Is Joseph R. Teller Teaching Composition All Wrong?

While provocative in ways I suspect he never intended, Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? proves to be an essay that should, ironically, be significantly revised after conferencing with someone well versed in teaching composition.

Broadly, Teller’s essay makes a common first-year composition mistake by significantly misrepresenting “teaching composition” and then proceeding to attack the misrepresentations. However, late in the piece, Teller wanders into some important conclusions that actually are warranted composition practices—despite his suggesting these are somehow alternatives to endorsed practice.

Teller opens by claiming that “compositionists have been enamored of a pedagogical orthodoxy” he briefly details in three bullet points.

In my first-year seminar, here would be the first area for conferencing and revision: how does the writer justify the condescending “enamored” (it appears Teller has a literaturist’s low opinion of the compositionist lurking underneath the real reason for this essay; maybe a bit of professional distress over having to teach first-year composition instead of upper-level literature?); and where is any evidence that the claim and three points are credible?

After failing to include evidence for his central claim, however, Teller declares composition “pedagogical orthodoxy” a failure—a pretty hasty and damning conclusion.

To detail those failures, Teller launches into revision and a jumbled criticism of “workshop,” highlighting a central failure of this essay and a grounding lesson that must be addressed in first-year composition classes: defining terms (a bedrock of disciplinary writing).

Before examining Teller’s concerns about students not revising, I must highlight that Teller appears to conflate “workshop” with “peer editing/conferencing” since the only aspect of workshop he addresses is peer conferencing.

It is without a doubt that a critical unpacking of the effectiveness of peer editing/conferencing is warranted; many writing teachers struggle with that. But writing workshop is significantly more than peer conferencing.

Over a semester of 40+ class sessions, I devote 4 class periods in part to peer conferencing with about triple that amount of class time devoted to other aspects of workshop: brainstorming, discussion, reading, drafting, exploring evidence, etc.

Now, about revision: my students revise essays significantly or they do not receive credit for the essay, and thus, cannot receive credit for the course. Revision strategies and minimum expectations for revising are addressed and detailed in conferences, and then, my students do revise, and typically are eager to do so.

Effective for me has been not to grade essays, but to have minimum elements for credit in the course that include drafting essays, conferencing, and revising/rewriting essays.

I don’t want to make the mistake also suffered by Teller—assuming anecdotes prove credible generalizations—but I am reasonably sure many composition professors have students revise, and revise well—and those strategies are in fact aspects of warranted writing pedagogy.

Next, Teller complains: “Even when students engage complex issues from readings in their papers, they do not use the basic argumentative structures they need in order to give their ideas voice, cohesion, and support.”

Here is a key moment when Teller’s essay is doubly problematic since he identifies good practice as if it isn’t already good practice.

The suggestion that composition as a field somehow now rejects direct teaching of “argumentative structures” or “voice, cohesion, and support” is misleading, and frankly, baffling.

Teller appears to link, next, this lack of instruction he manufactures with demands for composition teachers “that ‘critical reading’ should be as integral to a writing course as the teaching of argumentation, structure, paragraphs, and sentences.”

Again, Teller is drifting toward a powerful concern among composition teacher: how to balance disciplinary content (the stuff we write about) with composition content (the stuff Teller has falsely suggested composition is “enamored” with ignoring).

Too much and too complex disciplinary content can and often does overwhelm first-year students, leaving them unable or unwilling to focus on developing as writers, but composition course cannot and must not be free of disciplinary content.

The compromise embraced within the field of composition is shifting away from the sort of “close reading” that is common and essential in disciplinary courses and toward reading like a writer—unpacking the readings in a course for the what and how of the text to highlight the role of rhetorical strategies, modes, and writer’s craft in making and sharing meaning.

Although significantly misleading and jumbled, Teller builds to a final set of bullet points, again presented as if they are counter to warranted writing pedagogy but are in fact mostly well within warranted writing pedagogy.

Responding to student essays early, often, and intentionally? Well, of course.

Also, “frequent essays, frequent feedback”? Again, absolutely.

His third point confronts and challenges a somewhat idealized view of peer conferencing, and I agree peer conferencing has limitations—thus, Teller’s caveats seem solid, and worth greater examination.

Next, “process serves product” proves hard to dispute, but his assertion about a hypothetical “bright” student potentially producing writing that doesn’t need revision is a bit odd since he seems to use this point to reinforce a larger challenge to focusing on process and drafting in first-year composition. Professional writers and scholars nearly universally revise, and almost always benefit from feedback, time for the piece to breath, and revision.

