] has received any negative comments (but no harassment that I’ve witnessed!) from writing studies scholars, it is because she has no idea (or doesn’t care, which is worse) that there is an ENTIRE DISCIPLINE devoted to writing pedagogy, about which she knows nothing. [emphasis original]

She continues:

 her [Schuman’s] authority on which to speak about writing pedagogy in the humanities (or elsewhere) is significantly undermined. What, in rhetoric, we would call ethos. However, I acknowledge that her pathos reaches her target audience: teachers who hate teaching writing. Why do they hate teaching writing? Because it’s not their field, and thus they don’t know how to do it well.

And here’s the crux of the matter, in terms of the meta!discourse this essay’s kicked up: at some level, we the rhetoric and composition people believe that we should be in on, or at least part of, any conversations about teaching writing that occur within academia. Because she is not one of us, this line of logic goes, Schuman–and all of those overworked, underpaid, grossly disempowered adjuncts that she represents–should be consigned to the kids’ table.

Look, I’ve already made it clear that I reject the basis of Schuman’s argument–that we should boot the academic essay out of required humanities courses, because such a universalist position within a realm as stubbornly kairotic as the classroom is bullshit. Ok. And I admire Dr. Ball’s work a great deal.

But I’m reminded of a meeting I was part of at Georgetown, where I did one of my Master’s degrees–

–hey, it’s relevant! I swear.

Anyway, at this meeting, the director of the school’s writing program brought together a handful of profs from disciplines throughout the humanities in order to talk about–you guessed it–the teaching of writing. And what emerged during that meeting–what shocked me in my pre-teaching naiveté–was that many of those profs saw “teaching writing” as akin to “technical editing” of their students’ work.

I mean, we’re talking folks with PhD pluses and years of experience teaching at fraking Georgetown, for fuck’s sake, and yet they believed their job was to mark every grammatical error on their students’ papers; this, they believed, showcasing bad commas and split infinitives, could “teach” their students how to write–if only the students themselves would pay careful attention to every mark of their teacher’s red pen.

These were not stupid people. These were not bad teachers, or teachers uninvested in their students’ success as writers. These were people who did not know how to teach writing, who were shocked and delighted when the director of the writing program gently suggested other methods they might consider, other ways of responding to their students’ work that might get them the kinds of rhetorical results they were after.

I’m not suggesting that these folks walked back to their offices with their practices completely transformed. Far from it. But what they did have upon leaving that they did not possess when they entered was an exposure–however brief–to the way that we, as writing teachers, talk about the teaching of writing.

So reflecting back on that meeting in light of Schuman’s essay and the disciplinary meta!talk it’s generated, it strikes me that, no matter how, shall we say, problematic, I find Schuman’s argument, she has helped to expose a big freaking gap in the way we talk about teaching writing.

Yes, we in rhet and comp should be part of the discussion; should even be leading it, sometimes.

But we also need to recognize, perhaps, why we’re the experts, why we feel so alone in making the case for particular kinds of writing pedagogy: many of our colleagues, be they tenured or adjunct, do not have the language to talk about teaching writing, to use in thinking through what’s working in their classrooms and what’s not.

Rather than circling the disciplinary wagons, it would be helpful, I think, if we as individuals within the context of our own schools–hell, even our own departments–offered that language to our colleagues. It could be as straightforward as getting together and marking up the same student paper, and then talking about what we noted, what we commented on, and why–an exercises straight out of any comp theory class. It might be a workshop (with food!) where everybody brings copies of one of their writing assignments to share and discuss with the group. Or even just a general bitch session at a bar on some random Tuesday where we talk with our colleagues about what’s working in our classrooms when it comes to teaching writing and what’s not. We’re not talking radical change here, which might make it less appealing to some. Certainly a lot harder to write position papers about.

To me, Schuman’s essay suggests that these are conversations that many of our colleagues outside of rhet and comp don’t even know you can have until it gets to the “oh shit, teaching writing is ass” stage, resulting in the kind of discursive freakout exemplified by Schuman’s work.

We, the “you people” of rhet and comp, I think we take these things for granted: first the rich, diverse, and creative ways that we are able to think and talk about the teaching or writing, and then the notion that our colleagues outside of rhet and comp recognize the extra kind of knowledge we have on that subject–on a subject our colleagues believe they are experts in, too, because they make their students write papers–and will seek our guidance, our rhetorical wisdom, in times of stress and of crisis. Yes, we talk about “writing across the disciplines” and “writing intensive courses,” but those conversations assume, I think, that everyone from across the humanities is on the same fucking page when we talk about teaching writing, but hot damn, we so are not.

But hey, there’s one thing we can all agree on:

So what the hell. Why not start there?

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