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Divide to Conquer

Limiting the goals of English composition courses

Edgar Eslava
National ELT Conference Chia, Abril 24,2008

David Bartholomae, in “Inventing the University,”1 arrives at two main conclusions:

1. Students’ success in composition classes has a strong correlation with the appropriation of the language favored by academic tradition.
Nothing new for English teachers: if they want to survive the must learn to read and talk.

1. Bartholomae, D. Inventing the University. Connor, Robert and Glenn, Cheryl. The St. Martins Guide to Teaching Writing. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martins Press, 1995. 394-407

2. Students’ development of individualized modes of expression is not always welcomed (mainly because of the
weight that tradition imposes to academic writing).

Corollary: The use of personally-developed styles that do not correspond with the language accepted by the academic establishment is often punished, regardless of their effectiveness and fluency in transmitting content and meaning.

This conclusions are easy to agree on, and they point to some sensitive issues in composition teaching:

-The adequacy of personal discourses in the academic realm. It is not only a matter of finding out one's own voice, but to make it part of a well-established academic tradition.

-The weight of tradition defining the pertinence of different types of practices and tasks that instructors may include in their classrooms.
Teaching practices must adapt to the main goals of our classes.

- The role that students have played in their own admission to the community of academic writers. Students must be aware of their commitment with becoming members of a very sensitive and strict community.


the force of the argument has led to over-read the history of composition theory and its role in the classroom, overstating the goals and practices that composition instructors should pursue and include whenever they teach.

And things get all mixed up.

My aims for today’s presentation:
1. To define the context and extent of what I call the “overstatement problem.” 2. To present the basic lines of a suitable solution, the “divide to conquer” strategy, in the context of a community of critical thinkers.

“Divide to conquer” claims for a pedagogical dynamics, that limits the need for a permanent re-enacting of the history of composition theory while still responding to the actual needs of instructors and students: becoming members of communities that value multi-perspective approaches to conflicts’ resolution.

Instruction and critical thinking
English language instructors (us) maintain a two-fold relation with what I consider to be the main goal of any educative enterprise, the construction of a community of critical thinkers. 1. We are in very favorable situation for the construction of environments where critical thinking can be developed.

Few places compare to the classroom for its multiple options for generating stimulating discussions. In this space, the instructor can lead students from diverse backgrounds towards a mastery of analytical communicative skills.

Instruction and critical thinking
2. Because of the very nature of universities and schools as socially-regulated academic institutions, we are required to show the limits between what can be said and what cannot be said by those who aspire to become recognized as members of the academic community. In this sense, we set the limits of the admissible and the inadmissible.

To fulfill their task, teachers must:
- Design class activities not only in accordance with the curriculum proposed by their institutions but also structured under the notion that critical thinking only grows in a meaningful environment. - Lectures should share the stage with activities where students’ participation is the rule and not the exception. - Present their views in such a way that contributes to students’ mastery of the writing process. - Give writing assignments that ask students for creative approaches, rather than merely asking for proving their ability to memorize and repeat information, that beyond simply requiring logical consistency and grammatical precision allow them to place themselves as active voices in ongoing dialogues. - A serious commitment with ways of evaluating writing projects and in-class participation in such a way that students understand the grading process not as a punitive mechanism but as a feedback tool that allows them to see where they stand as critical thinkers and writers.

No wonder why some teachers feel overwhelmed by the heavy weight of their responsibilities.

Links with Critical Thinking A Critical Thinker is an individual who develops independent, creative, argument-based and multi-perspective ideas, and who is able to present and defend them competently addressing concrete audiences and responding to specific problems. (E.E.)
My definition shares: Dewey's pragmatic approach. Dewey (1916) Democracy and Education and Dewey (1938) Experience and Education).
Giroux´s radicalism. Giroux (1983) Theory and resistance in education: A pedagogy for the opposition, Giroux (1992) Border crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education) My definition does not go as far, as Giroux does, as to declare political action as the main goal of critical thinking. It opposes some more restricted approaches that qualify critical thinking as the result of the close observance of a set of formal activities and the development of particular skills (for example Lipman (1988) Philosophy goes to School, and Ennis (1994) Dispositions and abilities if ideal critical thinkers. )

The primary advantage of such a broad definition is that it rests on the fact that the generation of ideas involves the individuals who generate them and the contexts where they are needed as responses to concrete situations.

A typical problem: From the formal approach, this social contextualism is reduced to a mere
accidental issue that can be ignored as part of the process of reaching formal correctness and that plays no role once such correctness is reached. This is why curriculums centered on the formal aspects of the composition process tend to promote objective measures of students’ progress and efficacy and to pay little attention to the relation between class activities and the students’ worldviews.

As my operative definition suggests, teachers in general are in highly favorable position to participate in the generation of environments where critical thinking can grow naturally. This feature, if taken seriously enough, would generate class dynamics where the traditional roles of students and instructors as the ends of a lineal process of information interchange are replaced by that of members of a community of critical thinkers.

