My teaching philosophy rests on the perhaps tendentious conviction that out of all college courses, freshman writing is perhaps the most important one students take, and for this simple reason: it teaches them how to think. Trouble is, thinking is hard; teaching how to think, harder still.
Many of you teach writing, and you know as well as I that such courses can be genuinely vital and exciting, they can be quite listless and moribund, or they can be somewhere between those two poles. It’s up to the instructor. The most challenging option involves going “beyond” the “zombie pedagogy” that many college courses have embraced. They have embraced this pedagogy partly, I think, because much of the competition is not from “live” sources anyway, but from online courses, hybrids, or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), all of which seem to have displaced human consciousness and individuality and stripped away the version of community that the classroom represents. Those courses may be the future of most colleges, but my hope is that live-in-person writing courses will experience something of a renascence.
What should writing courses do, though? I suggest that the writing course should start by urging students to ask questions—probing, unanswerable, even “unaskable” ones—a difficult task in itself, especially in a culture that offers an exhausting plethora of answers, and in which not-knowing is tantamount to sin (or to being unable to buy or use a computer). Yet by engaging in such questioning, students become better readers and more acute observers, for interrogative activity encourages an intensity and focus in looking at texts and issues. And when they arrive at some answers to their questions, students need to be shown how it’s important to seek out not just support but evidence on multiple sides of an issue. Often this involves research or maybe (in a non-research paper) just inhabiting and empathizing with a position different from one’s own, playing a credible devil’s advocate. From there, our students need to formulate claims at once verifiable and falsifiable, ones that are genuinely debatable or arguable.
Even going this far requires a re-wiring of students’ brains—or to be less trite, maybe a re-mapping of their brains’ programming. Students notice that as they do more research they internalize an issue and often discover that their initial ideas tend to change and evolve. They have to rewrite. In doing so they come to recognize that writing is a process, and not always the same process, but one that involves provisionally crafting and trying out ideas while at once envisioning an audience and how it might respond. Such a process also demands a certain T.S. Eliot-esque extinguishment of self, and requires one to inhabit a space in which the ego is repressed and the attention raptly focused. This, too, is a tough sell.
Finally, the writing course strives to make students more aware of how they use language, of what kind of language we value in the academy, and of how important a sensitivity to language use is in all fields.
These goals are lofty and difficult to achieve, especially in our contemporary culture. Maybe I can highlight some of their difficulty by relating a conundrum that a colleague shared with me. He was seeking to understand aesthetic experience. “Suppose,” he said, “you were studying German and someone offered you a pill which, if you took it, would give you mastery of German irregular verbs. Would you take it? Of course. Or, if studying chemistry, you were offered a pill that gave you complete eidetic recall of the Periodic Table—you know, atomic numbers, weights, places on the chart? Well, pass the water glass. But what about this: suppose you were offered a pill that, once ingested, provided you the experience of having read King Lear? Would you take that? I would not. Why not?”
He wouldn’t take it, and neither would I, but my guess is that many college students would say yes to the Lear pill, the Hamlet pill, the Ulysses pill; in fact, they’d go through the whole college literary pharmacopeia, were it on offer. That is to say, many students see the college/university curriculum—replete though it is with “essential knowledge,” “core texts,” “the canon”—as having only instrumental or, at best, epistemic value. Course material is often learned and mastered in the same way grade school students con the multiplication tables, say: for the purpose of getting it done with, for having credentials to pass to the next level. And many college teachers aid and abet this view of learning, since they use a transmission model that only requires students to give back on papers and exams the content of the course’s texts and lectures.
I want my classes to convey that reading and writing have more than just instrumental value. Similarly, I want my students’ in-class experience to be important to them, maybe somehow special and even (at times) amazing. I don’t completely agree with Geoffrey Sirc’s idea that the composition classroom should be a “happening,” but I do agree with Sirc’s (synergistic) general notion, namely that the in-class experience should have an intensity to it. As part of a semester- or year-long experience of a college course, taken with a group of like-minded people, it should move and transform its participants (teacher included) to such an extent that it markedly differs from its online or MOOC equivalent, say, or from ingesting a pill that would provide for the pill-popper the equivalent of that course’s “learning outcomes.”