Berlin: The Truthiness of Teaching

In “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories” James Berlin makes the strong, rather beautiful claim that “to teach writing is to argue for a version of reality” (236). But, unfortunately for us, many composition teachers either don’t realize the very approach they are taking, or realize their approach, but in fact take the wrong one.

Describing—then quickly dismissing—pedagogical and epistemological approaches of the Neo-Aristotelians or Classicists, the Positivists or Current-Traditionalists, and the Neo-Platonists or Expressionists, Berlin argues for the New Rhetoricians as the “most intelligent and most practical alternative available, serving in every way the best interests of our students” (236). Well then!

At several points in the essay Berlin takes up what I’ll call the so what? tension. The so what? tension pushes theory to its practice stage. Or, in this case, the so what? tension sends, most specifically, composition theory to its composition classroom. At one point, Berlin asks it directly, “But what does all this have to do with the teaching of freshman composition?” (248)

For Berlin, the answer is clear: everything; the stakes are truth itself! But, I’m afraid, while he may well be right, our academic industrial complex does not take the same approach.

If we measure our priorities by what we in the academy assess, and by what we in the academy count towards evaluation and promotion, I fear Berlin’s high aims fall on deaf ears.

While he may be right that the process of teaching composition is “complete with all of its significance for the student,” we don’t assess the extent to which students arrived at language that helped generate and shape nearing of truth (249). (Dare I say, students’ “truthiness”?)

Instead, we ask students if faculty returned their papers in a timely manner or whether they magically made the classroom “free of bias.” And faculty, too, are part of the problem. On the first day of class we don’t usually describe our courses to students as truth-seeking or meaning-making. Instead, we make clear the minimum requirements, attendance policies, and paper word counts.

Relatedly, at least in my experience being evaluated as faculty at Concordia, the standard self-evaluation procedure fails to surface claims about learning theory. We wax eloquently about “teaching effectiveness” without getting at the truth we’re affecting (or not) in students.

And so, I wonder. If Berlin is right—or, heck, even if it’s totally wrong—how can we in the academy align our systems to assess and support analysis of the truth-seeking and meaning-making he claims happens in the composition classroom?

Along these lines, can we identify, from our teaching methods, one of (or a mix) of Berlin’s four theories? Are we happy with what we find?


One thought on “Berlin: The Truthiness of Teaching

  1. “On the first day of class we don’t usually describe our courses to students as truth-seeking or meaning-making. We make clear the minimum requirements, attendance policies, and paper word counts.”

    Bingo. To me, this is one of the most tangible symptoms of a “non-truth-seeking” classroom. Even more symptomatic of a non-truth-seeking system, I think, is that students EXPECT (how’d you get those fancy bold and italics?) this on the first day of classes. I have had few classes where we don’t read the syllabus on the first day. My father who teaches at a community college did not do this when he started 10 years ago; now, he does it as a sort of defense mechanism from students who know all too well how to navigate the system’s expectations rather than seek the truth of computer networking (“But I don’t remember that being on the syllabus…” assertions).

    One way of re-evaluating the academy’s systems—a heck of a task—is perhaps to look at the “deliverables” of the system: syllabi, course outcomes, degrees, teacher assessment surveys, papers…

    In an attempt to develop your first question a little more or in a different slant—what are the current expected materials (that are perhaps inherently distinct from “truth” or “meaning”) that the system produces and distributes through classrooms? Furthermore, if we can take for granted that the system won’t change anytime (soon), which the pessimist in me believes, what can a classroom (teacher) do to alter these materials toward a more truth-seeking angle?


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