Fashion Blogger Rebecca Moore Howard

Ten principles of teaching with a handbook

This week I have the distinct pleasure of talking with four groups of instructors who have adopted Writing Matters and will be using it this fall. We’ve talked about the Citation Project: how that research has developed concurrently with the handbook and how Writing Matters responds to the pedagogical concerns raised by the research. We’re also talking about how a handbook can best be woven into the syllabus (rather than just being a putative reference work for the students). To anchor those conversations, I drafted a list of my own principles of handbook pedagogy–a list that magically amounted to ten items! And here they are:

1. Many writers would rather have a root canal than consult a handbook. I’ve been teaching writing for 31 years, always using a handbook for composition class. How many times have I said to the class, “Bring your handbooks tomorrow,” and maybe a third of them do. Then I say, gamely, “Open your handbook to page 37.” About ten percent of those who have the handbook with them simply sit there, without opening it!

2. Many successful writers consult a handbook regularly. Most of you do, I’m betting. I do.

3. Few inexperienced writers know how to use a handbook. See #1 above. They not only don’t know how to use it, they don’t think they can or don’t think it’s worth their while to. Today I listened to a first-time TA say, “How can I ever find anything in this handbook?” She asked this while waving the book. The closed book. Others at her table opened the book and showed her how to use the index at the beginning and end of it. “Inexperienced writers” doesn’t just mean first-year composition students; it can also mean “experienced writers who aren’t experienced with the whole range of writing tools.” A closed handbook is of very little use to a writer.

4. Teaching the use of a handbook imparts a lifelong writing skill. The Purdue Owl is great, and it’s one of many excellent online resources. But a good handbook provides more than rules; it provides discussions, perspectives, contexts, explanations. It sets a tone that says, “There’s a lot you need to know about writing, and you can get there.” And if you know how to use a handbook and you don’t sell it back for a lousy ten bucks, you always have a place to turn for answers and options.

5. Making students use a handbook is not the same as teaching them how to use it on their own. Assigning exercises or readings in a handbook may get students to open the book, and it may familiarize them with the particular principles in that assignment. But it doesn’t necessarily teach them how to use it. (As soon as I can, I’ll post a list of pedagogical techniques that I use in my own classes for doing that very thing.)

6. Students may be more willing to use a handbook when they see it as a dialogic tool, not a repository of sovereign rules. See #4 above. Having something that does convey rules is very useful, indeed. But college composition students may be put off by what they see as restrictive rules. More students may be receptive to it when the handbook acts as a coach, makes it clear that what is “right” depends on what Edbauer (see #7 below) calls the “affective ecology,” and brings the users into the decision-making process rather than making them recipients and performers of other people’s decisions.

7. Using audience and purpose as the basis of handbook use can help students understand why the contents of the handbook matter. To me, one of the most horrifying things about too many handbooks (at least those of my pedagogical past–I’m hoping not so many today) is the presentation of rules as transcendent and immutable. Every “rule” of writing is, in contrast, dependent upon its rhetorical situation. (And for a terrific treatment of rhetorical situation, see Jenny Edbauer’s “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies” in the 2005 Rhetoric Society Quarterly.) Edbauer complicates the notions of audience and purpose–and the larger category of rhetorical situation–in productive ways. A handbook can’t do what Edbauer does; handbooks and scholarly articles are different genres. But it’s enormously useful for instructors to use handbooks to introduce composition students to rhetorical concepts and for those instructors themselves to have the more sophisticated understanding that scholarship like Edbauer’s generates.

8. Handbooks are most useful (and most often used) when writers engage them in a spirit of curiosity, exploration, and dialogue–not because their instructor told them they’d made an error and the handbook would tell them how to fix it. Though error-fixing is a fine thing, it doesn’t pull students toward the craft of writing. Curiosity, exploration, and dialogue do, and writers’ experience of those traits can be extended to their use of handbooks.

9. Adopting a common handbook for all sections of composition (and literature, linguistics, rhetoric?) emphasizes the importance of the book and encourages students to keep it rather than sell it back. There are pros and cons to this principle. It’s true that handbooks are different from each other. (If you’re hearing people saying, “They’re all the same,” you’re listening to people who aren’t looking beyond the general organization. Look at tone, depth, and range of presentation, and you’ll find a lot of variety. You may even find that some are much more carefully written and edited than are others.) Given their difference from each other, some handbooks are going to suit certain teaching styles better than others. It’s true, too, that instructors become familiar with a particular handbook, like a particular handbook, and take it pretty hard when administration insists on their using a different one. I’ve also had the experience of being in a program that mass-adopted a handbook for reasons other than the quality of the handbook, and we teachers were stuck with a dog. But with all this said, I think the balance is in favor of mass adoption. First, students shouldn’t have the expense of buying two different handbooks, one for Comp 1 and another for Comp 2. Ours is not an economy in which such practices are tolerable. Second, if students are having to buy one handbook after another, they learn that a handbook is better sold than treasured. Third, a handbook adoption shouldn’t be an empty gesture; it should signify the instructors’ intention to engage it seriously in the classroom. When all the instructors are using the same handbook, the writing program has the possibility of sharing pedagogical tips and techniques related to the handbook that they have chosen.

10. Persuading other departments to adopt the handbook in their courses—even just as a “recommended” text—further emphasizes to students the importance of the book. We did this when I was the WPA at TCU. The English department made a mass handbook adoption, and then I wrote to every department chair, informing them of our decision and suggesting that they might want to list the handbook as at least a recommended text on their own syllabi, as a way of emphasizing its importance and encouraging students to use it. Then the publisher’s representative sent an exam copy to every department chair. It wasn’t long before a healthy number of courses across the curriculum had that handbook on their syllabus. I was especially pleased when a dance instructor adopted it!