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Inheritance and Change: A Literacy Narrative

When considering what is meant or popularly imagined by “writing instruction” in the twentieth (and now the twenty-first) century, it is possible to trace these perceptions historically, to see the roots and strands of ideas that often come to an individual as an inevitable cultural given. I think about my own introduction to writing as a child, and later as a (rather young) college student, then even later as someone working in composition/rhetoric as a graduate student and note the similarities/differences, competing/consistent ideologies, and embedded cultural assumptions along the way.

As predicted in Sharon Crowley’s book, as well as the chapter from Gold, Hobbs, and Berlin in A Short History of Writing Instruction, my first exposure to writing was via current-traditional methods with a focus on “arrangement and style, with instruction emphasizing the modes of discourse, clarity, and correctness” (Gold, Hobbs, Berlin 237). I also found myself inculcated within the assumptions of the “liberal cultural ideal,” where it is thought that reading great works of literature will improve one’s ability to use language and write. Much of my earliest work in writing instruction was via handbooks, including sentence diagramming, identifying parts of speech, correcting punctuation, and of course spelling drills. Later, probably around sixth or seventh grade, I did experience the combining of the literary with current-traditional methods where “the tendency to treat literary texts as models of current-traditional principles also appeared in composition textbooks” was distinctly visible (Crowley 116). I ask myself: Did these methods contribute to my ability to write?

Crowley notes that the literary/current-traditional methods are a tool of exclusion for those who either can’t master the intimidating list of rules or internalize the “correct taste.” But what of those who could? Do these methods work in some cases? Or is it overall an ineffective strategy to teach effective writing? And what IS effective writing? How do we evaluate that?

Thinking back to my own experiences, I note a few things. First of all, sentence diagramming, etc., did NOTHING to help my writing ability – I don’t recall once thinking about or connecting the two acts in any way. Those sorts of exercises were something to be “gotten through” as quickly as possible, as they were dull, and even to my mind then, somewhat ridiculous. What I do note, however, is that learning grammar helped me quite a lot once I started to study Latin – it is absolutely necessary to understand how grammar works at a rather fundamental level in order to be able to understand or translate Latin at all. Given the importance of Latin training in earlier pedagogical approaches, is it possible that learning grammar is mostly a throw-back to a time when it was necessary in order to learn Latin? I’m not sure how imperative it is to know grammar rules when learning other (perhaps more conversational?) languages, but to learn Latin, especially given that it is not generally spoken anywhere anymore, requires knowledge of grammar rules, including the ability to identify and name what every single part of a sentence is and does.

As a young person, I read voraciously, including quite a bit of what we would consider “Literature.” I read much more outside of school than inside of it, and I read a lot. I read all of Faulkner’s works (for the first time) when I was twelve; The Sounds and the Fury was my favorite. I have to say that it had a very profound effect on me – it was where I learned that one could do “different” things with language that were outside the bounds of what I had been taught. This was absolutely pivotal for me as both writer and a reader. I do recall having somewhere in my head the idea that reading “Literature,” which I could distinguish from “popular fiction” at a young age, was important and “character building,” as they say. I’m not sure where I developed or heard this idea – I recall having it well before anyone said it to me out loud. Maybe it was the fancy covers of the “important books” on my mother’s shelves – they were all housed together on the same shelves away from the books of fiction that had paper dust jackets – but somehow I knew that reading Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald (and later Shakespeare) “counted more” than reading popular literature. I read this stuff, a lot more than was required, when I was rather young – I probably started on the “classics” (though I would define that differently today) when I was nine or ten, and finished all that we had in the house well before I was thirteen.

There are a few other things that greatly influenced my development as a writer when I was young. The first that comes to mind is the winter I spent researching, writing, and typing up papers on various non-fiction topics. We had MANY snow days that year (we were buried under snow for almost an entire month) so I took the time to actually write things, including typing many of them. I was seven or eight years old at the time, and I probably wrote fifteen research papers – it was what I did for fun. Even prior to that, I taught myself cursive from an old textbook that I found – I painstakingly wrote my grandparents a letter after practicing cursive all day. I think I was five or six at the time.

Secondly, in grades five and six I was included in part of a “talented and gifted” program in my school, which meant that I didn’t stay in my regular class in the afternoons, but rather went to a “special class” of forth through sixth graders who were deemed “gifted.” We actually analyzed literature in that course, ala New Criticism, and asked questions about the purpose and deeper meanings of the works we were reading. This happened concurrently, I think, with my deeper desire to consume “Literature,” and was probably related now that I think about it. We did many other interesting things in this course, and it is where I wrote my first REAL research paper – it was on the sun and the (other) stars; I used multiple outside sources (I remember taking notes on note cards at the library) and once it was typed, it was forty-five pages long. It was rather impressive.

