Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Evidence and Experience in Writing Instruction

I just discovered the European Association for Teaching Academic Writing, and I'm now thinking of joining. To that end, I watched the video that was made about the 7th Biennial Conference in Budapest. It all seems like reasonable and interesting and necessary stuff. But at the 5:10 mark, Christiane Donahue, who heads up the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth, made a remark that gave me pause. An organisation like the EATAW, of course, does not exist just to promote the teaching or even the practice of writing. As with everything else in academic life, it exists to promote research into the practice of teaching academic writing. Donahue made this point in very forceful, and, upon reflection, somewhat disturbing terms.

More and more, people who are teaching academic writing will participate in the kinds of things, like the EATAW, that allow them to actually develop their thinking in terms of research. There has been, for decades, a lot of practice but not always a lot of research. [...] I think that one of the changes for the future, for all of us, is that you won't be able to teach academic writing if you haven't really thought about the evidence that supports what you do, and how that evidence can shape how you're thinking about your teaching. (5:10-5:47)

At first this seems entirely reasonable, and certainly unsurprising. Universities are supposed to offer research-based teaching, so if you're teaching academic writing, it should be based on research into academic writing, right? The same thing, in fact, has happened with teaching in general, which is now supposed to implement the lessons of educational research, and educators are increasingly asked to, precisely, "think about the evidence that supports what they do".

But at some point this has to stop. It is one thing to ask English teachers to offer research-based instruction in, say, Elizabethan drama when they teach, say, Shakespeare; it is quite another to ask that both their teaching methods and writing assignments are also "supported" by evidence. To my mind, this looks like another incursion of social science into a domain that is really best managed in a humanistic spirit. I'm not against organisations like EATAW, nor even against research into academic writing. What I'm against is a future in which "you won't be able to teach academic writing if you haven't really thought about the evidence that supports what you do".

My emphasis here is on the word "evidence". One minor tweak to this statement would make it much more palatable to me. You shouldn't teach academic writing if you haven't really thought about what you do. An association and a recurring conference can help you think about what you do by sharing your experiences and hearing about others. It should be sufficient for composition instructors to discuss their classroom practices in journals and at conferences, sharing their approaches and opening themselves up to the criticism and contributions of their peers. There is no need to turn the composition student into an object of research, or, worse, a research subject.

This difference between experience-based and evidence-based teaching has been simmering for a while in the back of my mind. The distinction can be and has been applied to other fields, too, of course, like management and medicine. In all cases, "evidence-based" seems like a great idea at first. Why would we not want our educational, managerial and medical practices to be based on "the evidence that supports what we [teachers, managers and doctors] do"? But on closer inspection it introduces a new source of error. We've all learned to be skeptical of purportedly "scientific" studies that show that one or another practice "works". Just because there is "evidence" for doing something in particular does not mean it really works; in a few years, there may well be "evidence" that it doesn't. More importantly, however, even where the studies get reality right, you have to be sure that you know how to implement their prescriptions.

Intuitively competent writing instructors, who really get their students to write better prose, may not be especially competent researchers, or may be very competent researchers in fields other than composition studies. In Donahue's brave new world, they will be at risk of losing their jobs (or never getting them in the first place) to candidates who are able and willing to adopt the theories and methods of composition studies, which will quickly develop (as they already are) increasingly sophisticated theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches. The nightmare scenario that I can see looming in the future is that the composition classroom will be headed by teachers who, instead of simply being able to write and pass that ability on to students, have a demonstrable capacity for research including the famously abstruse writing that goes with it. Why not just select competent writers from within academic disciplines to teach students to do what they do? That is, why not let people who have a demonstrated ability to write instruct the next generation of writers from experience?

Continues with "Advice and Evidence".


Presskorn said...

The problem is, it seems, is that we don't really know what "evidence" means here. What sort of evidence? And evidence of what?

On the one hand, and in terms of the quantifiable aspects of writing evidence would be nice. Would it be nice to have evidence of, say, the stuff that you often say like "Academics could, if they ordered their work appropriately, submit two artciles a month." Wouldn't evidence be nice here? As you are well aware, people often don't believe you. (Although, perhaps the collected evidence in this case would rather be evidence about working lives than about writing.)

On the other hand it, it seems senseless to collect *evidence* of what a well-composed paragraph looks like. I am reminded of the fallacy that Cavell exposed in his first essay "Must we mean what we say", namely, the (positivist) fallacy of thinking that knowing how to use language requires commanding evidence in support of empirical generalizations about language use...

Thomas said...

"...the fallacy of thinking that knowing how to use language requires commanding evidence in support of empirical generalizations about language use..."

That's exactly the sort of thing I'm thinking about. I.e., the fallacy of thinking that knowing how to write requires commanding evidence in support of empirical generalizations about writing.

Maybe I'm overcompensating, but I prefer to offer only normative generalizations, i.e., ordinary advice. The rub is the way the antecedent is qualified: "if ordered their work appropriately". There is no way to determine "empirically" that a given author is following my advice. So there's no way of making the statistic. Maybe I should say there's no non-invasive way of doing it. Coaching is the only approach, then. "Building a scholar" is not an applied science; it's an art.

Do note that I'd never say you can submit two articles per month. (I hope.) I say that under certain conditions there's enough time to physically write three articles (or one article three times) in four weeks.

If people work my way for 20 days, 3 hours a day, it's not an empirical question whether or not they will have written 120 paragraphs. If they haven't, they didn't work my way.

Thomas said...

(I meant coaching is the only ethical approach, in the sense I link to.)

Jonathan said...

That field has existed for a long time, of course. It is understood that it is a specialty that people do research in and that these people will supervise others teaching comp who maybe arent researchers.

Thomas said...

Yes, that's also my sense of what composition has been up to now. But if I'm understanding Donahue correctly, that's going to change.

BTW, I'm not too impressed with the theories about writing that are propagated by the specialty.

Z said...

I think that what you fear may have already happened ... and I think it has to do with reading and writing not being taught in the lower schools in any kind of relaxed way, it is all shortcuts to rigor and results ... I am not being quite fair in saying this, I know.

Thomas said...

I suspect you're right. Students are increasingly alienated from the reading experience by the demand to "get something out of it"

I got that sense from reading this post about "reading with a purpose", esp. this exercise: "Remembering José Bowen’s suggestion from last semester to have students read with purpose, I told students to read the article to try to identify the words Bitzer uses to define the rhetorical situation. “You don’t need to understand his argument perfectly,” I said. “You only need to look for the words he uses to define what ‘the rhetorical situation’ is.” Even though I verbally delivered these instructions and their reading assignment appeared on the course calendar (shown below), I also wrote the instructions on the board, as some students prefer to take pictures of my instructions to record the assignment."

"Really?!?" I thought. Identifying words is a "purpose" for reading?