Reflecting on the Struggle …

Today I feel restless.  It could be the sunshine.  It could be the pile of marking that’s waiting for my eyes.  It could be the lesson prep that needs to be finished.  But somehow I don’t think it’s any of those things.

This year has been interesting as I’ve navigated the waters moving from doctoral student ever closer to being “finished” whatever that will mean.  Because if we are truthful in this business one is never finished.

And I can’t help wondering where I will end up and what I really want.  One thing has been reaffirmed for me – I adore being in the classroom and reading my students’ work, helping them learn the craft of writing.  There is nothing else I would rather do.  But with the acceptance of composition as my area, I’m also forced to admit the realities of being the “writing teacher.”

It seems to be a role that holds endless struggle:  for acknowledgement and recognition, for other faculty to accept that teaching composition is just as valid as other disciplines, to rise above the “writing ladies in the basement” designation.  If I was not an eternal optimist, I fear I would sink into depression or, worse, become bitter.

Composition too often is viewed on par with skill-based teaching rather than Knowledge building. The practicality of it lowers the value of teaching writing in and of itself in the liberal arts tradition.  And yet most students and all post-secondary institutions list above-average writing ability as one of the traits of a university graduate.

There is a mindset that anyone can teach composition.  Hence, someone who only teaches composition must be a lesser academic.  Erroneous thinking because not everyone can teach composition – at least teach it well.  A composition expert has to have an interest in writing of all kinds, has to be a writer herself, has to have the eye and ear for good writing and be able to pinpoint how to develop such writing in her students.  There are not many people who can do this.  I believe that good composition instructors think in words.  Every part of my life is a written word – it’s how I understand the universe.

But the constant need to justify my academic area as worthy is draining.  There are days when I wonder if I really want to do this.  I’ve spoken with composition specialists from across the country.  They all have the same demeanor.  They are defiant and resigned as to where the field sits in Canadian academic circles.  They are mildly amused by my optimism.  But I can’t work like that, I don’t do resignation.  If I don’t think it will get better, that there will opportunity for growth in my field, that there are opportunities for first-class research that matters and translates into practice, then I won’t continue in academia.  I’m not good at settling.

This term it’s a bit better.  I have a small group of colleagues who also are composition specialists and who are almost as optimistic as I am about our future prospects.  I have a variety of students, first year through fourth year, who have expressed in abundance how useful my class is going to be to their future endeavours.  I try to stifle the little mocking voice in my head that says “usefulness” is not going to aid my cause.

In the end, despite the constant need to justify my area of expertise, it is the knowledge that what I am doing at the university really does make a different for our students that keeps me trying.  I have taught other subjects over the years but it is only in the composition classroom that I have had students tell me that what they have learned in my classroom has made a difference in their education.  Despite how some Academics persist in viewing writing instruction, deep down I know what I’m doing makes a difference.  And for now, that is enough.

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