The CEA Forum
Winter/Spring 2008: 37.1
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Howard Tinberg and Patrick Sullivan, editors. What Is "College-Level" Writing?. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2006.
by Patricia Gillikin, University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus
High school students don't know the answer to the question—and imagine fearfully. High school teachers aren't sure anymore either—and remember fearfully, from their own college experience. College students begin to learn an answer, still projecting old high school fears and trying to read their teachers' minds. Even college writing teachers don't know the answer since it varies from school to school, sometimes from classroom to classroom.
In Howard Tinberg and Patrick Sullivan's collection What is “College-Level” Writing?, a diverse group of teachers, scholars, students, and administrators address the question of the book's title in twenty-four articles. I did, in fact, find many potentially useful descriptions of what college writing is and what it could or should be in this volume. I was also delighted to find many authors refusing to answer the question, questioning the question, and explaining why it can't be easily answered.
Merrill J. Davies, one of the contributors, explains that it is “the complicated nature of writing” that leads him to the conclusion: “I am not sure we can expect college professors to come up with exact guidelines for college-level writing” (34). Ronald F. Lunsford agrees: “There is a sense in which this task is an impossible one” (179).
It makes sense, then, that many of the contributors to this volume spend time dodging the question elegantly and most entertainingly. Ed White's dodge, in his “Defining by Assessing,” is perhaps my favorite: “College level writing is the writing that is done in college by students receiving passing grades from their professors. This definition has a nice tautological economy and happens to reflect reality, a pleasant if rare bonus on such matters as this” (243).
Similarly, Lynn Bloom suggests another pragmatic definition for “good enough” college-level writing in her article, “Good Enough Writing: What is Good Enough Writing Anyway?”: “Whatever is good enough to warrant (note that I do not say merit) a B in whatever course it is for at that particular school is good enough writing” (71).
Jeanne Gunner, on a more serious note, dodges with intent in “The Boxing Effect (An Anti-Essay)”: “Writing in college, as elsewhere, happens among people, in real places, over time, for a vast range of purposes. When people writing in college environments write, we see embodied instances of college writing” (119). She goes on to argue against a more confining definition: “To attempt to define college writing outside this human social context is to invite its commodification, to erase the subject himself or herself, to justify mechanistic curricula, and to support institutional atomism.” In other words, pinning down too closely what “college-level writing” is—and losing its embodied context and vastness—can lead to making it a commodity, erasing the writer, and producing a dull and lock-step pedagogy. She deplores a “system of containing devices that work against real writers writing and rhetoric as social action.”
Gunner charges that the formulation “college writing” is one that “reifies a system of non-porous institutional boundaries” (111)—in other words, that it separates us and keeps us, high school and college teachers, community college and university faculty, basic writing teachers and first-year composition teachers—from communicating with each other. This issue is precisely one of the key threads addressed in the rest of this volume. The contributors enact a conversation which is designed to make the institutional boundaries Gunner refers to more porous—indeed, calls for conversations between high school and college teachers are common throughout the volume.
Definitions and Descriptions
Meanwhile, many contributors do in fact explain key components of what they think college-writing is like. Milka Mustenikova Mosley, a high school teacher, in “The Truth About High School English,” argues in opposition to high school's “formulaic” writing, and declares that “college-level writing should focus more on the student's ideas and exhibit his or her individuality” (59).
Kimberly Nelson, a recent college graduate, gives her take on college writing in “The Great Conversation (of the Dining Hall): One Student's Experience of College-Level Writing.” She explains that, as she worked on her first major essay in college, “I learned that to write at the college level requires not only a thorough knowledge of the material to be discussed, but also a cogent, thoughtful, and passionately presented synthesis of that material” (283).
Ronald Lunsford, in “From Attitude to Aptitude: Assuming the Stance of a College Writer,” reframes the question, asking: “How do we decide which [entering college students] are ready for [a first year college course] and which are not? I believe that when such screening is done, it often fails to look at the most important quality a student brings to his or her writing: attitude” (194). By this Lunsford means an attitude of mind, an openness to learning from the act of writing and a willingness to question authorities.
