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April 21, 2011

Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years

By Mary Grabar

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After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested  in teaching students to write and communicate clearly.  The group's agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting's 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against "marginalized" groups and restrict self-expression.

Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is "good enough."  The Internet, thankfully, has freed us from our previous duties as "grammar police," and Elbow heralded the day when the white spoken English that has now become the acceptable standard, will be joined by other forms, like those of non-native and ghetto speakers.

Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as "performance," as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their "agency." Expressions are made through "the body," images, and song--sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet.  Clothes are rhetorically important as "instruments of grander performance."  

So panels focused on everything but the written word as traditionally understood.  Offerings stressed civic engagement, multi-media, sustainability and “eco-composition,” multilingualism, student self-assessment, student extra-curricular experiences, student “engagement,” cross-disciplinarity, hip-hop, Native American traditions and languages, digital storytelling, “queer rhetorics,” “feminist rhetorics,” “visual rhetorics”—and all the usual ethnic grievance communities: Chicano, African-American, indigenous, etc.

The shift to the sub-literate or anti-literate has evolved from the 1960s revolutionary project to dismantle Western civilization through the institutions, primarily educational.  The change has taken place incrementally, from the rather tentative early addition of multicultural literature to the established canon; to the mandating that class, race, and gender be studied in composition; to the deconstruction of  “Eurocentric” discourse in search of codes that maintain imperialism.  Such discourse imposed Western standards through the very elements most would view as laudable: the search for truth in a logical, fair, honest, and ethical manner, the standard codified by Aristotle.

Inventing New Forms of White Privilege 

Since most scholarship in the field concerns the invention of increasingly convoluted conspiracies of “white privilege,” discovered through increasingly primitive forms of communication (with scholars now even focusing on animal communication) there is not much to learn. People at the meeting already know what they are going to hear: all of them are oppressed. At the newcomers session we were told not to be too concerned about attending panels, but to take breaks, go to a party sponsored by the textbook publisher Bedford, and spend time networking. 

A performance, by the White Horse Singers, opened and closed the early morning address by Gwendolyn Pough of Syracuse University.  The thousands of assembled English teachers stood and faced the trio of drum-banging Native Americans--as homage and thanks to “indigenous peoples whose nations are rooted in the lands we now call ‘Atlanta’ and ‘north Georgia,’” as we were told after one of many greetings in a Native American language.  We were advised to “Stand outside your comfort zones,” learn to read the Cherokee writing on the cover of the program, and attend as many indigenous workshops as possible.

Pough, a romance novel author and self-described “sister-outsider,” specializes in hip-hop and black women’s writing for a “radical critique of disciplinary knowledge.”  She encouraged us to educate for “human greatness” as she flashed Power Point images of Kanye West interspersed with quotations from past CCCC chairs. 

“We are bigger than comp/rhetoric. . . . We do language,” she declared to nods of agreement.  Because we do “critical analysis,” we occupy the most important position in the academy.  But her own comments and repeated references by others to Marxist theorist Paulo Freire, “post-capitalism,” and “Marxian” readings, betrayed her call for neutrality when teachers engage in classroom discussions of  “what is good for society.”  In bypassing the traditional modes of argument, teachers deny students the very tools necessary to make any “critical analysis” of their teachers’ political objectives.

The political objectives could not be missed in the panel, “Barack, Bush, and Beck (Oh, My?): Political Ideological Discourse Theories,” which attracted about 50 participants, more than five times as many as most.  Chair Greg Wilson’s (Iowa State University) salvo of his “hope that you brought righteous indignation” brought some chortling and eye-rolling. 

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After congratulating attendees for their intelligence proven by their contempt for Glenn Beck, Drew Loewe, from St. Edwards’ University, launched into what he saw as Beck’s misuse and misrepresentation of the word, “Constitution” (“’Constitution’ as Ideograph: What Hundreds of Glenn Beck Transcripts Can Teach Us”).   Loewe’s study revealed that the word “Constitution” appears most often and functions thereby as a populist “ideograph,” a “wellspring for group consensus,” and therefore a building block for a certain ideology--in Beck’s case, “reactionary.” Even the historical and legal scholars on Beck’s program have nothing of substance to say about the Constitution, Loewe maintained.  

A similar attack came from Greg Wilson from Iowa State as he claimed that George W. Bush made no legitimate claim that harsh interrogation techniques against terrorists produced useful intelligence (“Bush Administration Torture Discourse: Unpacking the Ideology and Justifications Using Articulation Theory”).  But these assertions about ideology as the real motivator behind Bush’s torture policy (articulated in his speeches) were not backed up by any evidence from Wilson himself.

Joseph Telegen of Western Carolina University, conversely, claimed that Barack Obama, whose “contemplative nature” made him a welcome alternative to Bush, brilliantly and innovatively aims his rhetoric at a mysterious “’Fourth Locale’” (somehow beyond the three locales of appeals to the left, right, or middle that less gifted orators use).  “A More Perfect Union” speech “interrogated” (a well-worn postmodern cultword) “racial extremity” without denouncing Jeremiah Wright, thus returning to shared core principles.  Telegen, in his teaching, advocates these Obamian communicative strategies, on which he wrote his thesis. 

A lively question-and-answer session followed, focusing on Beck’s “in-group” strategy.  Loewe’s claim that Beck of course would have “zero chance” of being invited to this conference was met with knowing laughter.        

