Content-based Courses Are Not Effective
One set of responses to Duane’s questions explored the differences between “content” and the activity of composing, which lead to a discussion of thematic writing courses whose “content” was something other than “writing.” The responses that follow DO NOT support the claim that writing courses using thematic content or non-writing-content are effective. These responses also point to the following section: The content of a writing class is writing.
From: Dennis Ciesielski
All, I think this is a question whose time has certainly come. The problem of content seems to address (at least in part) what a lot of people might refer to as “thematic” writing courses. However, a lot of us have seen instances where the theme content takes precedence over the writning part and the writing class “becomes something else.” This was at the heart of the recent lit/comp debates. Are the students studying writing or are they studying literature?
My own personal experience with content in the comp class comes from a set of revision notes from a well known peer-edited journal. In my first draft I had mentioned the problem of content in the comp class and was literally chastised by one reviewer who claimed that the content of comp class is writng. it was also suggested that I oughta know that, thus missing the whole point of my observation. A public discussion of what writing classes might include and the various approaches, readings, cross-disciplinary prompts, etc., etc., would make for a fascinating dialogue
From: Kelly Keener
Dennis I agree that many “themed” composition courses seem to put writing on the back burner and the focus inevitably becomes the underlying topic. It may seem obvious to some that the focus of the writing classroom is writing, but many courses are not laid out that way. I have often wondered when (or if) writing and writing alone will be sufficient in a composition classroom? How beneficial is it to the students when we make the discussion of writing secondary to the content (which we normally choose due to our own personal or academic interests)? Moreover, what are we assessing if we are to use a themed comp course—proficiency in writing or in the material? These issues have often troubled me…
From: Kelly Keener
[Aaron Krawitz says:] “The incentive to write, and more generally to communicate, effectively is, I think, best nurtured in the context of the writer wanting to say something about an idea of interest to her.”
I completely agree with this comment, but in writing courses in which the instructor chooses the focus, are students really writing about ideas that are of interest to them? When we incorporate our own ideas and interests into the classroom, do we really expect our students to jump on the bandwagon and be as enthused as we are? I don’t think that we do expect this, but I do think that we forget that we are teaching many comp students who may not enjoy ANY writing—regardless if they have an interest or not in the subject matter.
I do not believe that the writing classroom is content-less by any means, but to focus on literature or one particular theme, in my opinion, may not produce the desired effective writing that we might hope.
From: Kathy Fitch
Despite favoring thematic approaches in some writing courses, I’ve always been a little suspicious (sometimes more than a little) of that approach, as well. Thematic courses do have a tendency to slide—sometimes ever so gradually and subtly—into courses in something else entirely, and I’ve noted that this is often particularly the case with narrow and politically charged topics that become the focus of entire “special” sections of Comp (e.g. sustainable use, gender issues, etc.).
I think it can be very difficult, indeed, for a writing teacher to teach a course whose theme is “contemporary political events” or any subset thereof without the content essentially becoming politics, no matter how genuinely the teacher intends to keep the focus on writing. We see that tendency even in the occasional debates here that move beyond writing and the teaching of writing. Somehow, impassioned reactions to this or that side of this or that issue of the moment always end up being 1) objected to on the grounds that as writers and writing teachers we ought to have more conscious awareness and self-control when it comes to wielding language, and 2) defended on the grounds that all writing, all rhetoric, all language is inherently, inescapably, and thoroughly political, so there.
It is both a great joy and a great danger of teaching writing that *everything* is the proper subject for writing. The “all rhetoric/all writing is political” truism covers (and perhaps causes) as multitudinous a collection of sins as it deters. It seems to me that making writing or “writing studies” the “content” of a writing course does relatively little to ease that danger.
In an earlier iteration of this discussion, someone (Doug, I think), referred to the idea of teaching what we know about texts, and “how texts got that way.” I’m not sure that studying “how texts got that way” is necessarily any more or less immune to the potential dangers than any other content might be. After all, there are many texts, many ways, and relatively little agreement about the hows and whys of the thing. Then, too, I wonder about the developmental aspects of making what we know (or think we know, or disagree about, or don’t understand at all) about writing the content of Composition.
Studying writing-as-content in graduate school was a blast and an eye-opener, but I’m pretty convinced I couldn’t have claimed anything even approaching the sophistication to cope with those ideas much before then. Going anti or meta genre is pretty tough when the genre (and it’s sub-genres) itself is a fairly new thing.
There is, I think, no innocent content. Out there are many teachers who’ve tackled the thorniest possible political and ethical issues as themes without their focus on the teaching of writing ever faltering, and without their students ever wondering what all of this has, after all, to do with their becoming better writers. Out there too, no doubt, are more than a few teachers who could quite readily manage to make writing the nominal topic, but somehow *still* lose their focus on the teaching of writing. It would be all too easy for Comp to become “Theories of Writing,” “The History and Development of Writing,” “Philosophies of Writing,” or “The Great Composition Theory Wars,” and for this to happen in such a way that actual students’ actual writing became, if not entirely an afterthought, at least not the focus it should be.
Certainly, if writing *is* to become the topic, then there should be plenty of focus on how most effectively to make it the topic in FYC, with its particular audience of students and its particular outcomes in mind. Simply declaring it the topic, seems to me, doesn’t accomplish beyond expanding the thematic panoply: gender, media, environment, writing, etc. Maybe the thing would be to teach only that portion of the things we think we know about how texts got that way that might be most useful to FYC students. Anyway, no innocent content, I’d argue, but no automatically guilty content, either.