Friday, January 28, 2011

The Weight of Comp

So, as I briefly mentioned in a previous post, this is the first semester of my teaching career in which I have not taught composition (by which I mean a class focused on argument that includes the research paper). It's a fluke of scheduling and loading and will, likely, never happen again.

But I have noticed something. Everything about teaching feels so much lighter. Which leads me to a question: Does teaching comp have to feel so heavy? Does it have to feel like such a slog for me and the students?

Granted, we are dealing with some pretty heavy-duty skillz, and since I'm at a CC, many students aren't prepared. But, still. Does it have to be so, well, hard? And it's not just a matter of grading quantity. My Intro to Lit students write a lot, and the sections have higher enrollment. But the grading experience in Intro to Lit is definitely different--it does make my brain hurt so much, and it's not nearly as depressing.

I know some people who teach comp and argument through literature. Typically, I have rejected that approach since I think teaching students to argue various issue-related topics better prepares them for what they'll need throughout their lives as academics, professionals, and citizens.

But maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe teaching a lit-based comp/argument class would teach them the skills just as well. And would it be less weighty for teacher and students alike?

I love the feeling of this semester, and I'd be so happy to find a way to carry it through, back to Compland. Please weigh in* on this issue. Tell me how to be free.

*Do you like my mixed and unstable metaphors?


heu mihi said...

I don't know. I taught comp-through-lit one semester--granted, it was only my second semester of FT teaching--and it was among my worst comp experiences. The students who didn't like literature resented it and were annoyed, and I *hated* the fact that they all called it "English class." Once we went to a very skills-oriented course (we use Graff's They Say/I Say), things got much, much better.

I'm having a similar experience, I think. My comp sections actually went fine last semester, but this semester, when I'm *not* teaching comp, everything seems...lighter. In this case, though, I think that it really *was* the grading load, which was quite a bit more onerous than what I've got right now.

Good Enough Woman said...

heu, although your comment did not tell me how to be "free," the account of your experience is very interesting. And I, too, use Graff's They Say / I Say! it's the first comp book I've ever liked, and I do like it a lot. I now recommend it to all of my students. If nothing else, it's nice to have one semester that isn't quite so stressful. I think part of the problem is that in comp class, the stakes seem so high, and I take on the burden of their success.

Amstr said...

I think comp has been harder for me to teach because I don't write about things other than literature. Somehow it's easier to teach what I love to do (and what I'm good at doing).

I did teach a lit based comp class (at your place of employ), and the course felt very split; the first half was lit-based, and the second half, research paper related (on a non-lit topic).

I do know that teaching comp always improved my own writing (and I'm wishing I could afford the time to take on a class right now so my writing would be easier).

I think an additional weight to the comp. class is that it's often a class you have to sell, whereas lit students are often self-selecting.

No help from this corner--just a little analysis. Enjoy the break!

loveskidlit said...

Teaching the writing classes is half our load, and considered the bread and butter of the English department (as in, there but for the grace of comp, intro to research writing, and technical/professional writing goes the grad program). I taught comp for half my load for the first five years at my uni, and was then able to make a switch to technical/professional.

I enjoyed comp, and think I was good at teaching it, but I vastly prefer teaching tech. It requires so much less of me in the way of cheer-leading and emotional energy in the classroom. The tech writers are also reluctant writers, but the writing is much more formulaic. I think it's now a situation of "there but for the grace of teaching tech writing goes my literature teaching, research agenda, and creative writing..."

I know it's personal preference, and ten years out I wouldn't presume any words of wisdom on how to lighten the load, but I can assure you that the burden is felt by others too!

Ink said...

Maybe do some comp through lit to see how it goes? As the others have noted, sometimes it works very well but sometimes not.

Have to share though, that I was having a conversation with a colleague who was shocked to discover that the lit types had FOUR different preps. Because he had two different versions of comp and only two preps BUT here's the cool thing: virtually no preparatory reading since he'd taught them so many times before. I *always* have to re-read the lit stuff because I want to have that close reading on hand. And I certainly do NOT have two preps for four classes. So I am not feeling lighter at all. ;)

Good Enough Woman said...

Ink, I hear what you're saying about prep. My lit stuff takes much more prep time, but I think the weight of comp is more of an emotional weight that comes with trying--coercing--students to get from point A to point Z. I feel like the process (the research paper process and my related expectations) makes us all exhausted awns crazy. I keep thinking there must be a better way.

--ginger. said...

Oh I absolutely love this topic. So glad you're talking about it here.

I'm interested to know if your changed grading experience has to do with your love of lit or the degree to which you're commenting--or maybe what you're Commenting About. I think in comp we are a bunch of control freaks. (Or, to say it more nicely like you did: " I think part of the problem is that in comp class, the stakes seem so high, and I take on the burden of their success.")

We're like the mom who criticizes the hell out of her daughter's bad taste in dresses right before she walks out the door with her baby-blue-tuxedo-ed date to the prom because we want to her to Learn Good Taste. How about highlighting her solid choice of peach-toned lipstick and her smarts for not wearing 7 inch heels? How about kissing her on the cheek and believing that the more she stares at and recognizes what she HAS done well, the greater the likelihood that her dress will be prettier next time.

We say too much, I think. And the more we tell them what they can't do, the more they think they can't do It. Because they don't see It as a drawer full of tools like we do--they see It as a weed wacker: either they know how to turn the thing on or they don't.

I mean, if we're going to make a stew of metaphors, you know I am weighing in.

I feel like the weight might come from our feeling that we have to fix everything. And I don't feel convinced that we do this because we want to help them. I think we do this because we are concerned that if somebody else sees our feedback on their writing and what we Haven't Said, then we'll look like, well, Idiots.

And there is the reality, too, of our being reviewed on our feedback and worrying about, well, keeping our jobs.

I am trying to lead my own personal revolution on assessment--I think constantly about how to do it differently and, really, more meaningfully. I could talk about this for hours and would, actually, love to.

loveskidlit said...

GEW, you haven't posted in a while. We miss you in the blogosphere! Hope all is well.

C. Troubadour said...

I got your comment over at my place, GEW -- it's uncanny, but your suggestion is exactly what I chose to go with earlier in the week. And it worked! Our writing brains are apparently in sync.

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Ms. June Beck said...

I almost hate to say it but I love teaching comp. Reflection for starters - having them reflect on who they are as a member of a culture and then on an experience of being othered. They're learning to think deeply and write descriptively, backing up adjectives as they will soon have to back up claims. Then moving into creating criteria with which to base evaluations, judgments - I love letting them/watching them create said criteria. They know much more than we usually give them credit for. Recently I'm milking the theme of "privilege" - start with the touchstone on white privilege then The Yellow Wallpaper and then the film The Duchess. Create criteria for judging privilege: class, ethnic, gender. Today a gentleman pointed out that health was a privilege. They're wondering, asking, is privilege freedom? Is privilege a right? And I always let them research what they are interested in for research papers. Requires guidance with regard to topic choice and narrowing to issue but their curiosity is their guide. Comp is about teaching those skills - signal phrases and integrating quotes and paraphrases, evaluating sources, MLA, logical reasoning, accurate information, persuasive rhetoric (who doesn't love using Letter From a Birmingham Jail), sophisticated sentences, etc. - but it's also about engaging students in exploration.
About focusing on literature. A lit paper is not like a research paper. Using literary criticism is not at all like using other evidence to support a thesis. I understand that some teachers can't seem to find a way in to the process other than literature but it doesn't prepare students for what they will face. That would only prepare an English major.