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Many groups have a role in writing instruction, but they are likely to see more differences than commonalities among themselves. Because writing instruction cuts across educational levels, and also occurs outside of school, the renewed interest (and investment of resources) in writing raises issues of turf and status. Teachers trained in literature may not necessarily be well situated to work with beginning students, nor to prepare students for the kinds of writing tasks they will likely face after school. "Writing across the curriculum" programs have caught on; this was the theme of the various Conferences on College Composition and Communication. There is a recognition that English faculty cannot do it alone. Strong projects at the University of Washington, funded by the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), and at Beaver College (funded by NEH), are among numerous models. (Bullock et al 77)
Another FIPSE supported project at Temple University trains faculty from other departments against the backdrop of retrenchment; as elsewhere, there are still students wanting writing instruction, even though enrollments overall are declining. (Petraglia 87) Surely such a situation leads faculty (both in English and in other departments) to take on writing despite their own background and perhaps despite their preferences. Such a development can be a real chance for professional development--or a shotgun wedding.
Within many colleges, of course, English faculty no longer has a monopoly on writing instruction. As the numbers of needy learners grew, the range of basic language instruction broadened. Two-year and four-year colleges serving large numbers of underprepared students developed special services and Educational Opportunities Programs. Some of these blended instruction with counseling and tutoring in promising ways. The Networks dissemination project, supported by FIPSE at Bronx Community College, is an attempt to build on some of this practice. (Petraglia 95) But most such programs have tended to postpone rigorous instruction in writing, and their structural isolation from regular departments has been an obstacle.
Perhaps of greater significance is the growth of communication courses, particularly in institutions serving underprepared students. Work in reading and speech can help develop abilities, which presumably are related to writing. Yet given the other demands on the curriculum, writing and language study cannot come to dominate the whole curriculum. This is also a fear raised by some of the more extensive writing throughout the curriculum programs.
“College faculties are made up of departments that all have high priority work to do, and there has been little common ground.” (Bullock et al 94) The tendency of academic disciplines to develop specialized and pre-professional concerns has worked against basic writing instruction. The stirring of interest within English for graduate study in composition could be helpful if the result is higher status for practitioners concerned with significant learning problems. Literature has dominated English, yet there is valuable research and practical training for which English faculty would be well suited. But if the result is more erudite dissertations and a narrowing of the subject, the profession will have asserted its own interests over the needs of learners.
By contrast, a strong development in postsecondary writing instruction has been the organization of comprehensive writing programs that, unlike traditional curricula, are set up horizontally rather than vertically. They draw faculty and students across disciplines, involve support services and practice labs as well as courses, and concern themselves with generic writing occasions rather than with literary study. They are usually related to an institution-wide requirement, rather than a prerequisite for the English department - even though they may be administered by English faculty. “The course at the University of Southern California, supported by a small FIPSE grant for training teaching assistants, is one prominent example.” (Atwell 64)
The recently formed Council of Writing Program Administrators represents this fresh approach, particularly in their emphasis on practical considerations of program management. At least implicitly they are a challenge to the usual kinds of status and influence in higher education. It may be relevant that morale is higher at Conference on College Composition and Communication meetings than at the Modern Language Association meetings, especially among younger faculty. (Petraglia 131) There is a new interest in team managed programs and research, which is a departure from the deep-seated individualism of the humanities. The comprehensive program structure is also in keeping with the renewed interest in general education.
At the high school level and earlier, teacher preparation is being addressed in imaginative ways. Some approaches could be a model for postsecondary instruction, thus reversing the usual situation. Best known is the Bay Area Writing Project, now being adapted nationally with NEH support, which proceeds from the assumption that teachers' own greater ease in writing will improve instruction. This compelling hypothesis should be evaluated.
