Pedagogical Genealogies

Peter Wayne Moe

When it comes to the teaching of art, what teaches finally is style. Learning, the other end of the activity, would seem to be connected with a stylistic response to style.

William E. Coles, Jr.

The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing (1)



In graduate school I took a seminar on Ordinary Language Philosophy from David Bartholomae. We read, among others, Austin, Cavell, Frost, Moi, Perloff, Poirier, Shaughnessy, and Wittgenstein, the final hour of each class devoted to a student paper. I struggled those first few years at the University of Pittsburgh, trying to figure out what was expected of me and then trying to learn to do it. Late in the term I received this comment on a draft of my seminar paper: 

I put a lot of pressure on the paper—more than I would normally with the due date a week away. You can take my comments as you can and save some for much later. I don’t want to throw you off schedule. I do, however, want to suggest that you need to revise your approach to a project like this. You need to write as a professional, not as a student. You’ll see what I mean. 

And, later in the paper: 

You are (and forgive me) still writing as a term paper writer—the more sources the better. You need to write as a confident scholar—you don’t have to cite everyone. 

I bristled. Of course I’m writing as a term paper writer, I thought, I’m a graduate student. And I felt justified in the approach I’d taken; in twenty pages, I’d racked up some fifty citations. I wanted to show I’d done my homework. 

Through comments like these, I was folded into a department, absorbed into its particular ways of reading and writing and teaching. Undergraduates invent a place for themselves within the university, yes, and so too do graduate students, reshaping the discipline even as they are heavily influenced by its conventions, working within and against them, knowingly and unknowingly. As students (graduate or undergraduate) we are often unaware we have a lineage, a way of writing, reading, thinking, and teaching handed down. And within that lineage are the politics of work, identity, and academia more broadly. 

When I first received Bartholomae’s comments, I did not know their lineage, or, even, that they had one. But I soon began coming across others receiving lessons not unlike mine. In On Writing, Roger Sale tells this story about “the only thing ever said to me that, to my knowledge, taught me something real about my writing”:

One day, perhaps a month after the term began, I was carrying on to a colleague about something, undoubtedly being energetic but not very coherent. Slowly, I felt my listener lose attention, and he began staring out the window. So I stopped, and he turned, and smiling very nicely said to me, “Why do you talk in that boring way?” (54)

At the time, Sale was teaching English 1-2 at Amherst College, in a curriculum designed by Theodore Baird. William Pritchard, who also taught at Amherst under Baird and who, years prior as a student himself, took the course Baird oversaw, characterizes the curriculum there with a single question: “Do you want to sound like that?” (130). 

Sale’s story is retold both by Bartholomae (“Against” 194) and William E. Coles, Jr., who says it was Baird himself who asked Sale the question (Boe and Schroeder 9). And yet, years later, Sale would admit he made up the story (Varnum 237). Its veracity is inconsequential; the pedagogy wrapped up within that question––that’s what matters. 

Consider Coles’s The Plural I. The book recounts his time teaching first-year writing in the fall of 1965. It’s organized around a sequence of 30 writing assignments. Each chapter presents one assignment, a handful of student papers in response, and Coles’s narrative representation of the day’s discussion. 

A scene, from early in the course: Coles is not impressed with his first stack of papers. He brings three to class for discussion, and “Each of them was as suggestive of training, capability, and intelligence; as flawlessly organized; as free from conventional errors—and as depersonalized, as empty, as ultimately meaningless as this” and here Coles reproduces a student paper titled “In Defense of the Ambitious Amateur.” Its first sentence: “The question of the amateur’s place in a society of professionals is one that has been greatly changed by the scientific and cultural revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (19). 

The paper continues like that for six paragraphs. It’s a Theme written by a Themewriter. Coles shares it with his students and then asks, “What sort of voice speaks in this first paper?” The students don’t understand. He tries again. He has a student read aloud the end of the opening paragraph. “My God,” Coles says in response. “Look, how old do you think the writer of those two sentences is pretending to be?” 

