Why Certain Trends in Composition Pedagogy Drive Me Nuts: A Twitter Rant

I lost my temper this morning on Twitter, and a couple people seemed to like what I was saying OK. I decided to post those remarks here, with, like, paragraphs and things, so that they would be readable. I’m accommodating like that.


This piece, which my buddies at @scMFA Tweeted early this morning, supports a long-held intuition of mine: that undergrad creative-writing courses are popular in part because they do what English 101 used to.

My university was behind on pedagogical trends. When I took Eng 101, we read nonacademic essayists such as Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner. (I still have a smudged Xerox of “On Faith and Fiction,” even though I bought the book it came from years ago: the sentimental value runs that deep.) And mostly we wrote in that vein, too. There was also a research paper, in which we chose a discipline and learned about both its methodologies and discourse conventions.

In grad school I learned that this approach, which helped me grow as a writer, was considered outmoded, if not outright anti-intellectual. What English 101 should do, I learned, is introduce first-years to “how theory gets used in the academy” (love that passive voice), which in practice meant using Ways of Reading to march the poor kids through the eight or ten continental theorists and scholar-activists who basically are the canon now. (You know the drill: Foucault, Said, Lacan, bell hooks.) If you assigned fiction, poetry, or plays, it was to teach the students to pick through them for signs of “the discourse” of this era, or of the era in which the pieces were written. I.e., you were doing a less sophisticated version of what lit scholars mostly do now: a weird activity somewhere between sociology, psychology, Marxist studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, and intellectual history, but that doesn’t really bother with those disciplines’ methodologies. Or, worse, you were doing philosophy, but without the rigor of actual philosophers. (If you want to laugh your ass off sometime, read Not Saussure, in which Raymond Tallis subjects some of the classic English-class nostrums to basic logical spot-checks. Of course a closed system can refer outside itself, you dolts, is one of the points he makes again and again. What do you think vision is?) Philosophy departments are often mean, competitive, macho, and lily-white in composition, but one mistake they mostly don’t make is to treat Foucault as the last word in serious thought.

The problem is that English 101, in these approaches, ceases to be ABOUT anything. It’s not women’s studies, it’s not literature, it’s not a social science. It’s not rigorous enough to be philosophy. It doesn’t provide enough background to be ethnic studies.

And it isn’t really a rhetoric course, either, insofar as it teaches you a couple of variations on what is basically one genre of writing: the academic (generally, you can be even more specific and say “the humanities”) conference paper.

Rhetoric, of course, is about learning the kind of sensitivity that enables you to write and read many genres. And guess where you can still get that training, if you want it? You can get it in undergrad creative writing. At least, you can until we finish professionalizing ourselves.

I’m not a reactionary. I don’t want English 101 to be the class where you learn that white dudes are the only people who can write, and that, more than anything, was the problem with the way a lot of those old-fashioned mode-based or Harvard-daily-theme-based courses were taught. But if it’s a choice between giving students Homer, or giving them a French psychoanalyst who was such a fraud that even the psychoanalysts kicked him out their union? Or the wordy, boring, authoritarian French Marxist who stabbed his wife? Or a bald nihilist who teaches that everything is a prison? Or an often-admirable black activist who doesn’t happen to be a very compelling prose stylist? (bell hooks once complained that she couldn’t get her non-scholarly writing published because the white publishing industry just wasn’t ready for a style as bold and nonlinear as hers. She’s right about the publishing industry, but, having read some of the work she was talking about, I’d have to say that the publishing industry was right about her, too. Gah.)

Really, I think a little Homer would be more intellectually freeing. (Especially if you happen to mention, as classical pedagogy didn’t, that Homer was brown, and preliterate, and oral-formulaic like Jay-Z.)

My point, I guess, is that English 101 is supposed to be a rhetoric course. And the works that we dignify with the name “literature” tend to be nothing other than very successfully exercised rhetorical knowhow. Period. When you go on speaking to an audience, even creating an audience, long after your death, it’s just because you were a great rhetor.

And I’d rather teach rhetoric by working through those sorts of works than by mooning over TV commercials or pop-song mashups or presidential press conferences or the way some fucking corporation rebranded itself.

