Philadelphia, Pa.—Among college English professors, the passing on of literary traditions and literacy has gone from avocation to afterthought to alien concept, as can be seen in the annual conventions of the Modern Language Association.
Outside the convention walls, illiteracy rates go up and reading scores do not. Inside the meeting hall, thousands of educators from across the country strategize over how to innovate.
“We’ve moved away from standardized English to the language that students use at home, on the street and with their friends and it has helped us,” Penn State professor Cynthia Glenn said. But has it helped the students?
Dr. Glenn moderated an MLA panel on “Rhetoric, Composition, Writing: Affinities, Trajectories, Discontinuities.” “I suspect that freshmen don’t like theme writing because it is directed at a vague, unseen audience,” Dr. Glenn averred, although she admitted, “Much of our pedagogy is mediated and technologized.”
And it is likely to become more so. For her part, Dr. Glenn later good-naturedly observed that “Cultural Studies Departments are taking some of our good stuff.”
“We need to take advantage of the interest they have in video rather than flogging the interests in books, reading and writing that they don’t,” Douglas Hesse of the University of Denver urges. “The difference is worth noting in this late age of rhetoric and early age of composition.”
“In the late 50s and 60s, linguistics had everything to do with it,” Dr. Glenn said of college writing and composition courses. “After that people chose rhetoric over linguistics.” And now, whither rhetoric?
“In a google search, I found 288 dissertations with the word rhetoric in the title but usually as ‘The rhetoric of…,’” Dr. Hesse offered by way of chronicling the demise of the craft. As it happens, MLA attendees could go directly from the forum in which Dr. Hesse’s paper was read at the Marriott to another at the same convention just down the street at the Loews’ on “The Rhetoric of Genocide.”
Dr. Hesse came to his epiphany when he learned that his daughter’s alma mater, Bryn Mawr, e-mailed “Thank You” videos rather than sending actual letters exclusively. His paper was read, in absentia, to the audience by Kathleen Yancey of Florida State University, although she did not disagree markedly with its findings.
“In this new curriculum, what assignments do we make?” Dr. Yancey asked the crowd at the Convention Center Marriott. “What vocabulary do we use?”
“How do we help students transfer what they learn in one composing space to another?” Dr. Yancey was particularly impressed with a program at UNC-Chapel Hill in which kids make videos, and by a study of students in the United Kingdom.
“I’ve studied composing processes from elementary students in the United Kingdom,” she said. “Their processes are different from ours.”
“For one thing, they are already remediated.” Since the audience of English professors was impressed by it, you might want to know what the study involved.
“In the United Kingdom study, you had 12 children composing e-mails and a control group,” Dr. Yancey explained. “They worked in pairs on a presentation about a sandal they designed in another class.”
“The students were told to write on the screen, which we don’t want them to do until the end.” Dr. Yancey claims that students benefited from the exercise.
It should be noted that Britons do not give universal raves to their own system, particularly since many British educational reforms preceded and presaged American efforts to modernize higher education and even instruction in primary schools.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.