Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Notes on Writers and the Teaching of Writing, I.

I.

Those of us who've been formally trained as writers, who've been the beneficiaries of writing workshops taught by respected practitioners who discuss issues of craft line by line, syllable by syllable, often have to witness or tolerate naive notions about writing and the teaching of writing; such naivete is a constant emanation from colleagues in the teaching ranks or from administrators or even from students who "profess" to know what works best to help students become better writers.

But that last word, writers, is a major irritation because of its broad umbrella, for those of us who've spent a large part of our student and adult years actually working at becoming writers--to the point of publishing, winning awards, and/or accepting visiting or tenured positions as writers in academe--are quite different than the majority of students and composition instructors whose formal coursework didn't help them become writers who publish or win acclaim as poets, fiction writers, or non-fiction writers.

The vast majority of composition instructors aren't trained as writers per se; rather, they are trained either as literary theorists/historians/critics or as teachers of composition (they take courses mainly in composition pedagogy and theory: they learn certain protocols or methods to utilize in a classroom, such as peer-editing, holistic grading, computer-assisted instruction, journal writing or "free" writing exercises, and other non-craft-oriented teaching methods and theories). True, they do write papers, but so do students in sociology, history, and math classes. To use an analogy, music appreciation or art history instructors are trained in specific histories or theories that correspond to various musical pieces or artworks or composers/artists, but they aren't trained to become creators of music or art. But when educational institutions look for faculty to teach piano or 2-D/3-D art classes, they don't look for music appreciation or art history degree holders; rather, they look for well-educated practitioners who've dedicated years to learning their respective crafts. In short, they look for people who can do and teach.

In fact, English departments rarely require composition applicants to even demonstrate their writing skills, let alone require in-depth training as writers. For most faculty members on hiring committees, the only document they look at to determine if one has some facility with written discourse is the dreaded letter of application--not the best piece of evidence when one considers how such letters must address various job announcement criteria, and I wouldn't be surprised if some composition applicants seek out the help of professional resume writers and services to help them fine tune such documents.

As a result, teachers of composition often aren't publishing, award-winning practitioners in any genre, yet they supposedly can teach writing despite their relative lack of training as craftspeople. No wonder some institutions rely on group portfolio programs, holistic grading, and "norming" sessions for their composition faculty--which is quite unheard of among those who teach creative writing workshops: I've yet to come across a well-trained, publishing poet or fiction writer who says he or she needs norming because he or she has doubts about "standards" or "learning outcomes" or "craft concerns." How absurd! I can't imagine Phil Levine or Pete Everwine or Mike Ryan or Terry Hummer or Jim McMichael or Ken Fields or Cynthia Huntington or Simone DiPiero or the late Denise Levertov saying to themselves, "Gee, I don't know what to say about this piece of writing--I should ask my colleagues for help!" Of course,
I wouldn't expect them to hold the same opinions about different pieces of literature, for art by necessity constantly evolves; to paraphrase Terry Hummer, purity in art simply doesn't exist: all art is impure. Writing, like painting and music, is not a hard science, yet the communal need for "norming" sessions among some composition teachers illustrates a definite communal lack of expertise. And that lack does not bode well for composition students.

When we use the term writer, we should delineate between academic, non-publishing, temporary "writers" found in most classrooms (most students and, sadly, many teachers fall into this group) as opposed to writers like William Carlos Williams or Octavio Paz or Cynthia Ozick; the former as a group generally writes for a grade or a position and often does so in a rather hurried, mechanical manner, whereas the latter and their peers, past and present, write for eternity--and eternity is the harshest of critics and isn't pressed for time.

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