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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: J 31: Public Perceptions about the Teaching of Writing and What to Do about Them
Reviewed by: Wendy Sharer, sharerw@mail.ecu.edu
Posted on: April 27, 2004
Updated on: April 29, 2004

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Professionals in rhetoric and composition probably all know of the infamous 1975 Newsweek article “Why Johnny Can’t Write” and its indictment of writing instruction in America. Unfortunately, the speakers on this panel illustrated, the mass media has not greatly improved its representation of writing instruction today.

Bill Bolin began the session with an overview of the presentation of writing instruction in popular media. The various examples Bolin provided reinforce the notion that the public is much more likely to read, see, and be influenced by mass media’s misrepresentations of what professionals in composition do than they are to hear from compositionists who explain the merits of what we do. Based on popular media articles, much of the American public has come to view schools as credentialing sites—places that should (although many do not, according to popular media sources) prepare future employees and serve advanced capitalism.  

The comments of the people whom Peter Vandenberg interviewed in his video project “Perceptions of Writing Instruction: The Public Speaks for Itself” illustrate the influence of popular misrepresentations of writing instruction. Vandenberg screened his videotaped study in which he traveled around the country, asking various people questions such as

What is good writing?

What did you do in your college writing class?

Are writing teachers doing a good job? and

Should writing teachers “go public”? In other words, should writing teachers make a more concerted effort to teach the broader public about writing.

While many of the respondents demonstrated a fairly narrow view of writing and writing instruction (e.g., good writing=grammatically correct writing), several respondents articulated more complicated thinking about writing and expressed sentiments of satisfaction with the work writing teachers are doing. The variety of responses from around the country helped to concretize, to make complex , and to offer hope about popular perceptions of writing instruction.

To enrich public perceptions of writing instruction in America, Darsie Bowden argued in her talk “Changing Public Perceptions: Making What We Do Matter,” those of us in rhetoric and composition need to do more than complain about the situation. Instead, Bowden suggested, we need a new strategy.  We need to learn the skills of public relations and political influence. On an individual level, writing teachers can work to change public perceptions of writing instruction by writing to local papers, magazines, and public officials, and by leading workshops on writing skills for the communities beyond our classrooms. On the national level, NCTE members might become more aware of and involved in the lobbying efforts of Ellin Nolan, an NCTE lobbyist on Capitol Hill. The audible whisperings of surprise (“Oh, we have a lobbyist?”) from the audience in response to the mention of an NCTE lobbyist provided substantial evidence in support of Bowden’s argument. Now that we know there is a lobbyist, perhaps we can become more involved.

Bowden also mentioned several organizational efforts currently underway to promote responsible and informed perceptions of writing instruction. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA), for instance, has recently established a Network for Media Action. This fledgling group, which is actively looking for participants and contributors, is a national network of writing educators that, once fully established, will compose and circulate information about the teaching of writing to media outlets, officials, and administrators at various institutions.  In addition to these efforts, Bowden argued that there are several other fronts on which we should expand our PR efforts. We might educate parents about writing instruction; we might help K-12 teachers better articulate and publicize what they do in the writing classroom; and we might make a more conscious effort to use multimedia to promote favorable impressions of what we do.

The presentations on this panel, respondent Rebecca Moore Howard pointed out, illustrate at least two important missions for teachers of writing:  1) Writing teachers have expertise that they need to share with the public.  We have knowledge that we must take care to communicate with those beyond our profession and our classrooms; and 2) Teachers of writing must make a more concerted effort to listen to popular media and the public opinions that it shapes. When we witness misrepresentations or sense public misperceptions, we need to respond.

I listened to this panel with great interest. Before I entered the academy, I worked at a popular periodical—one that is known for its conservative and, arguably, hostile attitudes toward critically aware composition instruction.  Having witnessed the ideologies of the editorial staff determine which slanted stories appeared in the magazine, I know first-hand of the misguidance proffered to large sections of the public by influential popular publications.  I left that work environment in large part because I opposed the obvious bias of the stories that were published about education (and a host of other topics). I applaud the efforts of NCTE, WPA, and the members of this panel for their critique of popular media outlets and for their efforts to involve a larger swath of professionals in these important critiques.

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