There are high school programs that have recaptured younger students' willingness to write. One is the Foxfire literary magazine (published by Doubleday), focusing school writing on practical and even mundane subjects of real concern to students. At Queens College, a FIPSE funded project involves teamwork with teachers in neighboring high schools that is altering both secondary and college practices, partly through a curriculum involving fables and narrative structures. (Bullock et al 103)
Such approaches only scratch the surface, of course. “Of all the levels of education, secondary schools probably have the greatest need for new program ideas and for better teacher training.” (Rose et al 66) And most improvement efforts are still confined either to college bound students, or to vocational training; there is little integration. Many educators would be surprised at the range of writing improvement efforts occurring outside of formal education. No thorough surveys have been done, but numerous companies have writing courses (at least for professional employees), and some unions offer basic skills programs. Furthermore, independent workshops have sprung up to serve specific professional needs. Instructors in these programs usually are not trained in composition. They may have a background in journalism or technical writing, and they typically have first-hand experience of the language and techniques of the professions they address.
Finally, we should draw into the picture the government agencies and foundations that have seen writing improvement as a priority concern. These are mainly FIPSE, NIE and NEH at the federal level, although there is not really a coordinated program among these agencies. (Atwell 79) Programs in the Office of Education (OE), which most directly affect elementary and secondary education, have so far been less prominent, partly because their range of discretion is much more confined. So far there has not been talk of a "Right to Write" program, although in fact "Right to Read" programs funded by OE can and sometimes do include writing skills. (Atwell 82) Foundations, particularly Exxon, Sloan, and Lilly. have had an interest in writing, but have not sustained funding programs. (Atwell 82)
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So there is no shortage of actors interested in improving writing, including many besides English teachers. There is, however, uncertainty about how much and how permanently any sector will take responsibility for writing instruction. Sometimes writing has been a hot potato, tossed from department to department, from college to high school to training program. Just at the moment, given the shortage of younger students as well as new pressures to require demonstrable competence, writing improvement has become more like a bridal bouquet. It remains to be seen whether that results in a better understanding and sharing of responsibility.
The new concern with writing instruction coincides with the "back to basics" movement and an increased reliance on testing, beginning in the early grades and extending to higher education and professional certification. (Rose et al 84) The renewed stress on math and language skills, and the more general willingness to require student effort, are having valuable effects. But in school settings there is always a tendency to see drill and homework as ends in themselves, and to mistake the more obvious kinds of attainment for significant learning. Writing is one of those activities most likely to be misunderstood by the back to basics perspective, since surface errors are both glaring and correctable. Donald Graves of the University of New Hampshire finds an imbalance in basic instruction in favor of grammar, punctuation and spelling drills, rather than actually having children write (Bullock et al 122).
In the new emphasis on testing, writing performance is both central and vulnerable. Legislators, parents and educators have adopted the idea of competency testing as a needed quality control. Most states are now requiring that high school students demonstrate certain knowledge and abilities before graduation. All these tests involve literacy, and sometimes this is interpreted as writing.
Even the concept of basic literacy is more of a sliding scale than a fixed standard. The most recent Ford Foundation commissioned study indicates that the standard of "functional" literacy needs to be revised upward, given the increased complexity of everyday life. (Atwell 101) There are many millions of Americans who are nowhere near competency. Such estimates reflect a trend, even if they are hard to take at face value. As society demands more, more are excluded almost by definition. This is true at various levels. For example, the movement toward compulsory continuing education for professionals will probably exclude competent individuals in the name of reform.
Teachers and administrators have the problem of setting reasonable expectations. At the college level, testing requirements usually occur at the end of the sophomore year, as a prerequisite for more advanced work. The extensive work on sentence structure, using techniques of sentence combining to teach students to form more complex sentences, runs into disagreement that this is an appropriate measure of better writing.
Until recent years, most educators took for granted the textbook definitions of formal expository prose alongside related forms such as business English. Students still write about personal experience, texts, past or current events, laboratory work, and so forth, in a way which allows them to reflect and analyze. The audience is, on the one hand, the instructor, and on the other hand, a "general" reader. (Rose et al 108) This audience has patience and sensitivity. No one questions that learning to write in this way is important for school success, a serious and appropriate concern, and for intellectual growth. Learning to reflect and analyze will never be outmoded.
