Book by Patrick Sullivan & Howard Tinberg
Review by Kathleen Carpenter
Northern Arizona University
College of Education
What does a glossy picture of a hamburger have in common with teaching high school English composition? The answer is “the hamburger bun represents the introduction and conclusion, and the meat, cheese, and lettuce stands in for the three body paragraphs found in each of the five-paragraph essay” (p.137). This analogy, although it might seem silly, was used to help high school students visualize the basic concepts of writing an acceptable essay.
What is college-level writing, and how is it different from writing taught at the high-school level? This question is discussed in a collection of essays written by high school English teachers, college-level composition teachers, college students, and administrators who direct composition centers. The book is not so much about defining the elements of what should be included in the basic university-level English composition courses, as it is a discussion of what can be done to improve college-level writing, for high school students entering university or community college as freshmen.
I recommend reading, Peter Kittle’s essay, “It’s Not the High School Teacher’s Fault” (pp. 134-157). Mr. Kittle taught high school, was a composition instructor, and is now an associate professor. While teaching high school, Mr. Kittle thought he was doing a thorough job teaching composition, (it was his hamburger), instead he confessed to being a victim of “pedagogical blindness” (p. 137), or “the inherent problem with teaching writing using a formulaic writing instruction technique” (p. 137). Too often, writes Kittle, students who are put on the vocational education track, are placed in remedial composition classes and are not taught writing basics or critical thinking skills. Yet, many times these students end up at a community college or university, underprepared for the rigors of college curricula. Although Kittle does not assign blame for the lack of writing and critical thinking skills of many freshmen, he concluded that “all students, college-bound or not, should be prepared to read and write critically and competently enough to be active, informed citizens” (p.144).
I also recommend reading the three student essays in this book. My favorite essay, “Bam” written by Amanda Winalski (pp. 302-308), was a well-written and thought-provoking essay, which gave good insight into the freshman composition experience. During high school, Ms. Winalski was led to believe that the inclusion of a “thesis sentence” (p. 304) and an error free and grammatically correct, paper (five paragraph essay), would automatically grant her a grade of A+. In her college experience, she painstakingly wrote and rewrote essays only to discover that not all students have the gift “to learn to write at the mysterious level of (college writing), (and) others require a course introducing its concepts” (p. 304).
I would have like to have read more essays that were written by students, especially students who struggle in English composition courses. This is important when trying to determine why students fail at college composition.
I recommend this book because the authors of each essay took time to really think about the answer to the question “what is college-level writing?” Most agreed that it was time to banish the pecking order of blame, and agreed that there was a “need for genuine, long-term partnerships between public school and college teachers” (p. 143) if we are ever to see improvement in students’ writing and critical thinking skills. The appendix includes a Web site http://www.mcc.commnet.edu/faculty/collegewriting/ in which the authors of the essays continue the conversation by posting comments about the subject and each others essays.
What is College Level Writing? (2006). Book by Patrick Sullivan & Howard Tinberg (Eds.). Review by Kathleen Carpenter. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. 418 pp., $42.95 (paperback), ISBN # 0-8141-5674-2