Judith A. Langer’s “Speaking of Knowing: Conceptions of Understanding in Academic Disciplines” focuses on the way writing can be used to promote thinking in different disciplines. Examining students’ writing across academic disciplines, Langer discovers that “students were rarely challenged to explain their interpretations or encouraged to examine the evidence on which they had based their conclusions.” The findings indicate some serious problems in writing instruction. They show how instructors in fact lack training and effective models to use writing more effectively to help students achieve what she calls “the higher-level intellectual skills.” The ability to develop effective arguments is part of these skills, which, Langer laments, are not the focus of instruction in many disciplines. Many courses in her studies are content-driven and lead to rote learning. Often times, course aims and pedagogical approaches are contradictory. For example, the instructors in the survey may say that they want students to think more critically about course content, but they put much emphasis on subject matter in classrooms rather than encouraging such thinking. Langer also discovers that even in their responses to student writing, content is again the main concern. By looking at the results of her survey, Langer makes plain that “previous findings about students’ inability to engage in critical thinking in a variety of academic subjects come as no surprise.” Langer ends the essay by calling for a more effective way to teach students to write arguments that are appropriate to their discipline.
Langer seems to base her suggested method of teaching on the two theoretical models—cognitive and social constructionist. It would give me a better idea of how writing was used in those courses in her survey if she gave some examples of the writing assignments. It would also strengthen her claim that students’ writing she examined did not reflect that they were encouraged to think or make arguments.
Patricia Bizzell’s “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know about Writing” aims to synthesize the two main theoretical schools of composition studies. The first school or the inner-directed school refers to Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’ cognitive model of composing process, which has been dominant in composition pedagogy. Bizzell gives a detailed overview of Flower and Hayes’ model as well as its inadequacies. What is lacking in the model is the way it fails to take into account how the subject is shaped by social context and how language is not a transparent medium of subjectivity. The most problematic processes in the model are “planning” and “translating”; the latter is defined by Flower and Hayes as “ ‘the process of putting ideas into visible language.’ ” Thus, in the Flower and Hayes model, “language itself is not seen as having a generative force in the planning process, except insofar as it stands as a record of the current progress of the writing thinking” (CP 101). Bizzell contends that to see the planning process as having nothing to do with language does not accurately reflects how one learns or knows: “Knowledge is what language makes of experience.” For Bizzell, the second school, the outer-directed school, helps give a more complete picture of the process described by Flower and Hayes as it takes into account the social factors in writing development. Basing her view on sociolinguists, Bizzell argues that writing should be seen as situated in a discourse community. In this model, “discourse conventions” play an important role in the composing process. This is because Bizzell believes “all discourse communities constitute and interpret experience.” To help students to write in composition class is to explain the community’s conventions. Therefore, the search for scientific certainty in Flower and Hayes model, Bizzell stipulates, must be replaced by the acknowledgement of the political and ethical aspects of composition class and academe.
Bizzell’s essay, like Bartholomae’s essay, helps make it clearer how instructors can put what Berlin calls the New Rhetoric approach into practice. The criticism of the Flower and Hayes model is very well-argued. However, Bizzell could have acknowledged the usefulness of the Flower and Hayes model more as her argument seems to build on their process theory. For example, she chooses to use the term “goal-setting” to describe the writing process.
Peter Elbow in “Closing My Eyes As I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience” gives a different view on the issue of the importance of audience in writing. Elbow warns that teaching students to be aware of the audience can have detrimental effects on their writing. For example, it can block writing altogether. He therefore aims to “celebrate the benefits of ignoring audience.” He gives many reasons why ignoring audience in fact helps students write better. First, thinking too much about the audience can lead to mediocre writing which lacks originality. Second, it makes student writing sound unnatural and forced: “There is something too staged or planned or self-aware about such writing.” He also disagrees with the way the emphasis on audience leads to the categorization of writing into “writer-based,” “reader-based,” and “text-based,” because for him those terms themselves are slippery and escape single definition and the process of writing is more complex than what is defined by those terms. Elbow also points out that because the topic of the developmental process is complicated in itself, the current emphasis on audience awareness which derives from only one model of cognitive development must also be questioned. Objecting to the view that “all discourse is social” of the emphasis on audience in writing pedagogy, Elbow ends the essay by pointing out the fluidity of the binary opposition between the self and the social: “If we are trying to advance contraries, we must be prepared for paradoxes.” No matter which dimension is emphasized, the private or the public, the other is always present.
