Re: Re[6]: Re-examining our practice

Greg Ritter (gritter@FELIX.VCU.EDU)
Sat, 10 Feb 1996 20:22:54 EST

Michael said:
(his comments are prefaced by the '=' sign)
> Greg said:
> =And I respond:
> But, it's hard--hard for them because they don't trust
their own
> opinions, don't trust their own ability to be persuasive
or critica,
> and they feel--rightly so-- that the purpose of an
academic essay is
> to demonstrate comprehension, not to explore or discover
their *own*
> position.
> =I disagree here. I think the purpose of the essay IS to
explore and
> develop their own position. It is not simply a device
with which to
> demonstrate comprehension. Hopefully, through coming to
> and articulate their position they will also demonstrate
> "comprehension."

I think you misunderstood my point; perhaps I wasn't clear. I
also think the purpose of the essay SHOULD BE to explore and
develop their own position. I believe *the students* think the
purpose is to demonstrate comprehension. I think the students
"rightly" feel that way because in the vast majority of the
courses they take, that's how essays are treated (like the "Five
Causes of the Civil War" example someone else gave recently).
Which is why Writing Across the Curriculum programs are so

> The students I love the most are the ones who argue with
me. They're
> also the ones who frustrate me the most. :)
> =Me too on the first, not at all on the last. If I can't
hold my own
> in an intellectual urinating contest with a typical
freshperson, I
> have no business teaching the class. And if their
> skill is advanced enough to make their point, so much the

They don't frustrate me because I'm incapable of "holding my own"
against them, and I certainly try to avoid pissing contests with
my students. I think more often than we would like to admit (and
perhaps your response above demonstrates this in some way) we
think we, the teachers, are "right" or that we have "The
Knowledge" and we have to bestow it upon the students (i.e.
Freire's banking concept). Even in process-oriented composition
courses, it's hard to shake the belief that we know how the
process should proceed better than the students, that they should
listen to what we have to say.

In many ways, this is true--we do know better ways. But I
constantly have to remind myself that I learned those ways not by
arguing them with a professor, but through trial and error as an
avid writer. And that is how our students, I think, *best* learn,
too--they have to be given the room to be wrong, to fail, even if
we "know" that we could "show them the Better Path."

This, too, becomes an even bigger problem when the discussion is
not about the writing process, but about political issues that we
may be discussing because of readings, etc. I "know" my political
positions are "right"--I have to keep reminding myself that my
"knowledge" isn't as concrete and valid as I wish it was all the
time. :)

The reason argumentative students frustrate me is that the act of
getting into a pissing contest with a student reminds me of my
weaknesses as a teacher, reminds me that I'm moving away from the
role of problem-poser and moving toward the role of All-Knowing

This is not to demean healthy debate--but I've found there is a
line I sometimes cross where I'm arguing/debating with a student
not because I want to stimulate their thought, but because I
think I'm right and they're wrong and I want to prove my
correctness to them. I don't like myself when I cross that line.

> My point is that I think the students benefit *more* if
we're teaching
> them more than "how to think within the academy."
> =Isn't thinking "within the academy" appropriate, in
method, to
> thinking outside it? Won't the skills for the academy
serve them well
> out on the block?

No, not if what is meant by "thinking within the academy" is
'demonstrate you comprehend 5 causes of the Civil War'. Too
often--FAR too often--the skills that are taught in the academy
are memorization and repetition, not analysis, synthesis &
critical expression.

This is what I was trying to get at with the dilemma of teaching
"the essay." Personally, I think the essay SHOULD be about
discovery and exploration. Honestly looking at the writing
students have to do in their college courses, though, I have to
say that the academic essay is more about demonstrating
comprehension (i.e, regurgitation). There are many courses
students take where, if they write an exploratory essay when the
60-year old stodgy History professor is expecting '5 Causes of
the Civil War', then they're going to get docked letter grades.
So, I think composition instructors, face a real dilemma--we need
to teach them how to think critically and treat writing as a
process of exploration, discovery, and refinement...BUT we also
have to educate them in the academic forms that go against and
even subvert the goals of critical thinking, exploration,
discovery and refinement of thought.

Until we can change academia's attitude toward writing, the role
of the composition instructor is a divided one--preparing them to
be *independent* writers and thinkers and preparing them to be
writers and thinkers *dependent* on academic forms (forms which I
think are lousy and counterproductive...of course, if you approve
of the 5-paragraph them and other highly structured academic
forms, then this isn't a dilemma.)

Students need to understand the parameters of academic discourse
so they can succeed within the academy, BUT they need to
understand that those academic parameters don't apply in many,
many real-life situations.

I think part of our problem in the US is that
> many/most people don't use the critical thinking we are
teaching in
> higher ed, outside the ivy covered walls.

And why is that, do you suppose? I think perhaps it is because
the way we have taught them to write and "think" within the
academy actually has little use outside of the ivy-covered walls.
When the predominant form of testing is multiple-choice ScanTron
tests, when writing essays is about spitting back info to prove
that you "absorbed" it, when thinking equals affirming the
professor's pet theories then we are NOT preparing them to think
critically outside the academy.

IMO, of course. :)

> Greg?
> Mike Hamende

Greg Ritter