I have learned a great deal from my monthly meetings with the English department: how to lead, how not to lead, how to completely miss the mark on what teachers need, and how to recover beautifully from missing said mark. However, one of the simplest things, I have found, you can do for teachers to aid them in their professional development, is to listen carefully and then deliver on what you hear.
On Wednesday, all of the above situations played out. We have often discussed having an expert voice come speak to us to help us drill deeper into an element of our craft. A while back, I came across an article by a Duke University professor, Dr. Bradley Hammer (who is how at UNC), that dealt with the shifts that were taking place in student writing in the “academy.” The title of the article spoke volumes: “A New Type of University Writing.” Now, my English department already thinks I have a massive case of technophilia, and inviting this professor who believed that college writing, long believed to be the epitome of thesis driven argumentative writing, was now transforming into another piece of the digital landscape, was a risky move. But, after talking to him on the phone in September, I knew he would make some waves of the good kind. And did he ever.
The teachers were very interested in hearing about trends he saw in student writing, in essence asking for feedback on what he thought of Freshman entering the program. Dr. Hammer didn’t disappoint in his response. Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with. For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing. Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.” Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format. His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.
His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on. For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you. His greatest line, by far for me, was this:
High schools train students how to argue–they need to learn how to ask questions and interrogate ideas first.
As soon as he said it, I immediately began running thumbing through my mental Rolodex to try to remember how many times I have heard that in my reading over the last two years. It just rings. Whether it’s been caused by federal mandates or by our poorly thought out responses to them, we’ve underestimated our students ability to be meta-cognitive about the writing process. It’s more about the process rather than the product, when we truly break it down to it’s smaller parts. Is it really imperative that little Suzy write her essay in five standard paragraphs with a neat little thesis hook at the end of her first paragraph? Or would we rather see her wrestle something down to it’s bits in the pre-writing and research stages and produce something in three paragraphs? I’ll take the scrapping any day.
What was great for me, aside from the fact that it was a meeting where I did very little direct talking, was the dialog that sprung up after our call ended. Some of those in the room were in agreement with Hammer; we should be focusing more on the meta-cognitive processes of writing. Others asked if the reasons Hammer and his colleagues are able to do the deconstruction with students and push them in the direction they do is because of the argumentative underpinnings that high school English teachers provided them with? Can they get to B without having gone through A? Others asked if there was a way we could see products of the freshman Hammer worked with; we wanted to see what inquiry-driven writing looked like in the end.
The most challenging element about working with the four departments I do is trying to find something for each of them to sink their teeth into, and this did it for the English teachers. My own personal belief about what compositional writing should like look at any level is very simple: writing should demonstrate your ability to think, and your ability to convey those thoughts succinctly. My answer to the departmental question about whether or not we should be doing the things that Dr. Hammer does in our classrooms is undeniably yes. But, like anything, let’s allow the students to determine the level to which they can successfully do it. Just because they are 16 doesn’t necessary preclude them from inquiry, and the same can be said in reverse for some students. Push where needed, pull back when necessary.
All in all, a great meeting.
Image Credit: “Me & teh thesis” from doryexmachina’s Photostream