Assessing Faculty Attitudes toward the Teaching of Writing

By Masse, Mark H.; Popovich, Mark N. | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Autumn 1998 | Go to article overview

Assessing Faculty Attitudes toward the Teaching of Writing

Masse, Mark H., Popovich, Mark N., Journalism & Mass Communication Educator

Journalism educators have long agreed on the problem: poor language and writing skills of students. Complaints have targeted the decline in students' critical thinking, their weak news judgment and story structure, their lack of clarity and conciseness, and their excessive grammatical and style errors. Although consensus may exist on the problem, faculty who teach writing courses often differ on suggesting appropriate solutions (i.e., approaches necessary to improve student performance). Given the personal and creative nature of writing, there appears to be little agreement among journalism educators on the best methodologies for teaching writing (Wolf and Thomason, 1986).

Elbow (1983) speaks of the two conflicting mentalities needed for good teaching, which stem from the two conflicting obligations inherent in the job - an obligation to nurture creativity in students and an obligation to add to knowledge and society (e.g., upholding professional standards). In the field of English composition during the last 30 years, writing instruction has been examined as a sort of pitched battle between proponents of the "intangible" process versus the "tangible" product. Writing studies have focused on such comparisons using a variety of pedagogical terms: innovative versus traditional; recursive versus linear; descriptive versus prescriptive; experiential versus expository; expressionistic versus formalistic; inner-directed versus outer-directed; creative versus critical; coaching versus editing. In our Q methodology study, the widely used terms process and product have been employed.

Composition scholars have long debated the merits of such competing approaches. D'Eloia (1977) discussed the "uses and limits of grammar" in teaching writing. Pianko (1979) recommended that teachers focus on process, not product. Friedman (1983) criticized teaching methods that were error-based, that attempted to remedy grammatical or mechanical problems by showing how not to write. Graves (1980) described the shift in writing research as a focus on process (versus product).

Yet Greenberg (1982) urged composition teachers to become involved in creating tests to measure minimum writing ability. Where Moran (1984) called for teachers to serve as in-process editors, Murray (1981) claimed that teachers should not interpret students' drafts but allow students to work toward their own meaning. Similarly, Spear (1983) wrote that writing instruction was more beneficial if it rested upon theories of sequential cognitive development to better address needs of students. In exploring the role of writing centers on campus, North (1984) stated that misunderstandings about these centers reveal an emphasis on product (e.g., fix-it shops) rather than on process (e.g., nurturing student-centered writing).

In the mid-1980s, a growing number of theorists began a search for a new integrated paradigm in the teaching of writing. The emphasis was on exploring how opposite mentalities or processes could complement rather than interfere with each other- such as writing assignments that began with exploratory invention and ended with critical revising (Elbow, 1983). While Hairston (1983) implored educators to do the "hard thing" by examining the intangible process of student writing, she noted that it was important to preserve the best parts of earlier methods for teaching writing: the concern for style and the preservation of high standards for the written product.

Journalism education has long been dominated by the traditionalists who stress the mechanics and fundamentals of writing, concentrating on the quality of the finished written product that students generate. These educators define themselves largely as editors. They favor a teacher-centered (based) classroom, where lectures are regularly given, and where papers receive detailed critiques and severe penalties for grammatical errors. However, in the last decade journalism faculty have emerged who view writing more as a student-centered cognitive process. …

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