Function Over Form, Really?

I was out walking with a friend last week and the conversation turned, as it often does, to school. She’d just finished her college-level writing class and was sharing her experiences. She loved her instructor and mostly wanted to express how grateful she was for the terrific job he had done. In his class, the students wrote eight essays, plus a rash of smaller writing assignments. They watched movies, and analyzed them. She raved about the various critical thinking exercises and discussions this instructor offered—she felt challenged to try harder, and to push herself. Overall, the class sounded like one that, as a student, I would’ve enjoyed.

This got me to thinking.

Much goes into putting together a writing class. As part of the design, instructors consider the course’s outline of record and other requirements. These can be rather strict and stiff. Some schools have tightly controlled curricula, some limit the textbooks used, while others allow the instructor total autonomy. A minimalistic approach is one extreme (basics only), and a fully-loaded course like the one my friend had is at the other extreme.

Where my friend’s class was chock-full of critical thinking opportunities, a variety of materials for the students to analyze, and ample classroom discussions on controversial topics, the minimalist approach offers a more practicum-oriented structure rather like a vocational application of writing techniques. Here, students spend their time learning writing formulas for thesis statements, paragraphs, and essays; they read mostly other student work looking at style, function, and effectiveness more than content and quality of writing; and while they are introduced to critical thinking as per the requirements, classroom time is mostly spent in various writing exercises and workshops rather than heated discussions.  Instead of spending weeks on research essays and longer writing pieces, students have a shorter reading and writing assignment due every class, and frequently workshop those assignments in groups.

Now, the ultimate goal of any instructor is to offer a variety of teaching styles so that more students’ needs are addressed. Sticking too closely with one or another style, however well-intentioned, can result in losing some, or many students. Having too minimal an approach can lead to formulaic and dull writing; having too creative an approach can lead to the basics getting lost in the milieu of technique. Perhaps it comes down to that old battle of function over form, of practicality over style.

You might be thinking that I am about to say that my courses fall firmly between the two extremes. That isn’t the case, though. I did used to teach the fully-loaded, critical thinking heavy class. If lessons got sidetracked because of hot topic discussions, I figured that students were learning how to express themselves. I encouraged creativity. I cheered on individuality and innovative thinking—at least I did until I taught a critical argument class about two years ago.

The first meeting, I surveyed my students and they admitted that not a single one of them had scored higher than a C in their prerequisite writing class (which I regularly teach). I spent the majority of that semester:

1) teaching them the what and how of a thesis statement

2) that opinion is not analysis

3) that plagiarism can be unintentional yet still be really bad.

I came to dread the discussions because basic “if/then” arguments were lost on these students. Their attempts at writing clear, concise arguments were painful to read. Critical analysis was all opinion for these students, and they had no idea how to even communicate those opinions in grammatically correct ways. When we moved into the literature section they were lost in every discussion about symbol, tone, mood, and interpretation.

I made the decision then to return to my computer training method of a practicum approach. I developed my writing formulas, and I’ve been using them since. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder sometimes if I haven’t sacrificed style for practicality. Sometimes it’s a roll of the dice how well we do in any class; sometimes we agonize over every choice we make. I’d say the proof is in the pudding, but I don’t allow my writing students to use clichés or figures of speech in their writing and it would be bad form for me to do it here.

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