Friday, August 20, 2010

In Which I Grumble About Comp Anthologies

*(Note: This is not a post in which I am declaring my hatred of composition classes or my unfitness to teach or anything else that needs to be psychologized or changed. If you remember back to when I was writing about my research, these long posts are ways of figuring out what I think so that I can then move through and beyond the dilemma. I'm still pissed at the way youall responded to the decorating posts so if you don't want to play the game, shut up.)

Long perusal of comp anthologies through teaching and tutoring and trying to create sample syllabi from publishers' websites or for job applications has taught me that I don't hate all comp anthologies equally. Though I do hate them all. In an ideal world I would have the time and liberty to create exactly the readings and syllabus I want and have somebody bind it up in a way that was convenient and cheap for freshmen. In a slightly-better-than-reality world I would be allowed to choose an anthology that I had already taught from or developed a syllabus for. In the present situation, I am told that because the departmentally-chosen anthology is very expensive, I should supplement it as little as possible to save money for the students. Sigh.

Trying to make a syllabus with this anthology has taught me that I like to teach "sequences." I teach content as a way of learning about writing; maybe this is "writing within a discipline" (I certainly have serious complaints about the whole "writing across the disciplines" approach) and you could probably cite a lot of pedagogical research about why this is bad, but I find it has a lot of advantages. (Side note: I saw a couple panels on the last MLA convention program about "writing without content" or --- wait, it might have been phrased differently; it was writing only about writing --- and this may be trying to be the next big pedagogy fad. I would need a lot more selling on the idea before I believed it.)

When I teach sequences, I like to provide a lot of content. And this is very specific content. What I find is that students just don't know enough about any topic, no matter how accessible, to really develop interesting papers and ideas. And the more limited the views on this topic, the harder it is to get them to see beyond the Point-Counterpoint television debate style, where there are precisely two opinions and then you end your essay with the statement that these positions have both similarities and differences and it is up to someone else (or each individual) to decide about them. Moreover, I like my topics to be very focused. And I like to assign a lot of types of readings --- both news articles that give the 5Ws and encyclopedia articles that give the facts as well as various argumentative or policy pieces.

For example, a really nice sequence would be the CA budget mess and how this is affecting students. (Yes, I teach from a pretty soc-science standpoint, which is another way I am at odds with most of the depts./other teachers I have run up against. I think it's easier for younger and inexperienced students to grapple with a fairly concrete rather than abstract or philosophical problem. Or fiction.). But back to the example ---- look, my students come up with really stupid and uniformed knee-jerk responses to the budget crisis unless we spend a significant amount of time on the background: how does the budget get set? how does our government work? what has been happening in the news about it in the last year or so? Then, because we are taking a pretty in-depth look, we can start to discuss the political and philosophical leanings of the various opinion and solution articles with some real nuance ---- if we read moderate and liberal and far left responses, I have no problem with them also reading libertarian and far right responses too. And I think it does them much more good to be able to distinguish between all these different positions. They come up with solutions and proposals that are much more feasible. And if they are able to say, "hey! I agree with the Libertarians! Maybe I'm a Libertarian!" then, hey, they are able to articulate their political positions rather than just having an inchoate mush of contradictory opinions, so, yay.

This book claims to have sequences, but does not. "Identity" isn't really workable to me as a sequence. And then I get very antsy about teaching a piece about why there should be no affirmative action or why we should be post-identity politics when the "liberal" pieces in that "sequence" are not responding to the same topic, but may be, I don't know, affirming Latina feminism or talking about family and the Moynihan report. Since my students have no context for any of these topics or rationale for why we are even talking about stuff like race or politics or family and social structures, I have to either do a lot more of the work providing context in class (which takes valuable time away from teaching how to write and do revision) or leave the students with a very partial understanding of the topics, and of why we write essays in response to these topics, which are not usually about responding to one essay in a vacuum or comparing apples and oranges about theme Y. But this one goes, "Identity!--- everyone has one but let's not talk about why we are reading these essays together!" to "Science! --- here are a lot of unconnected topics from different disciplines that have no connections!" to "Government! --- everybody has one! So let's throw together famous writings on government from the whole history of the entire planet!"

Grumble. You know, I hate teaching "ethics and cloning" but I'd rather have five essays on that topic than one on women in science, one on evolution, one on paradigm shifts and the discovery of relativity, and one on global warming. Each of these topics has a debate associated with it, but when you can't teach the different sides of the debate, you can't really get across how there are a variety of positions in this debate. Each article becomes "the" stance on this position, and because the teacher has assigned it, the teacher must agree with/like that position, and therefore I, the student, had better agree with it and give the teacher what she wants.

