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

Table of Contents About Us References

Applying Bad Ideas About Writing to Students and Courses. Review By: Brandie Bohney

As we’ve mentioned, this text was written with an “outsider” to composition studies in mind: Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe explained in their introduction that they consider the collection “an attempt by a varied and diverse group of writing scholar–teachers to translate our specialized knowledge and experiences about writing for a truly wide set of audiences, most of whom will never read the scholarly journals and books or attend conferences about this topic because of the closed nature of such publications and proceedings” (p. 2). Regardless of our skepticism as to whether or not the “publics” Ball and Loewe idealized as the intended audience will, in fact, know of and access the text, a generalized public audience is not the only one this text will have. In fact, this text could be quite useful in both graduate and undergraduate courses as well as in research among both compositionists and others outside the field of composition.

In graduate instruction, our first inclination was that the text could be used as an introductory text for courses teaching new graduate teaching assistants how to approach first-year composition (FYC), since that is what most TAs in English departments teach (MLA and ADE, 2008). Regardless of whether the department in question has chosen a theory-heavy, practice-heavy, or more balanced approach to teaching TAs how to teach writing, Bad Ideas about Writing is a good springboard text. Much of its utility for this purpose comes from the very nature of its structure: its plain-spoken, brief, relatively jargon-free introductions to many of the theories and concepts compositionists hold dear (or argue about) is perfect for new teachers of writing. Because these students may be coming to the writing classroom with little background in writing pedagogy or theory, a theory-driven text like Cross-Talk in Comp Theory or even Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies could overwhelm new writing instructors unfamiliar with composition theory and perhaps leave them with few practical pedagogical tools or techniques. Bad Ideas was meant to be accessible—and it is—which makes it a good choice for introducing composition pedagogy to a group of new TAs from mixed backgrounds with writing instruction. With a bit of background from Bad Ideas—perhaps especially chapter 1, chapter 4, chapter 6, and chapter 8—more theory-heavy texts or pieces could be introduced in a way that doesn’t leave students outside of composition studies floundering.

Prevention of floundering may be especially important in programs where students take their introductory teaching course concurrently with teaching their first course as a TA. While such a set-up allows students to brainstorm and troubleshoot their courses as they are teaching them, it also forces students to learn as they go how to teach writing and the theories behind why FYC programs embrace those pedagogies. The ideas presented in Bad Ideas are developed in such a way that overwhelmed graduate assistants teaching for the first time can implement its suggestions (or stop implementing the bad ideas) with relative ease. Of course, the foci of the text were the bad ideas and why they are bad; as we have pointed out, some readers may feel that the text fell a bit short in providing clear, consistent suggestions for replacing bad methods of teaching writing. That said, in an introductory teaching course for TAs, discussion of possible better methods is an excellent use of course time and collaboration, and it allows the students to begin filling the gaps in the text themselves; Bad Ideas presents better ideas with just enough detail to develop powerful, useful conversations about teaching writing.

In similar fashion, the text could prove enormously valuable to English education students. Because many preservice English-Language Arts (ELA) teachers have experienced some of the bad ideas addressed in the text, it could provide an excellent framework for a writing methods course or the writing element of a literacy methods course, and chapter 3 might be especially helpful for novice teachers unfamiliar with theories of grammar pedagogy. Chapter 8 would be another useful chapter, as the first half focuses on writing at the secondary level. Again, the accessible nature of the writing is ideal for undergraduate students not yet familiar with the language of the discipline, and the brevity of each chapter provides excellent opportunities for performed classroom activities like reading and summarizing jigsaws or exercises in comparison and contrast. Perhaps most beneficial would be the ease with which the text may get preservice educators thinking about what really works and what doesn’t in writing instruction: it will challenge problematic beliefs they may hold in a way that doesn’t insult them for having held them.

In addition, studies show that new teachers fall back on methods by which they have been taught (Smagorinsky, Wilson, and Moore, 2011), even when they know those methods are not particularly effective. For preservice teachers or TAs who have had strong, innovative writing instructors, this tendency is unlikely to be problematic, but for those who have had more current-traditional writing instructors, it is important that students have enough understanding of effective writing pedagogies so that as they gain their footing in the classroom, they can start making the shift to stronger instruction sooner rather than later. Bad Ideas presents a broad base of theories and practices in composition instruction that will serve new writing teachers well in this capacity.

Beyond courses designed for new TAs to teach writing, there is also great potential for this text as a framework for a first-year composition (FYC) course for undergrads or an introductory composition theory course for graduate students. For both FYC students and newly minted graduate students in the field, the introduction to a slew of the heavier scholarly texts can be disorienting and even discouraging. While a certain level of disorientation is likely inevitable for both novice writers and fledgling scholars learning the jargon and threshold concepts of their discipline, a text like Bad Ideas could be grounding in terms of introducing concepts of composition theory. For undergraduate students in other fields, it may be as far as they go, but for graduate students, it provides a solid foundation prior to diving deeper into theory and jargon-heavy studies. Many of the texts suggested for further reading throughout the chapters read in a more traditionally scholarly way, and having a plain-language text to lay the foundation for more challenging texts can help encourage undergraduate students to pursue additional study in the field and buoy new graduate students’ understanding of and confidence in concepts and theories of the discipline.

Applications of this text in first-year composition and English education coursework are not the only undergraduate possibilities, though. Another promising use of this text at the undergraduate level (and perhaps the graduate level) is in writing across the curriculum or writing in the disciplines. As Brian Urias points out in the review of the text's uses for research, “persistent misconceptions about writing and the inexperience with writing studies of experts in other fields mean that a resource clearing up such misconceptions with little jargon could be invaluable.” Bad Ideas about Writing could be an excellent guiding text for writing across the curriculum initiatives or reference for instructors teaching writing in the disciplines. Particularly useful in these situations may be chapter 1, chapter 4, and chapter 5.

A further application of the text for graduate students could be employed in a higher-level course wherein students are developing their skills at adding to and complicating the discussions in the field. Some of the questions we pose in this review (Should devalued Englishes be considered in conversation with grammar, or does that perpetuate the problematic notion that non-mainstream dialects are merely faulty grammar? Is plagiarism a problem in genre or technique—and should we be so concerned with it, anyhow? When a text is made available in an online space, should we expect it to take advantage of the affordances of an online medium?) are precisely the sorts of conversations, arguments, and considerations graduate students in the field of rhetoric and composition should be delving into and developing both opinions and research about. It also offers students an opportunity to take a simpler, more universal essay and connect it to the expanding scholarship to which they are becoming familiar. Using essays from Bad Ideas would offer students the opportunity to pull scholarship together in support of or opposition to the concepts and ideas presented.

Further, Bad Ideas offered graduate students a glimpse of scholarship made accessible. Ball and Loewe’s text had an admirable goal of making concepts familiar to the rhetoric and composition audience plain for audiences outside of the field. Whether we want to admit it or not, as practitioners (or future practitioners) of a necessary and important element of education, we cannot escape the influence of outside forces. Administrators, politicians, parents, community members, and many others will—in one way or another—attempt to exert power over what we practice in our classrooms. While some of these “outsiders” will have more influence than others, helping them to understand our beliefs, practices, theories, and concepts is critical to gaining the type of support and influence we need. It is unlikely that we can develop that understanding in others if we cannot communicate with them clearly. As writers, we know that audience awareness is important, so developing in our newest colleagues the ability to make clear the complex issues of our discipline may be of critical importance to gaining the support of outside forces we cannot simply ignore.