Learning the Game: Individuality and Advancement in the Composition Classroom

Tyler Sheldon
Baton Rouge, LA, USA

Practices in English Composition are undergoing a gradual and seemingly inexorable shift. Comp, seen by some enterprising students as a forum for exploring creative thought and for bettering oneself as a writer and as a student, has in recent years become plagued by students full of doubt rather than hope. To put it more plainly, some students seem to have acclimated to an educational system that provides reward (in the form of grades) regardless of commensurate effort. In some ways this seems a validating practice—likely many of us, as teachers, enjoy lauding our students for their sheer potential to achieve.  However, in my own composition classroom, I hold firmly to two tenets. I do not regularly give extra credit (lest it lose its value as reward for academic effort), and I do not provide answers to any student questions without first witnessing effort on the part of the student to arrive at an answer themselves. Both principles stem from my unwillingness to “spoon-feed” solutions to my students. If they are to better themselves as students and as writers, they must learn how to conduct independent research, and to venture on their own into the dark forest of databases and decks of the university library. They must learn that curricular and extracurricular life alike can be enjoyed without the lure of extra credit, and that “extra credit” as a concept is like dessert at the end of a meal: it is earned once all regular credit is complete. Furthermore, by allowing students to reflect on a question rather than blurting the answer to them right away, I am fostering the independent thought that students deny themselves when they expect their teachers to open their mouths immediately like pedagogical Pez dispensers.

Alarmingly, this expectation, wherein teacher and student expect each other to be dispenser and receptacle respectively, has long been conditioned by our education system, as Paulo Freire notes in his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher . . . The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are [italics my own]. (71-72)

Running counter to this “receptacle” approach is key to my own teaching—and I believe all students capable, to whatever whatever degree, of re-learning how to approach their roles in the classroom. This process may take time (for reasons both within and beyond the classroom, such as socioeconomic and other factors), but has borne out so far in my teaching.

As often as possible, I bring this independent approach to class discussions as well. As Lydia C. Lambert argues, a learned helplessness has crept into student thought: “over the past five years in particular . . . so many [students have become] so unused to thinking on their own that they cannot formulate an opinion without being told what opinion they are supposed to have.” In my classroom, Socratic discussions with circled desks largely replace top-down lecturing (even in the latter situation I sit atop the desk rather than behind it), encouraging students to look at one another and listen actively when their peers talk. This often circumvents a problem Lambert discusses, where students see their peers as “trying to foist [their opinions] on others rather than offering them an opportunity to challenge that opinion and debate it” (Lambert).

Combating the acculturation of the low-student-effort instant-reward classroom is essential not just on the discussion level, but the essay level as well. Too many students come to college expecting to breeze through Composition relying on the rickety five-paragraph planes their high school teachers have helped them to build. I often assure my students that though this method works well for high school, college mandates a different set of requirements. I explain to them that they may discuss the points of their essay for as long as they need—as students who limit themselves to the “easier” five-paragraph essay structure distort their argument to fit that structure, cramming too much material into too little space. This results in shoddily focused, cursory papers that are often summaries rather than substantiated arguments. In his satirical essay “My Five-Paragraph-Theme Theme,” Ed White sets out student reasoning for using this ineffective form. Using this essay type’s introduction structure, White informs us that:

[t]here are three reasons why I always write five-paragraph themes. First, it gives me an organizational scheme: an introduction (like this one) setting out three subtopics, three paragraphs for my three subtopics, and a concluding paragraph reminding you what I have said, in case you weren’t paying attention. (White 524)

White’s awareness of both students thought and attempts to “game the system” through the repetitive and habitual use of this structure lends a humorous tone and a sense of alarm to his essay. Through his satirical lens, White notes that students do not feel the need to expand their writing knowledge beyond this template because it is all they’ve needed up to starting college: “Once you have it down, you can use it for practically anything” (525). Students expect this method to work well in college classrooms, so a key component of teaching Comp effectively should be debunking or modifying that notion. In other words, though students may sometimes have exactly three main points to discuss, it is imperative they learn to move beyond a 1:1 point/paragraph ratio in their essay writing. Main points, again, may take several paragraphs to develop fully.

More troubling than this immediate structural concern, however, are the encouraged automatism and rigid expectations with which students approach their essays. Creative thought cannot be fully harnessed if fitting a template is the end goal. The larger implication of this structure and its presumed ease is that students “don’t want to be creative; they just want an A” (Lambert). To achieve that grade, usually at the expense of the creative lessons a writing assignment hopes to teach, students focus on what they feel are the most important points of an assignment, often eschewing style or depth of thought. They seek to “check off boxes” toward earning that A, rather than engaging in conversation with their writing. To put it another way, their writing does not contribute towards their long-term intellectual growth but merely meets the short-term needs of the individual assignment.

In her article “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key,” Kathleen Blake Yancey observes a “tectonic shift” toward new tendencies in the way students and the general public learn and write (Yancey 299-300). Though ever-evolving shifts in technology allow us to broadcast our thoughts instantly to the entire world, in the classroom, these advances lead not always toward cooperative thought but toward an expectation of instant gratification. Yancey notes that beyond the classroom, technology such as the internet has enabled a new independence that does not need instruction; social justice groups, friends, and others coalesce to share thoughts and form coherent arguments, all outside the walls of any classroom (301). Again, though, in the current year’s classroom, technology seems to create disruptive situations, leading to shorter attention spans rather than to writing that is bolstered and augmented through tech of any sort.

One prominent issue that I have encountered while teaching Composition (beyond the distracting effects of technology) is the prominence of individual voice and conversational tone in my students’ academic writing. While maintaining “academic voice” and professional tone certainly seems essential for an effective academic essay, vernacular and dialect creep into almost every paper I read in any given semester, to varying degrees. Teaching my students about academic voice has been largely helpful, and I have seen increases in attention to professional writing standards (avoiding second person and being tasteful with first, to name a few basic tenets). However, even given these standard concerns, Peter Elbow observes that “[v]irtually every human child masters the essential elements of a rich, intricate, and complex language by age four; but somehow it turns out . . . that this language is not considered acceptable for serious important writing” (Elbow 522). Elbow goes on to note that vernacular language and individual dialects have valuable assets to bring to academic writing, and that these elements should be part of an acceptable academic writing practice. For the moment, I will continue to exhort my students toward academic voice, and toward seeking out enjoyment in writing without extra credit. Through enjoyment of writing, strength and aptitude will soon follow. This is perhaps the most important message I can leave for my students at the end of any given semester: if the system is a game, then one wins the game by learning.

Works Cited

Elbow, Peter. “Coming to See Myself as a Vernacular Intellectual: Remarks at the 2007 CCCC General Session on Receiving the Exemplar Award.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 519-524.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Continuum, 2000.

Lambert, Lydia C. “So Many Hands to Hold in the Classroom.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 Sept. 2012, http://www.chronicle.com/article/So-Many-Hands-to-Hold-in the/134454/?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en. Accessed 21 Nov. 2019.

White, Ed. “My Five-Paragraph-Theme Theme.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 524-25.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 2, 2004, pp. 297-328.