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The Long, Slow Revolution, or What’s Taking So Long?

posted: 11.9.11 by Nedra Reynolds

For the third fall in a row, I am asking students in a secondary English education course to produce a multigenre research project, ala Tom Romano. For the third fall in a row, students look at me blankly as I introduce this project, and then, after they have seen some models, they get very, very excited. In a few weeks’ time, I will be reading and enjoying researched writing different from anything these writers have tried before.

Inevitably, as we embark on this multigenre research journey, someone will ask, “How come I have never heard about this kind of writing?  How come none of my other teachers have assigned this?” This question also comes up when I assign Ken Macrorie’s I-Search; Suzanne Rubenstein’s book, Go Public; or even when I suggest that they might (take your pick) use first-person, use humor, quote song lyrics or a sitcom, play with different fonts or formatting, write in a form other than five neat and tidy paragraphs, or ignore formal documentation for sharing source information—a suggestion that I’m not the only one making! (See the very recent “Citation Obsession? Get Over It” by Kurt Schick.) I find the question “How come this is the first time I’ve heard of this?” difficult to answer, but legitimate.

For these English education students, my fall course is the only one in their curriculum that focuses on methods of teaching writing. Following it, they begin student teaching at area middle and high schools, but many of them are working now in the schools with cooperating teachers, and it’s typical for them to share anecdotes, fresh from their experience: one reported, for example, that her cooperating teacher started a unit on the research paper with a lecture and a worksheet on MLA documentation style. While hearing that makes me sigh and makes Kurt Schick shudder, it’s not the teacher’s fault. The system is stacked against innovative teachers and in favor of testing companies. But when students arrive at college believing that one should never use “I” in writing college papers, I wonder where we are in this so-called revolution in the teaching of writing.

As far as I can tell, many of the preservice teachers in my class this fall have had a number of advantages in terms of formal literacy, but only one or two have been given the kind of invitations to write that I used to assume were standard writing-class fare. My students think the I-Search is a new idea, but Macrorie’s book was first published in 1984. They are surprised to see the publication dates on the articles we read for our Jigsaw discussion on multigenre research projects—1999, 2000, 2003, 2004—which predate their high school years. When they ask the “How come?” question, they are having genuine insights (I hope) into how capital “s” School works to keep the five-paragraph theme, the traditional research paper, worksheets, and other “nonforms” of writing in place (Larson, College English, 1982).

The stories we share in this class serve to remind me that not every language arts teacher has participated in the National Writing Project or reads English Journal regularly or attends NCTE. My students also firmly believe that they won’t get to teach writing the way I do—and they are probably right. Their most pressing concerns are about passing a standardized test for certification—and about preparing their own students for different (but the same) standardized tests. They can recite the Common Core Standards, but they had never read a Billy Collins poem.

I’m still convinced that in the late 1980s, I was living and learning in revolutionary times, and I feel privileged to introduce preservice teachers to “alternative” writing assignments—although I wish they were more mainstream than alternative—and I wonder if there’s more that college writing instructors can do to speed things up.

I would love to hear what Bits readers think about What’s taking so long? Especially if you see a way forward!


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One Response to “The Long, Slow Revolution, or What’s Taking So Long?”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    “I suggest that they might . . . ignore formal documentation for sharing source information—a suggestion that I’m not the only one making! (See the very recent “Citation Obsession? Get Over It” by Kurt Schick.)”

    I have to ask what precisely it means to ignore informal documentation. If you mean that, as Schick is saying, it really doesn’t matter what documentational form one uses so long as one makes clear what one’s sources are and where they came from, then I certainly agree that this is common sense.

    But if you are referring to the new “aggregative journalistic” ethos that is getting a lot of young journalists into a lot of trouble, or anything that essentially eliminates the need to let one’s reader know what one has used and where one found it, then that is something quite different. As I explain to my classes, I am perfectly aware that the current codes of plagiarism derive from the history of capitalism, and that the notion of writing as “intellectual property” protected by copyright is historically contingent thus can be challenged. But as I also explain to my students, my concern about plagiarism is that it is a form of theft: not from other writers from fellow students. Why? Because students are being graded for their writing, and if they copy and paste someone else’s professional writing into a paper without any kind of attribution or quotation marks, the grader is likely to presume that it is the student’s own writing and reward that student accordingly. That robs the honest student, just as the use of performance enhancing substances in sports robs “clean” athletes.

    So it is my concern for fair play and a level playing field for all my students that makes me very concerned about plagiarism. Besides, until the anti-capitalistic revolution happens (not much chance of that in the era of hypercapitalism) our students will be held to the anti-plagiaristic standards of their society, and we owe it to them to inform them about this. It is precisely the blurring of the standards of what needs to be documented that has wrecked a number of promising writers’ careers. I’d prefer that my students avoid this sort of confusion, as well as its price.