The more I read the text I have been given to teach from this semester,
Axelrod, R. B., & C. R. Cooper. The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing. 10th edition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. Text.
the more I hate it. It talks down to its readers, it presupposes they are blank slates, and it prohibits creative meaning-making. And then it turns around and presents them with examples of finished work from award-winning writers, and says, “Write like that.”
It is like nabbing a bunch of randoms in a supermarket and telling them that, in order to check out with the items they actually want, they now have to join a swimming class held in the back of the store. You don’t ask them if they already know how to swim, or if they want to learn to swim, or if they have ever seen anyone else swim and they have an opinion about that. You just show the shoppers videos of Olympic swimmers, force them to name and analyze the principles that make that swimming superb, and then tell them to jump in a pool and swim like Olympians. Oh, and then you complain to the other swimming instructors about how stupid your swimmers are, and how unmotivated they are, and how boring their swimming is.
This sort of textbook simultaneously underestimates and overestimates what students are capable of. See, here is what I believe about teaching:
The teacher’s job is threefold. First, the teacher protects the intellectual and social rights of students. Second, the teacher provides the scaffolding necessary so that the student can become independent of her, in critical thinking, communication skills, ethics, networking awareness and skills, and technology exposure and skills. Third, the teacher guides the student into respectful awareness of her or his interdependence with other living beings and helps the student become ethically active in these networks.
In order to fulfill these responsibilities, I practice learner-centered, inquiry-driven (problem-based) teaching, because it addresses the learning needs of the whole person. I believe that human beings learn best when four requirements are met: (1) that the new concepts and skills be relatable to their prior experience and knowledge; (2) that the new concepts and skills be modeled by a more experienced other, who can demonstrate comprehension, acquisition, and practice; (3) that the students are provided with hands-on experience, including “play time,” in which to explore the possibilities and implications of the new concepts and skills; and (4) that students are encouraged to apply and expand their new knowledge through reflective engagement with the daily life of their families and communities. First and foremost, students must be recognized as founts of knowledge, skills, and understanding in their own right, and not as blank slates or know-nothings when they come to class. Inquiry-driven education meets all these requirements.
In contrast, the Axelrod/Cooper text:
- asks students to reflect on other writing they have done for class, but does not ask students to relate the skills described in the text with skills they already have and use every day in their real lives;
- does model skills and demonstrate comprehension, acquisition, and practice, but only on texts that do not in any way resemble most of the texts these students will be confronted with or asked to create in their lifetimes, making it unlikely that most of these students will ever wield the tools they are taught with any real understanding of their potential;
- provides extremely limited opportunities for “play time,” in which students are asked “What did you learn?” but are not seriously invited to investigate the phenomenon under discussion and define its parts and purposes for themselves (the Axelrod/Cooper text always presents itself as the supreme authority on these questions);
- does not ever interrogate the ethics of message creation beyond the issue of plagiarism, does not present its own messages with any transparency about its power paradigm, and does not encourage students to interrogate the ways in which power paradigms are created and recreated in their own social groups or in society at large.
In other words, it is woefully inadequate for protecting the rights of students, for teaching students how to be independent of the teacher, or for fostering students’ awareness of their interdependence with other living beings and their personal responsibility and power, or for encouraging their ethical participation in social and environmental networks.
Arrrrgh, grumble, grumble. I do not work well this way. This is the first time in 10 years that I have not been allowed to choose my own texts. Now, I got these classes right before the regular semester started, so there may not have been time to order in different textbooks. But the way it was explained to me was that all the Comp 1 classes use the same textbook. No wiggle room.
Also, I have late start classes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have a teaching job, no matter the circumstances. But this is Comp 1, and a lot of students are right out of high school and they didn’t realize that they were signing up for a late start class. They were not aware that “late start” means “harder, faster, with less rebound time.” This is really not an ideal situation for any of us.
Well, I have decided to pitch my original course calendar, which was based on another professor’s syllabus for use with this course and textbook. I will take the time that is necessary to make sure my students have a strong foundation of notetaking, rhetorical analysis, and reflective writing skills before I move on to more formal writing assignments. And when I do move on, it will be on my terms and those of the students, not on the terms of Rise B. Axelrod/Charles R. Cooper and The St. Martin’s Guide.