Monday, February 18, 2008

Haswell that ends well

In chapter 2 of Gaining Ground in College Writing, Richard Haswell describes three "Tales of Growth," the first 2 of which he denigrates (the tales of "ungrounded vision" and "deterioration") in favor of his third (tale of maturing). But a funny thing happened on the way to his conclusion: Chapter 3.

Chapter 2 describes the ungrounded vision as built upon teacher expectations: "Here is part of the ungrounded vision. The teachers will expect the first-week essays of the older students to be longer and to have longer paragraphs. They will expect...the organization to be better...more transitions...a reduction in solecisms of spelling, punctuation, syntax, and prediction...more concreteness." (36-37) Etc. Haswell claims teachers look for these based "on an idealized platform of 'good writing'" (37). In essence, he is saying that our idea of what constitutes good writing blinds us to students' actual change toward good writing.

But then along comes Chapter 3, in which he demonstrates that the ungrounded vision may have some ground after all. He studies post-college "employees"--people beyond college but who still do writing in their everday work lives. "Compared with the students, they are substantially better at parallelism, spelling, apostrophe use, pronoun agreement..." (80); "Their sentences, T-units, and clauses are all longer, not flatly so, but with an increase in variety and emphasis" (79). Yes, many of the features of "good writing" that the ungrounded vision looks for are, well, found in more experienced writers.

But he still seems to suggest that the ungrounded vision is still ungrounded: "In this it differs from the ungrounded English-teacher vision, which sets a piece of student writing against a magic mirror of Perfect Writing" (70). That is, it is not okay to compare student writing to a generic set of standards, but it is okay to compare student writing with unrelated assignments given to older workers under completely different circumstances. It would seem to me that in making this comparision, Haswell has developed his own set of standards to compare the students with: But instead of labeling it 'Perfect Writing' we will call it 'the median workplace essay writer.' I'm just guessing, but I'd assume many of those teacher conceptions of 'perfect writing' are based on experiences with more advanced writing--not on teachers' very many experiences with 'perfect' examples of writing. Put another way, I think the 'magic mirror of Perfect Writing' is not as ignorant as Haswell believes in thinking of how the writing of real people can develop.

A question I have: is it possible that by expecting perfection (which I'm not sure we do), that perhaps we are pushing students to achieve more? What if we expect 'median' writing--will all students strive for this level of writing? Won't this necessarily push down the 'median' (if the above-average writers all aim for the middle of the pack--and hit it)? Hmmmm...



By the way, Haswell sure loves lines like these:
"Always in trying to interpret an interpretation, one needs to ask what happened" (39)
"But profession, even if professional, is not application" (39)
"The possibility is supported by an assessment of the assessment" (40)

How many more can you find? Can you make up your own? Here's mine:
As our Professor professes to teach us teaching, hopefully we will learn how students learn.

2 comments:

Karol said...

I like that last one that you made up, very Haswellian. I confess that after today's class, and working over a single paragraph in Chapter 2 with Mike and Jimmy, I am beginning to get past Haswell's insufferable style to the gist of what he is trying to convey. Essentially, that is (I think, so far) teachers need to consider context and development (growth) in evaluating student writing. He hints that Chapter 5 will explain it all. We shall see. At least after today I feel more assured that Haswell may be worth the effort required to decode his prose.

Chris Hall said...

A question I have: is it possible that by expecting perfection (which I'm not sure we do), that perhaps we are pushing students to achieve more? What if we expect 'median' writing--will all students strive for this level of writing? Won't this necessarily push down the 'median' (if the above-average writers all aim for the middle of the pack--and hit it)? Hmmmm...

word.