Friday, June 22, 2012

Have You Taken College Writing 101? Then Gary L. Tate Probably Influenced Your Life

Dr. Gary L. Tate
(photo linked
from his Memorial Guest Book)

If you’ve taken a version of college writing in the last 40 years (think English 101, composition, college writing, etc.), you’ve probably been influenced in some way by Dr. Gary L. Tate, even if you’ve never heard his name.

Gary died on Sunday, June 10, and I finally had courage to read my email box with list-serv memories of Gary. I'm happy to have known him.

Looking back, I was one of Gary’s last graduate students, studying composition pedagogy under his tutelage. I could ask any question about the history of the field and he knew the answer. If he hadn't been there when it happened, then he knew--usually personally--the person who had; so if you’ve taken a college writing class in the past 40 years, you’ve probably encountered a teacher who has been influenced by Gary Tate or whose mentor was influenced by him.

When I met Gary, the emerging pedagogy, or way to teach students to write, was a “critical pedagogical approach.” That is a fancy way of saying we need to engage students in tapping into their personal power to influence their own lives. The irony was that amid this practice, I was drowning in graduate school.

The truth was that I needed to be studying technical communication, but hadn't figured that out yet. I wanted to make connections between the documents that companies handed over in response to a legal dispute and the theories about how people write. But during that first semester, one person claimed he knew a lawyer who was so rhetorically savvy that he’d never lost a case. Coming off a decade of working alongside lawyers, I knew that was a lawyer who had never taken a risk, never fought for a client. A lawyer who refuses to engage and settles too quickly is a lawyer I did not want, but I wasn’t confident enough to say so in class. 

A new person arrived and proclaimed we grad students were too lazy to actually be in grad school. We demanded proof of such laziness, to which he replied, “You’re never in the building on the weekends.” Well, no, we weren’t, for a few extremely good reasons: The building was locked and we had no keys. We shared offices that had three desks assigned to 9 people. Our stuff—computers, books, papers, notes, etc.—were at home.

This one also said the world-renowned faculty at this school were teaching first-year writing wrong.

And then I wrote a paper and included a chart. “The field isn’t quite ready for charts,” was the note I got back.

So I hunkered down in my pedagogy seminar with Gary Tate and tried to focus on other things: like not drowning. I failed to see that this was a rather strange year at this wonderful institution even without my own insecurities mixed in.

Gary asked us how our own histories influenced our approaches to teaching: What are our roots? Who are our parents? Where did we grow up? How does all that influence what we bring to the classroom? It was an awful dredging up experience that left me wondering how to check all of it at the classroom door.

I was in the middle of this dredging up period when, as part of an independent study, I co-taught a working-class literature class with Gary. This experience gave me a chance to watch Dr. Tate, with 30 years of experience in the field, teach a literature class that included writing.

We graded students’ papers separately and then met to compare grades. Even with a few years of teaching experience behind me, I was nervous. It’s one thing to attend a graduate seminar and debate scholarship about approaches to assessing student writing; it’s another to do it alongside someone with 30 more years of experience than me. I knew that grammar, spelling, and punctuation weren’t the end-all of writing and that a critical approach to composing meant that we could look at the way students were engaging with the texts and the ideas in class first, the grammar second. This knowledge led me to give an okay paper with grammatical mistakes a B. I remember not one single thing about the paper except for the grade. Reading it was like shopping in a department store: the paper was serviceable but not memorable.

When we compared scores and comments, I was relieved to see that we were fairly consistent graders. Until we got to the paper that was a mess grammatically. Gary had given the paper a D. At the bottom, he’d scrawled something about it being riddled with errors. So much for our empowering students to engage with their ideas; knowing where the commas go counted after all. And back under the water I went, drowning in ideas, surrounded by smart people doing interesting work, and still trying to figure out where and if I fit.

