With amusement, I spent some time today reading through WPA-L posts on its archive. The threads that interest me: “Graff doesn’t get it very well” (both parts) and “Re:Graff & Birkenstein reply.” The WPA-L community is upset with a Graff and Birkenstein essay published in the MLA newsletter and one published in the Chronicle that discuss their textbook They Say/I Say and their formulaic approach to teaching argument.
What amuses me is to see compositionists accuse two other academics of the crime of teaching formulas.
Almost every composition textbook is formulaic. Many of these critics, many of whom are WPAs, teach from textbooks, or who have written textbooks, participate in formulaic pedagogies all the time. How do composition textbooks teach argument? Which essays are reprinted from book to book? Which images? How is research taught? What about grammar? How many composition textbooks ask students “What do you think about…” and then follow up with “this image,” “this idea,” “this essay.” The “what do you think/how do you think” question is one of the most formulaic of composition textbook pedagogy. How many textbooks teach the formulaic “clear and coherent” directive for writing? How many textbooks ask students to “be restrictive” when they come up with the most formulaic of all composition approaches to writing, the topic sentence?Â How many textbooks (and teachers) adopt the formulaic phrase “multimodal” as if it is not merely a formulaic idea regarding a vague understanding of technology? And critical thinking with its call for “liberation” at the hands of the enlightened teacher? Pure formula. Formulas? Please. Composition uses formulas all the time.
I often get paid to review composition textbooks, and a question in the typical survey that always perplexes me is the one that ask how this book differs from others on the market (or how its approach to X differs). I don’t see any differences in the many books I review. They almost all teach a pedagogy, method of research, understanding of argument, understanding of invention, etc. that resembles (more or less) the kinds of banal teaching found in James McCrimmon’s 1963 Writing with a Purpose. Composition textbooks excel at the formula.
So what’s the deal here? Why are these folks so upset with, of all people, Gerald Graff? Graff is hardly an enemy of composition studies. Reading most of the listserv responses – many of which are very bad readings of Graff’s work (either his textbook, his Chronicle piece, or his scholarship) -
I started asking myself: Do these folks really think they, and whatever pedagogy they profess, is beyond the same kinds of critiques? Are these WPAs who make their instructors all teach from the same textbook or teach the same assignments not guilty of formulaic pedagogy? Or what about those “pioneers” or “veterans” of the field who often (at least when I was a member of the listserv) respond to issues of technology with formulaic thinking (“We don’t have time,” “It’s not writing if it uses images, video…” “I can’t do that; I’m not a computer geek”)?
The responses, in short, are quite silly. Composition needs to get a grip on itself, realize that it can handle Chronicle pieces like Graff’s (which are hardly critical of composition), and finally admit to its own shortcomings.Â Formulas? Listen. Graff and Birkenstein are correct when they write: “What critics of the five-paragraph model should be objecting to is not that it is a formula, but that it is a weak formula, one that produces arguments that are disengaged and decontextualized, severed from any social mission or context.” I may add that I find their book guilty of similar problems, but as a WPA I don’t object to instructors using it. It’s hardly worse than Everything is an Argument (with its new formulaic glossy images), Seeing & Writing, Picturing Texts, Signs of Life, The World is a Text, and so on. I just don’t find textbooks very useful in general unless an instructor wants a formula.
Still, we all use formulas, as Graff and Birkenstein remind us in their piece. Rhetoric is based on formulas (I can never remember all the names or formulas; I do remember the endless lists…if needed, I consult the list). Many times, in this space, I play with my own formula of juxtaposition in the hope that I might tease out ideas from the mix of personal moments, popular culture, temporal moves, and rhetoric. I would only extend Graff and Birkenstein’s statement of “weak formula” to that of almost every single composition textbook I’ve read, or every composition program that standardizes its pedagogy to the point of everyone following the same syllabus, textbook, approach, and so on. Formulas? My goodness. Composition is awash with weak formulas.