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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: E.16—Three Perspectives on Composition: How Composition Matters Within and Outside Academia
Reviewed by: Wnedy Austin, warren@edinboro.edu
Posted on: June 1, 2004

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     Since 1987 I have attended each CCCC whenever I could afford to (usually if it is in the Midwest or Northeast), even if I don’t get a proposal accepted. Every February and early March I build up anticipation for the conference, plan to attend every possible session, and often fill out my session blanks in advance. Yet every time I go, I get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of people that are there, forget that I get very tired sitting in uncomfortable chairs listening to people talk all day, and forget that I need a variety of session types to keep me awake all day, much less attentive. The time frame of this session was deadly to my alertness, so, determined to stay awake and armed with Diet Coke and sugary snacks to munch on, I claimed a seat close to the speakers’ table so that the danger of mortified embarrassment would keep my head from dropping too far down when/if my eyes glazed over. But they didn’t, thank goodness! Not even at all. Two things kept that from happening (besides all the caffeine and sugar and strategic placement): the prospect in the beginning of the session that one speaker’s PowerPoint presentation was sure to malfunction during his turn, and the fact that it not only worked perfectly, but was an exciting, motivating, well-paced presentation of a plain old GOOD IDEA! I’m speaking about Mike Pemberton’s explanation of how he solicited testimonials for Georgia Southern University’s Writing Center and then papered the blank walls with them.
    Before  Glenda Conway started, Mike had everything possible going wrong with his hookup from the laptop to the projector. Everybody was holding their breath for him, and then Conway started her presentation. I thought to myself that if this didn’t pan out, I would just sneak out to another session, front rows or not. However, just as his time was running out, everything started working fine, so we all breathed a sigh of relief.  Even through my distraction I listened to Conway talk about how, frequently, students’ experiences in high school have taught them not to care too much about their writing, leaving them feeling much like the emotionless typist in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” deflated and simply glad that they are finished with their tasks. She went on to emphasize that if we let them write about what matters to them, respect what they attempt, and illustrate understanding through more caring, reader-like feedback, we may be able to help reverse first-year college students’ attitudes toward writing. She relied on Flynn, Noddings, and Anson’s work to support her valid contentions, but I would like to have heard some more concrete suggestions as to what kind of assignments we might fashion to achieve this goal. She provides one, which may be all she could squeeze in to the presentation, but, given that she is preaching to the choir, so to speak, I could only nod and agree and ask her silently: “yes, but HOW?”
Meanwhile, it was a little difficult to pay attention wondering if the second speaker was going to get to do anything or not. He was the main reason I came; I admire his work and figured he would have good things to say again today. He started off by saying that his presentation was not at all scholarly and he didn’t even have  any references, but just wanted to tell us what he had done at his school and how it worked out. The writing center he directs at Georgia Southern had nothing on its blank walls, so he decided to ask politicians, celebrities, CEOs, writers, and other famous people about the importance of writing well, and when they wrote back to him, he began framing their letters to hang on the Writing Center wall. Now, this “Wall of Fame” is being used not only to promote the value of writing, but these testimonials are also helping to promote the Writing Center and the University itself, as they end up often featured in brochures, in college tours, and on the college’s web sites. What a great idea! Simple execution, lots of mileage in the results. He showed us interesting excerpts from the letters, featuring such notables as Tom Brokaw, William Rehnquist, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, and Tom Clancy.
    Pam Childers’ talk which she called “Writing to the Max and More” (originally entitled “What My Students Have Taught Me About Writing”) that followed expressed understandable regret at having to go after such a delightful, and naturally delivered presentation. The main point in her presentation was that writers always need to know their subject and need to have an audience, whether they are human or animal audiences. Childers recalled how, when she was young, she would read her compositions about and to Taffy, her Norwich Terrier, and now, she relies on her cat Max to listen to her writings. Childers suggests that we assign things that we ourselves would like to read about, and further, that writing teachers arrange occasions where students actually read aloud to their intended audience—in her case, she arranged an evening reading with the community members—so that students have a situation in which they really do have real live audience with which to share their writings.
    In all three situations, the speakers talked about the remarkable transformations in students’ writing and perceptions of writing which involved directing their words and inquiries to real audiences, whether they were other students, well-known celebrities and politicians, or writing teachers. All followed the theme well regarding how composition matters both inside and outside academia.



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