“How old?” a student asks.

“Well how big then? Do you think he’s really the size of the Jolly Green Giant?” (21).

Some of the students start to get it, snickering, and Coles asks whether anyone actually speaks the way this writer sounds. Of course no one does, and this is his lesson. He wants students to hear the person on the page, hear the voice projected from, and by, these sentences. 

A few days before this discussion, Coles read aloud a statement on his teaching: 

Every Assignment I have ever worked with, every question I have ever asked, involves the same issues: Where and how with this problem do you locate yourself? To what extent and in what ways is that self definable in language? What is this self to judge from the language shaping it? What has this self to do with you?

These are hard questions. Coles continues, explaining what he means by this “self”:

The self I am speaking of here, and the one with which we will be concerned in the classroom, is a literary self, not a mock or false self, but a stylistic self, the self construable from the way words fall on a page. (12)

Coles is not naïve enough to think, or present, this I as single, as monolithic, as self-contained and consistent. The title of his book, The Plural I, points to this messiness, a multi-faceted, conflicted stylistic self shaped in and through language. Because of this plural I, Coles’s question—Who’s speaking here?—is not so simple. 

I should note, at this point, that Coles got his start teaching at Amherst under Baird, and in 1975, Coles hired Bartholomae to the University of Pittsburgh, where the two worked closely a number of years. Before that, Bartholomae studied at Rutgers under Richard Poirier who, as it turns out, had also taught at Amherst under Baird. 

On Bartholomae’s papers, Poirier would write “Don’t do that” next to passages where Bartholomae, as he tells the story, “was most trying to be a good graduate student, a would-be professional, going on and giving in as I moved confidently toward an inevitable rounded conclusion” (“Teacher” 29). A Themewriter, perhaps? I read Poirier’s “Don’t do that” as a variation of the guidance he gave, while editor of Raritan, to a contributor to “stop writing like an assistant professor” (Lears 1). (I’ve heard, anecdotally, Poirier would also ask Why do you want to sound like an assistant professor? and even Why do you want to sound like a hipster?) Bartholomae continues, in language not unlike Coles’s and Sale’s, the lesson he received from Poirier not unlike the one I received from him: 

This is what I heard Poirier saying to me: “don’t write like a graduate student.” Don’t do that. Don’t be that person. He characterized my prose by asking me to consider its central character—some version of myself as a young intellectual. (Who do you become when you talk that way? Who do I become, your reader, if I take you seriously?) (30)



But pedagogy can’t be reduced to a magic question that will somehow bring together a class. This is why Coles refused to be Baird’s “acolyte” (Varnum 224). Coles understands teaching as a process of locating the self against and within a pedagogical problem, one taking shape not only in the immediate classroom but also formed by generations of prior lessons given and received by both teachers and students. Or, as the Coles of my epigraph puts it, what teaches, finally, is style: students respond to the style of their teachers, and teachers to their students, the learning that emerges always in dialogue with, contingent upon, and resisting even while appropriating, what has come before. 

And so I think, then, about this Amherst pedagogy, one that can easily read as quite harsh. Sale says it was delivered with a smile, but, still, “Why do you talk in that boring way?” is insulting. An appropriate response could be, “And why do you talk like such a jerk?” Against that, I consider Bartholomae’s enactment of this pedagogy, his marginal comments having a certain self-awareness for how much they ask of me. “I don’t want to throw you off schedule,” he writes. There’s care, too, in the parenthetical so important for the tone of this: “You are (and forgive me) still writing as a term paper writer.” This line I read as a revision of Stop writing like a grad student, a revision with a little more grace. Even as Bartholomae teaches within a tradition, he does so with a fair measure of push and shove. 

