I spent a few minutes today watching Rutgers’ intriguing clip from a documentary on the writing program’s expository writing class.
I love the idea of studying one’s own program via a documentary (I wish we had done one on the CWP). This video is extremely well done. With this film, however, I was immediately drawn to some issues:
- Five papers (each five pages in length) in 15 weeks.
- An artificial breakdown of the writing process into the five tasks.
- Lack of visible exigence for the writing.
- Over dependence on analysis as the basis of a writing pedagogy (as opposed to invention).
- Over dependence of argument (via the concept of thesis) as genre.
- The claim that “no one gets an A” in a course or that there is expectation of failure (as opposed to teaching toward success).
It is too easy to critique teaching done elsewhere. Still, when I hear the fairly common cliches associated with writing circulated (cramming, last minute work, stress over five pages), I have to perform the critical gesture we supposedly value. I find this pedagogy – from a distance – problematic.
Take the students who are unable to complete five pages for the first assignment; one student notes she would have to just fill up the remaining page with quotes to get the work done. Five pages is around 1,200-1,300 words. I typically give an assignment that is around 2,000 words. The key to the assignment, of course, is not word length, but need for space to flesh out an idea. If a student is learning organization strategies, then the length of 2,000 words can be thought of as necessary space of idea development. A given idea might be broken down into components; let’s say they are each 400 words long. That means that this particular idea needs five sections. Writing 400 words about each component of the idea, then, is hardly daunting. If anything, the writer will need to be specific and to the point because it will be too easy to go over 400 words. How this breakdown works depends on what the assignment is. I would never give such generic assignments, however, as the ones posed in the course’s sequence. This breakdown is also a principle of networked thinking, but I will leave that point for now.
Another obvious pedagogical error here are the five assignments. Jim Corder showed us long ago the fallacy of assigning too much in a short period of time (such as 15 weeks) and what the results of this overload are (bad writing, cliches, drawing from the already known when one is overloaded). If academics wrote five papers in 15 weeks – and for the sake of comparison, we don’t write five pages, but the higher level equivalent of maybe 25 pages – we would be tenured rather quickly. It is not realistic to assign so many disparate projects. They are posed here as connected, but the connection feels artificial. The big project is not visible. These five tasks stress an ambiguous process without revealing what the project is supposed to entail. How are these readings functioning as heuristics? What are students learning regarding organization, style, invention, arrangement, research, etc.Â from these readings?
I don’t care that it’s Rutgers or some other school. I’m more interested in what appears to be a commonplace here regarding pedagogy – a fixed idea regarding teaching that deserves to be broken down for the mythology it is. Maybe more later.