Themes, Theories, and Therapy: The Teaching of Writing in College
reviewed by E. P. Bollier - 1964
What is English composition as a college subject? What is wrong with it as currently taught? What can be done to correct its faults? Increasingly, these questions are being asked, and asked by the colleges themselves. The importance of Professor Kitzhaber's asking them lies in the fact that he does so in terms intelligible to the general public. Themes, Theories, and Therapy is based on the Carnegie-sponsored Dartmouth College Study of Student Writing, of which its author was director. This study, motivated by dissatisfaction with student writing at Dartmouth, was published, at least in part, with the hope that its report would interest other colleges similarly troubled. It should. It should because, without sensationalism, Professor Kitzhaber lets the cat out of the academic bag.
This book, in short, is in a sense subversivesubversive at least from the point of view of most college English departments. True, nothing Professor Kitzhaber says should surprise his colleagues. They should even welcome his insistence that teaching writing is not their responsibility alone. Many, on the other hand, may neither welcome his washing their dirty linen in public, nor approve his thesis: Widespread though the blame may be for the current inability of most college students and graduates either to write well or to recognize good writing when they see it, college English departments must assume the leadership thrust upon them by popular opinion and historical obligation to improve the teaching of writingand do so first of all by reforming their own attitudes and practices, then by persuading other departments to maintain minimum standards of excellence.
Admittedly, the original purpose of the Dartmouth Study was less contentious: to determine whether freshman English could be more effectively taught and whether anything could be done to insure that students continue to write at least as well after passing the course as they did while taking it. Part of the study, however, was a collating of Dartmouth's program with those of 95 other colleges and universities, fairly widely distributed geographically and both publicly and privately supported. In addition, the director visited 18 of these institutions to observe their practices. Tentative as such data are, they are subversive enough. Freshman English today as a writing courseand it is the only course taken by most students which specifically aims at improving writing skillsis, to put it mildly, sick.
To begin with, there is no typical freshman English course, but only as many different courses as departments of English. There is only one common denominator: Virtually none of them teaches writing directly as a subject; actual practice in writing tends to be ancillary to subject matter which ranges from formal grammar through literature to sociology. To this confusion in purpose and subject matter (not to mention the wide variations in standards and grading, even within individual departments), add two other major faults: First, these courses are usually taught by the least experienced teachers, graduate students and junior instructors; and second, their textbooks, especially those dealing directly with writing, are for the most part the poorest, the least scholarly, that students encounter in college.
The reasons for these conditions are many, some justifiable. Unfortunately, in his evident desire to win his colleagues, Professor Kitzhaber avoids stressing two fundamental causes of the conditions he attacks. First, as he hints, for college English departments, because they consider teaching literature their only proper function, teaching composition has no professional prestige. Consequently, even when departments accept it as one of their duties, not only do few instructors teach writing willingly, but virtually no one is trained to do so. Secondand the cycle is vicious, since without professional prestige no one studies the subject seriously, and no one is certain what there is to teach anywaycomposition as a disciplined body of knowledge hardly exists.
Indeed, Professor Kitzhaber's own recommendations suffer from this uncertainty. He himself calls them merely "palliatives," not cures. Even if they are adequate for a short-term crash program, their acceptance depends upon overcoming the major obstacle to reform, the inertia of professional prejudice. One can only hope that his Themes, Theories, and Therapy will arouse sufficient informed opinion both within the college English fraternity and outside of it to bring about the change of heart necessary to insure not only his interim reforms, but also that serious study of composition without which any reforms must remain merely palliative.
E. P. BOLLIER