Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Writing Lab I Like

Clint in a comment to one of my posts made reference to my upcoming research at the University of Minnesota. That project, partially funded by an IWCA grant, is to delve into the archives of the University of Minnesota General College Writing Laboratory, which was created in 1932. I know a fair amount about this place based on some of the research I've done so far, and I'm eager to know more. Here's the scoop:

The General College was started in 1932 as means to provide two years of college education for students who didn't make it in or dropped out of the four-year system. The purpose of the General College, according to its first dean, Malcolm MacLean, was
not to “eliminate the unfit,” not to “divide the sheep from the goats, the dumb from the bright, the college material from the non-college material,” but instead to direct each student, so far as we were able, to that curriculum, that job, that other training institution, wherein he would find the most use for his powers, whatever they might be, and the deepest personal satisfactions and social usefulness.

This populist mindset extended easily to what the founders of the General College had in mind for teaching students to write. Rather than create a required composition course, they created a Writing Laboratory, a voluntary class that provided a mix of one-to-one tutoring, peer feedback, and whole-class instruction. More important, the Writing Laboratory wasn't established as only for the least-prepared writers, the kind of house o' remediation that has haunted us all. Instead, the first director of the Writing Laboratory, Francis Appel, took exception to the idea of creating a remedial lab:
We have no “remedial” English because we feel that if there be such a thing, then from the common-sense point of view people from the most illiterate to industrial or university administrators and many authors would need some so-called “remedial” English.

Another of my favorite quotes from Francis Appel is his position on teaching grammar through the use of the ubiquitous workbook. Here's what he said:
At first, feeling that good writing depended largely upon a knowledge of grammar, we assigned a self-instructing, self-testing manual of grammar; but when it became apparent that there was but little demonstrable correlation between a knowledge of grammar and the ability to write, the manual was discarded.

And that was in 1932! Was that a cool place, or what?

Well, not all was perfect for the General College Writing Laboratory. It was usually staffed by just Appel and his assistant, and with as many as 35 students showing up at the lab at a time, it's hard to imagine lots of one-to-one interaction. Structurally, then, the Writing Laboratory was operating at cross purposes to its purpose and intent. Now that seems like a familiar story.

Still, I'm fascinated by the ideals of the General College Writing Laboratory. It's a place that could teach us all a great deal about how to align our work with a larger social purpose. As Malcolm MacLean described, the General College strove “to awaken in its students a social and civic consciousness, a sense of community responsibility, and a willingness to participate actively in the solution of common problems for the common good."

How's that for a noble purpose?

Neal Lerner


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