Such political partisanship was accompanied by a presumed effort to present knowledge, “in a broader way,” as it was in “Writing the Real World of Student Work.”  The “work” of students employing “hand-mind knowledge” in menial jobs like burger-flipping should be “honored” in the classroom, said a co-director of a “Poverty Studies” program.  We need to “think critically about how dirty work can be reframed, recalibrated, or refocused to honor all work and workers,” we were told.  The paper “’Wage Slaves’ Speak Out: Midwestern Monologues,” modeled on the Vagina Monologues, similarly illustrated how such “performance” can replace the old worker-unfriendly rhetoric.       

My own work duties as an instructor of composition forced me to miss a paper on “Tea Party Rage” on Thursday afternoon.  But after sleeping off the headache induced by all the drumming, I was at the Atlanta Marriott to attend the Friday 8:00 a.m. session “’Unrelated Kin’: Building Kin Relationships with Critical Race Theory and Out-Loud Public Literacies in Rhetoric-Composition Studies.”  Here again a presumed “critical thinking” was applied against the teacher’s political enemy to engage students in protest “action.”  Panelist Jody Ludlow advocated using “critical race theory” to expose what she claims is the promotion of “white privilege under the false veil of fairness,” in the language of Nebraska’s Initiative 424 against affirmative action.  But through the example of Ludlow and approximately 95 percent of conference participants, it became clear  that one must condemn one’s own “white privilege” to be allowed a place at the CCCC table.

Carmen Kynard of St. John’s University, however, detected “codes that maintain whiteness” by four editors who rejected the “word-bonding” of Kynard and her freshman coauthor.  They could not appreciate the “unexplainable-yet-felt thing inside of us that tells us as African Americans that we can keep on keepin’ on. . . .” to borrow a phrase from the said submission.  More rejection of white standards came from Pepperdine University’s David Holmes, who directs his scholarship away from the traditional eloquence of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the colloquialisms of Ralph David Abernathy.

More lurking racism was analyzed in “Rhetorics of Racism, Protest, and Alliance: Decolonial (Multi)-media(ted) Responses to AZ SB1070,” a “featured session.” Facebook policies sanction a “colonialized vision.”  Hip-hop artist Willie Northpole, however,  offers hope in the form of a “black-brown alliance,” according to Marcos Del Hierro, from Texas A&M.  I caught the thesis from the video: “they did it to the blacks, they did it to the natives.”  The notion that borders are “fixed,” as the Tea Party maintains, is not a legitimate claim.  Students study protest slogans like “the people united” in Spanish and “bodies”--protestors who create a “purposeful space” to “re-member” bodies “dismembered by colonization.” 

Back to words on the page: Kennesaw professor Rochelle Harris began with her Freire-inspired idea of multiple reading of stories (because a “correct reading” takes away “humanity”).  The nine college students each read a short portion of a collectively written paper that analyzes Harris’s pedagogy in teaching world literature.  Not surprisingly, all attested to the benefits of writing in a character’s voice, bonding by doing “research shares,” and learning “tolerance through understanding.”  But the last reader,” a business major, defied the post-capitalist mood of the conference by proclaiming that he not only got the benefits of cultural understanding, but that “knowing about the world helps me make more money.” 

"Fashioning Queer Relations"

My next session returned to the more popular topic of bodies.  In “Fashioning Queer Relations: Fabricating, Crafting, and Designing Identities through Bodies and Texts,” I learned that courses on “The Body” are taught with such textbooks as Longman’s The Body and Culture.  Clothes are “instruments of grander performance.”  “Straightening Our Hair,”  a bell hooks essay arguing that black women do their hair to conform to white standards, seemed familiar to everyone.  I also learned that fashion photos of Michelle Obama offer opportunities for assignments in analyzing racist white sartorial standards. The relevance of all this to teaching writing is obscure.

In “The Contested Female Body: Competition, (Trans)National Identity and Wholeness in the Rhetorics of Plastic Surgery,” I found myself handling mastectomy bras and prostheses, and reviewing a breast pathology report and post-mammography letters for the impersonal language that indicated hostility to women.  I learned about breast augmentation in Venezuela and eyelid surgery in South Korea--to conform to Western aesthetics.  One paper focused on a professor’s experience with “agency and victimization” with a plastic surgeon selling her a jaw implant.  Whether the increase in plastic surgery was evidence of women’s power or weakness, or evidence of becoming transnational or national, was left for future rhetorical analysis, no doubt in another convention hotel. 

In “High School to College: Student Learning, the Common Core Standards for College Readiness, and the Politics of Readiness” the complaint was that standards violate the “professional rights” of the teachers who value things outside of the standards, like creativity, ambiguity, and activism.  I was surprised and pleased, though, to hear Russell Berman of Stanford University promote foreign language learning.  But the other panelists did not note that such study would call for memorization and practice, and instead griped about how the Common Core Standards ignored their input, like the 21-page response of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English under which CCCC operates) that criticized the exclusion of social, civil, and aesthetic purposes.  Richard Miller of Rutgers gave an impassioned indictment of the “eradication of ambiguity” in the mania for testing.  More curiosity inspiring offerings are available on the Internet (like the interactive site TEDx that features “thinkers” like Al Gore and Bill Clinton) than in the unchanging history textbooks.  But by all indications, the social, civil, and aesthetic purposes are aimed in one ideological direction, for many audience members offered suggestions about getting students “heated” about the unfair demands of testing, especially in such education department courses as “What Is Power?” 

