composition


They say / I say

They say/I say : the moves that matter in academic writing is a lovely introduction to academic argument by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein that shows how academic argument is a dialogue in which an individual acknowledges what others are saying and at the same time makes a space for what s/he is saying. The chapter headings summarize the book fairly well:

Part 1. "They say"
ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)
TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)
THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"
FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)
FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)
SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)
SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together
EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)
NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)
TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

Besides showing "the moves that matter" in an easily understandable way, the book provides templates to help students make these moves in their own writing. Graff and Birkenstein anticipate "naysayers" on templates as being prescriptive and "stifling creativity," but respond by noting their classical history and present modern examples from academic journals. Then adding their own voice, they write,

One virtue of such templates, we found, is that they focus writers' attention not just on what is being said, but on the forms that structure what is being said. In other words, they help students focus on the rhetorical patterns that are key to academic success but often pass under the classroom radar.

Elsewhere:

In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students' ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence.j

For ESL/EFL students, making explicit the implicit is crucial in learning to write an academic argument. And this book does that in a way that captures the essence of academic writing and represents it in a down-to-earth way. Although written for L1 composition, They Say / I Say is a book I plan to read and re-read this summer and incorporate into my classes next fall.

I'm reading an article by Marinara, Vajravelu, and Young on assessing learning in a general education program. With respect to the composition aspect, they include its mission statement:

First-year composition introduces students to the skills necessary for critical literacy. Students will be expected to practice and revise their writing in contexts that mirror tasks they will perform throughout their academic and professional lives.

The mission statement took two months of discussing, arguing, and revising to craft, with one point centering around whether the word "literacy" should be in the statement. The authors don't go into why that point got discussed, but I'm curious, too. Literacy is related to composition, as one needs to critique texts that one uses in one's writing, in fact, to critique one's own writing. However, when crafting a two-sentence mission statement, one might think that the focus would be on writing itself. Although the statement mentions that students will "practice and revise their writing," it doesn't mention introducing students to the skills necesssary for composing.

I wonder if the term "literacy" is required due to the list of writing characteristics" they found crucial in the teaching of writing":

• Students will demonstrate an understanding of process-invention, drafting, revision

• Students will demonstrate an understanding of audience and context

• Students will demonstrate critical thinking about their chosen topic

• Students will demonstrate knowledge of the conventions of academic writing, including an awareness of sentence structure, mechanics, and spelling

• Students will demonstrate an understanding of the research process and documentation styles

• Students will demonstrate an understanding of diversity and social justice

Critical literacy and "an understanding of diversity and social justice" go hand-in-hand. As Ira Shor, a professor at the College of Staten Island, writes:

We are what we say and do. The way we speak and are spoken to help shape us into the people we become. Through words and other actions, we build ourselves in a world that is building us. That world addresses us to produce the different identities we carry forward in life: men are addressed differently than are women, people of color differently than whites, elite students differently than those from working families. Yet, though language is fateful in teaching us what kind of people to become and what kind of society to make, discourse is not destiny. We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane.

In other words, such a mission statement is necessary if composition should be an arena for social and political change. Karen Welch (Social Issues in First-Year College Writing, Academic Exchange Quarterly) writes on the debate concerning the nature of First Year Composition. Welch cites Maxine Hairston as opposed to this re-design of first-year composition:

I see a new model emerging for freshman writing programs…that disturbs me greatly. It’s a model that puts dogma before diversity, politics before craft, ideology before critical thinking, and the social goals of the teacher before the educational needs of the student. It’s a regressive model that undermines the progress we’ve made in teaching writing, one that threatens to silence student voices and jeopardize the process-oriented, low-risk, student-centered classroom we’ve worked so hard to establish as the norm. It’s a model that doesn’t take freshman English seriously in its own right but conceives of it as a tool, something to be used. The new model envisions required writing courses as vehicles for social reform rather than as student-centered workshops designed to build students’ confidence and competence as writers. It is a vision that echoes that old patronizing rationalization we’ve heard so many times before: students don’t have anything to write about so we have to give them topics. Those topics used to be literary; now they’re political. (180)

Some would say that the problem remains of how one can write about any topic without critiquing deeply the language on that topic, which implies the sociocultural elements of the topic, thus justifying introducing their own social agendas into the classroom. Perfect neutrality is not possible, but to the extent we can approach it, perhaps we should ask, How can we help students in composition courses to write more thoughtfully (i.e., critically) without injecting our own biases into the process?