Great Expectations

On Sunday I read all of George Gopen’s Expectations: Teaching Writing From the Reader’s Perspective.

What a utterly fine piece of work – easily the best book on teaching composition I’ve read yet. I almost never mark up a book’s margins or take notes on damn near anything, but I was commenting away like a madman. It’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 I’ve seen on the subject. There’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 it’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. I’ve been over-preparing, over-commenting, over-zealous, over-accomodating, and several other annoying words with the same prefix. I’ve been aware of these problems but I didn’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. I’ve always hated doing it. The book has cemented my opinion of grading – I don’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. I’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. I’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 “stress position” 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 that’s not all I took from that book. That would take a entire review. No time for that. But in closing, I’d like to come up with a rejoinder for the devil’s advocate claim posited on p. 342: “This approach, like all others, is doomed to failure because writing cannot be taught.” It is answered fairly well on p.348 with “Knowing what most readers are likely to do most of the time gets us closer to probable communicative success,” and further clarified that it is desireable to limit interpetation to the writer’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 can’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 student’s command. Often I feel like a charlatan when I can’t give them more of my own questionable skills. Effect is an elusive beast to leash to communication. It’s no wonder prescription still plagues composition – it’s the quick and easy path, to quote Yoda and Obi-wan.

The answer is relatively clear now. I need to work harder.

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