There is much to be concerned about regarding Common Core, like a burgeoning Education Department subsidizing testing and publishing companies and putting the final brick in place for a national curriculum.   But the objections here were to any infringement on teacher autonomy.  Standards and evaluative methods would infringe on the freedom teachers feel in evaluating themselves, as Heather Thomson-Bunn did in her presentation about her “Writing Religion” class at Pepperdine in the next session, “A Higher Good: Morality, Faith, and Subjectivity.”  Her class rejects the “artificial binary” of keeping academic and personal writing distinct.  It was deemed a success by the written responses to her questions by a Muslim student who had visited a Jewish temple. 

Dayna Goldstein of Georgia Southern University, however, admitted that her paper “Our Post-Humans Relations Don’t Understand Our Symbolism: Developing a Critical Morality in the Networked World,” has no bearing on the classroom.  To find a legitimate moral authority in an age where neither transcendental, objective, nor subjective standards obtain any more, Goldstein studied BDSM play groups (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, Masochism) and dogs (dogs, yes).  In BDSM, Goldstein explained, participants act from constructed identities and therefore adopt a moral system based on what is immediately “useful.”  Role-playing BDSM participants do not see a higher personal or metaphysical meaning in the sadistic acts committed on them.  Dogs, similarly, do not attach any such meaning to the actions of those they interact with.  Both groups, because they act outside of morality based on traditional standards, offer good models for determining justice. 

The final event, “Prison Writing: Pedagogy, Representation, Research, and Action,” presented a consensus about justice, though: prisoners should be made aware of the injustices committed against them by a system based on “retributive justice” rather than “restorative justice.”  To this end, Tom Kerr not only labors on behalf of the enlightenment of prisoners but also his own students at Ithaca College.  He found prisoner-correspondents for his class by sending letters describing his goal of replacing retributive justice with restorative justice through “meaningful dialogue.”  Students’ questions for prisoners have concerned overcrowding, imprisonment for possession of marijuana, and Eastern religious paths.  One inmate replied that the “War on Drugs” was one of the “greatest tricks” by politicians, for marijuana was no worse than alcohol.  Students then wrote essays in the form of open letters and conference papers, as well as academic papers. 

 My only experience with this topic occurred when my teaching the Inferno inspired a student to give a copy to her incarcerated brother-in-law to set him straight.     

Sarah Higinbotham of Georgia State University, like her seven co-panelists, had a soft spot for incarcerated victims.  Although she did not intend it this way, I think we can see a solution to the country’s plummeting literacy levels in her video of two North Georgia inmate-scholars.  These high school dropouts proudly recited extended passages from The Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure—and not in the Ebonics that CCCC panelists would insist “honors” their culture.  So consider: If it can be done in prisons, why not the places where these panelists teach, like Rutgers, Georgia Southern, and Ohio State?  If they have authority figures, regimented schedules, strict rules, dress codes, and discipline, regular college students too might be able to recite difficult passages of speeches, as well as to memorize the parts of speech, logical fallacies, spelling rules, the coordinating conjunctions. . . . the possibilities are endless!

But then such an approach would obviate the need for junkets to convention hotels where professors share strategies for eliminating the traditional rhetorical tools for uncovering and exposing their specious arguments.   That administrators and paying customers  at respectable colleges and universities continue to support such daffy activities should be the subject of some real “critical thought.”

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Mary Grabar is an English instructor in Atlanta



Comments (61)

MM from Georgia:

Great column as usual, Dr. Mary. I always send your work around. You should be in newspapers everywhere. But then, we know the better writers generally are not in newspapers, don't we.

Jim Clark:

Thanks for enduring this misery for us. I posted it on Facebook for anyone who doesn't believe profs and teachers can be such blithering idiots.

Will:

One video showing the highlights you detail would have much more impact.

It would make it more real to your audience and help mitigate the doubt that you're bending things to fit your ideological presuppositions.

Just a thought.

rabbit:

Depriving youth of the skills for communication is but another form of censorship. Why do these people want to cripple the next generation?

Joseph Thomas:

From the anarchist/Marxist takeover of our universities in the 60s until now; these professors seeking self-worth and acceptance into an uneducated group with a destructive suicide pact killing hopes and dreams of a future based on reality. The greatest teacher is the history of Western Civilization recorded in history and literature that reveal the good, the bad, the successful experiments such as America, and the failures. Now it seems that the dark ages are being resurrected by many in the very institutions with certified educators who only know ideology based on fantasy and hate.

,

EastSideHunky:

Yet another compelling reason to totally defund teacher unions and their fellow travlers at every state house. OH, WI, NJ and FL are leading the way to defeat these Marxist atheist thugs who hate America and all the rich culture she has provided to immigrants and natives for 235+ years

Joe Johnson:

Sigh, fifty years of learning to speak and write go down the proverbial tubes. OMG thk u v3ry much, c u ltr

Mawaste:

Huh, so Dr. Mary's conclusion is to run colleges like prisons? Don't worry, Dr. Mary, the conservative element that you seem to support is doing everything in their power to make that vision a reality.

Mike:

I'll admit that I share some of your frustration with projects and panels at CCCC that have no clear relationship to teaching, but keep in mind that composition studies is a field much broader than just teaching writing/grammar. There are literally thousands of people working in the field. How many of them do you expect to talk about grammar or assigning essays? (Keep in mind that many of them did--though you chose not to represent those panelists in your review.) This is a field with a long tradition. Much of the discussion that does happen about classroom practice takes place within individual departments and writing programs, through online forums and in committees, and much of that knowledge is compiled in journals and textbooks. Much of it is common knowledge for practioners at this point.

