Friday, August 5, 2011

Checking out the new comp reader, of course, makes me question everything about my comp knowledge

The new reader has a lot going for it that the old reader did not ---- most importantly, two intro chapters that lay out the writing process and the argument process. The readings themselves, are, of course, a mixed bag.

But first --- have any of you read Edward T Hall, "The Arab World"? I am suspicious. It is an interesting comparison of how "Arabs" and "Westerners" think of their bodies and use public space, but ... something about how it is written makes me think that my students would all read it and go, oh, how weird the Arabs are and we are totally justified in killing them.

Actually, quite a lot of the articles in the last reader reinforced my students' worst assumptions rather than making them question them, and I hate having to really push against that myself. This is why I like having a range of arguments on a very focused topic. The last reader, for example, had a lone article about why unions suck and libertarianism is good without any hey-unions-are-good counterargument articles. This one annoys me because it has a short piece about teen mothers that argues how useless it is to try to educate impulsive young people about contraceptives and no article about why contraceptives and sex ed are good to pair it against. And one "suggested writing" prompt elsewhere that asks students to make an argument against abortion. Hey, editorial committee: fuck you!

While it might not be great on the pro-choice angle, it has surprisingly liberal readings about the wars we have going on in the Middle East, terrorism, Abu Ghraib scandal, etc. A lot of which are so clearly holding a left position that I don't really feel comfortable teaching them. Like I said, if I had a chapter labeled "arguments about the Iraq/Afghanistan/etc. war here" and I could teach students to pick apart a range of analyses and prescriptions for the future, I'd be happier.

Instead, the chapters are loosely grouped by "disciplines," but not really. For example, most of the readings in the "society and world culture" chapter are not sociology or anthropology, but, once again, personal memoirs. Damn you editorial committees! Annie Dillard is, indeed, a great writer, but she does not ever make an explicit thesis or use any textual evidence ---- she is a subtle and complex model and not at all a model of good social science writing. And in all honesty, a nice clear social science article with a hypothesis and methods section is soooo much easier for inexperienced students to analyze for structure and argument. So once again I will be trying to teach academic essays when the models in the book are largely people walking around in the forest and thinking about things and then writing about it, which my students all think they can already do and then don't understand why they are not allowed to just ramble about whatever friggin crosses their mind at any moment. Argh.

Luckily there are more articles that I can point to as having a thesis and making an argument than there were in the last one. But I am still kinda stumped on how to do "sequences," if not my topic approach. Was no one else taught to teach essay sequences? Am I doing something wrong and backward? Do you just assign 10 or so completely unrelated essays and have students make up arguments in response to one or none of them? (This is not what we actually do when we write in the disciplines, I will point out.)

I also notice that the questions/prompts/writing suggestions at the end of the articles and chapters mostly ask students to respond to one text at most or none at all, which confuses me. Especially when the prompt asks for a full-on official essay of three or four pages "analyzing" a reading that was itself only two pages. How are they supposed to keep that up for so long, I wonder. It's not like it's a Shakespearean sonnet; it's an NYT article on cyberbullying. I mean, there's not that much there really to close read! A lot of the other prompts ask students to read and respond to one text or maybe at most compare and contrast a couple. Which I guess means you can assign whatever readings you want and then have students pick one to analyze for that "sequence," but then I don't see how it is a sequence. And it doesn't help them practice the idea of joining an academic conversation.

I mean, you're studying Bleak House or American dating practices or public protests in Cairo or whatever, the first thing you do is go read what a whole bunch of other experts say about your topic. Then you synthesize these all together, explain how you agree or disagree with these arguments, and present your own take on the issue, which may involve collecting data, or may involve thinking about something really hard and coming up with a new interpretation. You don't usually read some lit crit on Dickens and then a bunch of content analysis about The Bachelor and stats on American teenagers and an ethnography of Egyptian protest movements --- or if you do, you're making some really complex arguments to justify tying them all together. And I imagine some really heavy-duty theory too. So why don't we have comp anthologies built up this way?

