The guides we read for this week are representative of the tremendous progress made in composition theory and pedagogy but they are also, by their very existences, testimony to the many hurdles that we face as adjuncts and that our students face while attending this school.
On the one hand, both guides present solid student-centered pedagogy that aims to prepare students for the type of writing that they will need to do in the future. I think the idea behind the discipline-specific writing courses is excellent (although it assumes people getting their B.A. really know what they want to be). The Princeton guide is less interested in WAC and assumes that students have done significantly more writing coming in than Queens College does; still, the advice with regard to seminars, workshopping and scaffolding is sound. As orienting guides (manifestos?), they are quite successful.
Of course, the need for both guides point to the disconnect between an espoused department philosophy and how that philosophy is translated into action in the classroom. As orienting guides for faculty teaching new courses, they implicitly acknowledge that professors often enter the classroom with widely different and frequently bad ideas about what exactly writing is and how it should be taught. I think the “Behind the Desk” guide sent out to use from the Comp program put it best when it called attention to the fact that the people called upon to teach writing are often the worst at it. As likely English majors, they have not struggled with writing or been afraid of writing in the same way that the vast majority of students are. Further, as professionals focused on literature, their experiences with the type of writing most students will deal with in the workplace are quite limited. How much does a business memo really need be crafted? Yes, there are major projects and proposals, but there’s the small-stakes writing full of cliché and stock phrases that are the bread and butter of business and science writing (English, too, we just have our own jargon). Both guides are a sort of last ditch effort to guard against bad teaching (as is this class. I think it’s certainly interesting it’s taught concurrently with our first teaching experience, so we have to implement new changes as we go along). The reality, I suppose, is that institutions such as Princeton and QC which are large and employ legions of migrating adjuncts (I’m writing this in my office surrounded by files — none dated more recently than 2006 — which my office mates and I are afraid to throw out. We’ll just continue to come here, leave our own stuff maybe, and leave the old stuff until one day we can’t get in the door). These kinds of guides are both largely ineffective, I would guess, but one of the only ideas out there for reaching anyone.
I wonder, too, why we do not often reveal our philosophy about writing more explicitly to our students., showing them why we make certain classroom choices in furtherance of these goals. The Learning Through Writing Guide is addressed to students, but its split into two sections with the first addressing “the student” and the second referring to him or her as “you.” I think the students quickly figure out who the guide is for (it’s probably the same with syllabi… why do we always write “the students will…”?). Perhaps if we revealed more of our own thinking and process, even about the bureaucracy, it would help students reflect on the process of their own writing and learning – or even provide us better feedback on our own.