My field of work, I worry, has the same problem evangelical churches were beginning to develop back when I was growing up in that world (now, of course, it’s so obvious that it’s become a cultural commonplace): to stay “contemporary” or, God help us, “relatable,” they dumb down. Instead of teaching students to memorize poems, so they can taste for themselves just how artfully arranged those syllables are (that artful arranging, remember, is rhetoric), we make sure they all know how to use Twitter and PowerPoint. That’s just like those preachers who abandon theology b/c “Joe Sixpack doesn’t care about theology.” Do your fucking job or go home, people. And if your job involves helping people to be more intellectually alive, it’s both a betrayal of civilization, and an insult to the God-given capacities of the people you claim to serve, if you abdicate that.

8 responses to “Why Certain Trends in Composition Pedagogy Drive Me Nuts: A Twitter Rant

  1. As someone from the literary side of the discipline who spends most of his time these days teaching advanced comp, I applaud most of these observations, from the condescension masquerading as sensitivity in much undergraduate education to the abomination that is “relatable.” I need to point out, though, that “gets used” isn’t actually passive voice: “gets” is an active verb, combined here with a participial adjective. It’s still ugly — call it a pseudo-passive construction. And given that we don’t even know if Homer was a real person, and if so whether he was an Ionian Greek as some traditions have it, asserting that he was “brown” — a term that surely has different associations today than in Hellenic culture — strikes me as a little odd. Ionians (such as those who lived Athens) were dark and Dorians (such as those who lived in Sparta) were light, but it would be anachronistic to draw a correlation to ethnic prejudice today.

    As for theory, it should be like a set of glasses you can take on and off as needed. I’ve gotten something out of reading Derrida (whether commensurate with the effort I can’t decide), less out of reading Foucault, and nothing at all out of reading Lacan except a headache. I’ve had a brief and unpleasant public encounter with Gayatri Spivack. My dissertation advisor, himself the theorist who first applied the term “postmodern” to literature, always called Lacan “the murkiest writer” he had ever encountered. The problems with theory start when people forget all theories are metaphors. They can be useful and illuminating, but the moment you start to inhabit any theory so totally that you forget it is something you impose on reality rather than something inherent in it, you’re down the rabbit-hole. To use the distinction made by Archilochus between foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing, devotees of a particular theory are hedgehogs. I tend to find foxes better company.


  2. Thanks for this comment, especially the correction of my grammar. Accuracy matters. That’s something else I want my students to learn.

    Re: Homer’s “brownness”: Yeah, that comment is definitely an anachronism. For some students it might be a helpful one. As an 18-year-old I thought of all literature taught in schools as part of a vast strange adult middle-class conspiracy (which also involved table manners and not listening to the Sex Pistols). It was all part of being “respectable,” or something. Inaccurate shock analogies–Shakespeare as the “Spielberg of his day,” and that kind of thing–helped me outgrow this habit of thought. In my experience as a teacher, non-white students sometimes experience canonical European literature, very similarly, as something that’s being foisted on them to valorize a “white world” of some kind. (And sometimes they’re right!) Emphasizing that Homer, if he was real, would almost certainly have been branded a moron had he turned up at Ellis Island in 1901, and that oral-formulaic compositional methods are more like rapping than they are like paper-writing, etc., helps them in the same way. It humanizes the man. It makes him a person instead of a norm. Or so it seems to me. (Of course you should often preface these sorts of statements with “This is a flawed analogy, BUT…”)

    Re: Derrida et al.: Yeah, I often come off as an “anti-theory” person when I say things like this, and I don’t really mean to. I admire DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH in a lot of ways. I don’t think Derrida is uninteresting. I have no idea what the fuck Deleuze and Guattari are talking about most of the time, nor is it a matter of great personal urgency to me how you go about reconciling Freudianism to Marxism (I’m neither a Freudian nor a Marxist, so it’s kind of like reading about how you reconcile Reichian psychotherapy with Christian Science or something); but I find the sheer weirdness of their formal devices inspiring. I’m glad they wrote. Same with Kristeva. What I hate is narrow-mindedness–what we might call hedgehoggery.

  3. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say the “get”passive is still
    technically a form of the passive voice. It is used in a different way than the “be”passive, but I’m pretty sure it is still passive by at least many grammar books. (Of course different grammar books take different perspectives on a lot of stuff, so maybe you could find a book somewhere arguing it’s not passive. But all the books I’ve always taught out of have labelled this as the passive voice.)