I suppose that by combing back through all these chapters once again I can get some more focused topics, but then I am confused about what the students should be doing with the articles. So it would be more like that lit article on how Dickens uses the conventions of melodrama, a history bit about the Irish Famine, The Communist Manifesto, and an overview of how Darwin's discoveries prompted a crisis in late-Victorian religious thinking. So, ok: we have a more focused time and place for our articles, but they are all from wildly divergent disciplines and don't really talk "to" each other in any direct way. (I think my students are not the strongest academically and need a lot of guidance to make obvious connections like "The Internet: Good or Bad" with "Why Facebook is Beneficial.") I don't think they could do much with my imaginary articles. Unless there is some way to structure an essay prompt that could get them there? Do you have the magic answer?

I can see pairings in the essays but nothing in terms of larger "clusters" that get at the same topic and argument areas. And I don't want to only teach comparison-contrast level essays. Stumped stumped stumped. I will continue to ponder this, and hope that my comp orientation will somehow resolve how I should structure essay sequences and prompts. I would rather knock this all out now than later, but, eh.


Bardiac said...

I think pairings are betting by far than single essays, but I really like having at least three points of view, each making an argument, for students to work with as they're learning about writing arguments. And there's a LOT to be said for not trying to teach students belletristic essays when they'll never be asked to write them in other classes.

Karen Rowan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stacey Lee Donohue said...

What a beautiful argument against 99% (at least) of the composition "readers" out there in the universe. You should share this with the editorial staff at Bedford, Prentice Hall, Longman, etc etc etc.

Is there anyway you can simply NOT use the textbook?

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

The reader I'm using is "The Writer's Presence." I like the essays in there, in general, but as you say -- there are few good pairings. Plus, the articles aren't academic, obviously, so there are no citations and students have had some troubles using the essays as models for that reason. Most of the essays I assign have a discernible thesis and some evidence, but not CITED evidence, which makes for some confusion. I don't really know if there's a good solution. However, I'd love to advocate for a new comp reader edited by none other than Sisyphus!!

Dr. Koshary said...

I second Fie's suggestion. I'd be particularly pleased if you could compile a reader designed to teach good, clear social science essay writing. Reading this blog post sheds a bit of light for me on the sort of mental confusion I have seen in some of my pseudology students.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Comp readers puzzle me, too. I've been lucky enough to avoid them for some time now (I mostly rely on having students retrieve their own readings from the library databases -- good practice -- or providing them in PDF via electronic reserves, or behind a password on a course management system (moodle, Blackboard, etc.)).

One approach that I like, that definitely mirrors some of the qualities of academic writing that you describe above: I have them build an essay on a single source that analyzes a particular phenomenon of which they can find additional examples. They *briefly* summarize the source, then spend most of the essay presenting and analyzing the new evidence they've gathered (just as one would in a journal article, but much, much shorter). So, for instance, they couldn't observe how Arabs think or behave, but they could go observe how some "Westerners" (i.e. a small sample of Americans) behave in a particular public space, and see if their conclusions agree with the author's. Or they could look at how a particular group of people actually use the internet (or, of course, interview each other about contraceptive use, but that's almost certainly *not* a good idea).

I think one of the main things that comp readers, especially those that are supposedly centered on "writing in the disciplines," miss is that most actual academic writing is analytical, with perhaps an underlying persuasive edge/agenda, while much of what is in comp readers is explicitly persuasive, with, if you're lucky, analytical support for the argument. Writing "x is good/bad" arguments really isn't good practice for much of the rest of the writing they'll do in college (or, I'd argue, in life).

P.S. I forbid abortion (and the death penalty, and euthanasia, and a few other similarly value-laden topics) as research paper topics, as have many of my colleagues at several institutions. Any book that actually invites students to write such an argument is out of step with most good comp teachers I know.