Adams Sherman Hill Meets ENFI: An Inquiry and a Retrospective1
What happens when we tell students in our composition courses to let their acquired habits of classroom English give way to their habits of natural language? It's not as if we shouldn't let this happen, for if we have every right to insist that formal English instruction helps to civilize our students, we have an equal right to insist that students experiment, even to the point of liberating themselves. The problem is that if we ask for naturalness but take it away as soon as our students start to threaten us, we seriously confuse them about what constitutes an effective rhetoric. What's more, if we affirm our willingness to allow our students greater freedom by giving them access to powerful new computer-based technologies but refuse to share that power, we are in danger of trapping ourselves in a contradiction.
My purpose in this essay is to offer a brief review of the long tradition that works against such liberation. Before we can agree on what we mean by setting our students free, we need to understand why there is so much pressure to do just the opposite. I am
not arguing against liberation but rather for caution before we leap ahead. I will first describe a recent event that gave me pause in one of my computer lab sessions for the Basic Writing course I teach, and then I will discuss that encounter in light of how A. S. Hill taught composition at Harvard 100 years ago. When Hill and his colleagues were challenged to justify their approach to rhetoric and composition, they built a fortress out of the rules of propriety modeled by the traditional literary canon. If we truly believe that the computer was invented to help us liberate our students, we should take care not to make this same mistake.
The Basic Writing course I teach has all the features of the "current-traditional" rhetoric, which A. S. Hill had a hand in creating. Although I like to think of our cross-graded exit exam as a brief argumentative essay, in truth it is a five-paragraph theme. Hill's students also wrote short themes rather than essays. The required handbook for my course is Houghton Mifflin's Practical English Handbook by Watkins and Dillingham, in which rules for sentence grammar generally begin with the words "Do not" or "Avoid." In substance, if not form, it is very much like Hill's own Principles of Rhetoric, first published in 1878. As the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, Hill inherited a mantle first worn at Harvard by John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, but he is best remembered today for his role in creating "English A," a course designed to help students whose entrance essays showed deficiencies in grammar and usage. Thus, Hill was not a distinguished orator but a pioneer in remedial composition. His students wrote on "improving" topics such as "our view of President Arthur's planned civil service reform." Similarly, when we write our exit exam, a test of correctness if there ever was one, we assign topics such as "Do you believe that the monitoring of clerical output in a business office by computer is an invasion of privacy?" Hill's classes met in small lecture/recitation sections, and so do ours. Perhaps the only major difference between his course and mine is that his students did not meet for two additional hours per week in a computer lab.
At New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), we are participating in a five-college Consortium (with Gallaudet University, the University of Minnesota, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Northern Virginia Community College) funded by an Annenberg/CPB Foundation grant to test the ENFI project, a teaching technique made possible by local area networks, or LANs. Today, the term "ENFI" stands for Electronic Network for Interaction, but in its earlier days it meant "English Natural Form Instruction." When Trent Batson and his colleagues at Gallaudet University created ENFI as a tool to aid deaf students, they drew upon natural language acquisition theory. Later, after they introduced their ENFI ideas at schools for hearing students, they needed more generic terms, and they dropped "natural form instruction." But the idea of "the natural" comes up constantly when ENFI teachers get together. For instance, Batson consistently says this sort of thing:
Using the LAN, ENFI students interact with each other and with the writing teacher by typing text that is displayed on their screens much like the lines of dialogue in a play. At the end of a session, the teacher can get a printed manuscript showing all that was written and who wrote it. Thus, ideally, an ENFI class is a naturally interactive, spontaneous, informal discourse community with as many of the formal characteristics of a recitation classroom as the teacher wishes to retain. However, when I first tried to establish such a dialogue in the lab with my basic writers, I discovered that (1) it was very hard to maintain control of the discussion as soon as I switched on the network, and (2) on the network, my students immediately lost all sense of decorum about what is appropriate to say or write in an English class. Let me illustrate.
