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Pedagogy 6.2 (2006) 385-390

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Recalling the Past, Redefining the Future

Response to Reform: Composition and the Professionalization of Teaching. By Margaret J. Marshall. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.

Composition's history has already been well documented, and professionals in the field will already be aware of institutional hierarchies, poor labor practices, and many of the other issues being addressed in this book. However, Response to Reform: Composition and the Professionalization of Teaching is still an important book for anyone who does, or might, teach first-year writing because of its particular focus: "It is the attention to teaching, teachers, and the preparation teachers receive before beginning their work in classrooms that is of most interest in this project," Marshall explains (18). Marshall takes an in-depth look at the discourse surrounding teaching and teachers, going back to the early stages of public education in this country. She reveals a history filled with inequality (especially for women), an early and marked distinction between teaching and "real" intellectual work, a persistent blaming of teachers for the failure of education, a persistent institutional failure to provide better teacher training, and consistent (though often failed) efforts by teachers to be recognized as true professionals and intellectuals. For Marshall, changing the future means reviewing the past.

Marshall initiates her argument by pointing to current conditions—the use of adjunct faculty as teachers of first-year composition courses, the prevalence [End Page 385] of women in those positions, and the fact that more women receive advanced degrees but fewer of them receive tenured positions. She then suggests that at least some of these stratifications have been inherited from composition's past and that an awareness of this history can help address present concerns: "Such an examination allows us to reconceptualize what it means to prepare for and enter the profession, especially the relationship between scholarship and teaching. Such an examination also repositions those of us who have chosen to teach the literacy of written discourse as something other than powerless victims" (2–3).

Literacy is an important concept, and Marshall devotes a significant amount of time explaining her particular use of the term. Marshall claims, "Those of us who teach composition to undergraduates are engaged in the newest level of common school literacy" (4). This might not sound critical (or even unique) given the motivation behind many college-level writing courses, but Marshall shows us that notions of literacy have had far-reaching implications for teachers. For example, citing Geraldine Clifford's work, Marshall notes that each time the majority of the population reaches an expected literacy level, the expectations increase. Once a current view of literacy becomes widespread, it becomes culturally significant; thus the population gains a "literacy consciousness." According to Clifford, this kind of literacy consciousness shapes "institutional structures, political and social interactions and values" (qtd. in Marshall: 6). Writing teachers should relate well to this phenomenon because what it means to write has changed dramatically. Writing teachers must now think in terms of digital literacy, visual literacy, and information literacy as a matter of course. As societal pressures increase and definitions of literacy continue to evolve, literacy educators will continue to face public scrutiny.

Marshall also cites John Trimbur, who argues that recurring "literacy crises" and critiques aimed at schools are the results of "an ideology that uses reading and writing abilities as a means of sorting the population into 'masters' and 'servants'" (qtd. in Marshall: 6). While I find the terms master and servant too archaic, anyone teaching developmental writing, especially in a school that uses standardized tests to place students, should be able to empathize with the basic concept. Marshall offers examples that support both Clifford and Trimbur: the spread of literacy and the subsequent rise in arguments for more common schooling near the beginning of the nineteenth century, the literacy crisis of the 1980s, and especially the growing concern for writing ability in higher education. She concludes that "expanded opportunities [End Page 386] for schooling and increasing levels of literacy have now met in the location of the first-year...


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