Saturday, May 25, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Education Reform (Everything Old is New Again)

Reading Albert Kitzhaber's 1953 dissertation Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850-1900 brought to the forefront of my mind an issue I've been tossing around since I began reading for this exam. Actually, it's an issue that's been bouncing around my mind even longer than that. When it comes to education, are we just repeating the past?

The Infinite Loop

Kitzhaber uses his dissertation to examine a time in the history of rhetoric that he feels isn't well-examined. By the end, he concludes that this is a period of "transition" but it is also a "not great" time for rhetoric, as the moves influenced by changes in curriculum (like the rise of the elective system) and the increase in standardized admissions tests turned rhetorical practice into a stilted, mechanized act that focused primarily on superficial correctness. 

Hey! That sounds familiar! Kitzhaber is talking about arguments that took place during the time of the Civil War, and yet these are arguments that my colleagues and I still have today. That would be disheartening enough, but (as Kitzhaber also makes clear), these arguments go back a lot further than that. 

The debate on whether invention (coming up with stuff to say) or style (how you say it) is more important in rhetoric is one that reaches back as far as our historical understanding of rhetoric go. We see Cicero privileging invention in De Inventione and the two trading places of importance off and on throughout rhetoric's roller coaster ride of actual usage. 

In Kitzhaber's time, there was debate about whether or not composition even belonged in college classrooms, as learning to write was considered an elementary skill that the students should have picked up long before they entered college. Rhetoric (which used to be taught alongside logic and ethics as part of a classical education that also included Greek and Latin) became relegated to freshman composition classes, and those were often looked upon with disdain by people who would teach these students in later classes. 

"Why can't composition teachers teach these students to write?!" they decry as they get students in their classrooms who make "major writing errors," whatever that means for that particular teacher. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed explains that writing teachers often get unsolicited advice on how to teach their courses because practically everyone writes: "I don’t imagine that physicists are often harangued about how to run their experiments and how to teach physics to their students, because most of us know jack squat about physics."

Instead of becoming defensive over our little piece of educational turf, though, that article suggests that we accept writing as everyone's responsibility, a concept that is popularized and put into practice through "writing across the curriculum" endeavors. 

Some worry that this kind of attitude will make writing classes as an individual unit obsolete. If anyone can teach writing, after all, then why waste time making students take a separate class on it? Why can't they just learn to write while also learning important information like history, psychology, and chemistry? 

This is essentially the style vs. invention argument rearing its head again. If the instruction of writing is all about how you say something rather than coming up with something to say, it would make more sense to outsource the whole of writing to other disciplines. They, after all, are the ones who come up with the stuff to say in the first place. 

But invention matters. Being able to come up with something to say is hard, and not having some training and practice in doing it leaves us withs stilted, formulaic essays. Think about the five-paragraph essay and how many students use that format to get through standardized tests or essay exams. It is comfortable and--after a few dozen times--easy. Many standardized entrance exams had to change the way they did the essay portion of their test when it was discovered that several Chinese students taking the exam had simply memorized entire essay formats, down to every sentence's structure, and plugged in appropriate vocabulary words for the essay prompt put in front of them. There is no invention to that. That is style, style, and more style, and it's not even original style. The problem with this, of course, is that style without substance doesn't challenge the mind of the writer, and those same students who score so much higher on standardized tests because they have been diligent and hard-working in memorizing the answers are now at a loss for how to innovate new ideas

But innovation? That's messy. If a student is trying something new, it's probably not going to look all that neat and trimmed. It certainly can't be quickly skimmed by a pressed-for-time teacher who wants the thesis statement and three points neatly lined up in the final sentence of the first paragraph followed by quick topic sentences in each subsequent paragraph that they can tick off like so many groceries in the list before moving on to the next paper. Invention is time-consuming, especially in an environment where class sizes continue to rise and more and more grading is being done by TA's who have their own classes and research to throw into the mix as well. (I remember being sent an essay on grading advice for TAs that told us if we were taking longer than ten minutes per essay, we weren't going to make it.) 

So here we are at this crossroads again. Kitzhaber says at the end of his dissertation that he wrote it because:
The tradition of rhetoric is now some 2,400 years old--one of the longest traditions still represented in the modern curriculum. Teachers of composition today [1953] fail to recognize that they and their work are part of that tradition. If a teacher is to have any perspective on his subject, he must know the tradition that lies behind it, know the place of himself and his times in the tradition, and, through this knowledge, be able to put a proper value on new developments in his subject as they appear.
Basically, Kitzhaber is echoing the adage of "anyone who doesn't know their past is doomed to repeat it." He calls for teachers of writing to know the history of their fights so that we can stop endlessly hashing out the same debate and move on to something new.

But when you're in the fight, it doesn't feel old. When these debates are causing real curriculum decisions, making real impacts on classrooms, and causing real fear in people who see their discipline going down the "wrong" path, it's very difficult to take a collective step back and examine the issue from a historical lens. 

If we can't do that, are we doomed to keep repeating the same thing? And what about the students who (purely by the chance of time's pendulum swing) fall victim to the "wrong" kind of rhetoric, whichever kind that happens to be? 

Photo: Frank Ates

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