The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

writing classes should teach writing

Stanley Fish's latest opinion piece is very typical Fish: take a complicated thing that academics talk about in jargon, find an extreme position on it from which you can say "everyone else is fooling themselves," and then use superior powers of argumentation to blast apart the opposition. He's great at it, and reading his stuff, whether it's reader-response theory or arguments against teaching writing by using politically charged subject-matter, always makes me think much harder. He's a very smart guy.

But this piece is a straw-man argument. "My grad students, who teach writing to freshmen, don't write well. Their class syllabi show that they are having their students argue over issues rather than practicing rhetoric and grammar. Therefore, I decreed that they must teach only rhetoric and grammar." I don't understand why we can't teach rhetoric and grammar THROUGH reading and responding to and writing about controversial issues. I grant that grad students in particular aren't expert in balancing the two, in making sure that the WORK students produce for the class and the grounds on which they are evaluated must be writing, not understanding of the issues. But they are learning to teach, to fumble their way through achieving that balance. I don't think Fish is prescribing a 1920s-style writing class consisting of drills, but like I said--he loves to take the extreme position, and it's possible that that's precisely what he mandated.

The real problem is that most grad students--hell, many college English professors!--are not capable of teaching "grammar" as I think Fish means the term. Of the 50 people who work for me, and who do a very good job getting students to write more clearly and more correctly and more effectively for an academic audience, I bet fewer than 10 could identify an appositive or explain a nonrestrictive clause or describe a linking verb. Nobody gets that in the public schools anymore, they don't get it in college or grad school (even in ed schools!), so how can we expect them to teach it? It's impractical and really not possible to train them in the basics of English grammar in three pre-semester days of training, so I suppose that incoming TAs could take a year-long "Structure of the English Language and How to Teach It" class.


  • At 12:30 AM, Blogger Mark Pennington said…

    Check out how to differentiate instruction in a balanced writing program at


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