Monday, October 29, 2012

Re-imagining composition

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Welp, I’m not sure how I feel about the Shipka article…so I guess what I’ll do is try to talk about my reservations here without rambling or ranting. That is to say, I will try to be coherent.
On the one hand, Shipka addresses in her article certain pitfalls of conventional, compulsory composition in college that I have personally observed and would absolutely seek to avoid when designing my own curriculum. As an English major in undergrad, I was pretty sure the only reason I was able to complete certain written work for professors without wanting to bash my head in, as some of my peers always seemed to be on the verge of doing, was that I genuinely enjoy writing and have an aptitude for it. There’s nothing mysterious or confusing about composition to me. It can be tedious but I can understand it (somewhat intuitively) in ways I have little to no hope of understanding other disciplines (which others may grasp somewhat intuitively). Yet the “fill-in-the-blanks or ‘cookbook’” (284) methods of composition seem to lend themselves to the manifestation of apathy, boredom and frustration in those students, who are hard-pressed to identify the usefulness or purpose behind the written work they are assigned. To some, writing is a mystery and a drudgery and something to survive. This is a not insignificant fact, which should be considered when designing coursework. But I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that students’ discomfort with written composition necessitates a complete overhaul of composition curriculum, such that writing becomes only an equal or lesser part of the whole. Certainly I have witnessed classes in which too much emphasis is placed on achieving a prescribed set of goals to attain an acceptable grade, without any explanation or even indication from the professor as to the function of said tasks and what students should take away from the various elements of written composition with which they are asked to engage (from research to drafting to peer review to revision).  But this is a part of our own curriculum at UIUC that I am particularly pleased with: a focus on process in research and composition, which de-emphasizes the often unfathomable (for some) rules of grammar and seemingly arbitrary conventions of format and style. Which acknowledges that the fundamental elements of written composition may be more easily accessed and employed when the student writer is allowed to engage with a topic or their own choosing, based upon their own specific interests. And the curriculum here is still writing-centric. I don’t question Shipka’s interest in redefining our perception of what college composition is or could be, but do take issue with an apparent desire to institute a multimodal curriculum in lieu of one which is focused entirely on writing. It seems to me that we are talking about two separate methodologies, which have equal value and could be taught within the same program--separately or as two distinct classes within a block. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeonly person who values language and written expression to the point where I am unable to see this issue without bias (possible!), but I still think that a class which focuses exclusively on writing and its processes should be compulsory for undergraduates. In fact, I think it’s essential (but that's another blog entry). Of course the old model is broken in many ways but that doesn’t mean you re-invent the wheel, necessarily; it just means you have to find new approaches and philosophies. Shipka has done that obviously, and I appreciate her efforts; I’m just not entirely sold on her vision of how and when her ideas should be employed.

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