Sandra Perl’s The Composing Process of Unskilled College Writers employs a scientific—or at least a quantitative—approach to untangling what happens when a student puts pen to paper (or, more likely, cuticles to keyboard). Mike Rose, on the other hand, despises what he calls the “scientistic” practice of counting errors and grouping mistakes. These theorists are experiencing C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” problem, each stranded in their own inaccessible theoretical space. These magesteria—Stephen Jay Gould’s term for these separate zones of knowledge—work on different assumptions and give primacy to their own favored methodologies. It seems that there is a profound disagreement in the discipline of Comp/Rhet about the use of metrics and “hard” data. The efficacy of using lots of numbers and fancy line graphs in corralling administrators is indisputable, and so this kind of measurement will continue to be a feature of both composition theory and the day-to-day operation of college writing classes for some time to come. Yet this kind of data seems to be widely distrusted, as Rose’s paper and our readings from last week show.
I have problems with both approaches. Perl’s methods and conclusions seem overly optimistic and too trusting of her data, while Rose fails to propose any solutions, becomes mired in semantics, and generally comes off as ineffectual. Perl’s idea is a good one, and in an ideal environment writing teachers would be able to analyze a student’s mistakes and provide advice on how to approach the process of writing differently. In practice, however, I think it might be difficult to uncover a student’s process merely by examining its product. While the case studies are useful in that they provide insight into others’ writing practices and thus force a reader to reconsider his or her own, I suspect that the kind of intervention suggested by Perl might be impractical to implement in a class like English 110. And while many of Rose’s points were well taken, his prescriptions for actual change are vague at best.
I find these perspectives somewhat frustrating because they cause me to reflect on how little I really know about the process of learning writing. Are studies reliable, or statistically significant? Are they asking the right questions? When I take stock of what I know for certain about the process of writing, I can only think of two actions that seem to reliably improve one’s ability to communicate via the written word:
- Read many books.
- Write a great deal.
Perhaps we’re doing something right as long as Intro Comp courses incorporate reading and writing into the curriculum. Unfortunately, the discipline of comp/rhet seems to be able to agree on little else. Perhaps quantitative research will eventually turn up some “magic bullet,” some method that represents a substantial and measurable improvement in the teaching of college writing. Until that day comes, however—and until the discipline can agree on the role of “objective” measurement in choosing teaching methods—I think we’re stuck with the basics.