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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: April ::
Re: Composition
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1141  Friday, 26 April 2002

[1]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 11:21:34 EDT
        Subj:   Composition and Higher Education

[2]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 13:02:18 -0400
        Subj:   Composition

[3]     From:   Karen Peterson <
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        Date:   Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 11:13:06 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1131 Re: Composition

[4]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 11:51:22 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.1131 Re: Composition


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 11:21:34 EDT
Subject:        Composition and Higher Education

Open admission, as the practice of admitting to an institution of higher
education any person with a high school diploma is called in the United
States, is, of course, a practice whose general social utility can be
and has been vigorously debated.  The issue is doubly complex in the US
because our system of higher education is relatively comprehensive--a
student at a 2-year (community) college can take courses in Shakespeare
and in firefighting or double-entry bookkeeping, fourth-year students
can major in accounting as well as history.  Not much of the kind of
"education" we envisage when we see a picture of St. John's College,
Cambridge, with students and dons strolling the lawn in their gowns,
goes on there.  (How much goes on at St. John's?)  But I can't accept
Gabriel Egan's dismissive assessment of the economic value of the
undertaking to the individual students: "they and/or their parents have
paid ten of thousands for the meagre privileges degrees confer."
College degrees are absolute requirements for entry-level positions in
industrial management, the supervisory segments of the civil service,
all the professions-literally millions of jobs that offer the
possibility of some measure of workplace autonomy and initiative and the
opportunity if not the certainty of promotion to higher levels.  And
there is plenty of evidence to show that over a lifetime college
graduates on average earn several hundred thousand dollars more than
high school graduates on average.  The initial cost can, indeed, be
high-but not necessarily "tens of thousands of dollars." Four-year
undergraduate tuition at my former university, toward the high end of
public institutions around the country, is a little more than $20,000;
by doing the first two years at a 2-year college you can cut 3 or 4K
from the total.  Add a couple of thousand more for books and incidental
fees.  It's still a pretty good investment, especially for students who
lack the imagination and initiative to do well in the entrepreneurial
fields where it is, indeed, possible, to thrive without those letters
after your name.

An element in this that's not often recognized is that a primary
function of the American system is to prepare students to work in
complex institutional environments-corporations, bureaucracies.  If you
can satisfy the rules and regulations of a place like Cleveland State,
do enough academic work well enough to earn a degree, you can probably
get by in the offices of IBM or the Commerce Department, whether or not
you actually remember any of the particular content of Philosophy 214 or
Physics 301.

Like Gabriel Egan, I, too, yearned throughout my career for more
students who wanted to argue the kinds of questions we treat on this
list.  And I certainly thought that a lot of the others would have
served the society better by becoming good plumbers.  But by no means
all of them.  And the system did provide the opportunity for a few, of a
type that would never be admitted to an English university even today,
to catch intellectual fire.

David Evett

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 13:02:18 -0400
Subject:        Composition

John Velz writes:

>Until American taxpayers agree to triple the money they spend on
>schooling and see teacher student ratio reduced to a figure that will
>enable learning, the problem of students in college who did not learn
>to write in high school will remain with us.

Absolutely right. As John points out, schoolteachers who actually try to
assign regular writing burn out in a short time and leave the profession
-- or they just give up assigning compositions.

But there's little hope, John, that American taxpayers will do what they
need to do. Instead of increasing funding and making sure that poor
districts get their fair share, the substitute action is the high-stakes
test, with the teacher (even in poor districts) held accountable for
students' performances.

That's why colleges have to try to do the job if they can.  But I must
confess that I'm not sure we can do it. For what it's worth, it seems to
me that composition courses can make a bad writer a better bad writer,
or a good writer a better good writer, but we do not yet have the
expertise or know-how to make a bad writer a good writer. It just
doesn't happen.

If this observation is granted, then two possible conclusions follow:

(1) Students who cannot write by the time they come to college cannot be
taught to write because they have missed the "window of opportunity"
only open during grammar and high school.

(2) Such students can learn how to write, but we, as yet, don't know how
to do it effectively.

(1) is hopeless and (2) is hopeful, but I don't have a clue as to which
one is really true.

