Just What Are We Teaching?

A couple of days ago, The New York Times published a piece by Gina Bellafante entitled “A Chance at Learning.” It ends with a couple of paragraphs that seem emblematic of the state of education in America today, a state created by No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and, now, the Common Core curriculum… along with the desire on the part of so many to believe that standardized testing really provides useful information for teaching:

Most students, rich or poor, will not go to Harvard, while plenty of working-class and poor students will go to colleges that serve them not nearly well enough. Not long ago, our son’s caregiver, who is taking classes at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, showed me a paper she had written for a class in English composition taught by a teacher who was consistently late and twice absent. It was on Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and my husband had helped her. It incisively analyzed the play’s theme of 19th-century marital oppression and was impeccably written.

When our nanny received her grade, she was shocked not to have done as well as she had expected. Her formatting had been imprecise, the teacher told her. And there was a problem with spacing. Content seemed not to matter much at all.

The teacher, most likely an adjunct, possibly racing from school to school just to make ends meet and fearful of losing the job if “standards” are not met, should not be blamed for this situation alone. Neither should LaGuardia, where I know there are many fine composition teachers. The blame also lies with the national “reform” mania for rubric grading, for evaluation based on things that can be physically counted… like spaces, like formatting errors.

My own students’ papers are often filled with errors–and I do try to help them overcome some of them (I cannot, however, teach them grammar and proofreading in the course of a semester when their high-school educations have been shoddy). It is more important, I feel, to engage them in discussion–which often means leaving the “errors” aside. Even though I am tenured, this makes me edgy. Were someone to review my students’ papers, they could easily conclude that I am not teaching them how to write well… for they are not writing well–not, at least, in terms of mechanics (though they are, I hope, always getting better).

Even though my job is protected, I don’t want to engage in arguments over the value of concentrating on comma splices and the like for, in today’s environment, emphasis on thinking and on expressing thought is cast aside as emphasis on the ephemeral, on something that cannot be assessed–and assessment (to repeat) has become our god. In that debate context, I would always lose. Were I not protected, I can imagine having to fall back onto the criteria of that poor LaGuardia teacher.

It’s possible to learn to write as well at LaGuardia as it is at Harvard. It just isn’t as likely. Harvard’s teachers don’t face the pressures that those at LaGuardia and other public urban campuses do–especially the adjuncts (who teach a high percentage of composition classes). The Harvard teachers have protection that allows them to really teach; LaGuardia’s are constantly looking over their shoulders.

There are other problems. It might be possible to teach my students to construct adequate five-paragraph themes over the course of a semester, but that’s not real writing and it comes on top of inadequate preparation for college writing in most of the high schools feeding campuses like LaGuardia and my own City Tech (in the same system). Certainly, teaching them formulaic writing of that sort does not entail real communication but, more and more, it is what we are asked to provide–by those who are outside education but who control it (mostly politicians–a breed Harvard does not have to answer to). Am I really to give up the essence of real composition for the sake of form? I don’t want to, and would not do so. But I am one of the few who has protection.

LaGuardia does not serve its students well enough? True. But don’t blame the teachers there for the situation. Blame an atmosphere of education that bleeds quality from all but the top schools in an attempt to create standardization and a business model (I won’t get into that right now).

What are we going to do for all of those students whose teachers have no protection, who are subject to the whims of educational fads sweeping through business and political communities? Unless we start providing all college teachers with adequate protections and academic freedom, things available to too few of us today, we will end up doing nothing.

That’s how students are most poorly served.

10 thoughts on “Just What Are We Teaching?

  1. Now let us again turn our focus toward high schools, where proper writing should be learned. In theory, the improvement of Common Core over No Child Left Behind is supposed to be the emphasis on writing. But what kind of writing. Ah, the ubiquitous 5-paragraph essay is likely to be the standard format. And thanks to David Coleman, what reading they will do – and thus what writing they will experience most often – is supposed to be “informational text.” Nothing about voice, or audience, not necessarily real literature.

    Yes, we do need to have our students learn how to communicate. But we should not in the process take away from them the opportunity to develop their own voices.

    I am not a poet, but I have attempted poetry, and in the process of so doing come do a greater understanding of and appreciation for the art of poetry, an art that often provides me with far greater insight than does “informational text.” Perhaps it is because I was a music major, who found deeper understanding of some texts by listening to different settings, and who found his deepest understanding in music without words, which sometimes empowered me to verbal expressions that otherwise might have escaped me.

    One can always fix formatting, spacing, even grammar and spelling.

    The mechanics should not be placed as a bar that interferes with developing insight and understanding, the ability to organize and express one’s thoughts to others.

    • After teaching tech writing for over a decade, to students who had been through high school and composition courses, I decided that it is a serious mistake to have college writing taught by literature majors, who only want to teach literary analysis, and who try to turn all writing assignments into literary analysis essays (one of the least-read types of writing extant).

      Quite frankly, I’d rather the students had learned some grammar, the old info->new info flow heuristic, and writing to an audience who was not the teacher. It should not be the job of everyone else to fix students’ grammar and spelling—by the time they graduate from college, they should be able to fix these things themselves, before they show their work to faculty or supervisors.

  2. Making this an either-or choice between a focus on the effective and, ideally, artful expression of complex ideas and a concentration on correctness in form and in expression seems inevitably to invite criticisms that writing instruction is not “practical” if it does not do the latter.

    The same people who mistake the clever presentation of information for education will argue that job-related writing is largely informational.

    But as soon as a writer moves beyond the what and the where to the how and the why, which are the essence of most on-the-job writing, the writing moves beyond the presentation of information (which itself can have complex requirements) to the much more complex tasks of analysis and synthesis.

    At those levels, the writing is only as good as the thinking: that is, if the writer doesn’t know how to analyze and synthesize information, to make of it something more than straightforward and relatively self-contained facts, then no amount of instruction in matters of correctness and form is going to enable the writer to produce something intelligible and substantive.

    High school writing teachers face tremendous challenges, as do the college faculty (not only in English but in other disciplines as well) who teach writing. The real blame is in the faulty assumptions about what standardized assessments can and cannot measure.

    It is, of course, very darkly ironic–and very indicative of what the core problem is–that even as it becomes increasingly clear that many students are moving from one level to another without developing sufficient writing skills, the people driving education policy are focusing on accelerating students’ “progress” from one level to another.

    • Ugh, Martin. Your last comment is the most scary of all… and probably it is why the very word “progress” so often brings my stomach to a drop, especially when it is used in relation to education.

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