“Phew.” That was my thought as I read through the other CCCarnival entries on Sirc’s piece and discovered I wasn’t the only one who has not read the books that he reviews. I would have hesitated to offer any sort of critique on Sirc’s essay had it appeared essential to be intimately familiar with the works he discusses. Even though I cannot offer substantive comments on the books themselves (but feel suddenly obliged to at least page through them), I do feel compelled to respond to a couple of the issues that Sirc addresses so straightforwardly in his essay.
But first, let me say that as an English Composition instructor at a community college, I am always questioning my teaching practices, searching for better ways to incorporate my extremely diverse students’ individual interests and lived experiences into my course assignments and learning objectives. I pursue methods of making the personal more public (and vice versa), and topics to spark creative and critical thinking. I believe effective practitioners shouldn’t get too comfortable with their approaches to teaching writing, or we may risk falling victim to complacency.
Of course, all of this is hard. In fact, Sirc may be onto something when he claims, right off the bat, that “teaching writing is impossible.” But if I always thought this way, if I never considered the possibility that my work as a instructor of composition is meaningful in ways that may be difficult to articulate but are nonetheless important to the academic world, then I might stop questioning, or worse yet stop believing in the promise of composition instruction. Perhaps it is the word “teaching” that needs re-thinking? Would Sirc be in favor of a term like “co-creator” or “cultivator”? Would this change in terminology create a shift in methodology?
Okay, now that my short “aside” turned into a rather extended one, I wanted to touch on two of Sirc’s points that struck a particularly strong chord with me.
1. The notion that invention is unteachable
Referrring to Hawk’s work, Sirc states that,
Our most egregious crime is the insistence on dumbing down the complicated process of composition to a scrupulously teachable method, reducing the roles of chance and the imagination in the production of textual knowledge. Especially, it’s the fetishization of invention: we have to show students exactly how to generate, we have to deny that it might just be inspired or accidental (even though that’s how it works).
I have experience with the invention process (and yes, I refer to it as a process, as in something that requires conscious attention and guidance). In my comp classes, invention is an explicit and essential component to every project. Most of my students are unfamiliar with the term “invention” in the context of composition, and have been told throughout most of their academic lives to “choose” a topic from a pre-made list, so the idea that they can discover their own topic through the practice of invention is a truly revelatory concept. By taking a personal/everyday observation and asking questions that inspire critical analysis, students find a So, I don’t think it has to be the case that invention is either shown or accidental. With some initial guidance, students may actually find themselves ‘accidentally’ inventing ideas for writing on their own.
2. The notion that peer review is potentially a waste of time
I find Sirc’s obvious aversion to peer response a bit disturbing. What I suppose is most surprising to me about his reaction to peer review is that he espouses seemingly student-centered progressive notions of writing instruction, yet he maintains the position of teacher-leader/student-follower in this case. This dichotomy is particularly apparent in the following quote:
My students are taking a class with me; one of the benefits is that they get to have an ongoing conversation about their writing with someone who knows something about writing, who can help coach their work, identify strengths and weaknesses. The thought of blowing off a class in a coffee shop, listening to students’ pleasant, phatic comments on their assignments, would make me wonder if the whole thing was worth it.
I do incorporate peer response into my composition courses, and when they complete class evaluations, my students consistently indicate that it is one of the most beneficial components of the course for them. While peer review is certainly not perfect, and there are inevitably students who do not provide constructive comments to their classmates, I do believe that, if approached and taught in a thoughtful and critical manner (this is key), peer response can be an empowering and enriching experience for student writers.
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