Western Montana College
Our students want the kind of education that will help make them marketable. Deborah Schaffer, in the winter issue of The Montana Professor reveals this concern for marketability when she argues that students need to master English grammar because "knowledge of these rules is looked at as a sign of education, which in turn is a highly valued, prestigious factor in employment and certain social situations"(4). I do not deny the necessary connection between the university and our consumer society, particularly in the training of professionals for their careers, yet we must be cautious about making the university into a mere employment agency that serves our consumer society. The best interests of our culture are not served by those who know and slavishly perform their tasks, those who conform to the rules, even language rules, and have as their highest goal a Philistine interest in serving the consumer culture.
We need to help our students develop their critical abilities, preserve their individuality, and achieve flexibility and adaptability. The student who has mastered the skills of writing can transcend those rules in innovative and creative ways, which begins in a small way the process of making consumer culture serve our best interests. For this reason, instructors must be critical about what ends their pedagogical approaches serve. I want to look at the grammatical, the cognitive, the self-expression, and the social-oriented methods of teaching writing to see how these pedagogical approaches serve or resist the pressure of consumerism.
The traditional method relies on grammar instruction, and the written texts students produce become the test of their grammatical mastery, which signals the biggest problem with the traditional method: writing is not an act of communication, personal expression, or discovery. In the traditional approach, writing, as Myron Tuman notes, becomes an exercise of demonstration "akin to figure skating or gymnastics" (47-48), and the writing instructor is merely a judge of performance.
I want to expand on an idea that Stanley Fish uses to illustrate the drawbacks of this rule-bound method. A basketball coach gives a rule to his players that they should only take clear shots. A clear shot means no opposing player blocks the basket. The coach's team is down by one point with only three seconds of play left, but the player with the ball doesn't take a shot. The buzzer sounds, and the team loses its game by one point. The furious coach runs out and asks the player why he didn't shoot. The player protests that he was only following the coach's rule; he didn't have a clear shot. The coach amends the rule: in the last seconds of a game and when the team is down by one point, take a shot, any shot. In the next game, the same three second scenario is re-played. However, the player shoots and, unfortunately, misses. The coach runs out demanding to know why the player didn't pass the ball to Joe. The player defends himself: he was only following the amended-rule; he took a shot just as the coach instructed. The coach amends the amendment to the rule: pass when there is a player in the clear and let him take the last shot. In the next game...
I needn't go on. As Stanley Fish points out, no one learns to play basketball this way, and no coach uses this method to instruct his players. Writing is even more complex than basketball, so why should we expect the learning of rules to work for the teaching of writing? Learning the rules of a game (what constitutes a foul; the rules on out-of-bounds, etc.) has never made a player into a skilled performer. Players don't recite rules when they practice. They play basketball. Athletes arrive at an understanding of the game's context. By playing the game they realized what the game is about--making baskets. Through practice and experience, the player develops skill and a sense of what kind of moves contribute to the success of making baskets. In other words, instead of rules, the player learns heuristic procedures through performance. Rules give a predictable and certain result. With a heuristic procedure, the outcome is provisional. Passing the ball to a teammate in the clear may be a good strategy for that context of the game, but the receiver still may not make the basket. Nevertheless, a player needs to build a repertoire of heuristic strategies that he can quickly draw on when the need arises. What move to make, and when to make it, depend on the player's intuition, skill, and experience.
Writing is no different: writers learn by writing. As they write, students develop experience, skill, and intuition. They acquire a repertoire of heuristic strategies which they can employ to make their writing effective. Mistakes give the student an experience of what doesn't work, and the student should have the chance to find a strategy that does work, which makes mistakes valuable to the learning process. The instructor should not use mistakes as punishment or as an exclusionary hurdle. Too often, instructors who use the traditional grammar method are more concerned "with ways of excluding new members than with ways of admitting them" (Faigley 537). Their writing assignments do not allow students to practice strategies; instead they practice grammar drills and the assignment is meant to prove their mastery of grammar. Do we want grammarians or writers?
