Pedagogical Heresy, Uncommon Sense


Heilker, Paul


In August 1989, at the workshop for new graduate teaching assistants and writing faculty at Texas Christian University, Gary Tate said, "Everything we do as writing teachers—and everything we have our students do—is an enactment of belief. To teach writing, then, is to enact theory. You don't need to go out and get a theory to base your teaching on, because you already have a theory, whether you realize it or not. You simply need to make yours explicit for yourself and your students." Thus, the very first time I heard him speak publicly, Gary neatly and irrevocably undid the world in which I operated, undid the theory versus practice dichotomy, undid the theory over practice hierarchy, undid the engine that had been driving my understanding of rhetoric and composition studies as a discipline, my understanding of pedagogy in general, and my own sense of myself as a writing teacher. Thus began a pattern in which my universe as a student and teacher of writing has repeatedly lurched off its axis as a result of one of Gary's pedagogical heresies, or, rather, his uncommon sense.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned from Gary is that, at some point, even the most well-intentioned movements in writing pedagogy gain a snow-balling momentum of their own and begin to hurtle along until what otherwise might be seen as hyperbolic or even foolish perspectives become construed as "common knowledge" or "conventional wisdom." The notion that writing instructors needed to translate theory into practice, for instance, once seemed this commonsensical, this inevitable, this "natural," this "but, of course!" Our various pedagogical movements in our field serve as galvanizing agents for our communal sense of who we are and what we are about as a profession. But as our devotion to them grows, they eventually acquire an almost religious status, and, like the Baltimore Catechism, supply ready answers for so many questions and concerns that our allegiance to them becomes more automatic than mindful. Our pedagogical movements become, in fact, more important in what they do for us as we continue to attempt to validate our field as a worthy academic discipline, more important in how they help us conduct our business of publishing scholarship and textbooks, than in what they do to help our students become better writers. Hence, we are loath to criticize them much and they frequently develop, unchecked, until they spiral into strained, ethereal constructions. What Gary has repeatedly demonstrated is how important it is for writing teachers to have the courage and conviction to do the unpopular thing, to speak the unspeakable, to point out that the emperor has no clothes, to spear the sacred cow: to recognize when the momentum of a pedagogical movement that has gained wide acceptance is allowing excessive (sometimes even silly) ideas to be passed off as axiomatic truths and is thus hampering rather than helping us in our efforts to help students become more effective writers.

The pedagogical movement that had gained the widest acceptance when I began my doctoral study in fall of 1989 was, of course, the New Paradigm for Teaching Writing. The salient feature of the New Paradigm, as Maxine Hairston put it, was that it focused on the writing process. During my training as a GTA in my M. A. program a couple of years earlier, I had been thoroughly immersed in writing process pedagogy. We pored over Donald Murray's A Writer Teaches Writing, with its seemingly endless menus of activities for each stage of the writing process; we had our students practice brainstorming, freewriting, looping, talk-write, clustering, branching, cubing, the W questions, Aristotle's topoi, Jacqueline Berke's 20 questions, tagmemic grids, and Burke's Pentad; we traded hundreds of ideas for students' daybook and journal entries; we quoted sections of Nancy Sommers's "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers" and "Responding to Student Writing" verbatim; we collected first drafts and responded in ways that encouraged students toward holistic, global, fundamental revision of their papers, toward "re-vision," toward literally "re-seeing" their papers on a basic level to find the gems of meaning buried within even the most ragged texts; we even required students to revise one of their ostensibly finished papers as the final assignment of the semester.

It is within this context that I began auditing Gary's "Personal Essay" class, which, by all appearances, was the quintessential writing workshop that process pedagogy valorized. We met once a week, desks in a circle, and read our essays aloud, while our classmates offered supportive comments as to which sections seemed to have a strong voice, arresting details, and the like, all with an eye toward revising our essays toward possible submission for evaluation. My experience as a student writer in the class cemented in my mind the value of student-centered, process-centered teaching: I felt good—good about my writing and good about myself as a writer.

