I just discovered the European Association for Teaching Academic Writing, and I'm now thinking of joining. To that end, I watched the video that was made about the 7th Biennial Conference in Budapest. It all seems like reasonable and interesting and necessary stuff. But at the 5:10 mark, Christiane Donahue, who heads up the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth, made a remark that gave me pause. An organisation like the EATAW, of course, does not exist just to promote the teaching or even the practice of writing. As with everything else in academic life, it exists to promote research into the practice of teaching academic writing. Donahue made this point in very forceful, and, upon reflection, somewhat disturbing terms.
More and more, people who are teaching academic writing will participate in the kinds of things, like the EATAW, that allow them to actually develop their thinking in terms of research. There has been, for decades, a lot of practice but not always a lot of research. [...] I think that one of the changes for the future, for all of us, is that you won't be able to teach academic writing if you haven't really thought about the evidence that supports what you do, and how that evidence can shape how you're thinking about your teaching. (5:10-5:47)
At first this seems entirely reasonable, and certainly unsurprising. Universities are supposed to offer research-based teaching, so if you're teaching academic writing, it should be based on research into academic writing, right? The same thing, in fact, has happened with teaching in general, which is now supposed to implement the lessons of educational research, and educators are increasingly asked to, precisely, "think about the evidence that supports what they do".
But at some point this has to stop. It is one thing to ask English teachers to offer research-based instruction in, say, Elizabethan drama when they teach, say, Shakespeare; it is quite another to ask that both their teaching methods and writing assignments are also "supported" by evidence. To my mind, this looks like another incursion of social science into a domain that is really best managed in a humanistic spirit. I'm not against organisations like EATAW, nor even against research into academic writing. What I'm against is a future in which "you won't be able to teach academic writing if you haven't really thought about the evidence that supports what you do".
My emphasis here is on the word "evidence". One minor tweak to this statement would make it much more palatable to me. You shouldn't teach academic writing if you haven't really thought about what you do. An association and a recurring conference can help you think about what you do by sharing your experiences and hearing about others. It should be sufficient for composition instructors to discuss their classroom practices in journals and at conferences, sharing their approaches and opening themselves up to the criticism and contributions of their peers. There is no need to turn the composition student into an object of research, or, worse, a research subject.
This difference between experience-based and evidence-based teaching has been simmering for a while in the back of my mind. The distinction can be and has been applied to other fields, too, of course, like management and medicine. In all cases, "evidence-based" seems like a great idea at first. Why would we not want our educational, managerial and medical practices to be based on "the evidence that supports what we [teachers, managers and doctors] do"? But on closer inspection it introduces a new source of error. We've all learned to be skeptical of purportedly "scientific" studies that show that one or another practice "works". Just because there is "evidence" for doing something in particular does not mean it really works; in a few years, there may well be "evidence" that it doesn't. More importantly, however, even where the studies get reality right, you have to be sure that you know how to implement their prescriptions.
Intuitively competent writing instructors, who really get their students to write better prose, may not be especially competent researchers, or may be very competent researchers in fields other than composition studies. In Donahue's brave new world, they will be at risk of losing their jobs (or never getting them in the first place) to candidates who are able and willing to adopt the theories and methods of composition studies, which will quickly develop (as they already are) increasingly sophisticated theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches. The nightmare scenario that I can see looming in the future is that the composition classroom will be headed by teachers who, instead of simply being able to write and pass that ability on to students, have a demonstrable capacity for research including the famously abstruse writing that goes with it. Why not just select competent writers from within academic disciplines to teach students to do what they do? That is, why not let people who have a demonstrated ability to write instruct the next generation of writers from experience?
Continues with "Advice and Evidence".