Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts
Russell A. Hunt
[Review of Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course, by David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, as published in Reading-Canada-Lecture 5:2 (Summer 1987), 136-139. ]
The typical failing of books and articles about teaching at the elementary and secondary level is that they tend to ignore theory and become lists of recipes and "hot tips," with very little connection to any theory of learning or teaching which might lend principle to their recommendations. At its worst, this leads to books which are little more than sets of prepared duplicator stencils, ready to be run through the machine and distributed to classes.

At the postsecondary level, however, the problem is exactly the opposite. When books or articles which deal with teaching in college or university appear (this does not happen very often, incidentally,) their typical weakness is that they rarely descend to talk about the physical, concrete, specific act of teaching at all. Usually such books deal at great length with the what of teaching — with the "knowledge" or the "information" which is the "subject matter" of a given course — but say virtually nothing about the how — about what might actually happen in a classroom where students were "learning the material."

It is somewhat surprising that this pattern should obtain in the field of English, where one might expect that there would be more focus on the activities of reading and writing than on the "material." But of course it does. Even though current reading theory would tell us literature is as much an activity as writing, it has traditionally been seen by university faculty as a body of texts to be delivered, and usually "explained." From such an essentialist viewpoint it would amount to heresy to assert that the focus of teaching should be on students and learning rather than on that body of material.

It's no accident that it should be among teachers of composition that such a heresy should arise. Being unequivocally an activity, composition differs from the rest of postsecondary English in that it has never really had "a body of knowledge," a "subject matter," to deliver. (It has occasionally pretended to, so that professors could give lectures on "revision" or "the writing process.") Even so, it's not been all that common even for people in this field to talk or write about specific courses, actual activities, and read student responses to them. Thus it's something of a pleasant surprise to open a book subtitles Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course and find actual course materials — the explanations that were written out and handed to students, and even many of the student's responses to assignments and exercises.

Beginning with a fairly lengthy statement of theory, written by Bartholomae and Petrosky, the book then presents the actual course materials given to the students in their "Basic Reading and Writing Course," forty-odd pages of them, impressive in their detail and even more in their form and tone: the assignments and explanations look and sound, on the whole, like discourse written by human beings, for example:

Once you finish The Catcher in the Rye, we'd like you to sit down and write a response to the book in your journal. It's best to write your response as soon as you can after you've finished the book. In this entry, we'd like you to tell us what you found in the book that seems most interesting or useful, given the discussions we've had about growth and change so far in class.
Though I have some difficulty with the unspecified we there, the tone (not to mention the implicit modeling of a way to use writing for an immediate, useful task) seems to me quite admirable.

It also gives the reader a basis on which to imagine what one of Bartholomae and Petrosky's students might do in a given class, how she might fed, what she might think and how she might learn. This is almost enough in itself to make Facts, Artifacts and Counterfacts an important and useful book. But it goes further and includes five chapters, written by instructors who have taught the course, dealing with specific aspects of instruction. Not only is this a book which actually gives you a basis on which to imagine how one of their students might feel, think, and learn; it's also a book whose teaching ideas are based on an articulated, current, and powerful (if incomplete) theory of how writing and reading — and the learning of writing and reading — are carried on.

At the outset, for instance, Bartholomae and Petrosky announce that reading and writing — and teaching — can be imagined as acts of composition. The notion that writers and readers are makers — not receivers, nor reproducers — is one with powerful implications for classroom practice, and many of those implications are worked out in the course this book describes. This is especially clear in the way the course treats writing.

We English teachers have been so mesmerized for so long by copy editing — by a strategy for teaching writing which amounts to polishing and correcting existing texts — that it is hard for us to imagine how to implement Mina Shaughnessy's advice to understand errors rather than to correct them. In this book, a typical essay — Susan Wall's "Writing, Reading and Authority: A Case Study," for example — shows us how that might look. In her narration of the development of a writer named John, Wall reproduces successive versions of a number of passages from his writing, along with suggestions of the teacher interventions which seem (at least in part) to have led to his revisions. What is most striking is the way in which John's writing improves dramatically, although his control over grammar, spelling, and mechanics generally remains pretty rudimentary. Wall directs our attention to the real, and fundamental, growth in John's ability to come to understand his own ideas, and thus to structure his writing to reflect them. More important, she utterly ignores (as is appropriate, but difficult) the superficial, surface-level "errors" which would, only a few years ago, have occupied virtually 100% of my attention, and that of every English teacher I knew. Ten years ago, I'd have put a marginal annotation next to John's "if I would of told myself” — and entirely missed the important metacognitive discovery about his own adolescent growth that the phrase presents, and the long step toward being able to gain, and present to a reader, a perspective on his own life.

