Let’s Retire the Boxing Gloves

I recently came across another article concerned with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the impact that they will have on English classes.  This time, from Emory University’s English professor Mark Bauerlein.  To be honest, I’m kind of getting tired of the same complaints being raised over and over again about the standards.

Ultimately, I think—and the standards emphasize this in the document—that implementation comes down to the state and local level, and if the committees charged with writing curriculum ask themselves the hard questions and spend the time to reflect on what is best for students, the end product is going to be strong.  That has been my experience.

Besides, if anyone is going to critique the standards—to be clear, I’m just talking about the standards, not the exams, data culture, political rhetoric, etc. that comes along with them—he/she should check out this 2011 article that appeared in Education Week, by Mike Schmoker and Gerald Graff.

As far as Bauerlein’s concerns about literature selections being limited in the English classroom, let me explain why this is not a concern if the standards are implemented effectively.  In addition, to be blunt, this appears to be just another manifestation of the divide that has happened the past 25 years or so in English departments between literature and rhetoric and composition professors.

Traditionally, there isn’t a whole lot of writing in the English classroom, but the writing that is present is typically in the form of literary analysis.  Again, traditionally, students are asked to write criticism about something they have read, even without being taught how to write literary criticism, or without referencing criticism that others have written about the text.

It is common practice for these types of assignments to deal with theme analysis, or aspects of characterization.  For example, a typical paper on Orwell’s Animal Farm might examine the theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” or a character analysis of how Napoleon is different than, say, Snowball.  To not completely dismiss these types of assignments, because I think within the right context they do have merit, I do think it is necessary for us, as teachers, to examine our goals behind writing instruction and whether or not the types of assignments we are assigning actually meet our goals.

I’m beginning to see this kind of decontextualized assigning of textual analysis as a problem.

When teaching literary analysis, I would much rather have analysis paired with other pieces of criticism so that students continue to refine the skill of blending multiple texts into a cohesive reading of a single text.  Isn’t this what literary criticism actually looks like?

However, on the one hand, I think it is still necessary to teach students how to answer these types of writing prompts—although it appears to be an act of futility, at times—because they are so prevalent on the AP Literature and Language exams.  But, on the other hand, I tend to agree with much of what Gerald Graff says in his article, “The Unbearable Pointlessness of Literature Writing Assignments.”  It has been my experience that students really struggle with the switch from a single text analysis to a synthesis essay, where they are asked to juggle multiple perspectives/sources and enter the conversation with a well written thesis that summarizes—as Graff’s book, They Say/I Say, explains—what the opposition thinks compared to what the student thinks.
So, what follows are some things I’m working through about how the teaching of writing and assigning of writing have to happen in tandem.  How we have to be intentional about the sequencing of our assignments and explicitly teach the skills students need to write well.
For example, if a goal is to improve students’ writing, we need to examine what it is that we teach, and we need to create assignments that naturally allow us to guide students through the writing process—see Newman’s posts on Donald Murray—while also finding ways to introduce students to the nuances involved in writing: specifically, the relationship between an author and his/her audience.  This is something that many students have little or no awareness of, mainly because they are used to writing literary analysis papers to an imaginary audience or simply to the teacher.  So, the question presents itself, what should we teach our students?
A good response to a question, as our students so adamantly protest against, is often another question.  So, I’ll answer the above question with another question: if our goal is to make students better writers, what is the best way to go about accomplishing this?
I propose that the answer lies at the foundation of our pedagogy.  Unfortunately, we often teach certain content with no idea as to why we are teaching it.  But, if we are going to have this conversation about actually improving student writing, it is crucial to build our pedagogy around core ideas.
I am arguing that writing instruction, or rhetoric, or composition, or 21st century writing, or whatever name we want to give it, should be grounded in core principles echoing Quintilian’s ideas of rhetoric, which were influenced by Cicero and Isocrates’ ideas about rhetoric.  Having an understanding of where rhetorical studies comes from—the historical emphasis on the teaching tradition of such studies—is necessary to forming solid pedagogy for how we are going to continue rhetorical instruction in our own classrooms.
For Quintilian, writing instruction is crucial.  In his book, On the Teaching of Speaking and Writing, he states, “Writing itself is of the utmost importance of our studies, and by it alone sure proficiency, resting on the deepest roots, is secured” (17).  In other words, it is through writing that students are able to learn the importance of negotiating between what needs to be said and who it needs to be said to.  This is especially significant in our modern context, where students are communicating less and less orally and more and more through writing.  Even though Quintilian’s curriculum is designed to educate people who will be, most likely, communicating orally in the public sphere, his principles are still significant for our writing focused culture (17).  One goal we should still have is to prepare students to be able to perform appropriately in the public sphere.  Although, currently, it appears that that performance will mostly be through writing and not speaking.
Quintillian even clarifies the relationship between speaking, writing, and reading:

In truth they [speaking, writing, and reading] are all so connected, so inseparably linked with one another, that it [sic] any one of them is neglected, we labor in vain in the other two—for our speech will never become forcible and energetic unless it acquires strength from great practice in writing; and the labor of writing, if left destitute of models from reading, passes away without effect, as having no director. (125).

