Four philosophies of teaching writing have determined the ways in which most of us have learned to write: the new classical (or neo-Aristotelian) approach, the modes of discourse approach, the process (or neo-Platonic) approach, and the epistemic (or post-structural) approach. James Berlin, in his seminal article, "The Major Pedagogical Theories," argues that these four philosophies have very distinct notions of "truth"—its nature, where it resides, and how it might be expressed. According to Berlin, teachers of writing need to be aware of these pedagogies and their differences. To create a pedagogy that mixes methods risks confusing our students and muddling their work.
We recommend that you read the Berlin article in order to root your own methods and philosophies in one of the four pedagogies. We also summarize the four philosophies briefly (if simplistically) here. Most instructors in Dartmouth's Writing Program teach epistemically; however, because the epistemic approach borrows from the other three philosophies, you will find a variety of methods at work in our writing classrooms.
The new classical (or neo-Aristotelian) approach assumes that truth exists in the external world, apart from and prior to language. The task of the writer is to use reason to deduce this truth. Writing argument requires the writer to follow the dictates of formal logic and to make use of various rhetorical devices in order to convince readers of the argument's validity. The audience/reader therefore has a very important role in the New Classical paradigm, as the effectiveness of a piece of writing depends not only on the soundness of the argument but also on the success it has in winning readers to its point of view.
Instructors who use the new classical approach adapt the principles of Aristotle's Rhetoric to the modern writing classroom. They may ask their students to recognize arguments as enthymemes. They may teach them to spot various rhetorical techniques—the appeal to emotion, for instance—and to use these techniques ethically. They may talk with their students about the logical fallacies and require that they remove these fallacies from their papers.
While instructors of New Rhetoric employ several different methods in their classrooms, they tend to agree on two important principles: 1) that truth can be discovered, through deduction, and 2) that language can represent that truth, unproblematically, if it avoids logical fallacies and unethical appeals. Teaching the writing process tends to instruct students in some variation of Aristotle's methods of invention, arrangement, and style.
Modes of discourse pedagogy shares the classical view that reality exists external to the writer and can be known. The way of knowing, however, is inductive rather than deductive. Modes of discourse pedagogy requires that a writer observe reality and then posit various hypotheses that will, in turn, be verified by additional observations. The writer in this method acts not as a logician but as a detective: she must begin with specific observations and then attempt to piece together the more universal truth.
Practitioners of modes pedagogy are particularly concerned with regulating how observations might be arranged into an argument. Most instructors will recognize the modes of arrangement: narration, description, exposition, and argumentation. Each mode might be further classified into sub-modes; for instance, exposition might include compare and contrast, or cause and effect. Each mode of discourse has conventions regarding arrangement. For example, if a student wishes to write a compare/contrast essay, the student can use one of two basic patterns for the arrangement of the idea: either compare point by point (ababab) or compare subject by subject (aaabbb).
Modes of discourse pedagogy does not address strategies for coming up with topics, nor does it pay much attention to matters of style (except to emphasize concision and clarity). Like the new classical pedagogy, modes of discourse pedagogy does not deem language problematic. Rather, it evaluates language according to how directly the language reflects the object that is being observed. Modes of discourse pedagogy is often used in science and social science classrooms.
The process approach to teaching composition rests on the assumption that reality is ideal rather than material. "Truth" exists within the human psyche rather than in the material world. The writer therefore seeks truth through introspection. The process approach to teaching writing makes use of free-writing and pre-writing exercises so that the writer can write her way towards the truth that she is pursuing (but can never quite express). Indeed, language is problematic in process pedagogy because it belongs to the material realm and so cannot adequately represent the ideal. Instead of objective, representational language, the process approach emphasizes the importance of the individual voice. Voice personalizes the exploration of an idea, privileging individual perception over any objective truth.
A system of rhetoric in which language is found inadequate, and in which introspection is the way to truth, is going to posit claims about the writer and the audience that are very different from the approaches discussed so far. In the process approach, the writer is the center of the writing process. The role of the reader is to help the writer hone the expression of a personal truth. Revision is therefore very important in process pedagogy, as each revision requires a writer to re-envision truth, and to express it more clearly.
The process approach has its benefits. First, it roots the ownership of writing squarely where it belongs: with the student. Second, it teaches students to think more deeply about a topic as they move through the various pre-writing, writing, and revision processes. However, the lack of emphasis on audience and discourse conventions leads some instructors to feel that the process approach is not the best "fit" for academic writing. Proponents respond that process pedagogy can be modified to include attention to the reader; consider, for instance, Linda Flower's model for teaching students to move from writer-based prose (in which they write to discover their own ideas) to reader-based prose (in which they attend to reader expectations and discourse conventions, choosing appropriate and effective structures and styles).
Unlike the previous three approaches to teaching composition, the epistemic approach argues that truth does not exist apart from language. Rather, truth is constructed by language. The act of writing is a truth-producing (or, if you like, a meaning-making) process. Writers discover "truths" (note the plural) not by introspection, nor by induction or deduction, but by the act of putting words on the page. Language constructs belief, and not vice versa, as in the other three pedagogical approaches. The epistemic approach therefore focuses its attention on language—its use, conventions, limits, and possibilities.
Berlin argues that the epistemic approach has the advantage of borrowing teaching strategies from each of the previous three approaches. The classroom techniques of the epistemic teacher are therefore eclectic. The epistemic teacher may employ dialogue and dialectic as methods of inquiry; she may illustrate various methods of invention or various modes of discourse; she may ask her students to reason deductively or inductively; she may ask them to write something from a personal point of view. Regardless of the strategies that she borrows, the epistemic professor will always emphasize the constructedness both of knowledge and of practice. Instructors may go so far as to talk with students about the constructedness of the audience, and of the writer as well.
We have already suggested some of the ways that you might put your teaching philosophy into practice. Consider the following teaching ideas:
If you have ideas that you'd like to share regarding the practice of teaching writing using any of these pedagogies, please contact Karen Gocsik, Executive Director, Dartmouth Writing and Rhetoric Program.
Last Updated: 8/10/08