Yes, We Teach English, But What Is It? (Or Better Yet, What Should It Be?)

Throughout her long career, Lou LaBrant consistently confronted and defined the profession and field often simply called “English.”

Her work appeared regularly in major journals for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), where she was president in the 1950s. But her tour-de-force volume on teaching English appeared in 1951, We Teach English, which I reconsider in the November 2017 English Journal.

Having taught high school English for 18 years and now preparing future English teachers as well as teaching first-year writing for an on-going 16 years, I am often guided by one moment in the early years of teaching high school when a student had reached her limit of frustration with my English class.

In mid-class, this student blurted out: “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write!”

This sophomore had been through junior high a straight-A student in English, grades primarily built on traditional aspects of English classes—vocabulary tests and grammar tests.

While that moment was three decades ago, I see little evidence that her definition of what counts as “English” remains robust among many people, including English teachers.

In 2017, defining English, I believe, remains a problem that should be resolved by re-imagining the course itself.

Let me note here, however, that the greatest burden on the teaching of English is that the course too often carries disproportionate demands when compared to other courses; English tends to be a core course at all levels, but it also is expected to teach (primarily or even exclusively) literacy skills needed in all courses and disciplines.

With that caveat, I also believe we too often fail to examine the nuanced differences among teaching literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening), teaching literature (as a field), and teaching composition/writing (possibly the most marginalized field among the disciplines).

Any and all three of these can be and often are simply lumped under “English,” and these courses are routinely taught by “English teachers/professors” as if the expertise to teach each is somehow generic or simply of the same kind.

In K-12 education, this broad demand is excessive, and unfair to both teachers and their students. Higher education remains careless about just who has the expertise to teach composition/writing, but is hyper-attentive to the field of literature (consider the narrowness of expertise among English faculty, and thus, what courses they feel qualified to teach).

On the last class of my first-year writing seminars this semester, I asked students to consider what has worked and not worked during the course in the context of understanding that the course was a composition/writing seminar. Much of the semester had been devoted to deprogramming these students from thinking the class was English and from the narrow, and often misleading, habits they had formed by learning to write (and analyze text) almost exclusively in high school English courses (such as Advanced Placement).

One notable comment from a student was that she appreciated my using my own writing to model for them how to write their essays, adding she had never had any teacher do this before.

The point here is that teaching composition/writing requires both the expertise of being a writer and the expertise of pedagogy (teaching)—and this is not lost on students.

My own career is certainly eclectic and multi-disciplinary, but that is a cumulative and on-going effort that is often itself overwhelming. At my core, though, I am a teacher of composition/writing, and after the two class discussions about my first-year seminar, I plan to redesign significantly my daily schedule for the course next fall.

It is in that spirit of reconsidering and redesigning, that I want here to suggest a few ways in which we should likely rethink what it means to teach English:

  • Acknowledge, support, and better appreciate, early literacy educators. Teaching beginning and emerging literacy is complex, and those teaching early literacy need to be better prepared, solely burdened with addressing literacy with much fewer students than is traditionally expected, and better rewarded and appreciated as professionals.
  • Expect all teacher/professors at every level to continue literacy instruction grounded in their disciplines. Literacy is a journey, and not a goal, but as literacy becomes more sophisticated, it also becomes more nuanced and more grounded in the context of that literacy. Reading and writing in history or literature are quite distinct from reading and writing in chemistry and economics. As a colleague has perfectly noted, we must rise above believing that any literacy instruction at any age is somehow an inoculation, and thus, students can take Course X and then no other teacher/professor has to address A, B, or C.
  • At the secondary level and in higher education, clarify the distinction between literature courses and composition/writing courses as well as teachers/professors of both. Of all the inane things about formal education, among the most for me is that high school English teachers are routinely asked to teach American literature along with a hundred other standards related to literacy, but I once took an upper-level English course in college on William Butler Yeats—one author, and we really only read a few works by one author. Similarly, my university about a decade ago decided any and all professors can teach first-year writing. All of this is nonsense. We must become more careful and purposeful about the teaching of literature and composition/writing—both of which are important fields that require specialized preparation and then the sort of professional support, conditions, and appreciation that other disciplines receive.

Among friends and acquaintances, I am often still introduced as an English teacher, although I haven’t been once since 2002.

People often cringe and mumble something about needing to watch how they speak.

I clarify that I am no longer an English teacher, and that they need not fret over their grammar—but I also want people to know I will always first and foremost consider proudly myself to be an English teacher.

But I also feel just as strongly that there is much work to be done about exactly what that means, and what that should mean for teachers/professors and our students.

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