But then the universe pitched, rolled, and yawed. One day in class, after I had finished reading my "Pre-Mortem on the Mighty Nova," an admittedly mawkish and sophomoric paean to my old Chevy, Gary allowed the typical feedback to come from my classmates for a while, but then he interrupted. "You know," he said, "it simply is not true that all drafts should be revised or that all drafts will be improved by revision. Sometimes there just isn't enough of value there to work with. Sometimes it would take far too much effort to try to salvage what little good is there. Sometimes revision even makes a draft worse. Sometimes we would be wise to just leave a draft alone, to abandon it."

I was dumbfounded. Everything I had learned in my indoctrination about effective teaching, everything I had learned about the faith of—and our faith in—writing process, about our unflagging optimism and confidence, that, given enough drafts, effective prose would simply have to emerge, had been rent asunder. But Gary's blasphemy was so right on target, so painfully apt. That essay was dreck. It was unworthy of revision, unworthy of the time I might squander on it, time which would be much better spent on a different draft that had at least some potential. No amount of work was going to salvage that wreck. It was then that I realized the depths of my process worship and proselytizing, my uncritical complicity in promulgating some foolish excesses of process pedagogy, and my misleading and mystifying my students as a result. It's a pretty, self-serving fiction that revision will always improve a draft, but it's a lie, nonetheless. So now, just as I refuse to dupe myself anymore, I refuse to dupe my students. I am unhappy, of course, when I have to say it—almost as unhappy as they are when they hear it—but I do tell students when I think their drafts are dead in the water and they should abandon ship. If I want my students to make clear-eyed and strategic yet ethical and humane decisions as writers and collaborators and citizens, it seems only fitting to try to model that behavior.

Much like our naïve and overweening faith in revision as the universal balm, other features the New Paradigm also warped into bad teaching. An equally troubling development amounted to a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water, as the New Paradigm juggernaut eventually moved from emphasizing writing process over written product to teaching writing process to the exclusion of written product. The Current-Traditional Paradigm, we knew, was bad; and the most prominent features of that paradigm were that it focused on the written product, conventional usage, style, and editing. So we cut back and cut back on teaching those things until we practically didn't teach them at all. "Grammar" moved from being one of the most heavily weighted components of evaluation rubrics to one of the least. When we graded papers as GTAs in my M. A. program in the mid-1980s, for instance, we used a program-wide list of grammatical and mechanical errors, a list which was divided into "Errors That Count" and "Errors That Don't Count." The number of items in the latter category was at least double that in the former, as I remember.

During my doctoral study, however, my relationship to written products experienced a disorienting quantum leap. In my second semester at TCU, I took a course in literary criticism from Gary called "Reading Texts." We got our first assignment, to write a response to some critical text we had been reading, as I recall. I went to work, and using all of my training in writing process, I completed (well, almost completed, as it turns out) a strong response. But when I got it back, I was rather surprised to see that I had earned a "B." Me?! A "B"?! There must be some mistake, I thought. I scoured the paper for an explanation. But he liked the focus I had chosen, it seemed, and he appreciated the quality of my analysis, and he praised the evidence I had brought to bear. Then why the "B"? And then I saw it: there, in the first paragraph (I can still see it now!), where I had written that the author's suggested teaching practice "would be a horrific thing to do to students," the word horrific was circled in red ink. But there was no marginal comment to go with that circle. Confused, I went to see Gary during his office hours.

"Dr. Tate," I ventured, "I was wondering why I got a 'B' on the last assignment."

"Let me see," he said, taking the paper from my hands. "Oh, that! You misused the word horrific. You didn't mean 'horrific.'"

"Yes, I did."

"No," he said, "you didn't."

And I realized, with a rather sinking feeling that began at my larynx and moved swiftly downward, that he was right, that I had used the wrong word, that I had, rather mindlessly, plugged in almost the right word as I was working through my writing process, but not the right word. I had gotten it down, in a good process over product economy, but I had never gone back and gotten it right. The heresy—the uncommon sense—here is that process is not an end in itself, but rather the means to an improved product. What I learned from the universe's reeling that day is that we need to teach students that editing and proofreading are writing processes too, ones as crucial as invention and revision and as essential to one's effectiveness as a writer. I learned that while writing may never be finished, it is, nonetheless, inevitably due at some point and needs to be completed. And I learned that our excessive over-emphasis on process over product runs a real risk of never giving students the opportunity to move past imprecise language and sloppy thinking.

