reading and writing

Sunday, April 4th, 2004

This is a culture question. But I wonder if college composition can really be effective, however it’s taught, if students in the these kinds of courses don’t read or write as a matter of habit in their own personal lives?

Another issue: soon I’ll be doing a debate on the matter of American juries, and I’m wondering if students will come to class with any context, such as the problem with the Tyco case. Will a few news snippets do to lay context? Or should people come in to class having read about it? Will people really have knowledge about background?

It’s one thing to distrust print and TV news (which calls for criteria of judgement, and some warranting of distrust: distrust is often a herd response), but does this mean that we should ignore issues entirely? Shouldn’t people in general, especially if they are college students, be aware of what’s going on in the world, whatever that may mean? Then the question: can composition be effective if people come into class without some cultural context? The key term is “effective.”

So, to repeat: This is a culture question. But I wonder if college composition can really be effective, however it’s taught, if students in the these kinds of courses don’t read or write as a matter of habit in their own personal lives?

P.S. The writing that I’m getting in composition and literature courses is not a reflection of peopls’s lack of intelligence (my students are all really smart, some smarter than I am, of course) or potential but it does reflect a true imbalance in understanding of basic writing conventions and basic logic “in writing.” Given this, is composition basically an obsolete affair?


14 responses to “reading and writing”

  1. gibb says:

    I think you scare people off from commenting because it seems you are looking for a precise answer.

    All I can offer in reply is, no matter how the students come to you, no matter what shape they are in, personally or educationally, once they are in your classroom, they are yours. And it is your responsibility to do the best you can to see that you impart your knowledge, whether they want it or not, and whether they will use it or not.

    Don’t drop the ball.

  2. Rina says:

    This is a culture question. But I wonder if college composition can really be effective, however it’s taught, if students in the these kinds of courses don’t read or write as a matter of habit in their own personal lives?I took Biology 121 with a lab last semester and got a B+. I worked really effing hard to get that B+ and it really, really helped that my teacher rocked. But I’m not a scientifically minded student since I lack the discipline that math and science requires.In regards to your question, Mr. E…I don’t think that college composition can be any more effective to a student who is not literary minded…any more than biology was effective for me. I guess the only thing that you can do is make it as fun as possible while holding the people who are not of letters to an acceptable standard…they’re gonna be a little better off for it…as I am now proud to always remember that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell!Perhaps rather than using something current as a topic of research…perhaps you might consider having the students research sexual attitudes from a former period in history. Why? Because who wouldn’t be interested in sex? It would be like working towards a goal unawares.In my experience, as a student, I find that sometimes when the research topic is too close to my current existence, I have a problem seeing the forest for the trees…the subject becomes more emotionally based on the forces that I am at war with and my personal biases and convictions rather than an honest look of the subject itself. A lot of times what seems perfectly rational on an individual basis, is a cancer when one contemplates its effect on the whole. I believe it’s important to have an understanding of the whole. And, quite frankly…some people are just not going to care about the matter of American juries…and the matter might be devolved down to some ridiculously lazy conclusion…I know I’ve done it. Luckily you don’t let your students get away with that kind of stuff…and that’s why we love you :-)But, don’t you think that in order to have a full picture of American jurisprudence, one must travel all the way back to England, since that is what our system is modeled on? By only having the class look at one Tyco case, all they will see is our current system’s imperfections. Rather, if you encourage them to travel to different times and places and compare and contrast the evolution of topics such as American jurisprudence, they might gain a fuller appreciation of our system, however flawed.Does that make sense? I dunno, that’s just my thought on the matter. Hope it helps.

  3. ersinghaus says:

    Both of the comments are fine, but I think I’m after another issue: it’s not subject that’s at question, but the habit. Rina, you claim to go into the history of juries. That’s a great suggestion for “content to cover,” but my issue goes to “what to do with the content when people are not in the habit of reading.” That is, if people don’t read “in general” what can people gain by reading Magna Carta 39 of Blackstone or Grotius?