Argument-based ideas. Multi-perspective ideas.

Present and defend ideas.
Address concrete audiences
Not a one-way communication

Respond to specific problems/tasks.

For that reason composition instructors are in a privileged position as critical thinking leaders and promoters. They act in a territory full of possibilities to incorporate in their classes alternative viewpoints about shared problems, and the topic of their classes cannot be more appropriate for the task of developing critical thinking: a mastery of writing allows individuals to communicate in diverse contexts and to present their ideas in a wide variety of modes. Consider for example how public discussions of conflictive issues such as state legislators’ decisions and citizen’s political participation would benefit from voices of individuals capable of addressing the central arguments of rival positions and to put them in fair dialogue. Such individuals would help transforming open forums into standpoints for agreement.

Therefore: teaching composition naturally subsumes the promotion of critical thinking.
The critical thinking approach enriches the practice of teaching composition by introducing into the teaching practice valuable elements such as new roles for students and instructors and a fresh way to undertake the construction of class dynamics.

It is in this context that the problem of overstating goals and practices must be understood.

The overstatement problem
The overstatement problem is a twofold problem: 1. 2. The over-reading of the lessons from the history of composition theories. Traditional methods are based on a view of writing process that positions it as the most important communicative activity (at least for college-level students), leaving unattended not only the rest of communicative practices that play a role in the construction of discourses and disciplines but, more insidious, the fact that they are in permanent dialogue with one another.

The overstatement problem
1. The over-reading of the lessons from the history of composition theories.

Instructors try to condense all the lessons from the history of the discipline in their current practices, without questioning the particular agendas and objectives that such a history serves.

They tend to forget the enormous difference between the time necessary for history to be built and the time frame in which active instruction is confined.

We know too much about our discipline if we try to use all our knowledge at once.
It is true that there is a tradition we are preserving and actualizing every time we get into the classroom. We know about contexts, audiences, stages, theories, models and activities.

The students we find in front of us are individuals starting in different developmental stages, belonging to diverse social contexts. We know too much if all our knowledge needs to be displayed on daily basis. There will never be enough time for responding to all the variables history teaches us we should consider for integrating the immense amount of tasks that generations of educators have shown we can perform to complete our goals, for understanding and executing all the different theoretical approaches we know could be understood and executed in order to make our practice more effective.

The overstatement problem
It takes more that just one or two academic terms to develop solid and structured writers, but that is about the time that composition instructors usually have to participate in the progress of their students.

The problem is then trying to do much more than what we can effectively do, just to be respectful with the knowledge gained from history.

A path to solve the problem:
We have to carefully select the goals and activities around which our practice gravitates and avoid the tempting way of pretending we can do everything every time. Comprehensive goals are not at odds with using a limited number of strategies to achieve them. Multi-perspective projects do not imply missing the focus our class activities. Integration does not mean mixture, it means recognition of the existence of multiple suitable solutions to particular problems, and finding out which out of the multitude is the one that better serves us.

“Divide to conquer” means limiting the goals and focuses the tasks that basic composition courses should accomplish, and extends the timeframe for accomplishing those goals.

Extending in time the inclusion of formal and practical issues about composition reduces the possibilities for being overwhelmed by the cumulative character of our knowledge. Modifying instructional formats that propose mastering different composition styles and purposes in a mater of weeks with, say, term-long formats that promote the mastery of fundamental skills avoids a dangerous mixture of goals and would prevent students to be overloaded with activities.

History allows us to the set goals and provides with examples of suitable ways to conquer them.

The second half of the overstatement problem is to place writing as the fundamental communicative activity.
Maybe that was the place writing had a couple of decades ago when only printed versions of fine stylistic correctness played a relevant role in the construction of academic discourses.

But with the arrival of some, mostly electronic, new technologies into the universities and research centers, written texts have been modified and in some cases replaced by alternatives communicative strategies such as teleconferencing, visual imaging and multimedia formatting. The context in which contemporary writing is used, and taught, is one in which it competes against other communicative activities to get the approval of the academic discourse.

A divide-to-conquer based program acknowledges this fact and uses it in the benefit of both instructors and students. Composition instructors would find that in their effort for offering students tools that allow them to understand, interpret and judge a diverse set of contexts and media (written, drawn, played, multi-media constituted) there would be no better way than to integrate them into multi-dimensional discourses. Replacing the seemingly endless list of micro-projects that has traditionally been used to gain practice in diverse writing styles and formats by projects focused on certain basic skills and that help students to gain familiarity with the multi-dimensionality of the current academic discourse would serve the instructor’s cause while making their practice more interesting and rewarding.

Students would find that such integrative projects open new ways for effective use and construction of their own “discursive voice,” with the emphasis placed not in the supremacy of writing over the rest of communication strategies, but in the benefits that mastering composition offers for participating in a multidimensional dialogue - precisely the kind of dialogue that critical thinkers are to generate and promote.