Similarly, if you teach a bunch of "identity essays" with every type of identity except the one the majority of your students will identify with but don't explain why the class is taking this focus and why one studies minority and excluded identities, you are just setting up the class for more resentment and conflict than you need. And since this anthology's preface just goes "ooh let's all write identity essays!" and that is the end of the story, you're asking for students to write about themselves without interacting with these different perspectives in a serious way. Granted, I'm coming at this as someone who is in pretty much every mainstream identity group, but I always responded better when someone explained the reasons why we were going to learn all about people who were different from me. And while we're on the subject, why are we reading personal essays in the first place? And why does anybody require them in comp??? It's not like any of the rest of their college classes will be asking them to just write about themselves and not interact with a text, so I don't see why this is standard here, or anywhere. The last place I worked had a focus on personal narrative for the non-credit writing class just below freshman comp, and I think I like that better.

And furthermore, I would like to point out that the vast majority of freshmen finishing their year of comp are still not ready to read in their disciplines because they have not read any articles from them. Oh no. No no no. Even most of the "discipline-specific" anthologies I have looked at do not have your standard twenty-page academic article in them --- they have popular writings on a topic from the discipline. Sure, assigning students articles from The New Yorker or Slate or Salon or The Atlantic is fine, but it's not actually familiarizing them with academic writing conventions. The introduction to Nickel and Dimed or Convergence Culture is waaaay watered down from what the students will encounter in their sophomore major courses ---- unless everyone has switched over to textbooks without any footnotes already except for senior courses? Hmm. I always found that when I taught in the other departments my students had a very hard time navigating the methodology and lit review sections of academic articles --- their usual recourse was to just not read that part --- and looking at these anthologies I kinda feel like they are part of the problem. Although my students generally have a difficult time reading the three-page opinion pieces from The New York Times published in the comp anthology, so maybe the answer is that there needs to be an additional reading/writing course for students in their major, after completing comp 101 and 102.

So having gotten that out of my system, what am I going to do for all my essay sequences when I can only find three and am only interested in two? Hmm. I may stick very heavily to the anthology for the first half of the course and start bringing in more outside things for them to read for the ending sequences. I've still got my back up about the idea of having them read a bunch of personal essays and then write their own, though. Bleah. Well at least now that I've got that out of my system I can go back to reading through this anthology without throwing up. Gah.


annieem said...

I very much enjoyed "listening" to your thinking process here, perhaps because I have been singing this song for decades.

Lucky for me we do not have a required composition anthology, so I get to pick my readings (using a textbook that provides typical writing instruction content, only). So I'm very sorry you are stuck with what sounds like the usual thematic mish mash that is the standard comp reader/anthology these days.

I have also struggled with the whole "reading and writing in the disciplines" goal. Last year, I begged colleagues in various fields (anthro, psych, bio, chem, history) to send me 1-2 scholarly articles that they generally assign as reading for their intro courses. Some were fabulous,and I used them to introduce critical reading, summarizing, paraphrasing, using sources, etc.

However, most were horribly written, jargon-filled, convoluted overviews of a topic rather than a reasoned academic arguments, and thus not readily useful in terms of texts for writing assignments. Only useful as models of bad writing.

So I'm back to using articles from The Atlantic, or from other high brow (and decidedly liberal) magazines as at least starting off points for students' own researched essays. And as you point out, these are still challenging to read for many students, but yes, they do not model academic research writing---for that, I use sample essays from previous students.

Good luck this term, and I'd love to hear more of your thoughts!

Susan said...

From another perch, we're trying to figure out how to give our students in lower division classes key skills of reading and writing in history. The reality is that there are probably NO scholarly articles that I would assign to first year students. Even in upper division courses, there is so much argument that a scholarly essay takes for granted that it's really hard for students to locate it. There are short monographs that I use, though.

And having chosen the reader that I thought was the best compromise, I'm still frustrated as all get out by it!

Shane in Utah said...

I had to go back and read the earlier posts to remember what you were talking about, but yeah: being told I shouldn't be grumpy in your situation would piss me off, too. Grumpiness is one way I process change, especially change I'm ambivalent about; fuck off with that "power of positive thinking" horseshit.

I have no real wisdom for you on the textbook front. I think the real root of the problem is that most composition textbook authors (most composition specialists?) have a very low estimation of what American college freshmen are capable of understanding and accomplishing. Whereas I've always found that if you set the bar high, most of the students will work hard to meet your expectations, and the ones that don't would have failed even if you had dumbed down the material for them to such an extent that everyone in the class was bored.

heu mihi said...

Although I think that you and I have different preferred approaches to teaching comp (we switched to a more skills-based method last year and I am SO much happier), I absolutely entirely agree with all of your complaints, above. You are Right, my dear.

What I hope will help at Field is that we've switched from two semesters in the first year to Comp 1 in the first year and Comp 2 when they're juniors. Comp 1 is much more about the basics: reading comprehension, summarizing, citing, quoting, finding research, etc. etc. (and this year *I* am coming up with the options for their research papers. There will be NO papers about steroids! Not one!!). The junior-year course will ask them to write an advanced research paper in their disciplines, and will concentrate more on thesis, argument, etc. We cover the latter in 1, of course, but they really need those basic skills first, and it is our collective experience that freshmen don't seem to absorb the more advanced principles very well--and if they do, then most of them forget them by graduation because they don't need to write very much in their other courses. (Our new WAC program might help; we're hoping.) Anyway, what this means is that the fluffy articles from the reader (I use Graff) work all right, because the content is so secondary.