In a composition course, then, novice writers should revise—because “an excellent essay in one draft,” well, that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. And I base this on 30+ years of teaching writing that has included a number of bright students who all benefitted from drafting even their best work.*

Teller’s fifth bullet—”Sometimes it’s better to ditch an essay and move forward”—may be the best example of the jumbled nature of his argument because abandonment is an essential aspect of essay drafting. In other words, to embrace abandoning a draft is not an argument against requiring drafts by students, as Teller suggests.

When I conduct the required conference after the first submission of each essay, the first question we address is whether or not the student wishes to continue with the current essay; starting over, significantly recasting, or modestly revising or editing the current essay is the foundational set of questions of the drafting process.

At Teller’s final bullet, I want to emphasize how effective workshop and conference can be because if this were a first-year student’s essay, I would note that his final point is the heart of a much better new essay confronting the proper place of disciplinary content and extensive reading requirements in a composition course.

This concern by Teller remains a vibrant and difficult debate in the field of composition and among professors, worthy then of an essay.

As is often the case when responding to student essays, in fact, I find the kernel of an essay late in what the student believes is a final essay—again demonstrating the value of time, ownership, and response (the central elements of workshop Teller fails to identify or explain).

While there is much potential in Teller’s final bullets, the last two paragraphs return to misrepresentation and more than a hint at the potential motivation for his essay.

Composition as a field is not “enamored” with pedagogy, and certainly does not “fetishize” the writing process. These are belittling swipes at a cartoon version of writing best practice.

And thus, the last two paragraphs remind me too much of what is often wrong with first-year essays—turning personal angst into careless and lazy grand pronouncements.

Teller’s argument needs to be better informed, more tightly focused, and much more fully supported—likely recast as an interrogation of only one of his points (the reading and disciplinary content issue).

And as fate would hate it, these could all be addressed in a proper writing workshop and a few careful passes at guided revision.


* I have revised the two paragraphs here in light of concerns raised in the comments; I do agree the original rushed my point, but I also think my point remains valid, and better expressed now. The comments also include important points that I believe lend even greater credibility to my concerns about a literature professor misrepresenting composition as a field.

Getting Better at Teaching Students Writing: Work With What They Know, John Warner

14 comments

  1. Mortimer Cropper

    This essay shows you have mastered condescension, but is unlikely to be effective. Work harder on your modes of persuasion.

  2. Christina Lynch

    Actually he’s been teaching composition a long time, and to a highly unprepared and impoverished community, so your remarks are a little condescending and off the mark. You’re trying to justify practices that he has tried for many years with thousands of students, but is willing to admit are not achieving success with his students. I found his essay to be honest, heartfelt and useful. Teaching composition to students who don’t grow up reading is a problem we haven’t solved yet, so let’s keep trying and not shut down good conversation.

    • ggetto

      So, what about the thousands of composition instructors (approximately 60,000, give or take) all across the country who teach students exactly like this? Are there experiences to be discounted? Why does one person’s experience trump an entire field of knowledge?

      Just FYI, also, as a formerly “impoverished” and “unprepared” student, it sounds very much like you’re blaming his students for this issue. I didn’t grow up reading and writing. I am now a college professor. Why? Because I had a series of dedicated teachers who mentored me and used best practices in current composition pedagogy to teach me academic writing + critical thinking.

      YOUR remark is incredibly condescending for those of us who grew up in exactly the conditions you delineate. To assume that students who “didn’t grow up reading” are a “problem to be solved” is incredibly offensive to me and would probably be offensive to anyone from my background.

      I have also taught thousands of first-generation college students during the 13 years I’ve been teaching writing at the college level, including 5 years in the exact same area as Joseph Teller. I really enjoy working with first-generation college students. Rather than seeing them as a “problem to be solved,” I find that, given the right conditions, they are often better learners than more prepared students, because it’s sink or swim with them.

      On a larger level: what, exactly, is our job if not to help educate students from ALL backgrounds? Are we trying to create some kind of caste system in which only privileged, white students with excellent grammar succeed in our classes? Is there no room for improvement over time? I thought our field was about helping students regardless of background to improve as much as they can during the time they are in our classroom?

      Mostly, I thought we got rid of the “why can’t Johnny write?” bullshit 50 years ago, but apparently it’s still with us, and in full force.