Technical writing is clearly more powerful in its applications, though there is a tendency to go too far in the direction of specialized jargon and unique formats. The stronger programs in technical writing, such as those at Carnegie-Mellon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas A & M, avoid this extreme, and teach broad-based approaches to industrial and scientific writing. (George 109) However, such courses are not usually seen as general education as much as professional training, and the technical writing itself is frequently incomprehensible for non-specialists.
We know little about everyday occasions for writing, but the time may be ripe for agreement that writing forms are quite various, though with essential commonalities. Some researchers suggest an “unusually wide frame of reference for discussing writing”. (Bullock et al 140) Writing instruction probably should not focus on creating posters or graffiti, if for no other reason than the prospect that they would lose their vitality in a school setting. But we should come to understand why many people are fluent in such ephemeral writing, even when they are stymied by school or workplace writing.
Of more practical import were the new attempts to determine the nature of job related writing, including NIE supported research by Lee O'Dell of SUNY Albany and Dixie Goswami of the University of Tennessee, and a new FIPSE project with the New York City Police Foundation. (Meyer et al 99) A successful labbased college course, developed with FIPSE support at York College, CUNY, is now being applied experimentally at a major hospital and for customer service representatives at the Commonwealth Edison Company. (George 127)
Such applications will test the extent to which a general strengthening of the ability to generate clear prose will help with fairly specific writing tasks, usually seen as self-contained in company training programs. Most writing teachers are convinced that the generic skills of organization and communication are transferable for different writing needs. This would be a hard proposition to test completely, yet there is much circumstantial evidence. The "plain English" movement also works toward what once would have been called a lingua communis -especially vocabulary and syntax which are immediately understandable by readers of modest education. (Rose et al 120) Such usage is independent of any specific information or style. Perhaps this should be a widespread curricular goal, replacing the former dominance of literary models.
Linda Flower of Carnegie Mellon makes an important distinction between "writer-based" and "reader-based" prose (Atwell 114). The latter is organized according to the understanding of the audience rather than the author. This is both consistent with traditional rhetoric, and a call for writing instruction which draws the reader in new and more direct ways: for example, through simulations which put the student in the position of writing documents on which decisions are made (e.g., a briefing document before a vote, or instructions and directions and then playing out the results).
Such work is probably more feasible for more advanced students, yet the idea that writing assignments should involve their intended function has implications for most writing instruction. This is clearly not the same as trying to keep up with a proliferation of genres and formats. The time is past when the formal, reflective essay was the only worthwhile kind of writing to master; but the dimension of generic application is still a crucial aspect of writing instruction. “There is now a greater incentive to learn writing as public communication, and for this we need to understand the purposes of writing.” (Bullock et al 145)
Behind the longtime dominance of the school essay, was a similar certainty about the purposes of writing. Shirley Brice Heath examines the nineteenth century evolution of writing from largely casual and informative practices (which were widespread) to more formal expressions of much greater moral import (and therefore relatively restricted). By the end of the nineteenth century the composition course in both high schools and colleges was much more than training in basic writing; it was a crucible and test of intellect and character. (George 135)
The fading of composition as required study in the 1960's involved recognition that using writing instruction as primarily cognitive and moral education had worn thin. It is meaningful that we now prefer the term "writing" to the more ambiguous (and ambitious) term "composition." (Atwell 126) The focus on basic writing more nearly meets the needs of a wide range of learners. It also allows for demonstrable gains in a very complex skill, and so learners are empowered.
In principle, this empowerment is apart from the particular values through which composition has served as a middle class sorting device. But in practice, the unquestioned need to master surface features predominates and this alone can make writing instruction seem like training in etiquette. This seems usually to be the case in the early grades. The emphasis on work-related writing does entail a welcome gain in relevance over the exclusive use of the formal expository essay. Other purposes for writing also have a powerful claim, and these have not yet had as prominent a place in the movement to improve writing. The traditional claim that "writing is good for you" deserves a fresher form, in terms of purposes that are more nearly the learner's own. (Meyer et al 130) And the association of writing instruction and intellectual (if not moral) growth runs deep, and must be based on insight into human development.