“Houston, we have a problem.”
And I don’t think it can be solved by improvisation or instruction from base.
The students coming into City Tech (and, I am sure, most other American colleges) have been ill-used by a secondary-education structure and by a society that cares for surfaces, not depth–and they have been overwhelmed by information technologies that make command of even a simple issue complex. Their response (a learned response, fostered by formula writing and high-stakes tests) has been to narrow their focus, to write by rote, imitation and routinized incorporation of external information. Their response has been to prepare for writing by skimming, by glancing through pages of links to information and then scanning one or two for something they could pull out and into their papers.
In On Writing, Eudora Welty declares, “Indeed, learning to write may be part of learning to read. For all I know, writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.” That this is the case is another part of our problem: Because of formula writing, our students have never learned to read, to really grapple with a text. For them, reading is a task to be completed as quickly as possible not a pleasure nor a source for growth. Even a short reading becomes too much, too fast, and our group readings in the classroom, especially when students are asked to read aloud, only distances students further from any consideration of reading as more than a chore. They are never going to write well unless this changes.
There are ways of incorporating new ways to read in our writing classrooms that I have never tried but will over the coming semesters, hoping that I can use them as steps to improving writing. First, I will to start with shorter, but complex and sophisticated, texts. To get students to focus, I will ask them to reflect as they read and provide proof–not summaries, but annotations and questions and vocabulary building and whatever thoughts are sparked by the ideas being expressed. And we won’t move on, but will make each reading a foundation to the next. “Why I Write” by George Orwell can lead to Elie Wiesel and Joan Didion and more–actually even yoking content to skills (we can’t ignore skills completely) and coming finally to a long consideration of a text I do always cover, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” but in a new way, one requiring thought about, er, politics and English. Recognition of Orwell’s rules can no longer be a sufficient outcome.
Though I have always included reading in my writing courses (I often use all of the writers mentioned above), I have given reading short shrift. I have assumed my students could really grapple with texts, that they could do more than skip like a flat stone across their surfaces. Each semester, for some years now, I have been becoming more and more certain that they cannot–and that I need to revise my pedagogy to reflect that fact. I need to start doing that, for we have a problem.
Like the vast majority of my colleagues, I have also been guilty of concentrating on skills, thinking the content would take care of itself if I managed to get students to pay attention to the how of what they were doing, being it reading or writing. How to read? Well, another fault of mine has been assuming that they can, in more than a pro forma way. How to interpret what they have read? Well, I have had training in that, so believed I could pull students along through that. How to write? Well, I have training in that, too, so believed I could wean students away from the assumption laden skills-based formulae that so many condescendingly foist on their students.
But I have been failing in all three areas.
What I am beginning to understand is that I can’t do any of these things in a content-free environment. That I have been wrong to concentrate primarily on skills. That I do have a problem.
Yesterday, I read (I initially wrote “came across” for “read,” but that usage implicitly encourages skilling) an essay by Bernie Bleske, “The Paradox of Content in the Classroom.” It didn’t really teach me anything but it did make me grit my teeth and say, “This has gone on for far too long.”
Bleske, while arguing for a consensus on content, makes good points about the state of education today in the United States, including:
No matter how you parse it, in a modern complex democracy like America there is no single text or formula or application or detail that every student must learn or demonstrate in order to properly be called ‘educated’.
This has been our excuse for giving up on content, concentrating on skills instead. Those, at least, we can pretend to agree on… which is itself, of course, part of the problem.
We tussle with the idea of a theme in First Year Composition courses and seem to think that’s enough emphasis on content. One or two of us even broach the idea of a common reading, but that falls by the wayside and, anyway, the readings suggested are generally light on challenging content, heavy on alignment with skills and outcomes checklists.
By easing away from content and concentrating on skills and quantifiable outcomes, we are teaching our students that knowledge is gleaned superficially, that a Google search and then a presentation that checks the appropriate boxes is all that is required. With that under their belts, students feel they have become readers and writers sufficient for the digital age. But they are learning less, assuming command of information is all they need. They make the mistake, and we foster it, of believing that such command is, in fact, learning.
I don’t know how to deal with that, though I will continue to try.
In the meantime, I cry out, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”