We don't expect doctors to dispense medicine and do nothing else. We don't ask our politicians to pass a budget and nothing else. There were literally HUNDREDS of panels--most of them by academics and grad students REQUIRED to produce research in order to keep their jobs teaching writing. I don't love much of the research they choose to focus on, but shouldn't they have the freedom to pursue it? The CCCC Convention is not college. These panelists were not asked to teach students. There were no (or very few) students in attendance. There was an array of panels for those who wanted to see them.

For the past two years I have presented on ways to teach reading so that it connects better with writing. While I believe this is a better use of time than many of the panels that would seem to have limited application to the classroom, why not let the attendees decide which panels they are most interested in attending? I'm sorry you didn't have a better experience. Next time (if there is a next time) I would suggest reading the program more closely to find panels that DO apply to the classroom.

That's what I do.

What these lecturers and panelists are saying about privileged dialects is based on a fairly standard idea in linguistics. They don't get it quite right, because they are trying to bend it to their own agenda, and so haven't quite understood it. But there is something to it that both author and commenters here seem close to rejecting.

What dialect of a language becomes dominant is often accidental, and declaring it "correct" is arbitrary. I know many of us would rather that weren't true, and really, really want some things that native speakers of English say to be right, and others wrong. That is very tough to justify, and when one studies other languages and their dialects this becomes more easily apparent.

We have manuals of style for publication, both professional and popular, and these are wonderful things. One should indeed take care to be precise, and attending to convention is one way of doing that. But for the rest of written, and especially spoken communication, things are more slippery.

I use the Princeton/Oxford comma and taught my sons to do the same (the American sons, anyway), not because it is "right," but because it provides exactly the social communication I want about my attitudes and education. But it is nothing more than a social signal. Rebel against the idea all you want, but I have sweet reason on my side here, for those who can hear. Feelings about what should be true are not always relevant to what actually is true.

Where this organization goes wrong is that the "empowering" of groups in this way actually disempowers them. By allowing and even encouraging them to rely on their local, ethnic, or racial styles "outs" them to those who would be prejudiced against those groups, however mildly. If they had used the dominant dialect, they might have a better chance of getting the job.

richard40:

I guess I went to school in the good old days, because my English teachers actually liked Shakespeare.
So English instruction no longer worries about grammer, or even writing, but "performance". And of course making sure you hate Beck and Palin.

A crash is coming in education, where we will no longer pay for this drivel, and all these politicised, incompetant, hacks will all be fired. I just hope that the crash comes in time for there to still be a country, and some old fashioned English teachers, that still teach Shakespeare, Emily Dickenson, and good grammar.

Quayle:

I would argue that the greatest teacher is economic hard times and resource scarcity.

And the way things are going now, these leeches are about to get a lesson on objective truth and relevence thereto from which they will never recover.

Absolute lack of funding is immune to post-modern discounting.

TheMadKing:

This all reminds me of that Saturday Night Live skit "Prose and Cons" with Eddie Murphy.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/prose-and-cons/278690/

You what makes comedy so funny? It's the only genre you can put in the most insane true life material and make people believe it. Now THERE'S a class students could really learn from!

Mike C:

"One inmate replied that the 'War on Drugs' was one of the 'greatest tricks' by politicians, for marijuana was no worse than alcohol."

Correct. Thus proving that my grandmother was right - even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Who paid for this conference? If one dime of my tax dollars went to fund this, my representative and senators have some esplainin' to do.

Mike C:

"Where this organization goes wrong is that the 'empowering' of groups in this way actually disempowers them."

I've stressed this with my own kids. There is no such thing as a strong victim.

Heather Thomson-Bunn:

I respect Dr. Grabar's critique of CCCC. This kind of commentary is valuable for writing instructors as we reflect on our practice.

A few points of clarification, though, since my work is mentioned above: my course was called "Writing and Religion" (not "Writing Religion"), and it was not taught at Pepperdine, but at a large public university in the Midwest. My presentation had nothing to do with self-evaluation, teacher autonomy, or declaring success based on a student's responses to my questions. My central point was that we can push students to use personal experiences as part of an academic argument...much like Dr. Grabar uses her personal experiences and observations at a conference to make an argument about writing instruction.

Walter Sobchak:

Very depressing. Richard40, I hope you are right.

Bob:

Perhaps this speaker is only a part time teacher simply because shes too dumb to get a full time job. Wait, I take back the perhaps part.

Jim Clark posts, "One video showing the highlights you detail would have much more impact.

"It would make it more real to your audience and help mitigate the doubt that you're bending things to fit your ideological presuppositions.

"Just a thought."

What's wrong, Jim? All those words too confusing?

A congregation of incompetents celebrating incompetence. Makes sense in the context of crude self-interest.

Mike:

I'd set out stacks of Strunk & Whites _The Elements of Style_. Of course, the book is so filled with solid, sensible grammar rules that it would probably make their heads implode.

Would that be a good thing?

John Marlin:

I don't think that what happens at CCCC's is typical of what happens in college composition programs in general. I've taught in nine different programs over the years and now, as a department chair, review programs around the region and hire adjuncts in the field of composition and rhetoric. The overwhelming emphasis I find is on getting students to write focused, coherent, clear and correct expository and argumentative prose. This is the aim of just about every comp textbook I receive for review.

