No Man’s Land?

At the start of the summer, Robert Zaretsky published a piece (“Our Students Can’t Write”) in the Chronicle of Higher Education that was roundly denounced on Twitter by my fellow academic writing instructors. John Warner, author of the widely praised Why They Can’t Write, was perhaps its harshest critic, suggesting that Zaretsky is “plug ignorant about how writing works.” Nigel Caplan objected to the characterization of “writing as ‘tool,’ writing teacher as ‘mechanic’ and writing center as ‘repair shop’,” and Elizabeth Wardle questioned Zaretsky’s expertise on student writing. All seemed to agree that the piece had been better not written, or, if it really had to be written, that it should not have been published in the CHE. Last week, in any case, Wardle published a (somewhat oblique) response, “What Critics of Student Writing Get Wrong,” which was wellreceived by the same community. In this post, I want to look at the tension between university writing instructors and content teachers that Wardle and Zaretsky instantiate.

It’s important to begin by noting that both are accomplished scholars in their respective fields. Zaretsky is professor of world cultures and literatures at the University of Houston. Wardle is professor of written communication and director of Miami University of Ohio’s writing center. I’m going to presume that both are tenured or enjoy tenure-like job security. Both have substantial academic cv’s and writing credits. In fact, I was taken aback by Warner’s suggestion that Zaretsky doesn’t know anything about “how writing works”; I read some of what he’s written about Albert Camus and intellectual life and it seems like altogether competent craftsmanship to me.

What Warner probably meant was that Zaretsky doesn’t understand how student writing works, and this, indeed, is also what Wardle was after with her jab at his “expertise”. “It’s easy for teachers to take their frustration with a few student writers and extrapolate from it a number of conclusions based solely on their own experiences, histories, and biases,” she writes. “But academics should demand more from such public statements. We should demand not personal feelings and frustrations, but research-based evidence grounded in more than a sample of one.” That is, while Zaretsky, like Wardle, has a great deal of experience with student writing, his reflections are not research-based and, while he may be an expert academic writer, he cannot be considered an expert in writing pedagogy. This, I think, marks one important fault line in the debate.

The other is institutional, and here it was Zaretsky who threw down the gauntlet. In addition to “scrawling a couple of comments at the bottom of [a student’s] paper,” he suggests, “we might urge the student to pay a visit to the writing center. Such centers, however, are as easily abused as used, often reduced to the pedagogical equivalent of the confessional, a place where students are absolved, not cured, of their writing sins.” (I think I know what he’s getting at here; a lot of writing instruction these days seems to take the student’s side on the stuffy conventions of academic writing. Jennie Young, who directs the first-year writing program at the University of Wisconsin, for example, recently called for dropping conventional citation requirements.) Zaretsky believes that the solution is to give content teachers more time to teach writing as part of the curriculum: “writing-intensive courses must become the norm, not the exception, over the entire course of a four-year education.” And they should “reward tenured professors who retooled as composition teachers and reassure tenure-line professors that teaching writing is as important as writing monographs.”

John Warner took particular exception to the last suggestion: “as though there isn’t already a wealth of highly skilled composition teachers out in the world eager to do the job, but unable to do so because of their contingent status. WTF?” That comment is somewhat ironic in light of a post Warner wrote back in 2015 on his IHE blog, in which he made it clear that composition teachers cannot prepare Zaretsky’s students to write the papers he wants them to write for his class. In fact, he offers nine whole reasons why composition courses cannot guarantee the requisite writing ability needed in “history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, whatever” courses. Surely that leaves some room for the sort of thing Zaretsky proposes?

The battle lines seem to be drawn up. On the one hand, there’s the question of who should be teaching students to write — content teachers or writing instructors; on the other, there’s the question of what the basis of writing pedagogy should be — personal experience or scientific research. The tragedy is that everyone seems to agree that the students need to be able to write, and that most of them need help learning how to do it better. I’m going to spend a few posts looking at the arguments on both sides in greater detail. After all, I find myself in an odd position, worthy of some careful reflection. Institutionally, I feel more aligned with Wardle (or, indeed, Warner): I’m a writing consultant based at a university library, not a content teacher in an academic department (though I do some adjunct teaching on the side). Intellectually, however, I feel a greater kinship with Zaretsky’s position: writing instruction, I fundamentally believe, should be derived from the writing experience of scholars, not “scientific” studies of student (or even faculty) writing practices. This is no doubt why I sometimes feel like a lonely wanderer in the wasteland between two entrenched armies. And these blog posts, perhaps, are nothing more than so many fragments to shore against my ruin. Let’s see.

4 thoughts on “No Man’s Land?

  1. Thomas:

    I just wanted to comment on your rhetoric–or, maybe that’s not the right term; I want to comment on the way that how you wrote the post affects how I read it.

    In particular, there’s something about your start:

    At the start of the summer, Robert Zaretsky published a piece (“Our Students Can’t Write”) in the Chronicle of Higher Education that was roundly denounced on Twitter by my fellow academic writing instructors. John Warner, author of the widely praised Why They Can’t Write, was perhaps its harshest critic, suggesting that Zaretsky is “plug ignorant about how writing works.”

    which initially puts me on the side of Zaretsky. I’m somehow getting the impression that Zaretsky’s doing something good, and the critics are missing the point.

    I’m not sure exactly where in your sentences this impression came from, and maybe other readers will have other reactions. I just wanted to share this with you.

    1. It was certainly my intention to present Zaretsky’s position as a reasonable one, and the critics as somewhat harsh (and unified in their condemnation). As the title and the last paragraph suggest, I feel somewhat caught in the middle, so I didn’t want to start out taking a side. If I had, however, it would have been Zaretsky’s — and I think, unfortunately, that may be how I end up going forward on this issue. Ideally, this conflict wouldn’t exist.

      I imagine the word “denounced” is pejorative compared to, say, “critiqued”, which I could have used instead. Maybe that’s the pivot in those sentences that tilts your sympathies towards Zaretsky? Or perhaps the feeling of many against one, a mob?

      1. Thomas:

        Yes, maybe “denounced” is where my impression comes from.

        This reminds me of an annoying thing that I find in some fiction, that some characters are given a moral endorsement, as it were, by what should logically be neutral statements. I can’t think of a bunch of examples right now, unfortunately, but one thing that comes to mind is that when a character is described as speaking “quietly,” that’s usually a good sign. “Cackling” wouldn’t be so great, I guess.

        I’m guessing someone has already prepared a list of such expressions?

        This property of taking sides in storytelling and putting the thumb on the scale . . . . it can be annoying, but it’s not always a bad thing. Some writers do it, and it’s just their view of the world, and you have to go with it. George V. Higgins had that style, for example. It seems worth being aware of.

        1. Thanks for pointing this out, Andrew. I have a feeling I do this quite a bit. If a reader senses (as you did) that I have an opinion but I present the idea in ostensibly “neutral” terms, that may be off-putting, rather than inviting. And I would, in fact, like more engagement on this issue. I’ll keep it mind going forward.

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