How to ask the question
Indeed, several contributors make clear the importance of how and in what context the question is asked. Ed White, for instance, argues that “a definition of what college-level writing is must embrace considerable consensus both on and off campus” (243). Susan E. Schorn, who asks faculty across the curriculum at UT Austin the question, and who gets many different kinds of responses, says in “A Lot Like Us, but More So: Listening to Writing Faculty Across the Curriculum” that we should not so much try to achieve an actual, probably impossible consensus or “single standard” for college-level writing; instead, “we can do more to improve student writing by looking for the reasons behind the definitions” (331).
Finally, and most practically, Ronald F. Lunsford, echoing his mentor Bill Coles, simply suggests that if we are going to talk about what college-level writing is, we had “better bring along samples of student writing that illustrate concepts being explained and support claims being made” (178). A few of the contributors, including Lunsford and White, enact this strategy.
One of the most significant moves made by contributors in their attempts to define and describe college-level writing is to point to the rhetoricity of writing. A number of articles indicate this is the most important quality of college writing, the quality that makes it near impossible to pin down in definition.
Chris Kearns, in “The Recursive Character of College Writing,” describes the rhetorical dynamic when he writes that “college writing proper begins whenever an undergraduate takes the first consequential step from self to other on the grounds of care for one's audience. This is best done by opening oneself to the fact that meaning does not belong to the writer; it unfolds in the shared space of acknowledgement between the reader and the writer” (350).
Ed White, meanwhile, explains, “The minute we ask what audience and purpose infuse college level writing, the full complexity of all possible collegiate writing situations spring to life before us…we cannot deal with writing simply by examining its textual features, without considering the rhetorical situation that produced it” (246). This echoes Muriel Harris's definition in “What Does the Instructor Want? The View from the Writing Center”: “When the reader is the appropriate reader, given the complexity of that term, and finds the writing satisfactory in such terms, then perhaps we might have some confidence in considering that we have begun to identify college-level writing” (132).
In Kathleen McCormick's “Do You Believe in Magic? Collaboration and the Demystification of Research,” she focuses on qualities of college research writing, describing it as “writing in which [students] take up positions of their own that actively engage experts in a field” (200). McCormick writes that often for students in college, “things are supposed to happen that are not really explained, so that we see the mystifying of the research process and of writing on the college level begin again” (208). She's arguing that demystifying what college writing is—and more importantly, what producing it looks like—is important, even though she too opens her article with a statement echoed by many in the volume: “There is obviously no one answer to the question of what college-level writing is” (199).
McCormick, interestingly, gives a pedagogical reason for more specifically describing what it is and what the process of producing it looks like: she wants to make visible that process so that the disconnect between students' and teachers' expectations and imaginings is erased; she refers to Linda Flower's argument that “one of the reasons students frequently perform poorly on written assignments is that their task definition does not match the teacher's” (210). This supports the idea of defining clearly what college writing is—to help the students and the teachers, at least, be on the same page about it—but tellingly, McCormick's article isn't about boxing in or describing a form: she instead describes a collaborative process and pedagogy. For her, college writing is what happens when students “intellectually negotiate a variety of texts and they work recursively to articulate and then answer a particular research question. They do this with a clear and usually well-developed position, which they actually believe in. They write with strong ideas supported by a well-organized pattern of sources. They take into account alternative viewpoints.” As a result of the pedagogical scaffolding she delineates in her article, she claims, “The personal engagement and personal investment in as well as the intellectual level of student papers dramatically increases” (224).
I have tried to give a taste of some of the answers—and entertaining evasions, and passionate refusals to answer—in this book, because, quite frankly, I think the book is worth reading. I frequently wanted to hand this book to one or another of my colleagues—if only they had the time themselves—so that they could consider a particularly thought-provoking, possibly classroom- and curriculum-transforming, article. I want to give McCormick's article to the teachers of second-semester composition at my institution, and I want to share Sheridan Blau's “College Writing, Academic Literacy, and the Intellectual Community: California Dreams and Cultural Oppositions” with my colleagues in basic writing, because it is grounded so deeply in National Writing Project, and because it tells delightfully subversive stories about the slipperiness of “college-level writing.”
Ultimately, this book does not do what some might fear: come up with an answer that boxes in teachers and writers. Instead, the diverse voices give a kaleidoscopic view of college-level writing, in a way that often illuminates effective pedagogies. Indeed, the writers in this volume prove the truth of the statement by Eugene Ionesco with which the editors begin the volume: “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.”
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