I also recall a very negative experience I had with a very literary-minded current-traditional pedagogy teacher in the eighth grade. She was actually my inspiration for reading Faulkner – she spoke of nothing but how “difficult” The Sound and the Fury was to read. Knowing it was on the shelf at home, and sensing how much she already disliked me for reasons that, at that age, I could not discern, I naively thought that reading this book she spoke of so much would give me some point of reference with her, something about which I could converse. This was a mistake. Though I loved the book (really, truly loved it) letting her know that I had read it and enjoyed it did not make my life in her class any easier. She managed to give me zeros on two exams, not because I didn’t “do well” oh them, but for other completely invented, technical reasons (e.g. the directions said “choose the best answer” so I circled the letter, whereas she supposedly wanted us to write the letter next to it, thus I received a zero). Ironically, I was given the opportunity to take the SAT that year as an experiment and scored better in the English section than any of the juniors or seniors in our school district. This experience did not deter my love of reading and writing, but it did destroy my enjoyment of school – this is when I stopped going and refused to return, even when police came to my house and told me that I had to. My argument was that if I “had to” go to school then it was no different than going to jail – it was just a different building embodying the same principle of force and compulsion – so they may as well arrest me. Could I make an argument that this is the result of current-traditional pedagogy? Perhaps.

Refusing to go to school led to boarding school, which was awesome. I was put into a boarding school for talented and gifted students and allowed to take college classes (the school was on a college campus) instead of study halls if my grades were high enough. I was also allowed to “work at my own pace,” which meant that I could do things like complete the entire year of biology in three weeks. Academically, I was in heaven – I completed all but one high school course in my first semester there. Unfortunately, their funding ran out, so at the end of my first (not full) year there the school closed. I was not going back to a conventional school, but at that point (it was past the application deadline for most other boarding schools) I had few choices. I ended up enrolling in a prestigious private school in Cincinnati, but I hated it. I was a farm kid surrounded by all white upper middle class suburban kids, whereas the boarding school had been much more culturally diverse. In addition, they did not want to honor my credits from the boarding school, and so were going to make me repeat all of the courses that I had worked so hard to complete quickly. I was having none of this.

The one thing that I did get out of being at that school was that an English teacher (again, in an accelerated class) finally gave us a very straight talk about what was actually conventionally expected in a paper – thesis statements, topic sentences, arrangement, etc. NO ONE had ever told ANY of us this before. Looking back on it and thinking about what I know of pedagogy now, I wonder if this omission in what was (silently) expected but not explicitly taught was a combination of current-traditional models where we just learned grammar but not whole compositions, plus a belief that we would just magically “absorb” good composing habits from reading literature. Whatever the reason, now I had the secret formula – I would never not get an A on a paper again.

I lasted about three months at the school before I couldn’t take the environment, intellectual and social, of high school anymore. (I was a sophomore by this time.) I stopped going since I knew that, in reality, one can get away with such things and not actually get arrested, and spent a few rather difficult months with no money, no food, no job (no one would hire a fifteen year old without school permission) and coming closer and closer to being homeless. It was a rather wretched time, but I lived through it. Did I read or write during this time? No. It is true that when one is reduced to the bare necessities of survival that things like “Literature” cease to have any meaning.

Eventually, I decided that I was going to go to college, so I made an appointment with admissions at U of Cincinnati, bringing my school transcripts and SAT scores with me. The first person I spoke with thought that it was “cute” that I was trying to get into college at such a young age and suggested that I come back in three years after I graduated, so I asked to speak with his supervisor. By the end of that afternoon, I was enrolled in college courses and applied for financial aid, which allowed me to eat and keep a roof over my head, at least once classes actually started a few weeks later. I managed to talk my way into a graduate level history course that first quarter, and completely because of my writing skills, was able to do very well in it. In fact, after our first paper, the professor had a small fit about the lack of writing skills in the class (sound familiar?) as he was handing back papers, but pulled mine out as exemplary of what he was looking for – he made the graduate students in the class read my paper, which was simultaneously embarrassing and gratifying. He had no idea that I was fifteen years old and I never told him.

James Berlin was in charge of the first-year writing program at U of Cincinnati, but despite his social-epistemic ideology, all of the composition courses I took were entirely of the literature + current-traditional method variety. I did very well in these courses, however, so I won’t complain (much). By this time, I had mastered the conventions well enough to succeed in any situation that was predicated upon writing ability. Writing was really all I wanted to do. I never much bought into the culturally endorsed belief of school as “job training,” and I was not sure if I wanted to spend my life participating in what passed for “work” out in the “real world.” I was very well aware of how little it took to subsist materially, and had an ideological objection to most capitalistic practices. Because of this, I spent most of my adult life working right at the edge of sustainability – I preferred to have time over money and found ways to survive with very little of the latter.

And what did I do with all that time? I wrote. And read, and learned, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I have thousands of pages of writing – it became how I think, or at least one of the ways that I think. I type in my dreams, narrating what is happening through my fingers while I sleep. I miss that life some days – many days – but having children changed my priorities. Now I care about things like health insurance, education funds, vehicles that run, grocery shopping without a calculator, and travel. I don’t regret any of this journey, and I can’t help but note how much writing has gone into it, continues to go into it, though at a much reduced rate these days. Now I think other people’s thoughts, write other people’s words, and consciously (if somewhat painfully) watch as I become “socialized” into a disciplinary discourse, reducing and cutting off (or at least not using) many of the most interesting and creative parts of myself in this process of “knowledge acquisition.” Why do I do it? For the same reason I read Faulkner – partially out of love, partially out of a belief that I am “building character” (which I now more imagine as encouraging neuroplasticity), and partially out of a drive for self-determination. It is what I choose to do, thus I’ll do it, even if it’s uncomfortable, difficult, or tedious. Perhaps this is all that character-building from a lifetime of reading “Literature” and writing within particular grammatical parameters.