And after I'd annotated it, John — if he'd looked at the returned paper at all — would have attended to the surface difficulty rather than the achievement. He would have learned (that is, he would have continued to learn what English classes had been teaching him most of his career) not to try to reach toward expressing the difficult self-awareness out at the edges of learning, but rather to say what he already had the syntax to say, to avoid taking risks: to protect himself from error — as a writer and as a reader — at all costs.

To the extent that this book shows us how to avoid this kind of crippling "response" to student writing, then, this book begins to demonstrate ways to see it - no, one can go farther: how to treat it — as an attempt to use language in a specific set of real, palpable, unique social circumstances. To make it, that is, into something someone can use as a tool to learn with.

I've hinted that I think the book has some weaknesses, too, that the theory on which it's based is incomplete. My first reservation is this: the author's views of reading seem much less thoroughly thought through than their ideas about writing. When Bartholornae and Petrosky say in their first chapter that reading may be imagined as composition, for instance, they do not mean what Frank Smith or Kenneth Goodman might mean by that — that the reader uses a selection of the materials offered him by the marks on the page to construct a meaning that serves her immediate social and personal purposes. What they do is slide immediately to the "composition" of a response to reading, and thus in effect to ignore the processes by which understanding occurs in favor of attention to formulated, ex post facto written statements about the "meaning" of texts. In this way "reading" becomes a noun rather than a verb: an object to be delivered, contemplated, understood, rather than something a reader does.

My second reservation is that the book needs to take more cognizance of the ways in which our attitudes about how language works — how we read, how we write, how we learn to do those things — have changed in recent years. Particularly, it should take into account the slow but mammoth multidisciplinary movement toward thinking about language as determined, formed, shaped by its social nature. Such an analysis would, I think, prompt Bartholomae and Petrosky and their contributors to begin asking difficult questions about the status and function of reading and writing in classrooms, and about the purposes and the audiences for writing assignments.

Among these questions the central one is simple asked, but radical in its implications: why do we think students should want to write the kinds of things they write in school, and read the kinds of things they read? What motives do we expect to be genuinely, personally operative?

The course's very first writing task is a good example of the way in which the book fails to go far enough in acknowledging the social nature of writing and reading. It assigns the student "a question asking you to write about what you have read . . . about what you see to be the main ideas in reading" (p. 51). Students I know see such an assignment as a test, and assume they will be evaluated on how good they are at figuring out what the "main idea" really is, regardless of how sincerely we might assure them that "their own ideas" will be valued. As assignment that was more profoundly cognizant of the social dimensions of language and language learning might have found a way to give that student an actual audience for his statement of what the main idea is — for instance, an audience that hadn't also read the same text, and whom the student didn't believe already know what the "main idea" was.

It is true that Bartholomae and Petrosky's course purports to teach students that what counts is the way in which they connect, say, Margaret Mead's ideas to their own experience. They also assure them that their writing will not be judged either for its divergence from a party line or because of its comma splices or spelling errors. Even so, neither that task nor the intention of the text that might be produced can be, in any way I recognize, the students' own (as it might be, for instance, if the student believed herself to be communicating information or ideas other people didn't have, and needed). Everything about the situation, including the language of the assignment, says that the student is one of a number of people being tested on their ability to write essentially the same thing, in order to demonstrate that they can write it.

A book and a course which thoroughly incorporated what we know about the fundamentally social nature of reading and writing would go much further than this one does toward creating situations in which students could use writing and reading for their own purposes. It may well, of course, be too much to ask of a book which is essentially a report of an existing course to go so far, but it can't be amiss to point out that that's where we have to go, and to thank Bartholomae and Petrosky for having blazed a trail this far.