May 3rd Synthesis

It seems that, after reading through everyone’s blog posts and reflecting on the class discussion and my notes, many people were very interested in Dobrin’s introduction and his points about the “practicum” class.  Of course, this won’t come as much of a surprise, because many people in the class are TA’s who are going through such an endeavor and its related course right now.  As Nick points out in his blog, “composition courses cannot just be about how to teach writing.  The history of such practices must be covered.”  A practicum course that fails to cover instruction or content as equally as the other does seem like it is doing its students/professionals a disservice; because there is no guarantee that any students in such a class would have previous classroom experience, ignoring pedagogy and an approach to effectively teaching writing would be to ignore nearly half of the discipline and the endeavor.

Because my section covered the first chapter in Ellsworth’s book, I did my best to pay particular attention to the class discussion that was spurred from a couple of important quotes from the chapter.  Her points about the embodied process of learning aim to help both teachers visualize the “process” of learning from a different vantage point.  While it is true that students aim to earn a good grade, there is something that undeniably happens–physically, as well as emotionally and mentally–to a student when he or she actually learns something (or even just simply engages in the “process” of learning).  Ellsworth takes up major issue with pedagogical approaches that do not address such a reality.

It was interesting to hear from many people in class who made note of Ellsworth points about the relatedness of student experience and how it can begin to create a dialogue that could not exist elsewhere.  Again, many made note of the fact that it is crucial to allow students to bring their experiences with them to the classroom, and to even let students relate their experiences to the material; all student understanding of different material will surely be influenced–in one way or another–by their experiences and any previous encounters with a subject.  Finally–for someone who doesn’t teach–it was intriguing to hear many people note how students are often able to relate their understanding of material to another student’s points or views because of shared experiences.

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May 3rd Post

The introduction to Dorbin’s work was pretty interesting for me because–like many other essays and books we’ve read this semester–it made me assess my approach to both teaching and learning writing.  The part of the introduction that was most intriguing concerns the content of graduate courses that are designed for future teachers.  Dorbin includes quotes and explanations from authors and theorists on both sides of this divide.  While I can obviously see the inherent benefit to focusing on teaching such a course and not including pedagogical approaches that may help future teachers, I think such an approach falls short.  To me–again, outside looking in, because I’m not as well versed as most other people in the course–it seems that a course designed to teach teachers how to teach will need to do just that: include practical theory and directly applicable concepts for the classroom .

Dorbin’s practicum seems to serve as an encompassing approach to the purpose of graduate school and how graduate school aims to serve teachers in a variety of ways.  He writes, “the practicum serves multiple ends…more broadly conceived in terms of overall professionalization of graduate students and introduction to composition studies” (Dorbin 19).  So the practicum aims to educate graduate students not only within the discipline, but also aims to provide future teachers with enough theory–and practice–that it will effectively carry over into their own classrooms.  It is interesting that Dorbin’s own classes within this framework cover so many different topics that all could, in many ways, constitute a semester’s worth (or more) of study (20).  But it does seem appropriate for students to be well versed in a variety of different topics if they do hope to teach, regardless of the level.

As he moves through the chapter, his claim about the practicum class being the “most effective purveyor of cultural capital in composition studies” is quite interesting, as well (21).  It does seem important to note that some graduate students in English may only participate in one course that approaches pedagogy, theory, and practice like this one, so it is likely that this course will shape their views on the subject(s) entirely (21).  However, as he and other theorists note earlier in the introduction, students will come into such a course with assumptions about the discipline already ingrained, so maybe such a course won’t reach every student in the same way (18).

Ch. 4: “What is First-Year Composition?”

Downs’ chapter was incredibly interesting to me, and he addressed many of the issues that appear to be common for everyone involved with first-year composition courses.  To put my own (lack of) expertise and experience in place with many of the other people in class, I don’t teach any of the ENGL 103 sections, so I am sure my opinion is skewed and may differ drastically from others.  That said, my point-of-view comes more as a student (who took a first-year comp class seven years ago) and not as someone who teaches these classes.

Many of the points that Downs makes throughout his chapter seem to be inherent, but they deserve much more recognition and exploration.  The passages that I found most interesting focused on the fact that many first-year composition courses worry much more about form than they do about function.  He writes, “Another implication: If FYC teaches only transcription of existing ideas into print, its focus can be on form (grammar); but with invention in play, FYC must also consider content” (Downs 55).  While I agree that it is absolutely necessary for MOST freshmen to clean up grammatical and stylistic errors, this cannot be the only focus of the class.  Freshmen need to learn how to write about a topic (whether it interests them or not, which I am sure comes up quite often regardless of the material that students are assigned) with clarity and succinctness.

To put what I am saying in a more palpable place: the professor who taught my FYC class basically had the class mapped out and did not allow the students to actually grow as writers.  What I mean is this: on my first paper, I got a C.  On the second, I got a B.  And on the final paper, I got a B+.  Truth be told, I don’t think my writing improved.  I didn’t approach the second and third assignments with the intent to “write better” and implement what I had learned, which wasn’t much.  Many of the other students in the class noticed the same trend in their grades: they started off doing “good enough” work, and finished up the course with a high “B” or B+…but never an A, because we were freshmen in an FYC class who did not write well enough to merit an A–yet.

This approach ruined the class for me.  It was formulaic and bland, and I genuinely felt that there was nothing I could take from the class except the necessity to try harder on the next paper simply to improve my grade.  This is a dangerous position to put students in, and I think that this professor ultimately failed at making me a better writer–or prepared to write papers in different disciplines throughout my undergraduate career.

Downs also points out that having a set approach to teaching a FYC course is dangerous and could limit a student’s ability to grow.  He writes, “FYC is meant to teach universal rules for good writing, stable and immutable” (56).  If a professor does take this kind of approach, they are already limiting the product that a student may be able to produce, because any writing that does not fall within these sets of rules may be punished with a poor grade.

What Downs seems to be getting at is that these classes HAVE to prepare freshmen for the writing they’ll need to do over the next four years, regardless of the nature of the assignment or the subject matter.  For me–again, from an outsider’s perspective–this chapter was incredibly interesting and raised many questions and concerns that I would never consider about FYC.