A Scary Story from 4C’s

In a comment on my previous post about the potentially nefarious doings in Labor Studies Land, Fake Herzog pointed me to an article at Minding the Campus. The author, Mary Grabar, dropped in on the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC, or “4C’s”, as we call it in the trade), and she was dismayed by what she saw. Like Miniver Cheevy, she has reasons, and runs through a rogues’ gallery of lunkheaded postmodern relativism on display in the conference program.

Thanks for the link — I appreciate it. However, I suspect the author was engaging in more than a little cherrypicking. Are there comp/rhet folks doing guano-sniffing crazy work? Yep — and it has ever been thus, in practically every field (see Book III of Gulliver’s Travels or Pope’s Dunciad). And yeah, in my grad work on contemporary rhetorical theory we talked about Freire, Elbow, and those folks — and I think those two have a great deal for which they must answer.

What I can tell you, however, is that where the rubber meets the road, in the various comp classrooms in the Mondovilles of the world, the overwhelming majority of my peers are fighting for clear, standard English writing. Comp instructors are the grunts of most faculties — in fact, they’re typically the day labor/piece workers of academia, the grad students and adjuncts, and I can pretty well guarantee they weren’t the ones presenting the occasional moonbat section — they were too busy grading, and weren’t paid enough to afford a trip to Atlanta for a conference.

Meanwhile, I think the problems happen before the kids ever get to me. Every semester, I ask my kids how much reading and writing they did in high school. Every semester, I’m disheartened by the paucities they describe. And if they aren’t building habits of reading, writing, and thinking for the years before I get them, I’m not gonna be able to fix it.

Of course, this dearth occurs because grading student writing is a pain in the tuchis, and if you assign it, you’re expected to grade it. (For what it’s worth, I grade/proof/edit about 1-1.25 million words of student writing per annum –250 words/double-spaced page; 20-25 pages/student (including drafts); 25 students/class;  4 classes/term; 2 terms/year — and I have never had a grading assistant). And my writers are somewhat self-selected; I don’t have to teach everyone who walks through the door, whereas the folks at Mondoville High have to do exactly that (Insert plug for Robert Weissberg’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools here). Teachers are as subject to the principle of least effort as anyone else. Of course, this isn’t always the case — I was blessed with some outstanding teachers when I was a kid, and I think a good teacher is something very like a saint. Unfortunately, saints are thin on the ground these days.

Let me put it this way — how many times have we seen reports from Tea Party rallies where it’s clear the reporter has gone out of his or her way to find a well-armed member of the road company for Deliverance, ignoring the sensible, reasonable citizens who have legitimate complaints about what the government is doing? It’s no better journalism when it happens the other way around.

Are there lousy, nutty comp teachers out there? Yep, just as there are lousy, nutty musicians, burger flippers, truck drivers, and bloggers (Quiet, you!). And some of those lousy, nutty people do lousy, nutty things. But you’ll still listen to music, eat at Wendy’s, ship something via UPS, or read my blog (pleaseohpleaseohplease…), and you’ll do the best you can to avoid the bad stuff. I think Grabar’s article is useful in the same way the local news feature stories on the local greasy spoon are useful — exposing bad practices may encourage the rest of us to keep it together. But we shouldn’t take the sweeps week scare story as typical.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to A Scary Story from 4C’s

  1. Fake Herzog says:

    All good points in response to Grabar (especially your point concerning high school teaching and students — I’m no expert writer, but to the extent I can successfully tap out a few words on the keyboard it is to the hard work of some excellent teachers I had in high school). But to be totally fair to Grabar, she addressed the question of cherrypicking in her follow-up:

    “In response to the comments accusing me of cherry-picking among the panels and the speakers on the site Tedx, I suggest that all go to the program and the site to see the incredible bias of both. My examples were representative.”

  2. Fake Herzog says:

    One more and then I’ll leave you alone 🙂

    Over at What’s Wrong with the World, where I first came across Grabar’s article, one of their commenters makes the same point you do about high school and writing skills that are learned before getting to college as the real problem. Here is what he says:

    This is not to say that all is well in our colleges, of course. As far as I can tell, the problem begins before students get to us. Many of them have never been required to read much of anything. This has dire effects on their capacity to write, as you can imagine. Additionally, many of them have not been made to practice writing — as far as I can tell.

    Even at my fairly selective institution, I estimate that about a third of the students probably require remedial writing training. And they are not getting it. It is simply too labor intensive. [That said: about 15% of them are talented enough writers — like wee colleagues. They arrive this way.]

    I doubt that the condition in which they enter college is primarily the result of leftism. My students are mostly culturally conservative kids from culturally conservative backgrounds. [e.g. many of them were simply not taught evolutionary theory in high school biology.] I suspect (speculatively!) that their condition is primarily the result of the spread of television as a form of entertainment — which crowds out reading, whatever its content.

    In response to this comment, one of my favorite What’s Wrong with the World bloggers, Lydia McGrew, responds as follows:

    “I doubt that the condition in which they enter college is primarily the result of leftism. ”

    In part, it is, beyond all doubt. And the trends of the kooks in the story, in one way or another, are related to that. For example, the idea that it is “oppressive” to teach students grammar. Some version of supposedly “egalitarian” anti-prescriptivism has been at work in the educational establishment and has _definitely_ made its way into the high schools, though sometimes in a watered-down form.

    Even at the grade school level and in the area of reading, here’s just one little interesting fact: Rudolf Flesch was a European and, by his own designation, _not_ a political conservative of any kind. He wrote a book called _Why Johnny Can’t Read_, published in the 1950’s. It was all about phonics and the teaching of reading. In the 1980’s Flesch published a follow-up called _Why Johnny Still Can’t Read_. In that book, he expressed his frustration and annoyance over the fact that educrats had labeled phonics teaching as “politically conservative.” He thought this nonsense–which, of course, it is. However, it was a _fact_ that it was leftists (the other leftists in this case, not Flesch) who were using the “conservative” label to block the teaching of phonics-first reading methods in the schools. Flesch also pointed out that his critics argued that in some strange way the teaching of phonics did not take into account the need to teach minority students. Flesch could not imagine how this could possibly be a racial issue and was frustrated by the criticism. And, again, he was right educationally. There is no reason whatsoever why phonics should be thought of as a “white” method or as somehow not appropriate for minority students. But, again, it was a _fact_ that left-wing political buttons were being pushed as pseudo-arguments against a successful educational method that was scorned as old-fashioned.

    That has been true again and again. Trendiness in educational methods and the deliberate abandonment of tried-and-true methods and standards have been expressly connected with left-wing agendas and sold in that fashion. Flesch’s experience just shows that this is not exclusively some sort of new phenomenon and also that it is not confined to the teaching of writing.

  3. profmondo says:

    I agree with McGrew, to a point. That stuff I said Freire had to answer for falls under this category. He was the advocate of what he called the pedagogy of the oppressed, where the classroom was supposed to be seen as a meeting space of equals, who would ostensibly create knowledge together. I would contend that in most instances, this is nothing short of an abdication of the teacher’s role. Are my students my equals as human beings? Sure. Are they my equals as writers, readers, and thinkers? Not yet — not by a damned sight. If they were, what could I teach them?

    Unfortunately, too many educators fell for this okeydoke, whether out of actual (lefty) sympathy or simply because they lack the imagination to regard this kind of stuff with suspicion when it’s thrown at them in pedagogy classes. Too many education professionals seem to have forgotten that they know more than the students (at least with regard to the academic subject.) That’s not being disrespectful — it’s simply the justification for why we’re in the front of the room in the first place.

  4. Pingback: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Freire | Professor Mondo

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