Know Your Theory! – Process Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, part 3 describes expressivist composition theorypart 4 examines feminist composition pedagogy, part 5 concerns genre composition pedagogy, and part 6 looks at literature composition pedagogy.

Process Composition Pedagogy

I write in a scattershot format. I start out by writing out key concepts and interesting phrases on a blank document. Then I flesh out each concept, move things around, and try to let a structure reveal itself. My goal is to expand each concept and idea until it organically dovetails with what comes before and after. This requires a lot of hemming and hawing, indecision, and general consternation. At the bottom of each document I keep a “Misc. Ideas” section where I dump seemingly random thoughts. By the end my hope is that each paragraph and section successfully bleeds into the next, creating a narrative thread that ferries the reader along from point to point. I didn’t realize this until someone asked me to describe my personal writing process. With that in mind, this final post in the Know Your Theory! series describes process pedagogy. How do writers write?

I could reduce every composition theory explored in this series to a value statement. For example feminist composition pedagogy uses writing to address and achieve social justice in the classroom. Genre pedagogues bring attention to the different ways genre shapes our perception of and interaction with various forms of literacy. Each links writing with a goal larger than the writing itself. This is not the case with process pedagogy. Process pedagogy uses knowledge about how students write in order to improve student writing; writing is both the subject and the object. The idea behind process pedagogy is simple to understand: focusing on how we write improves what we write. The simplicity of the idea belies the semi-radical nature of process pedagogy. In order to understand that we need a glimpse of what was happening on the composition scene before the process movement kicked off.

The Spectre of Traditionalism

As an inner categorizer, my natural inclination is to reduce everything to discrete units so I can slot them into the appropriate categories. I also have a penchant for periodization. Many of my frustrations about trying to understand the composition field stem from my (and the field in general’s) inability to offer up a formalized chronology of major events. Even if I could cobble together some sort of linear history, the sequential logic of A -> B -> C ignores the complex vertical negotiations between institutions and teachers that bubbles and froths below any orderly history.

Ever since its beginnings at a Dartmouth College Seminar in 1966, process pedagogy has loomed large over the field of composition. It offered an appealing challenge to current-traditionalism, the dominant paradigm of composition instruction at the time. In order to understand the widespread appeal of process pedagogy, it’s first necessary to explore the methods of current-traditional instruction. My writing about current-traditionalism is in the present tense because it still lives on in many classrooms across the country. I say this not to disparage teachers but to point out that what we do in our classrooms often borrows from different bodies of theory at different times. Restricting yourself to a single theory is myopic and limits your ability to reach a diverse population of learners.

Current-traditionalism (CT), called so because it brings traditional beliefs into current classrooms, is defined as “formulaic notions of arrangements; an inflated concern with usage and style…no discussion of drafting, and a focus on grammatical and mechanical correctness.” Students in a CT classroom can expect to practice writing in the dominant modes of expository, descriptive, narrative, and argumentative. In terms of assessment and end goals, CT measures student writing against well-established pieces of professional writing. Compared to professional and published writing, student compositions naturally come up short. Since CT views writing as the combination of parts (thesis statement, topic sentences, concluding sentences) and axiomatic rules (avoid sentence fragments, watch out for comma splices, don’t split infinitives), creating a polished piece of writing means attending to the mechanics and usage of established grammar and genre.

A CT approach views writing as an assemblage of knowable parts. Take the paragraph, for instance. Current-traditionalism borrows its definition of the form and function of a paragraph from Alexander Bain’s seminar paragraph definition of 1866. Don’t be fooled by the archaic date and unfamiliar name; Bain’s definition of the perfect paragraph continues to hold sway. The picture below is a page from one of the many writing textbooks in my school’s English rooms (Write Source: A Guide for Writing, Thinking, and Learning).

Capture

Paragraphs should be written as mini composition in which every sentence must fall under dominion of the powerful and guiding introductory topic sentence. I mention the paragraph for two reasons: to highlight the ways current-traditionalism lives on in English classrooms and to provide a minor peak into the world of English textbooks (For a fascinating look into the ways textbooks have influenced English check out Textbooks and the Evolution of a Discipline by Robert J. Connors).

