Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Reading and Writing

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Cherly asks why, in America, local community colleges don’t contract with local businesses to teach the skills those businesses need–but, of course, they do.

The problem is that, when it comes to communications skills, to the abilit to read and write coherently, the methods the community colleges, and the high schools, and the four year colleges are using generally don’t work.

An employer seeing a transcript from an unknown college as part of an applicant’s resume will have no way of knowing of that A in  English Composition means the applicant can write well, or can write competently, or can’t write at all.

The first time I ever heard of a composition course was when I was assigned to teach one at Michigan  State in the mid 1970s.  Before then, “freshman composition” had always meant, to me, an introduction to writing about literature course, with assignments in poetry, fiction and drama.  This is the kind of thing Robert is talking about when he complains about being forced to read Silas Marner.

Composition courses, though, often offer no imaginative literature of any kind.   At most, they might offer one short story here and one poem there in a section on how to write about literature.

The bulk of these courses are taken up with attempts to teach students to write coherent standard essays, and they don’t work very well for lots of very good reasons. 

The very first problem, of course, is that it is nearly impossible to teach somebody to write coherently if he can’t read coherently.   And most of the students I teach, even the good ones, cannot be properly said to be able to read.

This is not the result of having been bored by high school force-feeding of the  Canon.  Most high schools these days don’t bother with the Canon, and these kids have grandparents who learned to read very well indeed with that same force feeding.

The reason my kids can’t read is simple: they have no context, and because they have no context they don’t understand what’s going on on the page in front of them.

I’m not talking about some vast, expansive acquaintance with the literary Canon, or with the intellectual history of the West.  I’m talking about the very basic everyday common knowledge without which it is impossible to read  your way through the op ed page of even a mediocre newspaper.

Try this.  Identify the following:  Joseph Stalin.  Pearl Harbor.  1984.  David  Souter.

Most of my students could not identify any of the above.  At all.   The most common response I got to a request to identify Souter was that he must be the Craig’s List Killer.  Stalin is a complete blank to them, and 1984 is just a year in the mists of time before they were born.

Most of my students cannot place the US Civil War in the right century, and an alarmingly large minority of them don’t even know there ever was a US Civil War.   They’re vaguely aware that there was a WWI and a WWII, but they con’t know even approximately when they happened, or why. They’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet but not King Lear, and they’ve read neither of them.

They’re largely unaware that there was ever a time when women in the United States were penalized for getting pregnant out of wedlock, or a time when the law barred children so born from inheriting from their fathers.   They don’t know that the name for what they call “Christian” is, in the rest of the world, “Protestant,” or why anything would be called “Protestant.”  

I could go on like this, but you get the picture.  A student doesn’t have to be dealing with esoteric references to obscure literary works to find herself lost in a text.  These students will be lost in most texts. 

Which means that, if I get them on the college level and I want to teach them to write, I can’t do it by the most effective method, which is by getting them to read lots and lots of really good writing.  They won’t know what it means, and they won’t try to find out.  They’ll just skip over it and declare that it’s incomprehensible.

In case you’re wondering, they do the same with a lot of the popular culture they claim to like.   Green Day videos are as incomprehensible to them as essays by George  Orwell.  Their response is to shrug, decide they don’t care, and only pay attention to the music.

Still, I’ve now got a classroom full of kids who are supposed to be taught how to write in spite of the fact that they don’t really know how to read.  If I’m teaching in a contemporary American high school or community college (or even the bottom end of the four year colleges), I do this by standing in front of a classroom with 25 or so students in it and providing lectures, examples, exercises and finally homework to see if  I can bring them round to doing it.

What reading we do will come out of a textbook written specifically to be used in Composition classes.  These textbooks mean well, but they have one thing in common:  the readings they offer are mindnumbingly, soul crushingly dull.

Composition textbooks do not, in general, push a specifically liberal or conservative line.  They might be better if they did.  Instead, they present essay after essay that is “thoughtful,” “concerned” and “well-reasoned,” meaning that none of the readings ever does the print equivalent of raising its voice.

Almost all the essays are more or less contemporary, and almost all of them are more or less alike.  There are lots of entries from contemporary authors that talk about the problems of growing up Latino/native American/female/gay/Christian/Muslim/with an alcoholic parent.  The idea seems to be that the confessional style and a nearly fanatical concentration on the personal experience will somehow be “relevant” to eighteen year olds.  If the writers of these essays had more interesting lives, maybe they would be.

