I hope Stanley Fish never steps foot inside my classroom. For both of us. Reading his articles on what should occur in a composition classroom made me aware of how unprepared I am to be teaching college writing, at least by Fish’s standards. Rather than brood on this fact, it’s more generative to reflect on why it is that I’m unprepared: 1) I haven’t been taught writing (I’ve stumbled through figuring out some of the basics on my own, out of a desire to get A’s and a passion for persuasion) and 2) I haven’t been taught how to teach writing.
Though I agree with many of the critiques of Fish that we read, I think he brings up an important tension between the content and form of writing in the classroom. Picking up on the thread I began in my previous blog comment, I both agree and disagree with Fish’s affirmation that “‘Young people who can’t write can’t think’” (Teach 2, 3). I disagree because I believe in my students and the authority of their experiences and voices. They bring unique perspectives to our assigned readings and often notice aspects of an author’s rhetoric that I overlooked. They have thoughts, feelings, and reactions to our readings, regardless of whether they can perfectly articulate them in writing. However, I also agree with Fish (to a certain, highly qualified extent). I think reading, writing, and critical thinking are intertwined. I teach the mechanics of writing and textual/rhetorical analysis as tools for critical thinking. In addition to my belief in my students’ capabilities, I believe that teaching them writing skills will make them stronger critical thinkers.
Keeping in mind the debate over the extent to which composition courses should deal with content, I would like to solicit strategies for getting students to think more about an author’s decisions and less about the content of the essays we read. As a class, we have discussed the relationship between content and form almost every time we meet and I’ve given students specific rhetorical devices that they should be looking for. However, I feel like we keep returning to a debate over whether creativity is biologically-determined or a practiced skill, some version of the unsolvable nature/nurture question. Though this is certainly something to be wary of in a content-based writing course, I don’t think, as Fish does, that thematic writing courses are doomed for failure. Or maybe I just see failure–trial and error–as essential components of the learning process.
Returning to my initial remarks, the truth of my predicament is this: that teaching writing this semester at Queens College is an experiment. On the first day of class I handed out John Cage’s 10 Rules for Teachers and Students, my favorite being Rule #4: “Consider everything an experiment.” Just as I encourage students to learn by imitating the rhetorical strategies they identify in the readings, I am learning to teach by testing out the ideas and lessons of my fellow teacher-peers. Because I have not been taught the mechanics of writing as Fish teaches them, let alone being taught how to teach them, I sit alongside my students, looking to them to teach me what works and what doesn’t. I worry that I am doing them a disservice. I worry that I am not seen as an authority figure (is this even something I want?). I have nightmares in which I am literally sitting next to the students and my colleagues wander into our classroom and are unable to tell who the teacher is. However, given the problem of my unpreparedness, I will have to rely on this pedagogy of experimentation, at least until I get more experience under my belt.