Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Connors says, "Boo to the Modes"

In fact, what Robert J. Connors said some 25 years ago was, "the only teachers still making real classroom use of the modes are those out of touch with current theory" (119). According to Connors, the modes of discourse (narration, description, exposition, persuasion) died in 1950.

Crap. If I had read this article ("The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse") a year ago, I would probably be teaching basic writing somewhat differently right now. As in, not structured around modes of discourse.

When I taught first-year composition instead, we were given the writing assignments that were required; however, for basic writing, we didn't really get any guidance at all as to what kinds of writing assignments would be appropriate once we were in the classroom. During the first couple of weeks I had second thoughts about the assignments I'd put in the syllabus and my students complained they didn't like the assigned topics.

So I decided to generalize the assignments into their basic forms, letting the students pick their own topics. I remembered high school English, being required to write definition essays, classification and division essays, process essays. Now according to Connors, these aren't modes--these are methods of exposition (115). But every textbook I've looked at that claims to organize itself by the modes makes no distinction between the two. Like those textbooks, I placed narration and description alongside comparison/contrast and definition.

Now I say I wouldn't have organized my course by the modes/methods of exposition had I known before that it had been dead since long before I was born. But I'm not sure that the modes are as awful as Connors lets on. It's true they emphasize product over process. But I find the denigration of product a bit over-the-top. Yes, to teach writing we need to teach process. But isn't the end goal a decent product? Can't we teach both?

I think my students have really learned something by being given a fairly broad form and being told to find some content to suit it. In particular, they've learned that there's more than one way to write an essay. They've even learned that the modes are fluid--that they can incorporate narration into a definition essay with success. They've got a basketfull of techniques to use when assigned a topic. So I don't see what Connors's problem is.

Work Cited
Connors, Robert J. "The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse." On Research Writing: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998. Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin's, 1999. 110-121.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Don't Stifle the Young Folks

Giambattista Vico argues that it's important not to stifle young people's ordinary knowledge by enforcing Cartesian doubt about all things which can't be absolutely proven. In his own words, "we should be careful to avoid that the growth of common sense be stifled in them by a habit of advanced speculative criticism" (868). Too much modern philosophy stunts growth. Descartes's style of philosophy is better suited to more mature scholars: "Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination" (868).

Vico doesn't cite Quintilian, but he has some similar ideas. For Quintilian, the issue isn't common sense, but creativity. A child should be allowed to "be daring, invent much, and delight much in what it invents, though it be often not sufficiently severe and correct" (370). For both Vico and Quintilian, education isn't about making sure the student is never wrong, but rather making sure that they learn as they go. It's important not to lose common sense and creativity along the way. Instead of tearing students down and trying to rebuild what from scratch, we should build on the tools the students already have.

Works Cited

Quintilian. From Institutes of Oratory. Trans. John Selby Watson. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 364-428.

Vico, Giambattista. From On the Study Methods of Our Time. Trans. Elio Gianturco. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 865-878.