He moves the discussion of literacy [speaking, writing, and reading] toward the concept of “habits of mind” (125).

This idea of creating habits for students to draw from is a crucial pedagogical move.  Basically, instruction needs to happen in a way that allows students to take the skills that they have learned through their studies and be comfortable applying and adapting those same tools to new situations, as they come up.

Quintilian offers a few assignments for students to practice in order to build habits of mind.  First, he explains that students need to read the best authors so that they can get an idea for how they should put their own words together; basically, this is practice in imitation with the purpose of eventually applying the learned eloquence to one’s own work.  Another assignment that Quintilian gives for students to begin to build habits of the mind is to examine both sides of a question.  This exercise is great because it trains students to look at multiple angles of an issue, not simply focusing in on their own side while disregarding the significance of other points of view (129-130).  This exercise helps build habits of mind because students learn to look at multiple solutions and be able to argue the merits and faults with each; this way, when the moment calls for action, hopefully the student will be trained enough to make a strong case for an issue by supporting his/her argument and finding flaws in other arguments.

Currently, Newman and I are doing an assignment with our rhetoric students where they have to pick a topic on New York Times’ “Room for Debate.” Then, students read the conversation, create a thesis that allows them to enter the conversation by writing a paper that examines the varying perspectives, and offers up their own take on the issue.  Also, by close reading the perspectives on the issue, students are able to see how experts on the issue write, which I believe improves how they write about the issue.

If students are exposed to other good writers, they will see how authors manipulate language to make solid arguments.  As well, if students are asked to examine multiple sides of an issue, they will hopefully see the nuance involved in argument construction, beginning to form habits for how to approach any given issue and argue that issue to any given audience.  This is a place where I think single text analysis has merit.  Why not have students analyze the sources they plan on using in a paper?  By doing this, they should gain a better appreciation for how the sources are constructed and where they agree/disagree with each other.

Through these kinds of activities students will necessarily begin to see a need for audience awareness, as well as a need to construct arguments using the best types of evidence, depending on each particular case.  These need to be the type of practices we are teaching to students in our classrooms.  This notion appears to echo Aristotle’s ideas about rhetoric: “Let rhetoric be [defined as] an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (37).  In other words, for Aristotle, there is a finite, set amount of “means” that carry about persuasion, and it is the rhetor’s job to use them.  This difference is essential to Aristotle’s view of the relationship between an author and his/her audience.  In fact, Aristotle argues, “Since the whole business of rhetoric is with opinion, one should pay attention to delivery…. [Delivery] has great power, as has been said, because of the corruption of the audience” (29).  Aristotle is making the case that persuasion is wholly on the rhetor and that the audience’s relationship to that rhetor is unimportant, as long as the rhetor is utilizing the “means of persuasion.”

However, the point that I want to stress is that Quintilian’s work emphasizes the importance of context.  That is, students will learn to be flexible with their writing, not just utilizing a set of skills that according to Aristotle can be used in any given context.  The point that Aristotle appears to not be concerned with is, in fact, audience awareness.  Aristotle misses the mark here.  The focus of our instruction needs to shift from philosophical ideas about what should be taught, with the hopes that students will simply find ways to apply these concepts to “all” contexts of writing, to a more contextualized instruction.  Students need to be exposed to multiple genres of writing in multiple contexts, so that they learn the options that they have in composing, while paying special attention to the relationship between a writer and his/her audience.

We should see writing as rhetorical.  To echo back to the beginning of this post, decontextualized literary analysis is missing this point.  If it were situated as responding to what others have said about the text under consideration, I think it would make much more sense.

To wrap up here, Quintilian argues for the necessity to have students examine what each particular situation requires.  It is through this active engagement with a situation that calls for an understanding of the specific situation.  Quintilian explains that we must teach our students to pay attention to the context of a situation in order to understand it; if this is understood, a writer will be able to move his/her audience to action.

We want students to be able to take what they learn and be able to apply it “in the moment” in various contexts.

Wouldn’t it be great if students got to a point where they had knowledge of the situation, the audience they are addressing, and the types of moves they can make with their text in order to communicate effectively to that audience?

It is not my intention in this post to diminish the teaching of literature.  I believe that students should be exposed to great books, but I just think the issue is more complicated than arguing about the merits of literature over nonfiction, as Bauerlein does.

In a sense, I am asking that we respond to this situation in a Ciceronian or Quintilian manner: that is, we need to examine the situation and find the best course of action—the same thing that we are hoping to teach our students to do.