--Ed

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Karen Peterson <
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Date:           Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 11:13:06 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1131 Re: Composition
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1131 Re: Composition

I must give an enthusiastic "second" to Alan Pierpoint's comments about
Bill Arnold's suggestions.
Alan wrote, in part:

> and had I seen
> anything like Bill's
> system in a methods class, I'd have used it, I'm
> sure.  It puts the
> responsibility, and the work, squarely on the
> student where it belongs
> in ways that strike me as both effective and humane.

I entirely agree, and have saved Bill's post for my own "professional
development" file.  While I rather hope I will not have to teach
*straight* composition (as opposed to teaching composition within the
context of teaching literature) again, it certainly could happen.
Bill's ideas look as if they would work brilliantly in both reducing
instructor frustration and in improving student-writing skills.

Thank you, Bill!

Cheers,
Karen

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Thursday, 25 Apr 2002 11:51:22 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 13.1131 Re: Composition
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1131 Re: Composition

Alan Pierpoint writes, "I hope that all subscribers who teach
composition noted Bill Arnold's post, which I thought had more
constructive ideas about managing the workload of a comp class, while
narrowing the possibilities of plagiarism, than anything I can recall
having learned in my MA program at Cal State San Bernardino in the late
'80's (and I had mostly good professors there).  I taught freshman comp
at CSUSB for a year before settling down at my present job, and had I
seen anything like Bill's system in a methods class, I'd have used it,
I'm sure.  It puts the responsibility, and the work, squarely on the
student where it belongs in ways that strike me as both effective and
humane.  Much more helpful than sarcastic jibes at our students' lack of
preparation, however justified."

Alan, thank you.

As a follow up, inasmuch as my first post was meant to be a mere
introductory thought about my former method, as I am now retired from
the trenches and only a humble writer, I would add this ONE important
reason WHY many others might find the basic method so successful at
producing writers.  I have taught colleagues my method, over the years,
for those who were frustrated and wanted to learn from what I was doing,
and something very similar is taught in every newsroom in the world by
editors of interns in the trenches of daily deadline writing.

And that is: it IS a journal writing approach.  The students KNOW it is
their OWN journal to keep at the end of each semester, and many took my
courses for TWO semesters.  Also, I, as professor,
could in the initial forays into a student's writing, red-line the KEY
elements, and later, if I saw the SAME sorts of things, and we are
talking the SIMPLE stuff here, spelling, punctuation, capitalization,
lack of neatness, therefore a lack of understanding what the student is
TRYING to say, I did NOT have to repeat myself again and again, but I
could say, "Consult page 3, and note you are NOT capitalizing.
Therefore, MEMORIZE the two-page CAPITALIZATION handout, etc."  Or, if
the student is a poor speller, REQUIRE them to get the little RED book,
_The Word Book II_ by American Heritage Dictionary, with over 40,000
words spelled and divided, a quick
reference work.  Of course, all these tools were on the syllabus, and
because not all students had those problems, the additional books were
only required of students with specific problems.

In other words: within one month, ONE MONTH, each student knew: whether
he could spell or not, capitalize or not, punctuate or not, etc.  And I,
as professor, could concentrate on remarks like, "Hey, did you really
MEAN to say, here?"  Within TWO months, those that were going to KEEP
any one of the KEY problems in Comp for their lives, KNEW it, and I knew
it, and believe me, I wrote in RED ink, you better deal with (a) or (B)
composition problem, or you are getting a bad grade with me, and FOR
EVER in every class in college, because all classes in college require
you to WRITE.  I also added: "Nobody is going to understand what YOU
MEANT TO SAY with all these other problems IN THE WAY."

Now, I also taught them that writing was a learned skill, and in no way
would professors teach them to THINK, or LISTEN, and WATCH carefully,
before they wrote.  SPEAKING, basically, I left to speech classes.  But
I did REQUIRE students who spoke out, to speak UP, and slow down, be
clear, and say EXACTLY what you MEAN TO SAY.  And no one could help them
with these other skills but via understanding what they MEANT to say
when they spoke or wrote.  I EMPHASIZED that these common errors got in
the way of other people understanding what they REALLY meant to say.

So, for those with REAL communication problems, I told them to deal with
basics, express yourself honestly, and peel away one problem at a time:
focus on your OWN worst problem, which is stopping you from advancing
most.  Then focus on the next.  And the next.

Within THREE months, they either HAD it down, or they were doomed to
failure, because there is NO way they could NOT see it in a contiguous
JOURNAL.  More anon, as requested.  Back to the Bard!

Bill Arnold

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