To be sure, too many composition instructors still err by overemphasizing some course theme (like "the self" or "justice" or some of those mentioned in the article) rather than seeing such themes as vehicles for teaching a skill.

It sounds like CCCC's this year, though, was like the MLA in the 80s and 90s: all very pretentiously theory-driven and especially wrapped up with Freire and Foucault. Lately, the MLA has turned back to close reading of literary masterpieces, as if coming out of a bad hangover. I suspect CCCC's will wake up as well -- especially when its guiding lights discover that its efforts to empower the underprivileged through these avant-garde methods actually leave them powerless.

John:

I thought evolution was supposed to take us forward. We went from cave man grunts to a rich language with nuance and detail. Yet, these heathens want us to digress because some groups are too lazy to learn.

This is more than disheartening; it's outrageous. Parents expect their children to be taught how to communicate ideas and information, clearly and concisely. Instead, they're being turned into haters of Western civilization.

This helps explain why sales of "How to Write" -- co-authored by my wife and me -- are declining at public high schools and colleges, but soaring among home-schoolers. It's an interesting indicator....

Herb Meyer

Amir:

Professor Holmes changed my life as a student and a thinker... perhaps the craziness you speak of is more of a personal nature DOCTOR Grabar.

Julie Brown:

Perhaps before you yes men jump so cavalierly onboard Dr. Mary's anti-writing teacher ship, might a seasoned writing teacher, also present at the much-maligned conference, give you a mini-lesson in critical thinking and rhetoric (AKA the art of persuasion)?

Let's consider logical fallacies (which, by the way, we get from those poor, poor white guys who supposedly get no airplay anymore 'cause of their "privelege"). A logical fallacy occurs when the premises offered don't actually support the conclusion being drawn from them. For example, arguing that two former TED Speakers (Al Gore and Bill Clinton)represent all TED speakers is an example of a common fallacy known as the fallacy of composition. It is fallacious reasoning precisely because two examples are not enough to generalize about the hundreds of Ted Conference speakers over the years, just as a few panels does not necessarily represent every panel at a conference this size. Dr, Mary, you just love this fallacy!

To get back to the TED example though, notice how Dr. Mary implies, through the use of scare quotes, that these two speakers she cites are not thinkers at all. First, I'd like to point out that simply putting quotes around a word does not really provide sufficient evidence for the claim. Second, the fact that Dr. Mary picks out 2 democratic polticians as her examples, when TED has hosted hundreds, maybe thousands, of experts from a range of fields, and likely a range of politcial positions, is pretty narrowly selective. I suspect that she is pretty sure that their political party alone is all that will discredit them to a rigtwing republican audience, and by extension, she hopes to discredit the TED conference as a whole. Logically, however, just restating your belief is not evidence that that belief is logically sound.

I also see liberal (ahem!) use of the strawman fallacy where a weaker version of the opponent's argument is presented in order to make it easier to knock over. As I tell my students, strawman can be quite effective on stupid or uninformed people.

Cara Minardi:

It is too bad that Dr. Grabar knows so little about the field of Rhetoric and Composition and that she chose not to create an appropriate context for her review of CCCC. For example, she takes no notice of scholarship in the field about teaching grammar. She also does not explain how "publish or perish" has impacted the work of writing professionals. For example, all too many TT R/C professors do not get tenure because they write to/for an audience that is deemed not appropriate enough to "count" as real scholarship (i.e. textbooks for undergraduate students) or because their publications are in non-print texts.
While she could have taken the time to situate the conference properly, all she seems to have done here is continue to encourage splits between writing professionals and the rest of academe, which perpetuates ignorance about the field, the writing process and how to teach it, and scholarship that is an attempt to move pedagogies into the 21st century. I hope that those of you reading will attend a CCCC yourself rather than believe this evaluation. Perhaps Dr. Grabar is more interested in gaining readers than informing them.

daveinboca:

Dr. Mary

You are really a messenger that needs to be heard. I hope Fox News picks you up as a commentator. You show enough erudition to combat these intellectual eunuchs mano-a-mano in the lists, and you should be knighted for bravery and endurance.

Chris:

Mary Grabar: so you attended the CCCC, which has between 450 and 500 sessions, in the hope that you could learn more about "teaching students to write and communicate clearly." But in the time slot of virtually every session you reported on, there were many panels and presenters that focused on areas of your interest. How about "Fresh Approaches to Assessment and Tutoring" or "Plagiarism and Ethics" or "Writing Assignments and Deep Learning" or "Questioning the Margins: Teacher Feedback"?

Instead of selecting those sessions that would best provide you with the sort of perspectives and information you sought, you cherry-picked the ones that seemed most at odds with your ideology, presumably so that you could write another scathing expose about how the teaching of writing in higher education is a joke. The CCCC is a large and diverse organization. Imagine what it would be like for someone who is interested, say, in rhetorical analysis or language diversity or how identities are represented in online instruction to have session after session focus on "Further Methods for Teaching the Semicolon" or "The Triumphs of the Thesis Statement" or "Remarkable Osmosis: Why Lecturing About Style Creates Better Writers." The self-fulfilling prophesy you set out to enact--ridicule the convention by finding sessions to ridicule--is, at best, just petty. Bravo: You got a tiny little publication credit. Was it worth ruining what could have been a good convention for you?

My reply is below. Sorry for having to link rather than post, but this site's character encoding settings keep generating errors.

https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1Fg9eu-QNopkg96G9GhQrrBNaIolMpyK9kD0PUB4LVbQ

P. MacKinnon:

I am aghast. This is pure Charles Dodgson drivel. I would seriously reconsider sending a high school graduate to university these days.

guinsPen:

Re: CCCC

I have nothing unvicious or clean to say.

