Maxine Hairston’s article struck a chord with me. First of all, she criticizes English departments for their politicization, which I take to be a jab at literary theory. Secondly, she makes me completely self-aware of how politics fit in to my writing class. For her, ideology in the classroom is unprofessional if it seeks to convert student over to that way of thinking. It is important to remove the ideology from composition if it is to become more than a tool for ideologues in the English departments.
Hairston says that if composition hopes to come into its own, it needs to have “psychological and intellectual independence from the literary critics who are at the center of power in most English departments” (Hairston 697). Literary theory is a hang-up for Hairston, and I can see why. Theory plays with power structures and analyzes issues removed from the text itself. As a personal example, I can’t think of how long it has been since I read a piece of “literature.” Yet I have read countless articles that talk about the way literature should be used in classrooms and other essays on how articles about literature should be used—and so on.
Hairston writes that literary theory—and by this I think she means departments controlled by theorists—uses that theory to more or less perform social experiments in comp classrooms. At some institutions, this may be guided by departmental policy; at others it might be practiced by grad instructors. And if it was only a matter of bringing politics into the classroom, I would say let it be, but often it is far more than discussion.
In the case when a department decides that certain textbooks will be used and certain points emphasized in the classroom, that department’s motivation deserves examination. Why those books? Why those ideas? Is there an agenda here? I think it’s likely that there is, and while that agenda may be conceived with the goal of educating students, it is hard to avoid pulling students into a belief system they do not have the power to avoid or recognize. As scholars, we consider ourselves experts and often naively think that our idea of a student’s “best interest” is the correct one. When we blunder into thinking that we know what is best for students—and that it is only a matter of them “seeing the light”—then ideology has taken over.
Grad instructors have another problem. Many grads, as I think Hairston points out, are in the middle of programs focused primarily on theory. This is true for me, as I mentioned above.
So, inundated with theory, the graduate student approaches the classroom. Moreover, grad instructors often lack the experience needed to look at their teaching critically. They fall into the same trap that I fear students in the ideology-laced classroom fall into—I seriously hesitate to use the term “brainwashing,” but I can’t think of a more apt term.
One common view, Hairston writes, is that “students don’t have anything to write about, so [instructors] have to give them topics. Those topics used to be literary; now they’re political” (Hairston 698). I know this is true in my class. While I envy Hairston and Donald Murray, who think that student texts should be the center of a course, I know that a class of 30 students cannot handle that kind of curriculum. In an ideal course of 15 students or fewer, I think using student texts as course texts would be appropriate. So, unable to do what so many suggest, I fell back on politics this semester, crafting a unit that revolved around the news media’s relation to ethics and the Iraq war. With two international students from the Middle East in my class, this has been a challenging subject. One of those students has found his voice on the conflict, a voice that differs from the rest of my American-born students.
Yet he is the exception. In speaking to my students, I can see that what Hairston says is true. Writers learn best when they write about things they care about. Few students, Hairston writes, “will do their best when they are compelled to write on a topic they perceive as politically charged and about which they feel uninformed, no matter how thought-provoking and important the instructor assumes the topic to be” (Hairston 708). My class exemplifies this, and it has caused me to review how I will shape the second half of the semester, perhaps with less ideology.
Where does this leave us? I think that Hairston’s ideas have merit, and I think writing classes (mine in particular) have wandered from their primary purpose. Teaching writing should be simple; it should be craft. But it is not. I don’t have answers, only the same sort of questions that have been brought up in class all semester: what do we do now? Are we frozen by theory?