While the New Paradigm was already fully, deeply entrenched by the late 1980s, social construction theory was fast on its way to becoming so. At that time, three years after the publication of Kenneth Bruffee's "Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge," for example, social construction theory had not only established itself within the mainstream of our disciplinary thought. It had, in fact, in its own way become, oddly, ironically, foundational. I found myself citing with absolute certainty, without qualm or question, assertions like Bruffee's that

a social constructionist position in any discipline assumes that entities we normally call reality, knowledge, thought, facts, texts, selves, and so on are constructs generated by communities of like-minded peers. Social construction understands reality, knowledge, thought, facts, texts, selves, and so on as community-generated and community-maintained linguistic entities. (774)

What a powerful and empowering perspective for writing instructors to adopt. The work we help students do with words is creative in a biblical sense: it constitutes reality, constitutes the world(s) in which we live. I am sure this why I found—and still find—social construction theory so attractive.

But, being sucked along in the wake of this movement, I could not see how, and to what, the wave I was riding was blinding me. But Gary could, perhaps because he has been here since the beginnings of the field, has seen other movements rise and fall, come and go, in their time, and has thus had lots of practice in resisting our ever-changing theoretical tides. In any event, the day soon came when my universe as a writing teacher and my relationship to my composition students careened jarringly, again, when—much like Dr. Johnson, who kicked a stone to refute Bishop Berkeley—Gary came into our Composition Theory class, placed a chair upon the table and announced, "This is not a socially constructed linguistic entity." At that moment, I realized merely that Gary had gleefully located a gaping hole in my favorite theory. But soon after, as the image of the desk resonated and the significance of his point expanded in my mind, the tremendous influence of material reality on a student's ability to learn to write came crashing down on me. I had never considered how much students' access to things, how much their access to things like chairs, desks, books, paper, pens, let alone computers—hell, how much their access to things like food, shelter, medicine, and clothing, for that matter—fundamentally affected their ability to learn to write. My ignorance was appalling, and I was ashamed of it. While, on the whole, brute, material realities in our class-divided society still remain practically unacknowledged in the theorizing of our field, we can nonetheless address them in our teaching: we can order old editions of the textbooks we use, rather than forcing students to shell out the ludicrously high prices they pay for new ones; we can place a full set of class texts on reserve at the library, rather than insist that students buy every book; we can make hard copies of our teaching materials available and allow for alternative ways students may submit their work, rather than insisting that they somehow find internet access; and we can negotiate due dates around students' work and childcare schedules, to name just a few possibilities.

Closely related to the rise of social construction theory was the rise of teaching academic discourse as a programmatic goal in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Driven by arguments such as David Bartholomae's "The Study of Error" and "Inventing the University," our new curricula sought to help students assimilate academic discourse conventions and so enter their chosen disciplinary discourse communities. Writing Across the Curriculum programs were formed to help advanced undergraduates garner the discipline-specific writing skills they would need for their professions. We worried much about carryover, and we worked hard to convince ourselves that the skills we taught in freshman English courses would, in fact, prepare our students well for the writing they had to do in their majors. In English 101 we told students, "You'll need this when you get into English 102." In English 102 we told students, "You'll need this when you get into your major." In the writing across the curriculum courses in their majors, we told students, "You'll need this when you get into the working world." But our emphasis on how their current efforts would somehow pay off for them later in school or work became excessive and silly, became a perpetually deferred orientation to some vague and misty future. The insistence that working hard in a writing class now would have some kind of amazing, almost mystical reward somewhere down the line became an article of faith for us. The notion that composition courses were places where students were prepared for their academic and professional futures, prepared for some other time and place when they might actually need to know and apply what we were teaching them, went unquestioned and unchallenged until it became practically our sole raison d'etre.