It may seem at first that Elbow argues for the writer-centered kind of writing, but then he questions that category as well. He makes many good points about the weaknesses of the theoretical framework on which the current emphasis on audience awareness is based as well as the problems of some of its underlying concepts. But it is still hard for me to see how we can put his approach into practice. For example, when he suggests that “we must help students learn not only to ‘try harder’ but also to ‘just relax,’” what kind of writing does he have in mind?
EngC 1013 University Writing and Critical Reading: Nature and the Environment
Writing a summary
Typically, an objective summary will do the following:
- Cite the author and title of the text.
- Indicate the main ideas of the text and give necessary details. (You need to determine which details are “necessary.” They are details you think help your readers understand the main ideas of the essay.)
- Use direct quotation of key words, phrases, or sentences to give your readers a glimpse of the tone, style, language of the text.
- Include author tags to make it clear that you are summarizing someone else’s ideas. (“According to Martuzzi and Bertollini” or “Martuzzi and Bertollini show”)
- Report the main ideas as objectively as possible.
An evaluative summary or critical summary contains your opinions and comments on the text.
Ishmael Reed’s “My Neighborhood” recounts a succession of moves he has made in the effort to find (or make) a home for himself in various parts of California. It is also the record of an African American’s experience of how racial considerations affected that effort. The piece ends with Reed genuinely finding the place he wants to claim (and that, in return, claims him): a multicultural, diverse neighborhood in Oakland, a place where “unlike the other California neighborhoods I’ve lived in. I know most of the people on this block by name.”
Ishmael Reed’s “My Neighborhood” recounts a succession of moves he has made in the effort to find (or make) a home for himself in various parts of California. It is also the record of an African American’s experience of how racial considerations affected that effort. The piece ends with Reed finding the place he wants to claim (and that, in return, claims him): a multicultural, diverse neighborhood in Oakland, a place where “unlike the other California neighborhoods I’ve lived in. I know most of the people on this block by name.” Informed by his minority status, the experiences recounted at some places exhibit bitterness and anger.
The tone may be too harsh for some readers to accept. As Reed seems to aim at a general audience, he should bridge the gap between him and those readers who have never been in a similar situation by giving examples of unacknowledged privileges that he, as a minority, is deprived, instead of portraying himself as a victim of racism.
Homework: Write a paragraph (200-250 words) of critical summary of “The Perils of Precaution” for an audience who has not read the essay. The summary is due on Friday, January 28. I will not grade it but will give you my feedback. This exercise will help you with your first formal assignment—writing a critical response. (Reminder: all writing assignments must be typed.)
Peter Elbow in “Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic” voices his concern about the goals of first-year writing course. The main question is whether teachers should train their students to be academics or writers. For Elbow, the two goals are not compatible as they involve different attitudes toward writing and reading. Elbow allows the readers to see his own dilemma in having to choose between the two goals. He then explains why he decides to teach students to be a writer rather than an academic. One of the reasons he gives is that academics privilege reading over writing. For Elbow, this emphasis on reading in the academy is in conflict with the goal of writing. He further points out that teaching students to be an academic not only takes away the writer’s sense of ownership and authority from them but also discourages students from having original thinking. An example Elbow gives is a literature course in which students are asked to analyze “To His Coy Mistress.” Elbow points out that “even if the student happens to have a better insight or understanding than the teacher has, the teacher gets to define her own understanding as right and the student’s as wrong.” In the end, Elbow calls the readers’ attention to the need to define the roles of academic and writer in the society to avoid the teaching dilemma of having to choose between the two goals.
Sharing Bartholomae’s view about university writing, I don’t quite sympathize with Elbow’s argument in this essay. I wonder whether we, writing teachers, need to choose for students. Can’t we let them choose by letting them see different writing situations and discourses? I don’t quite agree with his insistence on the dichotomous nature of the two roles either. Academic writing does not totally obliterate the writer from the text; whether the goal of writing is to express oneself or to communicate, the writer, the creator of text, is always present.
