In an effort to be brave and get the publication process started, I'm posting this, if only to get used to seeing my words in print:
What I Once Thought I Knew About Teaching Writing
“How we teach is shaped by whom and what we teach. To some extent we also define how we behave as teachers in light of our previous experiences as students. We emulate teachers whose classrooms we enjoyed and avoid the habits of those who most displeased us. By continually planning, executing, and revising our teaching performance, we eventually develop a style that best expresses our teaching self” (253).
--Erika Lindemann, A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers
My “teaching self,” complicated by convictions and prejudices I was unaware of, developed years before I entered my first classroom. Revising my ideas about what I thought I knew about writing has proved to be fairly difficult; what I have learned has taken years to integrate, understand, and write about. What I learned was that everything I thought I knew about writing was wrong. I also discovered that long before anyone who wants to teach writing enters her first classroom, she has already formed complex beliefs about the act of writing. She may believe that writing involves inspiration, talent, even genius. She may have been told that the authors she has read were eccentric because of their solitude and isolation from society; that the act of writing itself isolates and secludes.
She may have been told that only certain people should be considered writers, and that only certain Authors (with a capital ‘A’) are worthy of her attention, those who elucidate ‘universal’ themes ‘all people’ identify with and understand. Long before a writing teacher discusses the subject of writing with her students, her writing will have been judged by someone in authority, someone who knows what ‘good’ writing is. Early in her education, she will be told whether she has talent, and whether she might one day become ‘successful’—a publishable writer.
Writing teachers educated during the process movement in composition studies will also have been told that writing is collaborative, recursive, revisionary (cf. Flowers and Hayes, N. Sommers, S. Perl). The workplace writer, she is assured, works in a group, and revises according to her readers’ demands (cf. Nancy Sommers, “Revision Strategies of Student Writers”; and Flower and Hayes on reader-based prose). She is told that the key to success is perfecting her craft. She will be able to sell her writing skills anywhere, for she is a marketable commodity. This potential composition teacher has been trained, as have most people educated in the Western tradition, to believe some combination of two reductionist concepts about writing: one, that writing ability relies on solitary inspiration, talent, and genius; and two, that writing ability relies on learning-by-doing, and by continually revising modeled skills.
As I will show, the former belief is based on a philosophical, Platonic epistemology, and the latter represents Isocrates’ workbench pedagogical style. As I will illustrate, these differing perspectives represent the ancient debate between Plato and Isocrates regarding the meaning and definition of discourse and whether, or indeed if, writing could or should be taught. A full understanding of the import of this unresolved struggle is crucial because at its core lies a fundamental disagreement about the function of logos [i] and who is permitted access to the power of discourse. This debate has never been resolved for composition and rhetoric because the argument between Isocrates and Plato regarding the purpose of an education and discourse’s role in that education is renegotiated with each new generation of educators who must come to terms with these issues.
Unfortunately, the inheritance of their debate includes elitist attitudes toward the power of writing, and how access to logos must be limited to exclude the masses. The material outcome of these attitudes is seen at the moment of assessment and judgement, when grades are given. Ultimately, teachers judge and assess students according to the beliefs they have about the subject of writing, and it is inevitable that students will feel confused by comments and behavior that reveal dissonant values.
The issues of the debate remain; what changes are the social, historical, and political contexts within which the issues are debated. I will show that a Platonic, philosophical, and exclusive view of education is incompatible with a Sophistic, practical, technical, and communal view of education; that both models coexist within the educational system, and that they serve to infuse each subsequent generation of teachers with discordant information about writing, discourse and the meaning of logos. It is my contention that since this ancient debate has never been resolved, it has been inherited by English studies, and in fact underlies the pedagogical inconsistencies teachers and students experience in the composition classroom.
[i] In The Sophistic Movement, G. B. Kerferd discusses the three ideas contained for the Greeks in the word logos: 1) “speech, discourse, description”; 2) “thought and mental processes . . . thinking, reasoning”; and 3) the world, that about which we are able to speak and think, hence structural principles, formulae, natural laws, and so on.” The “underlying meaning [of logos] usually, perhaps always, involves some degree of reference to the other two areas as well” (83-84). Logos then has a “range of applications,” although Kerferd does not mention that, according to Samuel Ijsseling in Rhetoric and Philosophy in Conflict, it has also been used to mean ‘fate,’ making logos a multivalent word indeed. The multiplicity of meanings possible in any given Greek word not only makes absolute translations difficult at times, but it also can lead to misreadings and misunderstandings based on the biases or stance of the translator.