Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Learning of the Teaching of Writing

I had mixed reactions to an article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education. It is a reflection by a developmental writing teacher on the power of the personal essay. In her article, she describes her discovery of how writing from personal experience allowed her developmental students, and ultimately herself as a graduate student, to find the voice that gave power to analytical essays. I had a good news/bad news sort of reaction.

It is good news because, appearing in CHE, it speaks across the academy to articulate the position many of us find ourselves in when non-composition academics rail against the kinds of assignments we use rather than the assignments they think we should use. The author of the article describes how she moved from the position of most of the academy--that students should only write academic essays on the great issues of all time--to the position she should have as a writing teacher--that developing and nurturing authentic writers' voices is the essential beginning for students to write convincing academic arguments.

Of course, most of us have known that since the 1970's when composition studies demonstrated the powerful effect of starting with the personal. And that is the rub, so to speak. How could someone be hired to teach writing when they had not had any courses in composition that would have prepared them? I know, dumb question. The problem is that we are still hiring unprepared people to teach writing because "anyone can teach writing."

And that is the bad news. The Conference on College Composition and Communication has advocated since 1982 that we need to have properly prepared writing teachers. However, as I discovered on my own campus, administrators and other faculty do not accept that position. One of the problems is the incorrect assumption that subject-knowledge automatically embues teacher-knowledge. We know it doesn't, and yet the position of most pundits is that subject matter is the primary concern. In the recent Time magazine article, "How to Fix No Child Left Behind," the reference to teachers is one line about ensuring subject matter knowledge. In a recent American Enterprise Institute panel discussion on the question of whether the American Competitiveness Initiative was in collaboration or competition with NCLB, the point was made that we needed to incentivise teachers who knew their material to get them into under performing schools. No mention was made of developing and nurturing teacher knowledge.

While there are occasional comments about the need to pay attention to learning theory, the major cry is still for ensuring that teachers, including highly qualified teachers, need to only know the content; after all, anybody can teach. Very little is said about teacher knowledge, growth of teacherly skills and attitudes, and the professionalization of our profession. Had the author of the CHE article above been required to show that she, first, had taken the appropriate coursework in teaching composition, and second, had been involved in a program where she could demonstrate that she could apply composition theory in her teaching, she would not have had to learn, through her students' expense, that good, strong writing starts with the development of the writer's voice.

I am glad the author has learned it. I am glad she wrote about it. I hope she joins us in insisting that qualified teachers not only have solid knowledge of their field, but they also have solid backgrounds in the theory and practice of teaching their field.

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