I remember receiving a B on my research essay in my Freshman Composition class because I had made three errors: an apostrophe mistake, a pronoun agreement error, and a diction error. In the essay I wrote, I argued that Bertrand Russell (in his book The Problems of Philosophy) was wrong in concluding that romanticism led to fascism. My professor remarked that my essay was ambitious and that he rarely read freshmen essays on such subjects. However, the wrestling I did with ideas counted less than my ability to polish a paper into grammatical correctness. His concern was with a product (which in itself gives evidence of the consumer mentality affecting writing instruction), a written text that conformed to the given rules. In class we did grammar exercises. He had little concern for helping us through the writing process itself. He saw no rough drafts. We were given a due date and the essay was expected to be written without errors. Nothing was done to teach us how to write a thesis, organize, develop a logical argument, support an argument, and write transitions. In other words, we weren't given any chance to develop heuristic strategies. Yet my instructor thought he was teaching writing because he was teaching grammar.
Students need to enter into a discourse community and intuitively grasp the demands of the context. Teaching them rules before they grasp context may be of little help. David Russell observes about grammar instruction that
students must learn the linguistic forms of a community before becoming a part of it. But without being immersed in the discourse community they wish to be a part of, without listening, speaking, reading, and writing with others in it, students have great difficulty learning the conventions of the community, its characteristic ways of using language. And it is the students' knowledge of those (primarily linguistic) conventions which allows them to enter or remain within a community--to succeed in a degree program or, ultimately, a profession. (63)
A reader that contains prose from a variety of disciplines helps expose them to the range of academic discourses. Traditional grammar not only fails to do that, it serves consumerism in unhealthy ways. James Berlin notes that it prevents the search for rational explanations and critical reflections; and it encourages responses that obscure real solutions (490-491). Writing as an act of communication or as an act of self-expression is abandoned. Instead of becoming writers, students become rule-learners.
Nowadays, our society emphasizes cooperation and collaboration. Professional environments make great demands on interpersonal communication. Documents are produced collaboratively. I know that when our English department at Western Montana College re-wrote the course descriptions in our catalogue, we did so as a group. A method of instruction that allows students to peer edit, to collaborate with the teacher and revise, to work collectively on an assignment, does much to develop the communication skills and cooperative skills used in today's professional world. Those skills are definitely more useful than the ability to parrot a grammatical rule on the uses of shall and will. The best students the university can help shape are not persons who are co-opted, slavishly conforming to the codes of the system because that system has become the be- and end-all of their existence. No, the professional must be able to recognize the failures of the system and work to correct them, recognize when the system is wrong and resist it, and envision the implications of certain structures within the system and work on changing or correcting those structures when necessary. To be that kind of professional, students need to develop their critical abilities. What better place to do so than the writing class?
The cognitive approach to teaching writing promises to correct the failings of the traditional approach. As a teaching assistant at the University of Montana, I learned how to use the problem-solving approach recommended by Linda Flower. The problem-solving method models itself on the processes investigated by cognitive psychologists. Flower endeavors to shift writing from product to process, from rules to heuristics. Instead of simply making an assignment and waiting for the students to hand in a product, the instructor can break the task down into a series of steps and help the students through each step by suggesting effective strategies for accomplishing the task. In short, writing follows a sequence of stages: the writer sets goals, generates ideas, organizes the ideas, translates them from mental and personal speech to the language of the discourse community, evaluates, and finally revises. After finding purposes and setting goals (constructive planning), the writer faces the task of organizing her thoughts and then translating them "from one highly personal or marginally verbal representation of meaning to a fully articulated, conventionally coded representation in standard written English" (Flower 532).
Expressing that message in well-written standard English makes for more effective communication. Flower restores writing to its social purpose and nature. However, the cognitive approach limits the mode of writing to a certain field, primarily analytical writing, because it defines writing as problem solving. Ironically, Lester Berlin charges that in the cognitive approach, "The purpose of writing is to create a commodified text" (Berlin 483). Indeed, for Flower the writing is done not for the focus it allows our minds to achieve or for the discoveries it leads us to make, but to create a text that purports to be a solution. The writer, as a problem solver, a manipulator of objects (information), is in essence a marketer. For that reason, Berlin charges that the cognitive process of teaching writing is really "preparing students for the world of corporate capitalism" (482).