End of the theory, let us see an example

Course Description [of a classical Eng 101 class] Composition 1 provides students with the rhetorical foundations that prepare them for the demands of academic and professional writing. The course will help students understand the strategies and processes that good writers use when they try to accomplish a specific purpose. In college, these purposes include writing to understand and to demonstrate that understanding; writing to teach, entertain, or persuade a reader; writing to pose or solve problems; and writing to explain or challenge existing knowledge. The course will also teach students to respond effectively to the writing of others, and to use the suggestions of their teacher and their peers to improve their own writing. Some class discussion and readings focus on the function and scope of language and communication in a variety of social contexts.
Student Learning Goals

Upon completing English 10, students should be able to: •Effectively use and analyze forms and conventions of academic writing; •Generate good writing using the help of specific methods for inventing and elaborating ideas, for arranging these ideas to achieve a specific rhetorical purpose, for producing good style, for revising and for editing; •Write well in a variety of rhetorical contexts; •Understand the ways that purpose, process, subject matter, form, style, tone, and diction can be shaped to address a particular audience in a specific situation; •Demonstrate understanding of the ways that language and communication shape experience, construct meaning, and foster community; •Use Edited American English appropriately.

Course calendar Week 1 (Aug.20-24) Diagnostic Presentation of Class Syllabus, activities and assignments Introduction of Paper 1 assignment Week 2 (Aug.27-31) Generating and focusing essay’s ideas Narration and description Week 3 (Sept. 3-7) First paper due Labor Day Holliday Focusing (II) Introduction of paper 3 assignment Week 4 (Sept. 10-14) Second paper due Introduction of Paper 3 assignment Audience awareness Week 5 (Sept. 17-21) Persuading and argumentation Discussion of a classical Philosophical argumentative text

Week 6 (Sept. 24-28) Third paper due Introduction of Paper 4 assignment Week 7 (Oct. 1-5) Research tools Design of a research outline Week 8 (Oct. 8-12) MLA and other technical tools Technical workshop Week 9 (Oct. 15-19) Illustration and exemplification Fourth paper due Week 10 (Oct. 22-26) Comparing and contrasting Fall Break (Oct.27-Nov.4) No Classes Week 11 (Nov. 5-9) Analyzing the writing process Week 12 (Nov. 12-16) Fifth paper due Review of theoretical content Focusing on the final document

Week 13 (Nov. 19-23) Review of technical tools Grammar workshop Week 14 (Nov. 26-30) Editing and revising documents Week 15 (Dec. 3-7) Final paper due (Monday) Course evaluation Preparation for the final exam Final Exam Dec. 10, 10:00-12:00

Course Description [of a classical Eng 101 class]
Main activities: Read and Write. Main resources: Textbooks. Final product: Large amount of diverse (unconnected) material, plus final exam.

A less classical (real) example
Course goals: extend the skills of expository writing and critical thinking, appreciate and interpret drama and poetry, and write analytically about them; understand literary principles and use basic terms important to critical writing and reading; and document essays using textual evidence. This section will focus on the plays of Shakespeare and film adaptations of those plays. Students will learn to deal with the challenges of reading Renaissance drama, discuss the importance of cultural context in reading Shakespeare, explore reading film as literature, and examine issues of adapting and updating the plays for the screen. Course requirements: Students will write four essays (two drafts and two finished texts) . In addition to writing papers and doing other work, all students will create a Final Writing Portfolio that counts approximately as one-third of their final grade. The Portfolio will include: • a biography of the portfolio author and, if desired, a picture of the writer or other relevant image; • an Introductory Reflective Essay that presents a significant "thesis" to be demonstrated by the individual writing exhibits; • two of the four essays written for the class--revised, edited, and polished as final products for the portfolio; • one example of writing that demonstrates and discusses the student's composing process and revision skills/process; • one example that demonstrates and discusses the student's contribution to peer review; • one "wild card" submission chosen by the student.

A less classical (real) example. Main activities:

Read, discuss, interpret, watch, document analysis, write.

Main resources:

Films, personal portfolio, Shakespeare’s.

Final products:

Two sets of connected essays, Writing portfolio, enactments.

Students would find that such integrative projects open new ways for effective use and construction of their own “discursive voice,” with the emphasis placed not in the supremacy of writing over the rest of communication strategies, but in the benefits that mastering composition offers for participating in a multi-dimensional dialogue precisely the kind of dialogue that critical thinkers are to generate and promote.
Theoretically speaking, even if the general features of a text could be understood in similar ways for multiple readers, the transmitted message or the aesthetic effect it provokes could probably be considerably different. For example, depending on personal backgrounds and interests, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet can be seen as a drama of passion and devotion of young lovers, or as a tale of immaturity and foolishness, or it could be viewed as a story that points out the need for transgressing social rules and commitments when trying to get what is desperately wanted, or the theme of the angst and hollowness of two lives that look for their meaning out of themselves.

After all…

Who can explain a kiss, with words only?