    The habit of analysis has a lot to do with the habit of asking questions.

  4. ersinghaus says:

    Susan writes: All I can offer in reply is, no matter how the students come to you, no matter what shape they are in, personally or educationally, once they are in your classroom, they are yours. And it is your responsibility to do the best you can to see that you impart your knowledge, whether they want it or not, and whether they will use it or not.

    Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around, though–that is reciprocity? Shouldn’t students be imparting knowledge to me?

  5. gibb says:

    What you as a teacher are learning from students is something totally different; study patterns, awareness of global issues, their fears and hopes for the future, their authority figures–those whom they still respect. That gives you a sense of direction as to how to teach them what you need and want to teach them. What other education they have had, and how they have applied it to their personal lives is what you will see, and what is out of your hands. If you believe what you have to teach is worth teaching, do it the best way you know how. It is a shame that you, with your talents, cannot reach them earlier in life. Perhaps at the second to third grade level. Of course, some things might have to change…

    But has our culture become lax on certain issues of education and the basics of reading and writing to understand? I don’t know. This is what you may be discovering, and only teachers are in the position of really seeing it. I do not believe the topics and basics should ever become obsolete. If anything, they should go back in time to the philosophers and the way they chose to educate themselves and others.

  6. Nicole says:

    My father is a devout runner & he used to run marathons here & there. After running that marathon, the 5Ks & 10Ks that he ran on a regular basis were not as challenging. When we challege ourselves to read & understand “Magna Carta 39 of Blackstone or Grotius”, writing a projection report can’t be nearly as challenging. I don’t think anyone expects a liberal arts student to remember the details of what was studied, only the skills.

  7. Rina says:

    “what to do with the content when people are not in the habit of reading.”Most people who don’t read books will read magazines or news articles…brain candy. If someone doesn’t read magazines or news articles, they will check out advertisements. I don’t know what someone would be doing in college if they were not in the mindset to do some reading but…for whatever that case may be…our methods of learning about a subject do not necessarily need to be textual. If you were, for instance, to choose a topic like “the evolution of advertising” some clever student might be able to get away with never having to crack open a book. What I’m saying is that perhaps for a “required course” such as English Comp, you might be a little over-ambitious about the content.When you ask “what to do with the content when people are not in the habit of reading?”…my answer would be, you can’t really force anyone to…they’re already being forced to take a class that may be completely irrelevant to their journey and may not be open minded enough to entertain something outside of their mindset.To use my Biology 121 with lab example…when I had found out that I had to take another dreadful science class, I immediately began to bellyache about it…until I found a way to digest the material. Luckily, I have a fairly good memory when it comes to memorization…but since then, besides remembering that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?, I’ve almost completely deleted all of my mental “Biology 121 with lab” files.

  8. gibb says:

    Rina’s point about memorization brings me to rethink that you and others like you would not be appreciated until further above the second and third grade level, which depends a good deal upon memorization rather than thinking. My apologies, sir.

    Your questions, as I see them (and yes, it has multiplied within the hotbed of a weblog to become several), are not so simple as to be answered without, yep, research.

    It would seem to me that once upon a time (pre-computer), students read textbooks under duress, and a good portion of the group would be avid readers on their own. Nowadays, most students beginning at an early age read and write much more than what is required by the classroom environment. But this writing and reading is done on the internet. Is this a help or a hindrance in learning proper methods, that is, comprehending, delving deeper, seeing all sides. It certainly is available. So then, it comes right back down to the individual, no?

  9. ersinghaus says:

    Sorry for the above: I should have written “Magna Carta 39 or Blackstone or Grotias.” Sorry.

    Hm. The proper methods. That’s a point to land on. Method has to have a starting point. For example, in Rina’s case, Susan, do you think that Rina could have a discussion with a scientist about the scientific validity of evolution since she’s forgotten the bio stuff? Or would she be guessing?

