Friday, July 07, 2017

Hello, Old Friend

For an English nerd like me, books are old friends.  This book was the staple for Dr. Morgan's Composition and Rhetoric class I took as a graduate assistant way back in 2001/02.

I tossed it in the large box of summer reading books I brought home after packing my classroom away.  I think I've brought it home every summer since 2001/02.  

From time to time, I'll page through it and re-read one of the essays in it.  It's fun to revisit my notes in the margins (made when I had a whopping total of 3.5 years experience) and compare it to my perspective 16 years later.

The first chapter is essay is by Richard Fulkerson.  It is entitled "Four Philosophies of Composition."

I'm so thankful for reading this when I was in graduate school, for I don't think I'd have time now to read something like this.  It's just so full of theory, and I pretty much live in the world of practicality.

What I love about this essay, though, is that it showed me who I was as a Composition teacher.

Fulkerson examines the dominant ways we teach composition.  As it turns out, there are four camps:  formalists, expressionists, the mimetic approach, and, finally, the rhetorical approach.

Formalists - as the name suggests - focuses on the form student writing takes.  These teachers tend to hold on to one specific form for essays - perhaps, the five paragraph theme or even the thesis/support format.  Grammar is also a large part of "correct" formal papers: "Some teachers, for example, judge a paper a failure if it contains one commas splice or five spelling errors. Those are judgements based purely on form.  Indeed, the most common type of formalist value theory is a grammatical one: good writing is 'correct' writing at the sentence level."

Sound familiar?  This is the dominant composition philosophy of our textbooks.  Dr. Nancy Michaels, whom I loved dearly at BSU, and Dr. Diane Drake, whom I loved dearly at NCTC, were clearly formalists and had an impact on my writing.

Expressionists - This was popularized by some of my favorite teachers of writing - Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, Peter Elbow, and Tom Romano.  Fulkerson notes "Expressionists cover a wide range, from totally accepting and non-directive teachers, some of whom insist that one neither can nor should evaluate writing, to much more direction experiential teachers who design classroom activities to maximize student self-discover."  He goes on to add, "Another keynote for expressivists is the desire to have writing contain an interesting, credible, honest, and personal voice."

Sound familiar?  This is me through and through.  It's not that I dislike formalists or their ideas.  I do think form is important, but for me, it pales in comparison to the importance of self-discovery and voice.  Other professors I've had, such as Dr. Christensen, Dr. Bonner, Susan Hauser, and Dr. Morgan were all about voice and discovery.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that when I reflect on their classes, I feel like these professors who not only had the biggest impact on my writing, but they actually showed me how to write.

Mimetic - This philosophy isn't clearly tied to a format or to voice or self discover.  The mimetic philosophy focuses on the importance of the belief that good writing is good thinking. Fulkerson notes, "The major problem with student writing is that it is not solidly thought out.  Hence, we should either teach students how to think or help them learn enough about various topics to have something worth saying, or we should do both."  If you love examining propaganda, this philosophy is for you.

While I'm all in with the expressionist, I like the Mimetic philosophy and beliefs too.  It is important to help students think clearly and to express themselves not just clearly but cleverly and interestingly too.

Rhetorical -  This approach focuses on the all important audience.  Who cares if you have a great voice or a clear thesis or have great thinking if you don't impact your audience?  Fulkerson states, "Good writing is writing adapted to achieve the desired effect on the desired audience."

This too makes a great deal of sense to me.  But - as an expressivist - I feel that if you take care of the voice and you illustrate your self-discovery, the audience will get it.

So where do you fall in the four different approaches?

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