Paul T. Bryant
The original article was published in College Composition and Communication in February 1974. The updated version below has been edited by graduate students…explanation of project goes here…
THE TITLE IS DELIBERATELY AMBIGUOUS. It could be taken negatively or affirmatively, as a failure to learn from experience or as an affirmation that despite past mistakes, we may yet get it right. The ambiguity is deliberate to suggest both possibilities. In effect, I have good news and bad news. Let’s take the bad news first.
There is an old saying that a goose is a very stupid animal, because for a goose it is a brand new world every morning. Geese resolutely refuse to learn from experience. Instead they insist upon being constantly surprised, puzzled, and alarmed by everything that happens, even when it happens over and over again. Their consciousness can handle only the present, never the past or future. I mention this bit of barnyard folklore because we as college teachers of composition too often seem to operate on the same basis. Too often we behave as if there is no continuity in the teaching of composition, as if the subject has just been invented and every idea for teaching it is new at the moment. We fail to draw on the experience of colleagues. We learn neither from past successes, of which there have been a few, nor from past failures, of which there have been all too many. As a group, we are the living proof of the adage that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.
When I first considered this subject, I thought of making a survey of back issues of various journals to gain evidence showing the cyclical, non-linear way in which we wander through the many approaches to teaching composition, abandoning “old” ones only long enough to forget about them. Then we return to them as new discoveries, which we insist on finding “exciting” and “innovative,” always those words, as if our vocabularies of approbation were limited. I was going to appeal to the historical record for evidence of how little we have made use of past experience and of how much needless and unproductive repetition of failure such a lack of historical sense has cost.
To my embarrassment, I found that I, too, was proposing to do what has already been done. My own incomplete knowledge of the past was about to lead me to commit the very fault of which I complain, and to do it in the very act of complaining. As recently as the October 1972 issue of College Composition and Communication, Robert Gorrell discusses this problem with wit and insight (pp. 264-270) in an article entitled “The Traditional Course: When Is Old Hat New.” In that same issue, Richard Jordan presents “An Interview with Ben Jonson, Composition Teacher” (pp. 277-278), demonstrating that many of our “exciting and innovative” ideas about composition go back at least as far as 1640.
They have made the point, so I will refrain from plodding back through dusty volumes of bound journals merely to document in detail the number of times some of our most current and fashionable innovations have been tried and discarded, by our predecessors and even by ourselves.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I do indeed object to the repeated reinvention of the same pedagogical wheels just so that we may continue to revolve in the same unproductive academic circles generation after generation. But I do not object to change, even when it may not always lie in a clear and direct line of improvement. Just as every age must reinterpret and re-evaluate works of art in terms of that age’s own values, experiences, and visions of the beautiful, so every generation must seek its own best modes of teaching and of learning, based on its own needs and style of thinking. Whether or not such modes resemble those of any earlier generation is beside the point. At the same time, however, selecting our most useful devices and techniques for teaching, we should not waste our energies, and make ourselves intellectually shabby into the bargain, pretending that useful old ideas are really new pedagogical breakthroughs. The millenium cannot arrive quarterly with every issue of College Composition and Communication. Millenia are generally spaced farther apart than that.
Most people will probably agree with my principal point, although perhaps not all will like my way of making it, so there is no need to labor it further. On the other hand, it is more difficult to put such generalizations into practice than it is to enunciate them. Let me try to go a step beyond the generalization to suggest at least a few guidelines for applying it to our real situation in the teaching of composition.
Let us begin from the assumption that teaching composition is both a science and an art and that this dual nature offers opportunities as well as problems.
Teaching composition is a science to the extent to which it deals with objective, reproducible phenomena involved in or affected by the teaching process. For example, psychologists can tell us much about the learning process in the normal human mind, linguists can tell us much about the function and interaction of the elements of language, and both groups should be able to tell us much about how language patterns are acquired by the normal mind. These are matters about which we can learn by objective, empirical means, and the knowledge thus gained can be used as a base for further investigation and further knowledge. We can move ahead in the accumulation of such knowledge in a clearly linear fashion. Once a principle is established, it can be stated and used, and need not be reestablished for every new generation. Every generation of composition teachers not only can, but is obligated to, stand upon the intellectual shoulders of the generations that have gone before. An ahistorical, know-nothing approach to this type of knowledge is wasteful and stupid, to say the least.