Gary Tate wrote in Rhetoric Review in 1983:
Every act we perform in the teaching of writing is the result of some belief, some theory, about what is valuable, what works, what needs to be done. Our theories may be deeply hidden--from our students and from ourselves--but they are there. Our theories may, when examined, seem chaotic, but they are there. Right behind every mark we put on a paper, behind every assignment we make, behind every class discussion is the theoretical foundation upon which we perform. It may be shaky or elaborate or simple-minded, but it's there. And we only confuse ourselves (and the issue) when we assert that we act on the basis of experience rather than on the basis of theories developed out of experience.
So which theory was Gary bringing to class and acting on? The prescriptive model, where grammar counts significantly? What about his critical pedagogy? Or his bent for feminist theories of composing? He had been most recently studying the relationship between class and composition, so could that have been the most influential of all? I could no longer find his voice among the theories we were reading.

Back in our working class literature course, Gary would page through the student newspaper and stop at the photos.

“Here’s LaDainian Tomlinson,” he’d point, “star football player.”

He’d flip the page.

“Hey, look this is a great picture of the gardeners changing out the flowers. Let’s see, their names are…”

Pause for dramatic effect.

“Oh, here it is right here. They are Grounds Staff.” Deadpan.

He wanted students to know that people counted, and he hated that the reporters never bothered to find out the names of the university workers, letting them, instead, fade into the background. Everyone counted, regardless of roots or jobs. Gary was the first in his family to attend college, and he brought that to class because he wanted everyone to remember that just because you sat in a college classroom now, probably not too far in your past, family members had not.

Or rather, I understood what Jim Corder, one of Gary's colleagues, meant when he wrote something like, “You’re always standing somewhere when you say something so you might as well know where that is.” Gary wanted us to own the history that we bring to our writing, that, as teachers, we bring to class. At that time, I had stood in two lives—one country life where I’d grown up and one city life where a hundred dollars wasn’t too much to spend on dinner. Somewhere in between those two places was my real life. I just had to find it.

Round two of paper grading came up and this time, I was on my game. I read each essay carefully. One of the essays described a grandmother’s quilt and the meaning of the quilt. To this day, I can still picture the quilt vividly in my mind. The essay was memorable and interesting and challenged ideas in the class, but it was riddled with errors. Still, all these years later, I remember that paper. That quilt. Compared to the first paper, reading this one was like shopping in a boutique that folds you into being there with color, fabric, textures. But having learned from my previous experience, I gave the paper a C or a D.

Gary and I met to go over the papers. We got to this one. I expected to see “riddled with errors” scrawled at the bottom. He had marked it with an A.

“But it’s full of errors.”

“Look,” he leaned forward in his chair. “I had to get up and go read this paper to my wife. If I have to get out of my chair and go read a paper to my wife, it gets an A.” 

This moment was pivotal for me. Gary Tate had lived through every era of composition studies—the memorable and the less so. He’d worked to create the field on his kitchen table. As the field began conducting research so that we could know empirically about the teaching of writing, Gary took in emerging scholars’ voices and listened. He challenged us to reconcile emerging theories with our practices. Gary had lived pedagogical change as the field marched each moment. He’d inspired and influenced generations of researchers and teachers. He never gave in to the field and let it pass him by, but instead listened to and acknowledged the emerging research and theories and voices. Not everyone can do that.

His copy of Errors and Expectations had been sent to him with a personal note from Mina Shaughnessey. I'd borrowed it and the hardest thing to do was to give it back. And in the end, sitting with the paper about the quilt balanced on my knees as I discussed it with Gary, what mattered most—how one person’s words connect with another person, even in imperfect ways—became clear. Communication with impact is the strand of writing that has endured every pedagogical change. The words we choose do not need to be perfect, but they do need to reach out to our audience and connect. This is true for an essay and a business plan. The appropriate genre provides framework, but what you say inside that framework matters the most.

Teaching with Gary gave me space to find my own way, my own voice. He empowered me to stop fighting the current, to surface and find courage to move to another institution so I could study technical communication. On the day I told him my decision, Gary said, “What took you so long to figure it out?”

Looking back, I should have known he already knew.