A Review of Bad Ideas About Writing, Edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe

Table of Contents About Us References

Chapter 1: Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is. Review by Renee Ann Drouin

“Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is” facilitated conversations preoccupied with our understanding of rhetoric, the necessity of literacy, transfer, and importance of first-year composition (FYC). Separate from establishing Bad Ideas About Writing’s intent to reach diverse audiences through expansive ideas, the chapter also explored many vital concerns of composition instructors. While early pieces, such as Jacob Babb’s confrontation with the harmful myth that “America is Facing a Literacy Crisis” tracked writing instruction, other pieces, such as Elizabeth Wardle’s “You Can Learn to Write in General,” analyzed general writing practices not exclusive to academic writing. The range of topics was diverse, and the arguments are largely gratifying for their consideration of cultural, historic, and social issues that shaped these harmful myths.

Given the complexity of using writing to express our thoughts clearly, it was perhaps unsurprising to see that “Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is” started with a conversation about rhetoric. Patricia Roberts-Miller’s “Rhetoric is Synonymous with Empty Speech” argued rhetoric cannot be avoided, and instead we must carefully select the rhetoric we use. Roberts-Miller’s observations on rhetoric were especially notable for the care with which she reviewed and defined rhetoric, framed around the assumptions people have of rhetoric and other ways we can meaningfully engage with it. Early in her analysis, Roberts-Miller acknowledged that people outside the composition classroom link rhetoric to the common suspicion it is primarily utilized to hide facts or oversimplify. Roberts-Miller deserves acclaim for the clarity of her definitions of rhetoric, their complications, and how we use it. Paraphrasing Aristotle, she claimed, “What you learn from rhetoric is how to approach political, ethical, and legal problems, how to come up with an argument when you can’t be (or, at least, shouldn’t be) certain that you’re right. You also learn how to assess other people’s arguments” (p. 10). The purpose here, besides defining, was to encourage us to explore the many forms and uses of rhetoric in lieu of equating it to empty speech and lies to distort the truth. I find it vital to dedicate such time in this review to “Rhetoric is Synonymous with Empty Speech” because it was the section’s lone representation of analysis of rhetoric itself. Other pieces relied on audiences to understand the underlying connection of the rhetorical situation of writing, even if it was not mentioned explicitly. Though I believe the larger text may have benefitted from more writing on rhetoric or the rhetorical situation, Roberts-Miller’s work established such a strong foundation, I recognize why the editors thought otherwise, and, further, trusted her work to start Bad Ideas About Writing.

The myths perpetrated about and by First-Year Composition were the dominant conversation of “Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is.” Numerous pieces, specifically “First-Year Composition Prepares Students for Academic Writing” by Tyler Branson, “First-Year Composition Should be Skipped” by Paul G. Cook, “Writing Knowledge Transfers Easily,” “Reading and Writing are not Connected” by Ellen C. Carillo, and “Reading is Not Essential to Writing Instruction” by Julie Myatt Barger, explored a broad expanse of such harmful myths, some more successful connecting to their audience than others.

Branson and Cook approached their myths from the perspective of writing instructors aware that their audience includes students and parents questioning the validity and usefulness of first year writing. Branson’s section recognized FYC is unfairly criticized in larger political and cultural debates, incorrectly assumed to be a preparation for more “legitimate” courses. Cook was aware many students, parents, and even some policy makers or universities have developed a culture of viewing FYC as potentially, or even preferably, skippable. Each argued FYC does far more than simply explore the written word. Branson’s FYC showed students the importance of context, exploring language, and civil discourse. While valuable as an argument against the myth the course is just to correct errors, it is likely in Cook’s chapter that parents and students—the intended audience—will find a more persuasive rationale to attend FYC: one-on-one teaching few other introductory courses offer, preparation for research and working, teaching students to listen, rhetorical training, and so on.

The myths perpetrated about and by First-Year Composition are the dominant conversation of “Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is.”

Though other pieces about FYC in “Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is” remain accessible to those outside of academia, the intended audience moves away from those unfamiliar with the nuances of teaching such a course to the actual instructors. Carillo’s “Writing Knowledge Transfers Easily” analyzed the myth the lessons students learn from FYC automatically transfer to upper level courses and writing development. Here, the audience shift is readily apparent. Carillo cautioned that transfer, a relatively new interest in the composition field, must be a concern of the faculty designing the courses. Many instead have fallen under the assumption transfer is automatic. Carillo’s later section, “Reading and Writing are not Connected” warned teachers against ignoring the benefits of reading in the classroom or prioritizing writing over reading. In doing so, universities run the risk of students lacking critical skills in analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating, all tools necessary for good writing and good scholarship. Following Carillo is Barger’s “Reading is Not Essential to Writing Instruction.” While Carillo established the concerns for including reading in the classroom, Barger offered context for instructor arguments about reading and writing (such as how much time to allocate to each, what reading to include, if writing will become marginalized). She concluded with practical methods for encouraging reading. Due to the shared topic of reading in the composition classroom, it remains difficult to divorce Carillo and Barger’s works in terms of comparing strengths and weaknesses. Without Carillo, I question whether Barger would have had the time or assumption of audience awareness to offer such a thorough exploration of the difficult path of reading and writing in FYC. As an instructor of FYC and one not long removed from her days as a student, I further want to commend Carillo and Myatt Barger’s writings for presenting both new and established concerns of instructors in approachable ways. These pieces facilitate conversations and, despite their audience of fellow instructors, do well in demonstrating to other audiences the diversity and concerns of the FYC classroom.

The remaining sections of the chapter, “You Can Learn to Write in General” by Wardle and “America is Facing a Literacy Crisis” by Babb contended with writing and how it impacts students, but generally also considered contexts outside of the classroom. Babb’s efforts explored more historical constructs than normally shown in these sections, though he is not unique in the overall text about grounding his myths in long-established historical and cultural trends of why we incorrectly believe there is a literacy crisis. In contrast, Wardle explored how demoralizing (and impossible) being told to write in general is, as we always have context or purpose. It remained one of the most thoughtful pieces and unique for how it reflected our writing myths and concerns outside of the classroom.

“Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is” considered the harmful ways we have defined and measured good writing. The sections were grounded in centuries of rhetorical and compositional history, tracking the developments and their still-current ramifications (i.e. the fluidity of defining rhetoric, the misconception that first year composition is designed around correcting errors, etc.). Even relatively new topics discussed within the composition field, such as transfer, were carefully constructed among historical and educational contexts. The chapter holds insights for newcomers to the field of composition theory and writing instruction, and both the broader public and the academics shaping policies are also intended audiences, written to and about. Yet, separate from the successes of its chosen topics, “Bad Ideas About What Good Writing Is” functioned as an excellent, welcoming opening for those first engaging with the text, establishing the practices and expectations generally met by the rest of the book.