  3. Jonathan

    I will review your essay in greater detail, but one thing sparked my interest on a first scan.

    You assert: “….his assertion that first-year students are likely to produce writing that doesn’t need revision is a bit odd.”

    I don’t see that anywhere in his essay. I do see:

    1. Assertions that other students may not be qualified to revise peer essays (“Not every essay requires multiple drafts or peer response. I have foolishly assumed that students cannot submit an essay before having spent at least one class period hashing over a draft with their peers.”)

    2. Assertions that students themselves fail to revise even when given the chance (“First, a simple truth: Students do not revise….But substantial revision doesn’t happen in our courses.”)

    3. General claims that do not necessarily apply to first-year students (“After all, a number of writing contexts do not require, and might even be hampered by, overwrought attempts at revision. Sometimes writing has to come out adequate the first time.”)

    However, “likely to produce writing that doesn’t need revision” seems like something that does not appear in Dr. Teller’s article. Do you extrapolate that somehow from what he does say?

    • plthomasedd

      Teller directly states in the section I am addressing: “Let me put it this way: If a bright student sits down the night before a paper is due and hammers out an excellent essay in one draft, do I fail that paper?”

      • Jonathan

        How does “[i]f a bright student…hammers out an excellent essay in one draft” equate to an “assertion that first-year students are likely to produce writing that doesn’t need revision?”

      • ggetto

        Jonathan, let me try to help you out, here.

        Premise A) “If a bright student sits down the night before a paper is due” = The student is completing the assignment at the last minute.
        +
        Premise B) “and hammers out an excellent essay in one draft” = The student is not performing revision, because their essay is deemed “excellent,” meaning “exceptional” or “exemplary.”
        +
        Premise C) “do I fail that paper?” = The clear assumption from this obviously rhetorical question is that forcing all students to revise is not appropriate.

        A + B + C = Not all students will need to revise. Ergo, some will not revise. Ergo, some students, defined here as first-year writing students, are likely to produce writing that doesn’t require revision.

        I hate to say this, but I have wondered in reading these comments and those on Joseph Teller’s article if some remediation isn’t required by you all, not the students. If you are teaching students argumentation that is irrational and non-sequential, then no wonder they are confused.

  4. Michel de Montaigne

    “Ergo, some students, defined here as first-year writing students, are likely to produce writing that doesn’t require revision.”

    However, ggetto, he did not say “some students…are likely” – the blog owner argues that Teller states that students are “likely to produce writing” that does not need revision. There is a definite difference between “a bright student is likely,” “some students are likely,” and “students are likely,” and that is what I am pointing out.

    My only point here is that the blog owner attributes something to Teller that Teller did not say; namely, Teller did not argue that “first-year students are likely to produce writing that doesn’t need revision.” YOUR logic is impeccable – I cannot argue with it.

    • ggetto

      Fair enough. And yes: my point was to point out the underlying assumption in Teller’s work. I won’t put words in this blog’s owner’s mouth, but I assumed that was his intention as well.

      I apologize for the obvious snark on this post. However, I would encourage everyone who reads these comments to consider how they would feel if I published a post on the Chronicle entitled “Are we teaching literature all wrong?” and then proceeded to make a lot of claims about the field of literary studies that are highly questionable.

      I knew Joseph Teller in graduate school, and he has made a point of NOT engaging with current scholarship in composition, much of which deals DIRECTLY with the issues he says he is having (student engagement, under-prepared students, etc.). So: his argument is the equivalent of me taking my tiny amount of knowledge of literary studies and using this to declare that the entire field has it wrong. That would be arrogant. And wrong.

  5. plthomasedd

    I have revised the two paragraphs before the * in light of concerns raised in the comments; I do agree the original rushed my point, but I also think my point remains valid, and better expressed now. The comments also include important points that I believe lend even greater credibility to my concerns about a literature professor misrepresenting composition as a field.

    • Irvin Peckham

      Interesting conversation. Perhaps most interesting are the emotions, experiences, and implicit ideologies in this back and forth about Teller’s replay of the Johnny&Jill-Can’t-Write-Unless-They’re-in-My-Class (as I have reconfigured it after having seen the light) genre. This genre intersects with what I have called the Damascus Trope (I was blind and now I see). In a certain way, this is also the prototypical academic genre (definition of problem/summary of how others have moved the conversation forward but failed to fix it/how I fixed it/what more we might do about it.

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