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Defining Real World Writing as a Political Act
(Or, Seeing What’s Really There: Re-reading Composition Theory and my Students)

Lisa Bernhagen, Highline Community College

This fall I accepted a tenure-track job teaching writing at Highline Community College. I came to this job from Western Washington University, where I had been teaching composition for four years – 2 years as a graduate student, two years as part-time faculty. I had a background in composition theory (my graduate studies focused on composition theory, where I read that students should be encouraged to compose their ideas first, and tend to sentence-level errors last.) I was used to teaching the students Donna has described. My first quarter at Highline I taught Writing 91 (this is the course before Freshman Composition). This being an open-enrollment college, I had students who had never learned to write essays, paragraphs or even complete sentences. Furthermore, they had no exposure to the culture of higher education, the concept of an essay, the concept of a written conversation.

I had entered a different world.

I read student drafts with no paragraphs and few complete sentences. I responded by making sentence mechanics a much larger part of my course. I assigned practice sentences from our grammar handbook, and even gave a mid-term and final that tested for sentence mechanics.

Then I thought, who was I? Who was I trying to serve with this course? This isn’t like me.

As the next quarter began, I became less and less comfortable with the large focus my class had on mechanics. My students loved it and wanted more, but I felt torn.

  • I seemed to be going against the theory that says I should focus first on students’ ideas, then on their sentence clarity and correctness.
  • Yet, I knew once students passed my class, they would take Freshman Composition, where they are expected to produce complete sentences. I felt I owed it to them to teach them sentence mechanics.
  • But most important, I had read in my graduate studies (or so I recalled) that students don’t benefit from learning grammar and sentence mechanics explicitly. They should just pick it up as they read and write.

So there I was, assigning grammar and mechanics lessons from our handbook, feeling lousy about it. What was I doing? Where was this prescriptive approach coming from? Hadn’t I learned in graduate school, and my composition teaching, that a composition course should focus on using writing as a method of thinking?

I addressed my dilemma by assigning a rigorous essay that would demand critical thinking, an essay that would "summarize, then enter into a written conversation" because this was an academic move they would need later, for freshman composition, I said. I told myself my assignments were "real-world situations" for my students, where they could be doing "critical thinking" moves in "authentic situations" which would be valued by higher education. (After all, they can say whatever they like in response to the essay they read.)

I kept my grammar lessons to further legitimate students’ writing to an audience that will judge them.

Meanwhile, my students were getting more and more confused, trying to perform tasks they had no frame of reference for, such as the academic essay. Although students were going through the drafting process, I was prescribing their motivation for them. I guess I was trying to add in critical thinking to balance the grammar and mechanics exercises I assigned.

My students did become better writers, but I had also lost a few, who may have dropped out because the assignments I gave didn’t have enough value for them to stay committed to the course.

I tried to step back and figure it all out. Where had I gone wrong? At the end of ten short weeks, my writers had learned to write some paragraphs, and are writing more complete sentences than they were before. But they were not entirely satisfied with what they are learning about writing, and neither was I. What course should I construct that will help these students learn to write?

THESE STUDENTS? Did I just say that? Isn’t that like saying "those people"? My teacher self seems to have taken over my personality and decision making, leading me further and further from the holistic, ideas-first teaching I was doing at the university. I couldn't figure out how to design just the right writing assignment for "these students." I turned back to the research I'd read in graduate school.

I went back and re-read John F. Butler, Andrea Lunsford, Lisa Ede, Patrick Hartwell and Lisa Delpitt. They all said that writers do best when they write about subjects they know and care about; they learn editing skills best by editing their own writing. And as Richard Lloyd-Jones says, "the general business of teachers of English is to make people more comfortable in using their language" (279).

Patrick Hartwell explained that research showed grammar exercises do not improve students’ use of grammar, when they are done separately from student writing.

And John Butler said about his student:

By treating the "Being Yourself" writer's paper as I have [by commenting with only reader-response] I have accomplished one crucial thing: I have kept him in the course. He has not dropped, has not stopped coming to class, has not stopped turning in papers" (Butler 563).

I had underlined these passages in graduate school the first time I read them, but I had forgotten them, or mis-understood them. They were telling me something like this:

"These people" are people, and people learn through the same natural learning process: trial and error, adjustment, practice, confidence, more trial and error, adjustment, practice, confidence – and motivation. I wasn’t giving my students "real-world" writing situations at all. After all, what motivates anyone to write, ever? Isn’t it to express yourself… to be heard… to bear witness? My assignments do not actually meet these criteria. Especially the "academic essay." I was trying to construct a situation that would be real in some distant future. I was trying to teach students to produce essays and sentences that would be accepted in college by college instructors.

But no one learns how to do something (well) by practicing it because it will be useful someday.

Is the answer this easy? Writers should mostly be writing in a way that fulfills their own sense of purpose for writing. I may have lost sight of what Lisa Ede says: "we will have little change of helping our students improve as writers unless we can somehow enable them to experience their writing class as a functioning language community, one where they exist, in Paulo Freire's terms, as subject, not objects (325).

I knew this, but when faced with a new community of writers, at a new college with its own expectations, I resorted to prescriptive teaching.

Inviting students to bring all their knowledge, experience and agendas to the writing classroom is a necessary act, if I really want my students to stay in the course, and learn how to be writers. And of course this invitation is a political act. It empowers people who are often marginalized and disenfranchized.

 Works Cited

Butler, John, "Remedial Writers." A Sourcebook for Basic Writers. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Random House, 1987.

Ede, Lisa, "New Perspectives on the Speaking-Writing Relationship." A Sourcebook for Basic Writers. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Random House, 1987.

Hartwell, Patrick, "Grammar, Grammars and the Teaching of Grammar." A Sourcebook for Basic Writers. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Random House, 1987.

Delpit, Lisa "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children." (1988) Harvard Education Review. 58:3 181-298.

Lloyd-Jones, Richard as quoted in Elaine Frederidcksen’s "Letter Writing in the College Classroom," TETYC March 2000, 278-283.

To Arthur

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA