why johnny still can’t read or write

I meant to publish this entry a long time ago, but life intervened.

Way back in March of this year, Mark Bauerlein took aim at rhetoric and composition specialists by mocking the titles of a few of the panels and papers at the 2006 meeting of CCCC. Many, many commenters, myself included, called him on the logical problems with his assertions about the general tenor of rhet/comp scholarship. What’s at stake in the conversation is not only the issue of how we teach students to write (about which more below), but also what kind of standards we should expect from academics who blog. Typically if you want to take part in a scholarly conversation about a topic–whether through print in a journal, through speaking at a conference, or through online participation in a listserv–one of the qualifying steps is that you familiarize yourself with what has already been said in that conversation. You cannot merely pick up on the titles of a handful of things and then generalize about an entire field of study. To do so is to violate basic standards of academic discourse, and in any of those venues–journal, conference, or listserv–you would be called on it if you did so. I’ll go even further: if you were to commit this error in an assignment for a first-year writing course–of which the blog entry in question is highly critical–you would probably fail that assignment. Imagine, for example, a response to a collection of essays in which the student only discussed the essays’ titles.

Academia and academic blogs need more pointed disagreements over professional and disciplinary issues because, as I tell my students, disagreements sharpen arguments and they force participants to develop more fully the logic behind their positions. Bauerlein made much the same point about academia in general in a widely linked essay (titled “Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual”) in the Chronicle of Higher Education awhile ago. However, we should expect a certain level of civility and respect in these disagreements. I’m not arguing that we should treat blogs so seriously that they become undifferentiated from other forms of professional communication; the playfulness that characterizes much academic blogging and the intersection of the private with the professional are unique and valuable characteristics that should not be lost. However, when academics blog about disciplinary questions, they should not throw out the window their ability–their responsibility–to bring the same intellectual rigor to the subject in a blog that they would if they were communicating through more traditional means. Bauerlein is an eloquent and persuasive speaker and writer. What would the conversation that ensued at the Valve have looked like if he had used that eloquence and persuasion in his original blog entry?

I’d like to add two short comments to the (now expired, I realize) conversation, one about what happens before students enter the composition classroom, and one about what happens afterwards.

College professors have no control over what students do or do not learn before they come to college. Upon graduation from high school, students should at minimum be functionally literate and know how to write a coherent paragraph. If they enter college without these skills, then they will only experience minimal improvement as writers and readers over the next four years. One or two courses in composition are not going to make up for what they didn’t learn in their previous twelve years of education. Those who are upset because they believe that college graduates lack essential basic skills should focus their attention on what happens before those students ever enter college, in the years when those basic skills should have been acquired.

Additionally, college professors have no control over what students do after they finish a college course. It’s entirely possible for students to learn a skill and then let that skill atrophy. In their composition courses, they should learn fairly advanced writing skills that will allow them to fulfill the assignments they encounter in a wide variety of subsequent courses. If those other courses–in history, in economics, in physics–are not challenging them in their reading and writing, then students are likely to lose whatever they may have gained in their first-year writing courses. In other words, while it is the responsibility of first-year writing courses to teach skillful reading and writing, it is every discipline’s responsibility to continue to require students to flex those reading and writing muscles. To the extent that it exists, the failure to graduate students with basic reading and writing skills is every discipline’s failure. It makes no sense to single out compositionists for blame.

We could have a very interesting and productive blog-based conversation about reading and writing skills and the college classroom, but that conversation will not be initiated by snarky drive-by comments that make fun of the annual meeting of this or that professional organization.

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