Much like every other composition pedagogy I’ve covered throughout this series of posts, current-traditional pedagogy is no one thing. It’s marked by the struggle “between stasis and change” that characterizes all pedagogy.  Mentioning CT’s status as a pedagogy-in-flux is important because it’s often viewed as a calcified set of beliefs and practices which no longer serve any instructional value. It’s also worth noting that teachers who employ pieces of current-traditional pedagogy are certainly not “bad” teachers. The more I learn about composition studies, the easier it is to understand why many K-12 English Language Arts teachers implement a variety of writing strategies, some in contradiction with each other.

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From Product to Process

The above image (from A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al.) sums up the changes between current-traditionalism and process composition.  The ideological assumptions behind the process approach “represented an important shift in priorities, attitudes, and the use of class time.” Process pedagogy places a focus on the process of writing, on the various methods and strategies real writers employ to create a piece of writing. We’ve already discussed a few reasons why this change was so monumental.

Early process approach split the writing process into three main components. Donald Murray’s landmark essay Teach Writing as a Process, Not Product suggested the tripartite structure of prewriting, drafting, and revising that continues to hold sway today. While certainly not new (classical rhetoric’s five-part canon includes invention and arrangement), spending instructional time on prewriting and content generation before drafting was an important break from tradition.

The rise of process pedagogy paralleled newfound interest in the composing process of the student writer. Educators like Janet Emig, (The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders),  Nancy Sommers (Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers), and Muriel Harris (Composing Behaviors of One- and Multi-Draft Writers) produced groundbreaking scholarship investigating the ins and outs of the composition process.  How do students approach a new piece of writing? How do they move between writing process stages? How do the moves made by students and expert writers compare? Thanks to these and other efforts, we know that good writing requires copious amounts of revision, and that beginning writers spend the least amount of time on revising and editing. Process scholars have also helped illuminate the complex situational variables that inform how a student approaches a piece of writing. Location, purpose, audience, genre, and mindset are just a few of the factors that affect student writing. The fact that these ideas may seem obvious to us now is a testament to the near hegemonic influence of the process pedagogy movement.

writing-process-a

Criticism and Push-Back

As with all schools of theory, early incarnations of process pedagogy were refined and rebalanced by academics and practitioner-scholars. Many of us might remember (or use) some form of a process wheel in our classes. We now know that there is no one process. Expecting students to move from prewrite to publish in a linear fashion misses much of the point of process pedagogy. For this reason later theorists stressed the recursive nature of writing.

Composition’s social turn, a move in the late 1980s/early 1990s to reorient the field to include issues of culture, ideology, and sociality, reminded compositionists that when it comes to writing, culture matters. Any effective English teacher must account for cultural differences in how children, families, and schools when planning for student writing. In Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit offers a scathing critique of progressive teachers who engage children in peer critique and brainstorming while ignoring direct skills. Her book is a poignant reminder of the importance of a balanced approach to literacy.

Chances are if you teach English you’re familiar with some process pedagogy. Major education publishing houses like Heinemann produce scads of professional materials devoted to helping children flesh out ideas, revise drafts, and edit for standard grammar and punctuation. That’s why I’ve left the actual classroom component of this post until the end. I wanted to contrast process pedagogy with current-traditionalism because I think there’s incredible value in understanding where we come from.

This is my final post in the Know Your Theory! blog series, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.

Additional Resources Consulted:
Current-Traditional Rhetoric: Thirty Years of Writing with a Purpose by Robert J. Connors
Process Pedagogy by Lad Tobin
Coherence in Paragraph-Level Structures by Marc Pressley

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7 comments

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  2. Joanne

    I agree, Peter. Knowing where we’ve come from leaves us less in the dark in navigating best practices for our students. Shifting bulk of the focus from the product to our individual students meshes with the need to meet students at their points of need. You’ve reminded me of Delpit’s book, which has been patiently sitting in my professional library, waiting to be read.

    Like

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