    • I just did a quick survey of a few books plus some online resources such as Purdue OWL, and every example of passive voice I see uses a form of to be with the past participle. On the other hand, Wikipedia notes, “the essential components of the English passive voice are a form of the auxiliary verb be (or sometimes get)” and cites a 1974 article by Paul Gee titled “‘Get Passive’: On Some Constructions with ‘get.'” I would have said that’s a minority opinion as well as a comparatively recent one, and the “sometimes” introduces a note of uncertainty, but this may one of those issues in which the people will disagree about the label without disagreeing about anything else. It’s like the controversy over whether Pluto is a planet or not, which last I heard is more like a 60/40 split that a settled decision. Still, if I were to split hairs, I do think the “get” construction sounds less inert than the “be” construction. “She got fired” has a little more oomph than “she was fired,” though it’s also somewhat less formal. You can also hear the energy in the well-known Chris Rock routine when he says someone “got shot!” — “was shot” wouldn’t be nearly as funny. The other problem is the ambiguity that results from expressions where it’s difficult to distinguish between a past participle verb and a participial adjective (“The game was completed”). For pedagogical purposes, I’m happy to simplify a bit.

  4. Oops, meant “than a settled decision” not “that,” obviously.

  5. As you indicated, the “get” passive has a slightly different nuance than the “be” passive. (It’s more often used to describe negative situations, for example). But both are forms of passive, and are routinely identified as such in the ESL grammar books I teach out of.
    No two grammarians agree on everything, of course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone out there had a different take on it. But I’m fairly sure that the majority view is that the “get” passive is a form of the passive.
    It is, as you’ve indicated, sometimes hard to distinguish between a past participle and a participial adjective, but in the case of “get” passive I think the majority view is that this is a form of passive construction.
    In the sentence
    In the sentence Phil used, “theory gets used” it seems fairly obvious that this is a passive construction. It can be easily substituted for a “be” passive “theory is used” and if you identify an agent it can be written in the active “people use theory”. I think you’d be hard pressed to make the case that “used” is a participial adjective in this case.

    On more point–I know this website is not authoritative, but check out their distinction between the get passive and the be passive. Yes, there are differences in usages to be sure, but they’re both a form of the passive voice

  6. Good site, thanks. It confirms my sense that the “gets” passive is less formal. And yes, Phil’s sentence clearly does not involve a participial adjective; I didn’t have his in mind. As I said, for pedagogical purposes, I’m content just to talk about the “be” passive and deal with the less common “get” passive when it comes up. I still think the difference, while a nuance, is more than slight, at least to my ear.

    Speaking of pedagogy, I’m struck by how easily a rather esoteric grammatical distinction became the point of focus in Phil’s thoughtful and wide-ranging post. After developing and refining a peer response process over the past decade that makes students take their peers’ essays home and type up complex, substantive responses to them — and which generally works well — for some reason this semester many of my students are spending three or four sentences explaining why a single punctuation mark or even a tiny aspect of formatting is incorrect. I’m about as OCD about my writing as Oscar Wilde (who once supposedly spent an entire morning taking out a comma, then spent the afternoon putting it back in), but at a certain point they’re not just missing the forest for the trees, but missing the trees for a bit of moss.


  7. >>>As I said, for pedagogical purposes, I’m content just to talk about the “be” passive and deal with the less common “get” passive when it comes up

    Yes, fair point. We may be coming at this from slightly different perspectives, since I work teaching ESL grammar. When teaching grammar to native speakers, I think you assume that they intuitively know how the language works, and just need some proscriptive rules for style. When teaching ESL grammar, we have to teach them how the mechanics of meaning function. Since the “get” passive is not used in formal circumstances very often, and since native speakers intuitively grasp the nuances of it even if they can’t explicitly articulate it, it probably doesn’t get taught in academic writing courses (probably why it didn’t come up in Purdue OWL for example). Since it comes up in informal English often enough to be noteworthy, I teach my students how to recognize it. In your academic context, I think you’re right not to focus on it.

    You’re right though, we are getting off on a tangent here and missing the main point. I’ll turn the discussion back over to you guys and shut up for a while now…

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