Friday, September 26, 2008

Content-Based Writing Courses vs. Writing-Based Writing Courses

Diary of an Anxious Black Women has an interesting discussion that complicates the concept of safe spaces vs. white male privilege in the classroom. I encourage you to check it out, as I believe her discussion to have interesting implications for rhet/comp pedagogy. Perhaps this can help some of us struggling with the writing as activity (writing courses with content-based themes) vs. writing as the subject of inquiry (writing courses with writing as the subject/content) debate that still plagues may first-year writing programs. With the rise of presidential election/politics/rhetoric, (at least in my mind ) this debate may seem to be resurrecting.

For some less familiar with this debate, there's tension in rhet/comp pedagogical scholarship to determine whether content-based themes (race, class, gender, politics, etc.) should be used in content-based first-year writing courses. Critics of this idea charge that more time is being spent debating these topics, while less time is being spent teaching students how to write. Critics also charge that we shouldn't introduce themed topics like race, class, or gender into the classroom, since writing teachers are not trained sociologists/political scientists/women's studies scholar/critical race theorists, etc.

Proponents of introducing content-based themes into first-year writing classes argue that we not ignore the identities students bring into the classroom because our students are raced, classed, and gendered and do bring with them their rich and extensive ideological histories. These proponents would also argue that their research is interdisciplinary enough to account for topics in women studies, sociology, etc., thus making them qualified enough to cover such topics in first-year writing. And finally, many of these proponents charge that in real writing situations, writers write about something. Therefore, why not have them write about topics that affect and influence our everyday practices?

Personally, I think a first-year writing class can do both (that, is cover content-based themes and keep the focus on writing). At my institution, our Tier I Writing Committee has worked quite extensively to make sure that the focus is still on writing, even though we have several content-based first-year writing courses that cover race, gender, class, service learning, technology, law and justice, American thought, radical thought etc. The key is making a shared curriculum with writing-focused/literacy focused assignments that are flexible enough to cover different content-based areas (we've composed a programmatic guidebook that speaks to many of these concerns). For example, the first assignment in our sequence is a literacy autobiography assignment. Some instructors adapt this by assigning linguistic literacy autobiographies using discussions of Ebonics (race, sociolinguistics, rhet/comp scholarship) as a lens. Others construct gendered linguistic literacy autobiographies, asking students to discuss how their language use is influenced by gender norms. For instructors whose courses focus on science and technology, they have students write technological literacy autobiographies that ask students to discuss their literacy acquisition to learning different video game technologies. So it can be done.

I digressed a bit, now back to the Diary of an Anxious Black Women post. I encourage you all to read her post because I don't want writing teachers to use the challenges that she experiences as an excuse to ignore white privilege, race, class, or gender discussions in the classroom. They can be addressed quite productively, while still keeping the focus on writing, since we are teaching a writing course, and not a Women's Studies course.


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