Statement of Teaching Approach

“Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated.” (The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 47)

 

As composition instructors we are continually faced with not only the push and pull of student interactions and classroom dichotomies, but also with the stigma and placement of composition as a genre within the university.  When asked what I teach, I always say “Composition.”  When asked this question by an individual not in academia, this answer is often responded to with “oh, you teach English?” 

There is no consistent definition of what a composition course pedagogically looks like and the role or responsibility of this course to the larger university.  As Richard Fulkerson writes in response to what he calls a survey of the “composition landscape” in the 1980’s, “we agreed that we were to help students improve their writing and that ‘good writing’ meant writing that was rhetorically effective for audience and situation” (655).  This statement indicates that a composition course should teach students how to write well enough to serve a purpose, affect an “audience,” and prepare them for the kind of work they will have to do in the professional world.  This is a blanket definition; one that is valid but does not begin to address the pedagogical discourse that comes hand in hand with composition.

Many institutions see composition as a course that is necessary because it serves a very specific purpose—to teach students how to write so that instructors in other courses do not need to worry about it.  As Mike Rose writes, “writing is a skill or tool rather than a discipline” (397).  Students need to know how to write in order to succeed both in school and in the work force.  It is commonplace that students will be expected to write good papers in courses across the disciplines.  But, what anthropology teacher has time to teach comma splices and thesis statements?  I think of this kind of approach as “service composition.”  It is practical, important, and oftentimes exemplifies the definition of what students normally think of when they see the phrase “required course.”  This kind of approach is, to quote Mike Rose again, “a behavior that is stripped of its rich cognitive and rhetorical complexity.  A behavior that, in fact, looks and feels basic, fundamental, atomistic” (401).  How can a student appreciate the importance of good writing when he or she sees themselves as separate from the task at hand?

In his essay, “Poetry as Prose,” Kenneth Koch writes, “language makes one aware not only of what it describes, but also of language itself—of the word among words.”  Ideally, this sentiment is what should be the foundation for teaching both composition and literature—the notion that language in itself is eye opening, empowering, necessary, and beautiful.  An alternate approach to composition, one that I think of as “content composition,” keeps this flair for language in mind while creating a classroom atmosphere that embraces writing as well as student deep and critical thinking.  As Peter Elbow explains, “the culture of composition carries a concern not just for teaching but also for students: attention, interest, and care for them, their lives, and what’s on their minds” (469). In order to teach a student how to write, one needs to first overcome the fears and resentment that often come hand in hand with required courses.  Nowadays, few students read voluntarily, and even fewer students write on their own.  So, the real challenge lies in gauging the interests of the class and how to spark them.  We need to teach students not only how to read and how to write, but how to engage with language itself. 

In “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf explores what she refers to as “moments of being,” by stating, “I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always particularly valuable.  And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.  I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it.”  The shocks that Woolf refers to are everyday experiences.  She sees words in these moments much in the same way that I want my students to associate words and possibility of writing with even the most mundane encounters.  The more my students write, the more it becomes an inherent part of themselves, the better their work becomes.

The larger and more important question regarding the politics of composition in the university lies in the university itself.  There are many like-minded theorists and teachers who see composition as an opportunity to engage and affect students on many levels, however, the place that composition occupies within academia seems to me to be a difficult one. As Fulkerson, Rose, and Elbow all acknowledge, the vast majority of composition instructors are adjuncts and the course itself is often labeled “remedial” or other such terms that have negative connotations. When I first began adjuncting, I taught in a department that was entitled Literature and Composition.  Over the course of six years, this department changed names three times (to Composition then to Critical Thinking and finally to Art and Design Studies), and completely dissolved the ESL Program.  Over the course of six years, my department decided that composition was not necessary for their (predominantly second-language) student body.  In my last semester at this institution, I found myself teaching “semiotics” to a classroom of 27 students, about 90% of whom were not native English speakers.  Semiotics is an extremely hard subject, I still have trouble reading Benjamin, Peirce, and Barthes.  How was I supposed to impart this information to my students in such a way that they would be inspired to write about it?  More so, why should I teach students of this demographic such heady materials when they are completely uncomfortable writing in English to begin with? 

This returns to my opening quote from Friere’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a quote that calls for self-reflective and experiential learning and warns against training students to just become another member of the herd, so to speak.  However, after this exploration of that I think are the politics of composition, I am left with the lingering question of what is a realistic composition?  Can we expect part-time instructors to embrace the culture of composition as theorists like Peter Elbow see it?  Can we assume that universities as a whole will open their eyes to the realistic benefits a solid composition program/writing program has?  I am tempted to say that all one can do is take pride in what he or she has agency over, which is what happens in his/her own classrooms.