Other essays in these books present “reasoned arguments,” and the arguments are always studiously reasonable.  And contrary to the mythology, they don’t always present a single point of view.  I got a new textbook in my mailbox yesterday.  It included essays on the issue of divorce from both Barbara  Dafoe Whitehead and Stephanie Coontz, respectively the conservative and liberal voices of that particular public debate.

The best of the composition books out there, that I have seen, is called Current Issues and Enduring  Questions–and it’s actually published by  St.  Martin’s.  Yay!

But it”s the best because it provides some not very well reasoned essays, including one by Rush Limbaugh that absolutely blows the roof off the room.   Most of my students–this is blue state Connecticut we’re talking about here–don’t agree with  single thing he says, but they love the way he writes, because he is not thoughtful, or reasonable, or middle of the road.  He even gives some of them the idea that there might be some point in writing things afterall.

That said, at the end of the day, we’re left with that problem of context.  The reason Mary has so much better luck with the people she hires who have managed to make it through a four year college program is that–depending on the school–they’ve had four more years to build that context, to learn to read, and to therefore be in a position to be better able to communicate on any level.

But lack of context is ont a problem I’m going to be able to solve on my own in one semester when I’m faced with 25 students who are sitting in a room waiting for a “class.”   If you’re really going to teach these students to write, you’d do much better with a focussed tutorial system.

Give these kids one on one time with their teachers.  Have teachers personally explain all the corrections to essays.  Have the teachers monitor each draft.   Have the teachers change the course of the program to fit each individual student’s weaknesses–

Doing this sort of thing in a traditional school is virtually impossible.  And the schools are institutions with entrenched hierarchies and established procedures.   It’s hard to make them move in any direction at all.

The proprietary schools, on the other hand, move as fast as they need to to stay in businesses.  They can provide the kind of tutorial I’m talking about online, because one teacher can deal with forty students individually on line, and pretty much all at once. 

What’s more, they can respond to the kind of complaints that traditional schools cannot.  Got a teacher that’s just blithering on about his personal life instead of teaching?  How about one you gives As to papers he agrees with politically and marks down any he doesn’t?  How about one who doesn’t care what he’s supposed to be doing–teaching a skill–but wants to be doing something else he finds much more important, like making students away of global American hegemony or the need for more stoplights in the central shopping district north of town?

The faculty at proprietary schools do not have tenure.  There are no established “departments” and “divisions” setting policy on how courses are run or what their content should be.   That means the proprietary schools can focus on particular goals without distractions.

And I think that that’s where this system is going.   For students, the proprietary schools make much more sense than the traditional kind in all but a few cases.   They get in, they get their work done, they learn what is relevant to them and then they’re out. 

This sis not, of course, a real education, and it does not address the problem at the root of the confusion in American education. 

But the fact that it’s alread started up on its own means that the irrelevance of the present system and its replacement by something m ore workable, at least in this area, is coming sooner than you think.

Written by janeh

May 19th, 2009 at 9:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Reading and Writing'

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  1. Its been one of those sleepless nights and I’m irratabele as hell. Jane’s post has touched a number of nerves, so be warned, I’m going to RANT!

    “Try this. Identify the following: Joseph Stalin. Pearl Harbor. 1984. David Souter.”

    I know all of them but why do I know David Souter? Because I browse the NY Times online and its been going on and on about Obama MUST appoint a judge who is pro-abortion, pro-affirmative action and pro-gay marriage. Otherwise the universe will end.

    I’ve lived in Australia for over 30 years and I don’t know the names of any of our High Court judges. Why should I? The High Court is rarely in the news.

    Frankly, I consider the fact that the US worries so much about the Supreme Court as a symptom that the country is seriously sick.

    And on the subject of general ignorance of what should be common knowldge, there were two stories on TV “news” last night which annoyed me.

    Someone reported that the standard brands of pizza (both fresh and frozen) all exceed the recommended daily dietary allowance for salt.

    So what? Granted, if one eats too much salt for day after day for months, one might get high blood pressure. That’s not the same as saying that you will drop dead if you eat one high salt meal. Doesn’t anyone remember the difference between average and single incident?

    And Sydney has had a number of wide spread blackouts lately. It turns out that there have been no major upgrades of the electric distribution system in 50 years. As a response, the power companies are planning to build new substations. And being opposed by citizens action groups. Why? Because everyone knows that the electric and magnetic fields associated with high voltage power lines cause cancer. That claim has been investigated many times and no one has found proof of it. But someonce once did a statistical study and found a weak correlation. “Everyone knows” that a single statistical study is convincing scientific evidence and that any study which doesn’t agree is just evil capitalists endangering the public health.