Yes, writing is a tool for producing a text, but it also transmits information, and serves as a means for self-expression and exploration as well. In the cognitive approach, writing is like game-playing, but epistemic problems, as Michael Carter points out, are complex and involve more than information processing. Epistemic problems, the most crucial problems that challenge our belief-systems, become tangled in a web that engulfs other areas--legal, social, religious, historical, personal, public, and academic. In short, epistemic problems do not have easy solutions. Perhaps the best that we can do is write exploratively about them. The problem-solving method of writing instruction discourages exploratory discussion. Because solutions may not be possible for some kinds of problems, the cognitive method can mislead us and encourage us to dismisses exploratory writing.
Flower, rather than describing the cognitive writing process, may well have described the code of writing that one must follow in order to be successful in a specific consumer class. Even the problems the writer selects, as Carter points out, aren't out there waiting to be solved; "they define and are defined by a specific community" (555). We cannot escape the codes of social class (consider Basil Bernstein's discussions), and the problems we think about are problems our social class has taught us to "see."
In the expressionistic method described by Peter Elbow and William Irmscher, writing becomes a significant act in preserving individuality, and the writing class becomes a place where the individual discovers her critical self. As Berlin notes, "The only hope in a society working to destroy the uniqueness of the individual is for each of us to assert our individuality against the tyranny of the authoritarian corporation, state, and society" (487). To preserve the uniqueness of our students and their experiences, the expressionistic method encourages the student to generate her own ideas and find her own forms. As Faigley says in describing the expressionistic approach,
good writing does not follow rules but reflects the processes of the creative imagination.... It is an organic spontaneity..., it ought to expose the writer's false starts and confused preliminary explorations of the topic..., the writing should proceed obliquely as a "striving toward"...mimetic of the writer's actual processes. (530)
William Irmscher points out that the world is out to divert us with distractions, but writing "is deliberate, silent, solitary. In our minds we can fool ourselves, be fuzzy. Not on paper. It is a chance to know ourselves"(20). By putting words down, we focus our thoughts, organize them, and discover their implications.
The student is not an assemblage of unperfected writing skills as grammar instructors would have her, nor is she a mechanism who enacts a series of activities as the cognitive instructors would have her. She is a creative agency with the power to shape reality. A writer who merely follows and conforms to the rules has not yet reached the point where she can transcend those rules with confidence and with a feel for the flexibility of language. We need to help our students learn to trust their own voices and comfortably express themselves. Such confidence is hard to build. Much of it comes about when we validate our students' attempts to find a writing voice, and the teacher must remember that she is not just dealing with writing and its content or correctness. Irmscher quotes William Stafford who says, "in matters of writing we must forgive each other"(17). The expressive method seeks to preserve the integrity of the individual, and the teacher must nurture the student as a whole person.
The use of incorrect grammar is not just a writing error; it is a hint that the writer's thinking is unclear or that she is trying to express unresolved feelings. In other words, citing a grammatical rule and putting a period in the place of a comma may not fix the real problem. The teacher should use those places of error as a starting point for dialogue with the student, challenging her to clarify those ideas and feelings that are struggling for expression. Once the student has a clear understanding of herself, the expressions she uses to explain herself will be clear (grammatical). As Irmscher sees it, beginning writers don't trust their intuitions. When they venture into writing and expressing themselves, they need validation to strengthen their trust in themselves. True freedom comes when a writer gains that trust, knowing that her words and thoughts are insightful, significant, and relevant, and knowing too, for herself, when they are not. The instructor helps students become better writers by helping them develop stronger intuitions (Irmscher 31-47). That is not to say that the writer just does whatever comes naturally. She must develop heuristic strategies for testing each intuitive hunch before completely following it. Those heuristics are teachable. An instructor can use conferencing and collaborative writing to teach those strategies and validate her students.
I believe writers must reconcile their communicative needs and their expressive ones. I don't think we as instructors want to stifle expressive needs, yet we need to encourage our students to encode their words into forms which have meaning for their readers (for the instructor who can voice his misunderstandings). Those forms needn't be conventional, but we do need to provide our students with feedback on whether we can follow their departures. Good writing always prepares us for those departures and teaches us how to read it, and we can point to where the student does or does not do so.
Lester Berlin faults the expressive method because it slights the social aspect of writing. Self-expression leaves the individual isolated, "rendering him ineffective" (492). While the method preserves the integrity of the individual, the de-humanizing forces in our consumer culture remain in place. The writer can soothe herself for having found an outlet for self-expression, an escape in writing, but consumer culture continues unchanged. As a consequence, the writer may compartmentalize writing--self-expression taking place in journals, letters, or creative writing (poetry and fiction), while the writing done at work is sterile of any personal voice. What then has the expressive method accomplished?
