Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns…against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

–Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

Because you have lived in classrooms most of your life and experienced firsthand both the pleasures and frustrations of writing, be assured that you already know a great deal about teaching composition. That knowledge-born-of-experience will serve you well. But other kinds of knowledge can be just as important. You also can learn much about teaching writing from talking with yourself, with other teachers, with students, and with this and other books. The theories, teaching practices, and conventional wisdom set forth here originate in just such conversations, in the talk of people who persistently reflect on what it means to teach well. Welcome to that conversation.

–Erika Lindemann, A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers

The development of ideas occurs through deliberation, as in the parlor conversation imagined by philosopher of language, literature, and rhetoric Kenneth Burke. Burke’s parlor metaphor is particularly apt for scholarly conversations about the teaching of college composition. Deliberations about how to approach the teaching of writing and rhetoric began long ago—centuries before the field of composition emerged as the academic discipline it is today. These deliberations consist of “heated discussion” and “argument.” Taking part requires that “you put in your oar”; but first it requires that you “listen for a while,” genuinely trying to understand “the tenor of the argument.”

The central goal of this course is for you to do just that: to enter scholarly conversations that inform the teaching of college composition—to listen to your fellow discussants as well as put in your own oar. Fortunately, your discussants are many and wise and, from your own history as a writer and student, you already possess much of what composition scholar Erika Lindemann calls “knowledge-born-of-experience.” Building on this knowledge, we will embark on the course outlined in the formal catalog description of English 664: “An intensive examination of alternative approaches to teaching first-year and advanced composition at the college level, with special attention to current schools of composition theory and research.”

Our examination will consider big questions about the purposes and politics of composition and basic writing courses at both two- and four-year institutions; strategies for teaching the writing process, including pre-writing and invention, the organization of ideas and arrangement, revision as genuine rethinking, and sentence-level concerns with grammar and style; practical matters, such as designing composition courses, developing assignments, and responding to student writing; questions about teaching and composing in cultural contexts marked by multilingualism and linguistic diversity, by multimodality and digital rhetoric; and, finally, relevant research and theory from related fields such as the history of rhetoric, linguistics and sociolinguistics, feminist and queer studies, and creative writing.

Answering Lindemann’s invitation, we will treat the published scholars we read not as disembodied names attached to distant theory, but as people to “talk” with—people who share “other kinds of knowledge” from which we “also can learn much about teaching writing.” In this course, then, you will learn from talking with experienced teachers and composition scholars, in order to “persistently reflect on what it means to teach well.” Such persistence requires, again, both listening to others and putting in your own oar. You will have the opportunity to do so through intensive reading, online discussion, and in-class conversations about pedagogical theory, research, and practice. In your final research project, you will contribute to the ongoing conversations about teaching college composition by drawing on existing scholarship in order to theorize and design a specific pedagogical practice.

 

 

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