I don't like the role of diagnostician, and I certainly don't
like to define students as "terminal." But for the students' sakes, I
must quickly diagnose just what they need--grammar, awareness of
audience, etc.--to succeed in writing in college even when I know the
best way of teaching writing may differ from what I do at certain
teaching-moments. I must also, as I did just last Fall, occasionally
inform a student that he or she is, well, not "terminal" but in
recovery. What I mean is that I tell a student to drop my class to retake
it because he or she does not yet write well enough to successfully
participate in college discourse. This last is akin to telling someone
he or she has a disease, but that with a good attitude, the disease
is curable. I of course don't use the medical metaphor when talking to a
student, but I try to phrase my language in such a way as to keep the
student encouraged so that the student stays in college. (My students don't
have access to a great remedial program like Tricia's students).
Sometimes I succeed and the student goes on to do very well in college.
Sometimes they drop out, and that is where the triage aspect comes into
play: I make them terminal, to extend the metaphor, because the system
forces me into a triage mode rather than allowing me the time to
treat the patient. (I don't, actually, give myself as much credit as my
words indicate, for it is the students who do the work.) I am convinced,
though, that teaching writing as both an awareness of audience and of
rhetorical situaitons for a significant amount of time would both help us to
stop making as many terminal students and help us teach all students to
writing even better. The amount of time? A year of composition
instruction, I think, for in all the complaints I read about the writing
abilities of "American boys" in the 1890s' Harvard Reports, and articles
written about them, that I mentioned a few posts ago, I found not one
instance of complaint that the poor writing abilities of entering
freshmen were affecting the quality of writing in the university as those
students moved through their college careers. I believe that those
students learned to write during their first year in college, or
better, they experienced, as Mike Rose says, the expected falling off in
writing ability that occures when one moves into a new discourse
community, and when they became familiar with the new discourse, their
writing reflected that familiarity by being "better." So it is "time" we
need to teach writing, and enlighted programs like Tricia's, instead of
having to operate under the constraints that force us into triage.
Sorry for the length of this post. I meant to be brief.
On Sun, 21 Jan 1996, Tricia Christensen wrote:
> I like the way you trace the origin of blaming the educator for all back
> to Thucydides. I'd suggest that even before that, through the work of
> the sophists, the teaching of writing in Western culture has always
> been linked to a competitive ethic; "Things are in a sorry state
> but here's my new method to *really* educate folks."
> To Claudine,
> Perhaps I didn't make myself clear on why the term "diagnostician "
> bothers me, and why the medical metaphor makes me uncomfortable.
> I don't wish to see students looked on as somehow incompetent
> merely because they've not yet had the opportunity to write the way
> we feel they need to write to in order to do well in college.
> And the idea that somehow we should be able to fix their "sickness"
> with a "prescription," takes away the students' role in helping
> themselves. Surely we do need to locate where our students are most
> unfamiliar with this new discourse community. But this model
> has extended into the mind of the student with quite depressing
> results. I'm told by students they are "terminal," all the time. I
> don't know how many times I've heard the phrase "I'm just not
> a writer." Through this diagnosing, which often never gets farther
> than the prescription "Do this and you'll improve," these students
> have concluded that the prescriptions just fly fastly and furiously
> and they never seem to come to a point in their writing where
> they don't need further prescriptions.
> Sure we do make analyses of our students; it's impossible to do otherwise.
> But if we're going to continue to indulge this metaphor perhaps we
> ought to decide who the physician is. Maybe our students are just
> as good doctors as we are. I've seen peer group work that has
> "fixed " problems faster than I've been able to.
> I want to close with a quote from Mike Rose on this subject, from the
> text "Lives on the Boundary." The text has its merits as well as
> some oversights, but it's still an interesting examination.
> "Our purpose, finally, is to root out disease--and, too often, to
> punish. We write reductive prescriptions for excellence.... What
> gets lost in all this are the real needs of children and adults working
> to make written language their own. Every day in our schools and
> colleges, young people confront reading and writing tasts that seem hard
> or unusual, that confuse them, that they fail. But if you can get close
> enough to their failure, you'll find knowledge that the assignment didn't
> tap, ineffective rules and strategies that have a logic of their own..."
> Tricia Christensen