Sunday, May 6, 2007

Sara Biggs Chaney: All things to All Students?

I’ve not yet taught a composition or basic writing course, so I’ve no first-hand experience of a situation like Sara Biggs Chaney describes in “Study of Teacher Error: Misreading Resistance in the Basic Writing Classroom.” And I hope that I don’t have that kind of experience, either, even if I recall one of my father’s favorite sayings as I type those words: “Wish/want/hope in one hand and shit in the other, then tell me which one fills up first.” (I think that was his course way of teaching me that hoping against hope and wanting what you cannot have is foolish and/or a waste of energy.) That said, I found myself sympathizing nonetheless with Chaney’s sense of disappointment upon learning that Amber had plagiarized much of her final paper for the BW course, especially after Chaney described becoming personally invested in helping her student, Amber, achieve the so-called “critical gesture.” I also admired her thoughtful and critical reflections about how she may have been able to better assist Amber. However, I found myself becoming somewhat irritated the more Chaney went on about how she felt she’d failed Amber by being “guilty of a misreading” the student’s expressed resistance to the academic institution, generally, and to composition, specifically (33). Not because I don’t appreciate her desire, as both an instructor and a caring individual, to help each of her students achieve academic success, because I really do. Rather, I am not convinced that she failed Amber in any sense of the word. Her solution didn’t work, sure; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have worked, or that it wouldn’t have worked in a similar scenario with another student. Chaney’s article, at least for me, begs the question: Can an academic institution and its constituent programs (like Basic Writing) be all things for all people? Or more realistically, should they even try to be all things to all people? I don’t want to be misconstrued here as cynical and/or unsympathetic, but the fact of the matter is that educators cannot win them all, as the saying goes, no matter how sincerely or desperately they may want to. So while I truly appreciate the critical and rhetorical paths of inquiry (and their pedagogical relevance) Chaney followed in her search for answers to the Amber conundrum, it seems to me that ultimately an educator has to recognize that a student’s membership in the university classroom is elective, regardless of her educational experiences and socioeconomic status. She does not have to be there, she chooses to be there. Thus I’m kind of baffled when Chaney says that Amber “does not value academic essay writing, has no internal motivation to excel at it, and is nonetheless compelled to practice it by an institution that insists on a universal value for academic writing that she just doesn’t buy” (33-4, emphasis mine). It sounds like Chaney is indicting the institution as somehow oppressive by forcing its students to practice academic essay writing. She lends credence to this notion later when she rather absurdly remarks, “it was unfortunately not within my power to stop assigning writing in the writing classroom and take up some other topic Amber found more practical” (35). Really? It was unfortunate? What about the other students in that class? Besides also being so-called basic writers, did they find the practice of writing in a writing course impractical? Because, I mean, that really is a damn shame to make students write in a basic writing course, especially if one of those students thinks it’s “worthless.” Now I’m not suggesting that placing a universal value on academic writing is good or bad, right or wrong, or whatever. But it is the status quo of most liberal arts institutions and, so far as I know, enrollment is not compulsory. All educators can really do is give their students the best shot possible, working with individuals when they can, but in the end doing what’s best for the greatest number of them. What is “best” will change, of course, with experience and knowledge; but educators cannot be all things for all students. Though it’s good to reflect on relative successes and disappointments, learning what works and what doesn’t, Chaney should accept that she did for Amber what she thought was right at the time. It didn’t work, true, but that’s a far cry from “failing” her student.

Chaney, Sara Biggs. "Study of Teacher Error: Misreading Resistance in the Basic Writing Classroom." Journal of Basic Writing 23.1 (2004): 25-38.