As I read Bartholomae’s sample student compositions “White Shoes” and “Composing a Song,” I wondered if there isn’t a component at work here that we may not be able to teach (and I think the necessity of this component also exposes a hole in Fish’s “teach the sentence” doctrine): self-awareness.
I’d be interested what others think about this: it seems to me every bit as likely that students simply see the collection of academic papers on a subject as separate entities, rather than a conversation. I would think this is especially true for the author of “White Shoes” and other poorer examples of writing in Bartholomae’s article. Such writers see creativity—and hence, writing—as an original, individual experience. How, I wonder, can you teach someone to think differently? It’s an ideology drilled into every American head from an early age and highly encouraged by the culture. Perhaps we can find some help in Gaipa’s suggestion of having students identify where a critic stands in relation to other arguments (424). Yet, if students fail to make the connections between works, or worse, fail to acknowledge arguments they disagree with while reverencing arguments that suit their personal opinions, then the exercise hasn’t proven valuable. This is a problem that goes beyond writing, but which stunts student writers’ growth from the very beginning. And so, a question: how do we help students to the level of self-awareness of the guitarist who sees the origin of his creativity as both his personal product and a product of his influences?
It is exactly this question that made strengthened my doubt of Fish’s “teach the sentence” mantra: how, I wonder, does one arrive at an awareness of one’s relation to other academic writers by teaching the sentence? The two notions—teaching awareness of one’s position in relation to the writer v. focusing on the sentence—seem irreconcilable. Perhaps someone has given this a harder think than I and can offer an example.
The approaches of Barthomae and Fish aside, I want to side with Elbow in his assertion that “the most precious thing I can do is provide spaces where I don’t do their [students’] thinking for them” when commenting on student writing (“Responses,” 91). On the one hand, this may seem counter to the desire to create self-awareness by allowing students to remain in a vacuum where they don’t grasp the breadth and complexity of existing writing on a given subject. On the other hand, by employing a practice like Gaipa’s where we ask students to write a cover letter explaining what they’re trying to accomplish with an essay, it seems we might help students to separate themselves from their arguments, and hence take the first step toward awareness of their own thinking and its relation to extant thought on their topic.
On to practical matters. The enthusiastic former reader of “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Peanuts” in me thought about taking Gaipa’s project a step further: forget a one-frame comic strip showing the method of their argument (leapfrogging, etc.)—why not, as a way to make an outline a less odious task, ask students to sketch the trajectory of their argument in comic strip form? We are, after all, writers living in a visual age (cue violins). Perhaps by equating writing with a visual practice, we might find an alternate and more natural way (for the students) to conceive of thesis, argument, and development. I’m sure someone else can riff off Gaipa in another interesting way. I’d love to hear your ideas.