Conflicts of a Canadian Composition Scholar

My foray into the world of composition studies has been marked with naiveté.  I began teaching university-level writing courses three years ago, before that I spent a brief spell teaching a smattering of Education courses, all with a heavy emphasis on writing.  Prior to those positions I spent five years teaching an online 4th year Children’s Literature course offered through Distance Education.  The Children’s Literature course was necessarily heavy on writing (there were 12 essays assigned over a 12 week period followed by a typical literature-style final exam with five essay questions).  And so, I came to writing instruction in a quintessentially Canadian manner.

At the time (and, in fact, until recently) I did not understand the national post-secondary attitude towards composition studies in Canada.  I’d always been a strong writer.  My love of British literature in high school led to an undergraduate degree in English Literature.  As an English major, I was not required and, if memory serves well, not permitted to enroll in the first-year composition course at my institution.  Instead I took 4th year courses in rhetoric and literary criticism to round out my literature studies.  When I later returned to university and embarked upon a Post-Baccalaureate in English Literature, I took only lit courses.  Composition was not needed.

But I wonder if I wouldn’t have benefited had some kind of advanced writing course been required.  I do recall the 4th year rhetoric course I completed in the early 90s and being fascinated by the different genres outside of literary studies (I was familiar, of course, with varieties of poetry, short story, expository, essay, novel) but I did not pursue studies in that area.

Ironically, I came to teaching writing before I began researching writing and it was through my teaching that I developed a research interest in composition studies.

I was a literature snob for many years, I now realize.  And I was created that way through my entire Canadian schooling process.   This has been an epiphany of sorts and a shocking one at that!  For me writing and reading had gone hand in hand.  I was always a voracious reader.  Because of my early reading experiences, my vocabulary and writing abilities were above average from an early age.  The first poem I wrote that garnered attention from my teachers was when I was about nine years old.  At the end of my Grade 8 year I received a creative writing award at school and my teacher gave me a copy of Margaret Atwood’s “The Journals of Susanna Moodie.”  In it she had written I look forward to the day when you will bring me your own collection of poetry.  I never doubted that I would do just that.  From a very early age my identity had been fused as a writer.  So years later, when it was suggested that I teach writing, it seemed a natural fit for me.

And teaching writing has been a wonderful experience but has also required me to grow.  For years I approached the practice of writing from a very egocentric stance.  I am a freakishly quick writer – I can pour out pages in hours.  Left to my own devices and uninterrupted, I can produce masses of writing.  Free-writing exercises yield 5-10 pages in 15 minutes while others struggle to get half a page down.  This does not mean my end product is of higher quality, just that I write very, very quickly.  This, combined with my memory of the written word (details from fictional pieces, in particular, stay fixed in my brain long after I’ve read them and I am always sure of the details), meant that my undergraduate coursework was not nearly challenging enough for me.  Looking back now, I see I would have done better had I been challenged by my professors; instead they assumed I’d been working on my papers for some time before I handed them in.  My mother often threw up her hands in frustration, telling me that if I would stop leaving my essays to the night before I’d be a straight A student.  She was right – I still maintained a low-A/high-B average by writing my papers at the last minute.

So my first lesson as a teacher of writing, was to learn that my students are not all incredibly slow writers; I am the oddball here.  All those years of sitting in exam halls for 45 minutes to an hour until someone else handed in their final suddenly made sense to me!  I had to learn some patience.

When one is always a strong writer and has never found herself in a remedial classroom, it is hard to imagine why first year courses focusing solely on writing are needed.  However, when one begins reading and grading papers the need suddenly becomes apparent.  It was during my Children’s Literature days that I began to shudder while reading student work.  How could these students make it to a 4th year classroom and still have such poor writing skills?  Teaching a variety of courses from first year to post-graduate made me realize that good writing was the exception rather than the norm.  So my belief in the need for composition courses grew out of my teaching practice.  And knowledge that comes to us this way is often the hardest to shake.  Writing courses are needed, across disciplines and at all levels in university.  Unless I see drastic changes in the quality of student writing, I won’t be changing my opinion.

Because I saw the need through my teaching practice, I assumed other instructors also felt the same way.  It was easy to make this assumption because the institution I was teaching in had changed all graduation requirements to include a writing intensive component for all students, from English majors to Chemistry majors.  Sympathy to my cause.

When I began to apply for jobs outside of my institution, the first thing I noticed was a request for a doctoral degree in English.  At first I brushed this aside and kept applying.  After all, my doctoral degree, while from a Faculty of Education, had focused on composition in post-secondary settings.  I was fast becoming (at least in my own mind) a composition expert through both my research and practice.  What did it matter whether my doctorate was in English or Education?

Ah, but in Canada it does matter.  It matters very, very much.

I didn’t realize this until after I’d unsuccessfully interviewed for a number of jobs, a few in English departments, the rest in a variety of other departments that offered writing courses specific to their disciplines.  At the same time I had completed (or so I thought) my doctoral dissertation.  A qualitative study of a unique first-year composition program at my old institution.  I was proud of my scholarship and thought I was on the road to defense.  So did my supervisor.  However, my committee member asked for a few changes to “situate” my study.  In the process of situating my study, I actually discovered to my horror that I had been Americanizing my practice.  This was unforgivable as a daughter of an English-woman who had grown up listening to anti-American rhetoric in my grandparents’ home.

My research had focused on the works of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray.  Their student-centred approach appealed to me as a classroom teacher and I’ve always had a practical streak, so when I looked at my students’ writing I wanted to help them write in a manner that would be useful to them in the future.  Teaching a composition course for Engineering students, I did not understand why they had to read A Modest Proposal.  As fond as I was of Swift’s text, I empathized with my students’ frustration at this assigned reading.  How was this going to help them be better engineers?  A valid question and one I had a hard time answering.  I, myself, didn’t think forcing them to read it would make them better engineers.  But that was not the point, was it?

As I began to trace the history of composition studies in Canada, much of my experiences were illuminated.  Composition, while needed, has never been valued in Canadian institutions.  This is where my naiveté has really come to light.  I failed to recognize that by valuing writing instruction exclusive of literary studies, we are, in a sense, moving the purpose of university education away from the traditional humanities focus to a practical, professional focus.  The curricular culture is moving from a canonical moralistic education into a training for work and survival mode.  Both of which are wholly unsatisfactory for me.  But I am a product of the traditional humanities curriculum.

And, so where do I situate myself, as a teacher of writing, as a lover of literature and as the recipient of an interdisciplinary doctoral degree from a “professional” Faculty of Education?  How can the meaning-making in my classroom have relevance and purpose for my students?  Can literary studies and composition studies co-exist in the classroom and should they?  I think this is the struggle all post-secondary composition instructors face.  But perhaps through an awareness of the conflicts that exist both within myself and in my teaching practice, I can become a better instructor.

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