What I am suggesting, of course, is that to the extent to which the teaching of composition lends itself to the scientific approach, we should learn to behave as do professional scientists, building upon previous knowledge in the most systematic way possible. By this I mean that we should learn to construct clear and specific hypotheses concerning teaching methods, learn to formulate adequate tests for those hypotheses, accept or modify or reject hypotheses on the basis of our tests, and then move on to new ground. Every significant hypothesis should be tested objectively, not just offered and debated and finally forgotten, and the tests should be carefully designed and controlled. A subjective report from one teacher on the basis of a single trial is not enough. We should attempt in our professional journals to record as adequately as possible all new knowledge as we develop it, and we should learn to consult those journals carefully as a part of the process of formulating hypotheses and as a part of the preparation of our own reports for those journals. Our editorial standards should be rigorous enough to avoid repetitive reporting of the same hypotheses or discoveries. Our personal intellectual standards should be rigorous enough for us to avoid repeating experiments that have already been made, except for the purpose of checking results in which we lack confidence. In short, we should bend every effort to making the development of this aspect of our field as linearly progressive as possible.
Teaching is an art, too, and does not altogether lend itself to the scientific, objective approach, of course. The effectiveness of the individual teacher with a specific subject matter, both in the classroom and with individual students, may be heavily influenced by a whole concatenation of characteristics that might be summed up as individual style. Style is something every artist must develop personally, individually, uniquely. Without it, the artist is little more than a technician, if that, and the same is true for the teacher. We all know highly effective teachers whose personal styles would be absolute disaster for anyone else, and who in turn could not succeed with any other style in their own teaching. So what can we say about style? Can we communicate with each other on the subject? Can we learn from each other on anything more than a personal basis? I believe that we can.
Most of us have substantial backgrounds in literature. With such backgrounds, we should be the last to deny the validity and usefulness of tradition, of the influence of one artist upon another, of the existence of “schools” of writing made up of people whose styles are similar because they draw upon similar techniques or similar subject matters or just interpretations of the nature of reality. These are not linear, objective matters that can be treated in the same way as the kind of information developed by the scientific method, but they are not chaotic, formless, and absolutely random either. Artists can learn from each other. Regardless of how innovative they may try to be, they do draw consciously and unconsciously upon an artistic tradition. Certainly if a contemporary writer produced poetry in heroic couplets and claimed that he had invented a new poetic form, which he found exciting and innovative, he would be taken as absurd and ignorant. Yet we are sometimes guilty of similar absurdities because we do not know the history of the pedagogical techniques in our field, and we have no tradition for checking that history before triumphantly announcing our discoveries. The editors of our journals seem to have no such tradition, either.
If we as teachers are to make any progress in the art of teaching, we must develop this sense of a pedagogical tradition, a bank of successful artistic experience upon which we can draw at need. Otherwise, not all of us will have the genius to invent the sonnet all over again, or whatever the pedagogical equivalent might be, and our students will be the poorer for it.
Most of us have had some experience with student government on college campuses. We have been alternately frustrated and amused by the tendency of student officers to regard themselves each year as the new brooms designated to sweep out all the old dust of the past and run student government the way it should really be run, for a change. The result too often is a complete lack of continuity that keeps student-government programs from accomplishing as much as their sometimes considerable resources would lead us to expect from them. We as teachers of composition have behaved in much the same way, trying to be new brooms every year or so, sweeping out experience that might have been of some value to us, changing direction and emphasis so often and so unsystematically that we finally are lost, wandering in circles. Probably the only really dependable feature of composition programs across the country, the one thing we can count on, is that students will resent having to take the courses, and faculty from other departments will complain that we don’t teach the students to write well enough. Everything else seems to be in an unending flux. Of course, it is not entirely. We have learned, we have made some progress, we are capable of moving. What we must do if we are to move at a rate commensurate with our numbers, our resources, and our abilities, is to break out of our erratic circles and begin some linear progress. As I have suggested, we can do this by learning both from scientists and from artists to build systematically on past experience and knowledge already acquired by others.
One device we may wish to develop to !elp us achieve responsible linearity is a eadily accessible, widely disseminated annual bibliography on teaching composition, perhaps in the pages of College Composition and Communication.
Both scientists and literary scholars use similar bibliographies as a means for keeping informed and for checking on what has already been done before offering articles for publication or undertaking research programs. Such a bibliography on teaching composition would serve much the same purpose. It would help us to avoid meaningless repetition. It should help us to move forward into genuinely new knowledge. I urge careful consideration for such a project.
Another possibility might be the commissioning of an annual review of “the state of the art,” written by a leading scholar and practitioner of college composition and communication. Many fields of science rely regularly and gratefully on such reviews.
Such careful building on the knowledge of others may do less for our soaring egos than will unrelated solos in a wild blue historical limbo, but it will do a great deal more for our students and for our own intellectual integrity. If we can accomplish this, or if we are willing to begin, at least, we can then take my title in its positive sense. We can say that we will learn from past successes and past mistakes, and building on that knowledge we can make a brand new world every morning that will be better than the one we had the night before.
I totally agree with this article.
Colorado State University