But I get your irritations--they are ones that I have long shared (where "long" = "for the three years that I've had this job")!

Maude Lebowski said...

Heu, I'm so interested to hear how this way of comp works! Since I'm "in charge" of the writing program now and all grievances about students' inabilities to write are going to be thrust my way, I'm very interested in this thing Field is doing.

Sisyphus, Right on. You totally hit the nail on the head. Honestly, since I suck royally at teaching comp (which is why they have me running the writing program???), I never really thought long enough about what you articulate as being part of the problem. Sure, I know a lot of my suckitude has to do with my teaching, BUT, you totally hit the nail on the head with the things that frustrate me, thus adding to my problems in the classroom. I mean, I have lots of others things to work on, however, you totally hit a key component here.

And while this suggestion will probably hit more along the decorating lines, you should edit your own anthology for comp. I'd adopt it for our program. :)

kfluff said...

I'll see your hatred of comp anthologies, and raise you a hatred of all anthologies in general (with a exception for one or two excellent theory collections). They never have everything you want, they always have a bunch of crap you don't want, and they're expensive as hell.

I am with Anniem, however, on the kinds of essays I like them to use for their researched essays. Academic articles are so alien to incoming students that I think it confuses matters. If my students could get through the intro to Convergence Culture and understand the audience---yahtzee!

Perhaps it's just the body of students that Askesis has, but my continued comp pedagogical mantra was: "be kind to them, be kind to yourself." They're dealing with being away from home for the first time, an unknown roommate, new food, new friends, new everything, and on top of it all, a totally new way of thinking, reading and writing. I assume that I'm 49th on their own personal Maslow's hierarchy. If you set them up with a workable process for generating, organizing, and revising an essay, by the end of the semester, you've succeeded.

Dr. Koshary said...

Hm, I'm somewhat limited in the advice I can give, since I don't teach literature. However, as kfluff noted, anthologies generally suck ass. So far, I have avoided using publisher-generated anthologies in my own classes, but only because I spent a lot of time selecting primary-source readings for virtually every topic. No doubt this will be less troublesome once my intro prep is a done deal, and I can just call it up at will, but during the time that I'm still experimenting with readings, it's a pain in the ass.

I tend to take the opposite approach to kfluff's, although the whole "be kind to every living thing in class" mantra makes more sense to me now than it did before I taught. Maybe I just need to get over my desire to thresh the studenty wheat from the slackerly chaff, but I tend to build syllabi that fling my students full-bore into primary-source readings, some of which are fun and easy, and some of which are brutally hard for frosh. They will learn various lessons from each kind of reading.

My difference of opinion with kfluff is not so much not wanting to be kind -- for heaven's sake, I'm the final word on all grades, so I'm not about to assign lengthy essay papers! -- but in the understanding of first-year students as disoriented and adrift on a sea of life changes. They can get over that shit. I was a dumbass college frosh once, too, and no professor ever patted me on the head and let me get away with shallow reading or thinking on the principle that I was eating crappy dining hall food and dealing with my filthy, pot-addled roommate with the personal space/property issues while I got unexpectedly shitfaced at dorm parties. That is college. So many universities seem to have accepted the idea that incoming frosh are actually not ready for 'real' college, and accordingly give them softball remedial courses dressed up as intros. I consider this a criminal disservice to the students, whether they're academic high achievers or not, and I cannot bring myself to do anything that smacks to me of watering down coursework as compensation for collegiate emotional turmoil.

Point being: I still prefer to hit them with lots of primary sources, albeit in bite-sized doses. Four lousy pages of Marx is not going to destroy anyone's psyche.

Bardiac said...

I doubt there's a single department that teaches comp that doesn't have conflicts over what and how to teach.

Mine, too. I was able to never adopt an anthology, but just pick up some readings that apply. But I have used a comp text (until I got pissed off at the other comp people for wanting to change it every three years because they are BORED, so I stopped...)

Fight the good fight, Sisyphus!

Sisyphus said...

Grumpiness is one way I process change, especially change I'm ambivalent about; fuck off with that "power of positive thinking" horseshit.

This may be the best sentence ever; no wonder you are a fan of House. (speaking of, I'm watching yet another House marathon and may have a post about why this is the new incarnation of the X Files.)

The rest of you-all's comments will get a whole post in response as I have much more I can say about this. Or complain about this, let's be honest.

kfluff said...

Dr. S, you will, I'm sure, do what you think is best and best suits your strengths as a teacher. I can't help but respond to Dr. Koshary's reading of my comment. To understand where students are at any given moment in their lives is different than refusing to challenge them intellectually. At our best, I think we can do both at the same time, in whatever ways serve the needs of our students. Good pedagogy can lead students to develop incredibly complex readings of the most simple sources, and likewise, students can achieve incredibly shallow readings of the most complex primary sources. Undoubtedly, it's important to introduce students to readings that we deem "college level," and it's a useful experience to have to work your ass off to understand something. But it's not the sole measure of critical thinking or challenge that you set up for your students in class.