    And why do I keep reading reports that average male life expectancy is 78 and female is 81 followed by claims that Women’s Health Is Being NEGLECTED” and that the chemicals in our food and water are killing us? Doesn’t anyone remember that life expectancy used to be 65 back in the pre-historic days of the 1930s?

    End of Rant. I’m going to go have a throughly unhealthy high calorie, high fat breakfast.


    19 May 09 at 1:09 pm

  2. I won’t go into the latest efforts of the local authorities to defend us against secondhand smoke, John. It might inspire another rant! It almost does with me, and I’m a non-smoker who is really grateful that I can go on buses and in offices without smelling smoke.

    Jane, what do you mean by ‘proprietary schools’? If you mean private colleges (community colleges), my experience is that they do far less online teaching than the public colleges, universities and the K-12 systems, and cut costs on everything from student resources (like libraries, either brick or online) to teachers. I don’t think they worry a lot about their teachers as long as they don’t cost too much money. Even with all this attention to the lowest cost, they seem to have a disconcerting tendency to go bankrupt, leaving their students to be bailed out – mostly by public systems.

    And online teaching doesn’t necessarily mean one-on-one tutoring. It can be essentially a live class packaged for online offering instead. It doesn’t take any less time to give individual feedback to 40 people online than it does to do it in person. Moreover, online communication is not as easy or as clear as f2f – and some individuals find it very difficult to use. Don’t get me wrong; I like learning online and have done a number of credit courses that way. But I’m *already* literate; I type relatively fast and at length, and I like computers and am comfortable with a range of useful and common programs. Not everyone is. Even some people who take online courses successfully sometimes complain that they find it harder to understand something explained solely through text, without the feedback you get and give through body language, which can lead a teacher to instantly see that one illustration isn’t getting through and to switch to another one.

    Online learning is probably here to stay, but I’m not convinced it’s the ideal for everyone, and certainly not that it’s a good method for someone who can’t read well, and whose response to finding something difficult is to dismiss it. And that’s when it’s being provided by institutions big and well-funded enough to have the computer setup and the techs you need behind the scenes as well as teachers.


    19 May 09 at 5:00 pm

  3. Cheryl, I’m also a non-smoker but won’t rant on 2nd hand smoking. How about this gem from recent Australian politics.

    The Government should increase health benefirs for low income earners. To be financed by increasing the already heavy tax on cigarettes.

    Sounds good but every survey on smoking reports that the bulk of heavy smokers are low income!


    19 May 09 at 5:15 pm

  4. Eighth grade. The persuasive essay the the research paper with footnotes were both eighth grade, give or take. And now we’re hoping with improved teaching methods to get this from our college graduates.

    Maybe the end is near, but I wouldn’t bet on it. There seems to be an implicit assumption that schools hire high schol or college graduates because they have certain skills, that the students need or want to aquire these skills, and that the schools are threatened when they don’t educate the students. This is true–over in the schools of Chemistry, Engineering, Medicine and a number of others. But they’re doing fine.
    The crisis seems to be among students looking for a job which requires “any four-year degree” the employers who hire such, and the faculty of the “fuzzy science” end of the Humanities. Are they in the same system with the same incentives? I don’t believe Friar William would back you on that one. The businesses are hiring ability, not knowledge–though they’re understandably miffed that the kids don’t have junior high level knowledge. (They don’t dare test for it as a condition of hiring, lest the wrong people pass the test.) The colleges and universtities know they have the students over a barrel, and emphasise how smart the students are that they admit, rather than how educated they have to be to graduate. The students are trying to game the system the best they can and the parents and taxpayers–well, no one cares too much about them. The people who take the most damage have the least influence, and those with the most influence are doing reasonably well out of the system. Things can go on like that for a VERY long time.
    And I first heard of William of Occam in Robert Heinlen’s GLORY ROAD–the same place I first heard of Cyrano de Bergerac, “jumping the broom” and SLA Marshal’s MEN AGAINST FIRE. I wasn’t looking for an education: I was looking for a good story, and found one. Perhaps you can get students to pick up the context necessary to be good readers without getting them to read for pleasure, but frankly it seems so difficult as to be almost perverse.


    19 May 09 at 5:48 pm

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