Here is an excerpt from the transcript of that first session. (To save space, I have shortened and altered the sequence):
Sue: Yeh. let's get some beers for today's class. Ed: Hey Teach, how is your sex life? Teacher: Change the sentence in as many ways as possible. Dan: Let's talk about our teacher a little more. I rule the screen! Ed: Teach, don't you have anything to say about all these trashy things being said? Bill: Your girlfriend is good. I know. Dan: She is like your mother. Tony: Your mother gives out coupons. Nick: Your mom's like a door nob--everyone gets a turn. Teacher: Someone comment on how our dialogue is going. Jane: I think this is a sick bunch of students. Ed: I THINK THAT THE TEACHER HAS LOST CONTROL.
What you see here is a mutiny. Not only did these students seize control of the LAN, they ignored my attempts to bring them back into line, even to the point of defiance ("Don't you have anything to say about all these trashy thing being said?"). When their exchanges finally descended into pornography, all 1 could do was switch off their screens. What had happened? Clearly, they couldn't resist the temptations of empowerment. This activity was something they had never been allowed to do in a writing course before, and it was both heady stuff ("I rule the screen!") and disorienting. The events of that session shook the foundations of what they had come to expect from an English teacher ("I THINK THAT THE TEACHER HAS LOST CONTROL"). "Ed" was right, and I reacted in a wholly predictable way: I reasserted my authority because I wanted my control back again. In the lab sessions on the LAN that followed, I controlled things so tightly as to kill any sense of freedom leading to naturalness. And so I was left with two difficult questions: (1) When is the writing we ask students to produce ever natural--as long as we are controlling it? and (2) Are we really willing to share power with our students?
Let me return now to the historical perspective. Of course, Hill had no problem with "naturalness"---he was against it. Records in the Harvard Archives show that Hill taught a rhetoric of correctness based on an extremely conservative literary canon. In fact, to take any one of his writing courses--English A or English 5 (Advanced Composition)--was to take on a heavy reading program in British literature, with token attention given to contemporary American social and political issues. This evidence exists in the form of three kinds of sources: (1) Hill's teaching notebooks, (2) class notes taken by his students, and (3) a brief journal Hill made in March of 1900.
In the journal, titled "Glimpses into My Life During March, 1900," Hill describes how he taught English 5 2. He writes:
Hill spent most of the time in class on critiques of models of style, assigning, for example, Pater, Pope, Swift, Thackeray, Sterne, Goldsmith, Franklin, and Irving. In a typical class session, one student would speak in favor of a passage by, say, Pater, and then another student would speak against it. This was the pattern for the whole term.
Hill got his students to write by assigning each topic with the direction that they should attend only to style and arrangement. The theme assignment for October 3, 1883 was "a paragraph on some current topic, three or four pages long, with especial care to
clearness, brevity, and unity." His theme topics for the fall term of 1884 were the following:
Subject selected by writer; Subject drawn from Anthony Trollope's Autobiography; Subjects drawn from Matthew Arnold with criticism; Should a Congressman live in the district which he represents? Is it true that America has done nothing--certain useful inventions excepted--to justify its existence?; How I passed the Xmas vacation; A sketch of DeQuincy's life.
His students' notes show that Hill lectured on British literature even at the developmental level. Fred N. Robinson, in English A (1887), wrote themes and listened to lectures on Sterne, Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, Burke, Austen, Scott, and Fielding. Another famous Harvard teacher, Barrett Wendell, lectured on Shakespeare that term. Ralph Clinton Larrabee, also a student in English A (1889), learned that "Good use is the supreme test." First, his teacher (Hill) covered "Barbarisms, Improprieties, and Solecisms" at the word level, followed by the same thing at the sentence and paragraph levels. The overriding concern of Hill's teaching is perhaps best captured this way by Larrabee: "All style consists of words. Rhetoric strives to teach how to choose words and how to arrange them."