So are the Literature + current-traditional “right?” Do they work? I don’t know…. They “worked” on me, shaping and forming my discursive identity though, largely because of writers like Faulkner and Joyce, they did not determine what I was able to write or do with their language. My language now is very controlled, very conventional – sometimes I feel like a rat in a cage because of it, but there is simply no time to “do my own writing.” In a sense, this pedagogical approach gave me a taste for something that is utterly impractical in the world, as well as models proving that it was possible to “break out” of conventional language use and push boundaries in ways that produce new ways of writing, thinking, and reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out a way to make a living doing that, nor did I try very hard – typically, it was my “regular writing” that I sold. In a way, I didn’t want to tangle up my “real” writing with materiality – there is a part of the “forget about the audience” thing that I understand. If I were writing strictly to persuade as general an audience as possible, would I write that way? No – I typically don’t. However, just as Joyce had an audience for things like Finnegans Wake, so too do I believe that just because an audience is limited that does not negate its importance or existence – I, for one, am quite glad that he wrote it, as reading it utterly changed the way that I view reality and interface with language. I do think about audience when I write, but they are an audience who will “get” these stretches of language, meaning, and cosmology. There are people who find that work accessible, but they are likely rather limited. I’m okay with that. I don’t write everything for everyone.

But here I am, studying rhetoric, teaching composition. I feel like I should wear a costume – heck, I do wear a costume – that matches the philosophical stance that I take on in order to do this work. Regardless of ideology, what students seem to want is “the secret formula,” the key to writing in ways that will lead to cultural/material success and I’m not too sold that we are doing much of anything else. Yes, we can package this in multiple ways. We can also (and should, in my opinion) discuss things such as ethics, especially if we are teaching from a rhetorical perspective. Words have power – words (and other media) consciously shaped by rhetoric have even more power. I can’t, in good conscience, teach rhetoric without ethics – there is no way to even pretend that rhetorical theory is “innocent” or not potentially implicated in human actions and outcomes.

When I read the history of pedagogical approaches in American over the past hundred years, I can’t help but map my own experience onto that, wondering at how multiple forces came together, largely (I imagine) outside of the conscious knowledge of most of the people who were teaching me across the years. Writing has become a part of what I do, how I interface with the world, how I compose and construct myself. What would I have done without literacy? Would another approach to teaching writing have led me to the same place? Perhaps, but by a different route – it is impossible to say. In reading these histories of writing pedagogy, I see strands of my own self-identity, as that is so related to writing and has been for such a good deal of my life. I (along with everyone else) am the intersection of multiple forces and social relations, converging and coalescing in one particular bio-matrix within time and space. How has writing interfaced with that?

From the experiences I’ve had on “both sides of the desk,” I don’t think that literary + current-traditional methods work for everyone, nor do I think they are particularly interesting (or useful) in many cases. During all that early grammar instruction, I was never asked to write a paper – I had to do that on my own. This process of exclusion (per Sharon Crowley) included me, but it did not include any, all, or even most of the people who were in a similar position. Is there any (one) pedagogy that does? Is there a way to assess what practices are most effective? And effective for what? I’m not certain that we even know what we are trying to accomplish by “teaching writing,” as it seems that there are many perspectives and desired outcomes to this act. I find writing itself, when I am doing it, a rather straight-forward means of expression for a variety of audiences and purposes; I find thinking about writing confusing, complicated, and fraught with contradiction. I enjoy both of these states, and thus continue to engage in both.

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One comment on “Inheritance and Change: A Literacy Narrative

  1. It is always interesting and enlightening to try to understand how this time in history really mapped out onto our own lives–what were our own experiences with writing? I’m glad you took the time to give us a peek into your own experience–it definitely makes me think about my own. I liked that you posed the questions of, “Did these methods contribute to my ability to write?” I agree with you that what little I did in terms of sentence diagramming didn’t seem to do much for me. Knowing the different parts of speech didn’t allow me to write better, at least not when I learned them in elementary school. It wasn’t until I had a STYLE class (yes, “Elements of Style”) as an undergrad that I could sort through the different parts of speech and use them more effectively–or, at the very least, I was more self-aware of what I was doing at that point. Did it really make me some hugely better writer? I’m not sure. It drilled into my brain that when I sometimes accidentally or not make my verbs far from my subject (as I just did) that can cause issues in clarity. Also, my professor did not like phrases such as “due to,” nor when people use “since” for “because.”

    So, “Did these methods contribute to my ability to write?” Probably not. And what does this say about the people who “can” write more easily than others (it’s not like other people can’t write–some really struggle, yes–but I find that it is more a case of writing easily or not).

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