So, "No comment."

Chas:

This piece mirrors my own experience attending the 4C's in the 1990s.

Think of it as a the scribal class at play.

As for me, I ended up teaching more or less Classical rhetoric (Aristotle, Quintilian) instead of the touchy-feelie approaches endorsed by many in my English department.

A fascinating and disheartening article, but I should emphasize "disheartening." Our education system is not in good shape.

Brett Griffiths:

I found this article while trying to find a review of a friend's panel. I didn't find the review. However, this is interesting and even worthy of discussion. I expect Dr. Grabar's assessment is a popular one. It makes me wonder, and maybe I should research it: Does this kind of in-fighting happen in mathematics? It seems to me Dr. Grabar's argument is akin to critiquing a conference of mathematicians for discussing mathematical theory beyond Euclid.

Continuing the debate over prescriptive and descriptive grammar is probably valuable, especially as I don't know a single descriptivist who doesn't also mark their students down for poor grammar or even make some assumptions about the background of those students.

However, understanding how language works, what it means for language to be cultural and social, how that informs politics is both an old concern in the study of communication (e. g. those old guys in robes) and a new one (political debates and campaigns are still won via persuasion of an audience, as I understand it). It is important to remember that one of the "Cs" in CCCC also stands for communication.

Clearly, I have stakes here, but so do Dr. Grabar's students. I hope Dr. Grabar teaches the students in her writing courses something beyond the sentence. Those students will be expected to make sense of language--theirs and others-- in a world that IS political, that does have inequality, and where audiences DO identify as a result of that politicized language. One need only look to the any number of countries in the Middle East right now or to any number of genocides in human history to have evidence that language beyond grammar matters, and that there are, actually, real consequences (good and bad).

Will:

I love that Gumlegs' snarky reply misreads the post to which it responds.

I, Will, posted the original comment, not Jim Clark.

I guess words confuse some of us at least, Gumlegs!

Fredrick Swenson:

I am 53 years old and went back to school last summer at a community college linked to a moderately large state university. In the 2010 Fall Semester, I took English Rhetoric and Composition, a required course to qualify for any degree at our school. A disclaimer; writing comes fairly easy to me. I spent 8 years in the military and was frequently called upon to write award citations, reports, and other documents because I could write "militarese" pretty well and my superiors were glad to get the burden off their backs and onto someone else's. I have also been employed in a technical sales field for over 20 years, writing proposals, simple contracts, and instructional materials. So, I began the class with a bit of a leg up, so to speak. Nonetheless, I found it extremely challenging to absorb the course material in the amount of time we were given. Correct method of citing sources (we use APA exclusively),constructing convincing rhetorical arguments on a variety of topics, and learning how to effectively summarize and paraphrase were some of the REQUIREMENTS to successfully pass the course. The final hurdle is the Common Exit Essay, which places a single topic before all students in the Department and requires them to use all that they have learned in the semester to produce a college-level essay. Papers are graded by Department faculty who are unaware of which student wrote the paper they are evaluating. It's a tough, but fair learning environment. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that there is some hope, even it resides in a community college in a small Southwestern city.

Chris Bolts:

If I didn't read what CCCC stood for I might have thought it stood for Conference of Childish Communist Chumps.

Makes me glad that I never took a liberal arts course in college.

Charles Martel:

Very interesting read. I note, sadly, that many of your critics here can't help but come across as stung narcissists. Amir, in particular, sounds like someone who should never be let near students. I pity those who have to listen to his ponderous self-regard.

That said, it's become an amusing game for me, when I go to conferences, to search the program for the most ridiculous sounding panels. There is never any shortage of candidates. And yet, it's simply not true that we can smile at such idiocy and assure ourselves that there are no consequences. For example, anyone who presents on topics like this gets consigned to the wastebasket when they apply for a job in a non-foolish department. That means that faculty who espouse this nonsense are doing a great disservice to the grad students who lap it up.

And trust me, it's the same people who produce "scholarship" about grammar fascism that you hear whining the loudest about the job market.

Paco Wove:

"We don't expect doctors to dispense medicine and do nothing else."

Neither do we expect them to babble nonsensically.

Cristina R.:

To all of you who dismiss Dr Grabar's observations of a clear cultural marxist, Gramscian trend in academia that vilifies anything produced by the "whitey oppressor" (a trend I witnessed myself as a teacher of composition) I challenge you to:

1. Rewrite your postings in ebonics/ghetto or any other "dialect," or as a performance act.

2. Rewrite your entire scholarship and resumes as "ghetto" or hip-hop "rap" or Cherokee Mother Earth chant, and reapply to your university as such, and see if you pass the test. Universities flirt with nincompoops like you, but they still have to deliver some kind of solid, traditional education to the paying kids.

3. Change your syllabi in your writing classes from, say, a discussion of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights to this expresssion of "oppression and disempowerment," rendered in desultory, expletive-empowered "prose" like this:

"I'm sorry if I talk about what I've experienced in my lifetime. I call women bitches and 'hos because all the women I've met since I've been out here are bitches and 'hos.
And what do you call your mother? a female reporter asks.
I call her "woman," but I'm not f -- -ing my mother. If I was f -- -ing you, you'd be a bitch.
Bushwick Bill1"

I rejoice at all of you, multiculti morons, having to deal with multiple victim identities: here's a black male calling black --actually all females--"bitches" and seeing nothing else in them than good "f...ing" material.