Because the satisfaction of expressive needs is not gained at work or in professional writing, Berlin believes that ultimately the expressive method contributes to the sense of alienation affecting our culture. Teaching the expressive method at our universities only reinforces certain illusions about freedom and individuality that our consumer culture has about itself. We get a superficial freedom. "Rhetoric," says Berlin, "can be used to reinforce the entrepreneurial virtues capitalism most values: individualism, private initiative, the confidence for risk taking, the right to be contentious with authority"(487). Berlin sees expressive writing as enacting the strategies of consumer culture itself: "exploiting the material, social, and political conditions of the world in order to assert a private vision" (487). When instructors use the expressive approach to teach writing at the university, the system pays empty honor to individuality, and goes on with business as usual.
These are valid criticisms. The social method of writing instruction intends to address these concerns by encouraging teachers to be flexible and work with an approach that best serves the background and experience of the individual student. Conferencing and computer-based instruction work well for this approach. Our students are entering into the social context of their chosen professions, and we do need to help them acquire the language of a discourse community, but we do not want to foster slavishness. Entering into dialogue with that community involves reading and listening to how language is used in that community. In other words, our assignments should ask them to respond to reading material that represents the academic and professional communities they are entering. Making Connections Across the Curriculum (Chittenden et al., St. Martin's Press, 1986) provides an excellent collection of professional prose.
To foreground the social nature of writing, the teacher and student work together in cooperative and collaborative learning, and the students work together in peer editing. The authoritarian model has no place in the social-method classroom. Berlin describes the learning environment as "open-ended, receptive to the unexpected, and subversive of the planned" (492). In the social method, teachers help students master the conventions of a discourse system. The learning of those conventions does not involve the product oriented methods of the grammar and the cognitive approaches. Berlin encourages unconventional and experimental teaching practices, perhaps because the social approach is still formulative and hasn't yet embraced a methodology, perhaps because the practitioners themselves advocate the unconventional and experimental they refrain from recommending specific practices.
We must guard against the consumerist attitudes that pervade our culture. I don't have a methodology that works completely. I tend to be eclectic, borrowing from all of these approaches, which isn't the best thing to do. I do know that teachers need not justify their writing lessons by referring to the needs of the workplace, and theoreticians must guard against translating the practices of social class into a methodology of writing. If we, as teachers, encourage the entrenchment of consumerism in our society and aid its invasion of the academy, we cheat our students out of an education intended to develop their full potential. We must consider long range goals as well as short range ones. We should contribute to the survival of our culture by helping its members to be healthy and adaptive, flexible enough to seize the alternative when it is required. All of us benefit from consumerist society, but none of us need to be slaves to it. Let's make that a lesson in our writing classes.
Berlin, James. "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class." College English 50.5 (September 1988): 477-494.
Bernstein, Basil. Class, Codes and Control. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
Carter, Michael. "Problem Solving Reconsidered: A Pluralistic Theory of Problems." College English 50.5 (September 1988): 551-561.
Coe, Richard M. "An Apology for Form; or, Who Took the Form Out of the Process?" College English 49.1 (January 1987): 13-28.
Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Faigley, Lester. "Competing Theories of Process: A Critique and a Proposal." College English 48.6 (October 1986): 527- 542.
Fish, Stanley. Doing What Comes Naturally. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989.
Flower, Linda. "The Construction of Purpose in Writing and Reading." College English 50.5 (September 1988): 528-565.
Irmscher, William. Teaching Expository Writing. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979.
Lynn, Steven. "Reading the Writing Process: Toward a Theory of Current Pedagogies." College English 49.8 (December 1987): 902-921.
Russell, David R. "Writing Across the Curriculum in Historical Perspective: Toward a Social Interpretation." College English 52.1 (January 1990): 52-71.
Schaffer, Deborah. "A Linguistics-based Approach to Teaching Perspective Grammar." The Montana Professor 1.1 (Winter 1991): 3-5.
Tuman, Myron C. "Class, Codes, and Composition: Basil Bernstein and the Critique of Pedagogy." College Composition and Communication 39.1 (February 1988): 42-51.