  10. gibb says:

    I have no doubt that Rina personally could hold her own quite well long into the discussion based on common sense, recall, and perhaps a bit of bravado. I also know enough about Rina to be confident that when she didn’t know, she would admit it. But she would go back and research. She would also not take the scientist as total and absolute authority, as–and I’m not real sure on this one, but–I feel that even the theory of evolution is only valid until new information arises that refutes it, so on the basis of fact, the two are on equal footing. If she found his argument valid, she most likely would accept it. I personally still have a problem accepting carbon dating as accurate.

    I had no clue, entering college after decades, as to what English Composition was about. I understand it to be teaching the method of research and argument to arrive at a reasonable conclusion, and then to be able to reassemble that process into comprehensive written form. Rina has certainly learned the skills, as should anyone that has paid attention in Comp class and has held them to be a valuable tool applicable to all sorts of situations in life. And if you haven’t paid attention or felt you needed this b.s., well, you lose. Not everybody can be a winner.

  11. ersinghaus says:

    Wow, you’re tough. But what’s your problem with Radio Carbon dating? Do you not believe in isotopes?

  12. gibb says:

    I believe in isotopes. I do not completely believe in man’s methods of measurement and calculation, and prefer to reserve judgement on its accuracy. This is why composition is so difficult to decipher.

    But mostly, it’s just a gut feeling.

  13. Maureen says:

    Wow, this coversation got going with a bang…

    Going way back to Steve’s orignal question: “If College composition can be effective, however it’s taught, if students in these kinds of courses don’t read and write as a matter of habit in their personal lives?”

    I would say that the course can be effective for those students who don’t read and write because it will give them the skills and tools they will need if they desire to continue their college career…There are precoius few degrees or occupations where you are not required to read and/or write..so no matter your major…mastering the art of the elements of argument serves one and all..

    Though, I must say that if you read and write regularly..the composition class will obviously not be a struggle…If you have read a myriad of essays, you have a sense of the style..you are not wandering out there in the “woods” of composition or rhetoric…

    As to particular cases..Well, not everyone keeps up with Tyco, Enron, Martha Stewart, et al…For many, their world stops at Brittany Spears or Jay-Lo..so you can’t assume that all will have the same base of knowledge when entering the classroom..that is why some snippets for the student to read before class may be in order…

    No matter the life experience or preparation a student may have before entering the class or course..the course itself can build awareness of larger issues…

    Many students think of “Composition” or “Intro to Literature” as mere requirements [Gen. Ed] that have nothing to do with any other part of their world..They need to realize or be made or realize that mastering the elements of argument, etc. is conducive to success whether one goes on to a writing career or leans toward Information technology…

    I think we have all heard that commercial on the radio about how the “words we use convey something about ourselves”…[maybe not..it was on some time ago..anyway]…How we formulate and argument..be it on paper or in speech does convey our intelligence..It is a measure of our intellect to some extent..Don’t we all want to put our best foot forward? These classes do that for all of us…

    Of course, a professor can’t force a student to read or write..some will only do so for the purposes of the class..and well, what can you do?

    The culture may be the problem…the fast “visual” stimuli [TV, computers, video games, etc.] has replaced the patient, time-consuming art of reading…

    Reading takes time…Is there time enough for that in the lives of most students?

    Hmmm…

    Very provocative question..Very good answers…

    Most Graciously,

    Maureen
    *A Mayde in her own little woode…

  14. ersinghaus says:

    Maureen,

    Good points. But maybe the culture is right and the teacher is wrong. Note that I am not making negative comments about students: when I calim that people don’t read or write in their lives, I’m not suggesting that this is a problem with the people: maybe this is as it should be, a historical prerogative. The culture is, indeed, ready for some radical change. Nations don’t last, after all. Perhaps king arthur has dead and chaos will soon ensue.

    You write:”No matter the life experience or preparation a student may have before entering the class or course..the course itself can build awareness of larger issues…”

    Is awareness enough?