How's one multiculti, progressive prof/instructor meant to navigate among these divergent claims at victimhood at the hands of the "whitey," especially when none is being made??? Bushwick Bill just hates women, for reasons of his own. So does the entire hip-hop, gangsta culture. Besides, many black females in pop culture seem to enjoy their own debasement by the males.

I'd like to see a single scholarly essay about composition and rhetoric in the terms proposed by the multicultists at this conference.

Please send it to acr2001@verizon.net

mike:

"It seems to me Dr. Grabar's argument is akin to critiquing a conference of mathematicians for discussing mathematical theory beyond Euclid."

It's more like critiquing a conference of mathematicians for promoting the idea that 2+2=5.

Elisethemom:


This article was hard to read, because my eyes kept rolling at the folly described. As a parent, I am absolutely not going to pay for this baloney, despite having been an english major myself. Upon leaving school, I came to realize how ill-served we naive students were by queer studies and marxist feminist readings of Jane Austen. Very ill-served, and yet obliged to pay back those student loans, regardless.

With regard to my childrens' education, the buck stops here, in my pocket.

I am always encouraged to see comments like the one by "Will" who describes a rigorous composition course at a community college. As a former teacher of composition and colleague of community college composition teachers, I know that there are many excellent, sober, sane teachers out there.

In my experience, however, the most traditional and rigorous teachers are also the ones most likely to be passed over for full-time, tenure-track, and benefits-subsidized work. Even worse, they are passed over because they do the scut-work of teaching writing instead of participating in the sort of ritualized, prejudicial nonsense in full bloom at professional conferences like the CCCC. Between affirmative action hiring quotas (which ironically exclude an entire generation of older female composition teachers who lacked access to literature professorships because of real sexism but now fail to fit trendy categories despite long careers of actually underpaid labor) and the outsized power of nonsense ideology among the smaller pool of tenured composition teachers, I simply do not believe those who claim that the evidence uncovered by Mary is mere marginalia. It colors the entire discipline, and particularly the training and promotion of new teachers.

I've listened to too many older adjuncts describe the times they were passed over for full-time work that went instead to some incompetent ideologue who narcissistically imagined their classroom a "miraculous moral factory." Such people are unfortunately first in line for the extremely limited number of "sustainable" full-time jobs out there. And that margin impacts everyone.

G Lowell Bownan:

I had a similar conversation with my brother (now deceased)several years ago. As the author has written educaters are being politicized and thus passing those teachings onto young minds that have yet to distinguish deceit from moronic vocabulary.It was awhile before my brother (a college profesor in a southern state) became aware of his peers tendency to deviate from the normal or traditional form of teaching at a college level.this happened in the late sixty's & early seventy's. Since then we have as a nation been on a downward trend as far as education goes. Am I to be constanly reminded of life two hundred & fifty years ago??.I still beleive sensitivety training works BOTH ways.Let it go people and create the life you wish for yourself's

Having published over 300 newspaper and magazine articles, I cannot imagine going to that conference. I marvel at Mary Grabar's capacity.

Laine:

Strange how the people who call themselves progressives actually regress constantly to the ideas of a 19th century inventor of a totalitarianism with a butcher's bill of over 100 million lives and the oppression of hundreds of millions more. They smugly congratulate themselves on their intelligence and moral superiority to those who reject an ideology that has left blood, anguish and economic failure wherever it's been put into force. These are not teachers, but leftist propagandists whatever they think of themselves. The idea that there exist entire rooms full of supposed English professors who debase language, promote more primitive forms all the way to dispensing with language altogether in favor of grunting, drumming, and expressing oneself through body clothing or decoration is beyond satire. The monkeys are truly in control of the academic typewriters. And they promote others with similarly primitive simian ideas. For those with a hair trigger on the racism button, think of the monkeys as white, as most of them in fact are, white liberals so open minded their brains have fallen out.

reader:

When ancestors were in Africa long before the United States or Europeans in the New World as a whole, I wonder if there was a proper way of speaking in tribal communities in Africa. I also wonder if when children disobeyed the proper way to speak, then they would be corrected. In the society and country that we live in, and the tongue the country of the United States of America speaks is English, and there is a correct way to speak it, as well as with other countries and their respective languages regardless of the color of their skin. I realize that some of my grammar is incorrect, please correct me, thanks.

Gary:

I am a graduate of a major rhetoric and comp program in the 1980's, when the atmosphere was sane with only the occasional loopiness. But I could never attend such a program today.

The saddest thing I read in your essay was that Peter Elbow has caved in to the anti-grammarians. I remember so well how James Berlin, one of my professors, labeled Elbow and Don Murray as "expressivists." It looks like Elbow is still trying to be accepted by the in-power crowd; if Murray were still alive, he wouldn't have folded.

Gary

Sharon Wright:

You know Mary, years ago in the early eighties I took a writing class which was ranked as the third year of university study at UCSC in Santa Cruz, CA. Our professor told us a story about a black woman who wanted him to read her stories to see what he thought. He did just that and gave her his honest opinion as to how she could better herself as a young writer. He told her that she needed two years of basic English and then she could come back to the college to take one of his writing classes. You see, she had quit school in the third grade and wanted to enter a third year writing class at the university. Where had she been all those years? And now she wants into college?! She then told him that he was a racist and she was out to sue him for discrimination. It's all BS now. Useless muck.