If Larrabee's remarks are a pretty sad commentary on the teaching of the ancient art of rhetoric, they are also a description of an all-too-familiar reality. I have already confessed that in my own composition courses I am under great pressure to teach in exactly this way. Although Watkins and Dillingham (1986) don't use such archaic terms as "barbarisms, solecisms and improprieties," they do say what amounts to the same thing. Consider this excerpt: "Avoid illiteracies and dialect (substandard English)--Illiteracies, which are found in the language of uneducated people, should be avoided in speech and writing. NOT `the dentist ain't ready yet. Would you care to set down.'" (p. 192)
When Emerson said in "The American Scholar" (1837) that "We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe . . . we will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds" (p. 45-46), he meant that it was time for his generation to discover an authenticity of voice drawn from the unique American experience. Yet, compared to someone as conservative as A. S. Hill, Emerson was a dangerous radical, a spy in the house of literary conservatism. Hill had promised to protect Harvard from the threat of barbarism by summoning the courtly muses of England. Distrustful of Emerson's sort of naturalness, which had been, of course, a call for liberation and empowerment, Hill provided a sense of tradition that apotheosized British literature. Thus, what happened to his pedagogy of rhetoric is rather like the story of how starlings came to America, which Annie Dillard tells in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. "Starlings came to this country on a liner from Europe. One hundred of them were deliberately released in Central Park by one Eugene Schiefflin, whose curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare." (p. 35)
The problem of "naturalness," of allowing freedom of expression in the classroom leading to liberation, is complex and challenging because there are so many pressures on us to take that freedom away. Whatever else they may want to do, composition teachers at many colleges and universities have to prepare their students to pass an exit exam. I teach a tradition-bound rhetoric of correctness because that's what I am getting paid to do, or at least that's the stated goal of the course the students are paying me to teach them. Students come into my remedial course because they are incompetent writers, and because, in the way that I have illustrated, some of them are still barbarians. I'm just like A . S. Hill, my pedagogical soul mate, taking models from the traditional sources of literacy and attempting to impart grace, clarity, and correctness to students who otherwise would not know how to recognize it.
What, then, does this suggest for those of us who wish to empower our students through the use of computers? At a recent
meeting of our Consortium, Trent Batson said, "Synchronous writing in the classroom generates a lot of power [which] alters the traditional dynamic of the classroom. We give our students this power, and they don't know what to do with it" (personal communication, March 19, 1988). I take that less as a lament than a challenge, and I think we can respond to it in either of two ways: (1) We can impose the A. S. Hill solution, which essentially calls for taking away students' power in the belief that they can't handle it; (2) We can design ways to turn such power to advantage by forming a partnership with students in the belief that they really can learn how to use power responsibly.
During a recent lab session on the LAN, I saw how to begin this process. I set up a role-playing activity in which my students worked in pairs, first conducting an inventional interview and then reversing roles. Their purpose was to develop a biographical profile of their partner, as background for a kind of "People" magazine piece. Then, I took myself out of the dialogue by walking out of the lab (thus creating a truly teacherless classroom). Here is an excerpt:
John: What do you do for a living, Paula? Paula: I cook hamburgers at burgerking. Elizabeth: What kind of meat dose Burger King really use for their hamburgers? Paula: We use cat meat or whatever we find in the alley. Elizabeth: What happens if you couldn't find anything? John: Yea, what do you use? Paula: Then we scout the neighborhood and use little children. Elizabeth: I heard that you set up mouse traps inside of the building and after the mouse is caught you throw the mouse into a grinder. Paula: Seriously, you don't have to know much about cooking to get a job there, they hired me, didn't they?
These remedial students worked for two hours at this task. There was much breaking into other channels (by "Elizabeth" in
this case), and some flirting, and even some talking dirty, but it was purposeful stuff, a writing session in which they had a lot of fun, never once asked for my assistance, and eventually came up with substance for completing the assignment. If we can liberate and empower our students in this way, so that it causes them to enjoy writing, there is a good chance that they well even start doing better on our exit exams.
Batson, Trent. (1987, Nov. 1). EnfiLOG. (Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.)
Dillard, Annie. (1974). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper and Row.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. (1946). The portable Emerson. New York: Viking Press.
Hill, Adams Sherman. (1878). The principles of rhetoric. New York: Harper Bros.
Watkins, Floyd C. and Dillingham, William B. (1986) Practical English handbook. (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.