In 1992, as I was nearing the end of my time at TCU, as I was picking a dissertation topic and preparing to put myself on the job market, Gary shared with me another pair of universe-altering heresies, which fundamentally changed how I construe myself as a professional and go about my job as a writing teacher. The first bit of uncommon sense is simply that composition courses should be worth taking in the present. They should be of immediate—not deferred—value to the students who are required to take them. Our students should experience the payoff for their hard work right now, not somewhere down the line. Our courses need to be valuable in their own right, for their own sake. The second, related bit of wisdom will be familiar to anyone who has read Gary's debate with Erika Lindemann on the place of literature in the writing class: since, with only rare exception, students will spend only four, maybe six, years in college, teaching students to produce academic writing is an extremely short-sighted objective. I'll go further: it's more than just short-sighted, it's self-important, self-aggrandizing. While our students will spend about five years within academics, they will spend decades upon decades outside of academics, "Writing Beyond the Disciplines," as Gary put it, living real, whole lives and encountering real, whole problems, rather than working through highly controlled simulations within neatly, scholastically categorized slices of experience. In the long run, our students' ability to compose personally meaningful writing beyond the curriculum, is far more important than their ability to compose academic writing across the curriculum. Offering our students experience and practice in using writing as a way of exploring their personal, affective responses to pressing social issues and the vexing, endlessly mutating difficulties of everyday living, as a means of learning about and negotiating the complexities and conflicts of their personal relationships, as a means of discovering themselves, what they think, what they feel, what they value, and why—this should be both the immediate payoff and the long-term legacy of our writing courses. We should, in short, not simply be unapologetic about teaching expressive, personal writing, we should be aggressive about it. What more worthwhile goal can we pursue, what more valuable process can we teach our students, than how to invent and revise and compose themselves?

While I readily admit that I may be exceptionally gullible, or exceptionally susceptible to groupthink, or exceptionally enthusiastic in my embracing of the movement du jour, and while it would be foolish and arrogant of me to assume that my idiosyncratic relationship to our field is somehow normative, I would, nonetheless, hope that my experiences serve as a cautionary tale. As Sharon Crowley has argued, freshman English began with an absence, a void, with students' inability to write, and we have been trying to fill that void with everything—anything—we can lay our hands on ever since. Of late, in addition to Writing Process and Academic Discourse, we have also tried to fill that void with Cultural Studies, for example, and the familiar pattern has exerted itself here as well. As the movement became ensconced in our pedagogical mainstream, some foolish excesses began to go unchecked. In recent years, my students have rendered fascinating semiotic interpretations of the ideology of household appliances and the Pillsbury Doughboy's homoeroticism, for instance, but yet I am left wondering, "Has their writing really improved at all?" So I end here with the hope and the plea that we might watch ourselves and watch each other more closely so that our currently rising pedagogical movements in writing instruction—like Service Learning, Civic Discourse, and the New Expressivism, for example—don't meet a similar fate and turn from being helpful to hindering, from mindful to silly. And should these new movements turn the corner anyway, despite our efforts, let us lovingly call each other on our foolishness. Let us follow Gary's example and speak the uncommon sense of pedagogical heresy.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. "The Study of Error." College Composition and Communication 31 (1980): 253-69.

—. "Inventing the University." When a Writer Can't Write: Studies in Writer's Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-65.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. "Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge: A Bibliographical Essay." College English 48 (1986): 773-90.

Crowley, Sharon. "The Perilous Life and Times of Freshman English." Freshman English News 14 (1986): 11-16.

Hairston, Maxine. "The Winds of Change: Thomas Kuhn and the Revolution in the Teaching of Writing." College Composition and Communication 33.1 (1982): 76-88.

Murray, Donald M. A Writer Teaches Writing. 2nd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Sommers, Nancy. "Responding to Student Writing." College Composition and Communication 33.2 (1982): 148-56.

—. "Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers." College Composition and Communication 31.4 (1980): 378-88.

Tate, Gary. "A Place for Literature in Freshman Composition." College English 55 (1993): 317-21.


This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

Publication date: 





No votes yet