Peter Foley:

At first I thought this was some sort of copy of R.A.Heinlein's "Crazy Years" anecdotes, But sadly our tax dollars are being sucked into the Marxist-Progressive breeding grounds of intellectual self-love.

It would be funny if not true.....

Re: the phony Cherokee momma BS, didn't the smart natives realise one of the huge advantage Western culture gave the invaders over Native Americans was a rigorous written & spoken language.... more unintentional humor.

Bruce :

Reminds me a lot of my experiences at English as a Foreign/Second Language conferences, where conservatives were invariably ridiculed. One TESOL conference I attended assumed that we were all opposed to a plan to make English the principle language of California's educational system -a strange stance for an organization of English teachers to take. What offended me most was their presumption that all of us shared the same view. I also once canceled participation in the 2009 Alta Conference on Argumentation after seeing that about 1/4 of the scheduled papers were paeans to Obama, judging by their titles.

John Dorris:

We are hardly a society of cave men. We do not need to communicate through grunts and dancing as a form of expression. Proper grammar is a fundamental part of our evolution as human beings. Non sense like this only sets us back. Only an idiot would think that "the internet" has freed us from something culturally necessary. I can only throw in so many "know what I'm sayin's" and "fo sho's" before you start to question what I'm actually talking about. The same goes for the use of complete sentences and proper grammar. Grammar helps us to communicate clearly, not further muddle what we mean to say.

nameless adjunct:

Thank you for posting this. I no longer feel like such of misfit in the madness. I have decided to leave the academy after eight years of teaching composition. I can no longer be complicit in the race to the bottom.

lmo:

I think Grabar's ratemyprofessor pages say more than enough. Students think she is pushing a religious agenda in the classroom, much like the political agenda she accuses others of pushing. More importantly, though, these students say that she is "easy," yet their grammar suggests they did not learn those basics in her class at all. Clearly, she's not the teacher she imagines herself to be, and she clearly does not know how to engage with students or in scholarship (as she has no academic scholarship to her name).

Mary, I have taken the liberty of reproducing your essay on our new libertarian website, "Orphans of Liberty". Please do let me know if you wish me to cancel, but what you have said and quoted is a standing rebuke to modern English teaching. How I wish I had studied maths instead.

Teacher Reader:

As an ex-classroom teacher, I have had too many principals and other even higher up administrators who struggled with the English Language, not only in speaking, but also in writing. I wonder how they earned their college degrees, and many have doctorate degrees in the field of education. Our education system is crumbling and it's about time people wake up. This happens in most education conferences and until teachers and educators start speaking up against this, it will continue and get worse for our children, until we are unable to do anything to stop it.

You can surf through the internet at this very moment and read 1000 fairly decently composed blogs, articles, essays, diatribes, descriptions and magazine articles. Go to a bookstore and scan almost any book--there's plenty of very good writing going on. For all the handwringing, obviously our colleges and universities are doing something right. (And having read the unreadable memoirs of two uncles coming from a typical Wasp upper-class education of the 40's, I can assure you traditional schooling is no guarantee of the capacity to write decently. Ask any publisher forced to wade through the slush pile.)
The problem Mary Grabar is witnessing is rife among liberal arts academia. All the big topics have been taken, notwithstanding the odd Malcolm Gladwell who writes the occasional envied bestseller for the masses. Mostly, hundreds of thousands of grad students toiling to become Professors or Professors attempting tenure are talking to each other. They use opaque, inaccessible language that would not be understood by the very people they seek to advocate for--the historically disenfranchised minorities who, for all their grammatical inadequacies, are the ones moving the language forward with the most vibrancy.
The truth is a 17-year old hip-hopper with no chance of going to college but a lot to say isn't going to wait till he can write like Somerset Maugham to make full use of the language he has available to him. All you have to do is going to one def Poetry Jam to realize he might actually be Shakespearean.
I think left-wing academia does itself no good by seeming to aim for self-parody in these seminar topics. But Grabar also seems to be letting the messengers obscure the message. We have to deal with the language as it is spoken in the immense and growing minority and immigrant working class. We can marginalize and ignore it (as we tend to marginalize and ignore the poor in general) or we can hear what's being said and respond: "Yes, you have a voice too." And we can discuss how to put the English Language is service to that voice. I think this is the aim, marred be a surfeit of political correctness, that is at the heart of many of these admittedly overwrought efforts. That needs to be said. Dismissing them as Marxist, America-hating thugs is juvenile, fearful and ignorant.

Mariah T.:

Just wanted to say for the record--this particular conference and its theme were controversial among CCC members as well.

When the Call for Papers was posted on the CCCC website, several comments noted that it was ambiguous, rambling, and only marginally connected to Composition and Rhetoric. The selection process for 2011 came in for criticism as well. In general, this seems to have been a somewhat "off" conference.

While there will be plenty to disagree or find fault with at any academic conference, I would urge those who dismissed CCCC after this year to give it another chance. I have attended past conferences that seemed much more in tune with reality than this one, and next year's looks more promising as well.

janelle:

The only good thing about professors like you is that you will fade away eventually - to be replaced by us radicals. Thank god you people won't last forever, but I do feel for you - your pathetic scrambling to hold onto your power. This actually made me laugh hysterically (being a graduate student of exactly all the things you loathe), because you all sound so pathetic - like bitter elderly people wishing things could just return to the "good ol' days when people knew how to do things right." Let go, old timers.

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