25 August 2009

Fish on the Frontlines

Stanley Fish weighs in on his NYTimes blog about the dirth of writing courses that actually teach writing:


He observes instructors teaching ostensibly writing courses in social justice, popular fiction, etc. I agree that it's all too easy to not teach writing, because how do you teach something that is best learned through repeated practice.

While current composition theory promotes ways to teach writing through the process theory, modes of rhetoric, and the like, many instructors use this as the invisibile backbone of the course letting students think and talk and read about ideas. Then write. Writing should be both the primary activity and the final goal, the first and the last, alpha and omega.

Many of the freshmen coming out of high school or the non-traditional students lack the knowledge of writing as a technical, practical skill because fewer teachers seem to teach the art of grammar, style, and ultimately rhetoric. I realize that rules-based instruction may fail to reach many students, but there are other ways of teaching the nuts and bolts. The important fact is that they need to be taught. I am not sure if students are aware that there is a correct way to structure sentences. (Correct according to whom? But that's another matter entirely.)

I do think Fish sounds slightly prescriptivist; "these kids can't write like I can. No one is teaching them like I was." Teaching writing can take many forms. However, a syllabus loaded with papers, free writes, and the like does not garuntee that students will recognize that they are in fact being taught to write.

Back in 2006, Fish wrote in his blog titled "The Writing Lesson," "We’ve now had decades of composition courses in which students exchange banal opinions about the hot-button issues of the day, and student writing has only gotten worse. Doesn’t it make sense to think that if you are trying to teach them how to use linguistic forms, linguistic forms are what you should be teaching?" If a student does not know the function of a verb, have we failed as writing teachers? Should this be our first concern of the day?

Isn't it possible to do both? Oh, it's complicated.

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