Peter Elbow’s “Thoughts on the Teacherless Writing Class” offers a “teacherless” approach to teaching writing. It is developed from his own experience as a writing teacher who encountered difficulties in responding to student writing. He discovered that instead of commenting and focusing on where the writing departs from his model of good writing, he should concentrate more on transmitting his “experience” of it. Elbow claims that this approach would encourage students to write more because it creates two important conditions for writing. First, it allows students to see what reactions their writing elicit from readers. Second, it lessens students’ anxiety of being evaluated and hence gives them more freedom to explore. Elbow goes on to raise questions about teachers as real readers. The teacherless class, he argues, resembles the communication between writers and readers in the real world more than the teacher-centered one. Elbow also challenges the linear approach of teaching writing by asserting that “the most appropriate path for learning to write is not to try to break up the skill into its ideal progression of components which can be learned one at a time.” Instead, teaching writing is about how “to set up some situation in which the learner can persevere in working at the whole skill in its global complexity.” In this regard, he sees students’ grammatical competence as something that comes later as their writing becomes more fluent.
I sympathize with Elbow in the way he seems to deconstruct the deconstructionists like Bartholomae, who ends up accepting authority in his teaching approach. Elbow tries to make writing a personal experience between the writer and his/her readers by getting rid of the authority in the classroom. It makes the classroom an idyllic place where everybody comes to write and get responses. However, it would help if he also talks about another side of “the real world” in which evaluation and grading are also an issue.
In “Inventing the University,” David Bartholomae argues that learning to write for college students means learning to “appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse.” In other words, students must learn the convention of academic discourse in becoming part of the academic community. Bartholomae thus puts the process of learning and teaching academic discourse into two stages. First, the conventions are taught to students. Second, students learn to “approximate” the discourse. An example of this development given by Bartholomae is his students’ learning to approximate the language of a literary critic in writing about Bleak House. In this regard, Bartholomae asserts that academic discourse is the language of “the privileged community,” the language of “insiders,” setting it apart from common discourse or what he calls “commonplaces.” Students’ learning to write is the process of leaving behind the commonplaces and adopting the discourse of the “privileged” group. Bartholomae supports his argument by looking at freshmen placement essays on the topic of creativity. The students who were successful were able to get beyond the commonplaces and take risks to venture into the unfamiliar terrain of a new discourse.
Using the theoretical framework of poststructuralists, Bartholomae talks about what we already know in a new way. He reminds us that everything, even the writer’s subjectivity, is constituted within discourse. According to Bartholomae, writing is thus not an invention; it is in fact the process of working within the convention, within a specific discourse. The discourse defined by Bartholomae seems to be rigid and fixed. I think academic discourse is more fluid and constantly changes. Bartholomae’s intentional or unintentional reference to T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent” does point to the fact that tradition is constantly modified by the individual. The question of agency is again an issue here.
Mike Rose’s “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block” discusses the difficulties college students encounter in their writing process. Using the framework of problem solving theories, Rose focuses on the second stage of the process, which is known as the “processing” period. It is in this stage that students as problem solvers will rely on past learning as well as develop a plan to find solution. In his interviews with ten students, Rose found that rigid writing rules that the students had learned in the past and doggedly followed along with their inability to see their plans as flexible and subject to change are the major causes of those difficulties. For example, by trying to follow the rule that a good essay must have three or more points, a student ended up turning in a poorly developed essay. Compared to this group of students or blockers, the other group accomplished their writing tasks with less difficulty. Rose ascribes the success to their flexible approach to rules and plans in the processing period. The essay ends with Rose’s suggestions of how to “correct” the writer’s block which stems from rigid adherence to rules and plans.
The interviews Rose conducted are interesting. However, I question the validity of the study and its result. The conclusion of the cause of each case seems to be too quickly drawn. The essay does make a good point about how rigid rules and plans can be writer’s block. I think the block includes many students’ too much concern about grammar.