So too, Coles rewrites what he’s inherited. In “The Teaching of Writing as Writing,” Coles lays out a course design heavily indebted to Baird. Regarding the assignment sequence, Coles writes,

Every year I make a new sequence of assignments dealing with a new and different problem, so that for all concerned, this is always a new course, a fresh progression in thought and expression, a gradual building up of a common vocabulary, a more precise definition of terms. The assignment usually puts the student in a position to isolate a bit of his experience, and then asks him something about what he has done in this act of separating one thing from another, or arranging what he knows in some sort of pattern. Subsequent assignments question this pattern, ask the student to reexamine it from this perspective and that. As the year advances, he makes increasingly complicated statements about his own activities as a composer, problem solver, knower, writer. Whatever continuity he constructs from one paper to another, from one class discussion to the next, is his continuity and his alone. (112-13, emphasis mine)

Of these five sentences, the three I’ve italicized are Coles’s; the remaining two he lifts word-for-word from Baird’s English 1-2 course description (which is available in Varnum 249-52). One could ask Coles, Why do you want to sound like Baird? but I don’t read Coles that way. He’s not playing follow the leader. Coles has wedged himself into Baird’s sentences, elbowing his way into a pedagogy––and I can see it, right there, on the page, at the very level of the sentence (much like Bartholomae’s parenthetical above). In Coles’s writing I hear a plurality of voices: the of the opening sentence is at first Baird’s but now spoken by Coles, Coles having appropriated Baird’s language and put it to use on a project of his own. I also hear Sale and Poirier, and, anachronistically I know, Bartholomae too, all of them working within and against Baird’s pedagogy. 

Baird’s “fresh progression in thought and expression” has made its way onto my own syllabus, and I’m drawn to that word fresh. It refers to the assignment sequence––Baird’s never repeated one––but I want to read fresh as speaking of a pedagogy. Lest it stale, pedagogy needs to be invented anew on each syllabus, in each assignment, with each marginal comment, for each student. And I wouldn’t want to limit this invention to the work of the teacher alone; pedagogy is surely co-invented by students as well, their work foundational to our discipline, the classroom a necessarily responsive space. 

Part of this responsive invention comes when a teacher discerns what aspects of a pedagogy to retain and which to set aside. Making student writing the centerpiece of my teaching, discussing a student paper every time a class convenes––as Baird, Coles, and Bartholomae all did––this I can do. My lineage has taught me to teach reading as an act of practical criticism, and I can, and do, teach my students to read this way, always with an eye toward revision. (Throatclearing, a favorite term of Baird, and Coles, and Sale, and Bartholomae, I have also found quite useful in my teaching.) But other parts of this pedagogy just don’t work for me. When I’ve asked Who’s speaking here? or Why would you want to sound like that? I can’t make the questions go anywhere. I can’t get any traction. (I haven’t yet tried Stop writing like an undergrad.) As formative as these questions have been for me, and as useful as I find them now, still, for my own writing, I just can’t transplant them to my classroom. 

In this difficulty of trying on the sentences of a pedagogy I’ve inherited, trying to learn how to use them and what it means to say them, learning too, which sentences, for whatever reason, I’m unable to say, unable to pull off in my teaching, I come to the limitations of a pedagogy as enacted by me, within my institutional context. The classes at the heart of The Plural I––they were two sections of freshmen writing at (then) Case Institute of Technology, 49 students, all men, all engineering majors, and it was nearly six decades ago Coles taught these classes (“English” I). I teach in a small liberal arts school where 69% of students are women and where 42% of the incoming class are first generation and 61% are from historically underrepresented groups (Office). Coles’s and mine are very different classrooms. Baird’s too. I wonder what it means to, how one might, and whether one should, reinvent a pedagogy inherited from a rather homogenous community for one that’s anything but. 

And so, while I can trace the lineage distilled into Stop writing like a grad student (and its cousin Why do you want to sound like that?) from my term paper back to Bartholomae, and from there back to Sale, Poirier, and Coles, and from there back to Baird, I pause. As composition diversifies as a field, and as our student populations become increasingly heterogenous, I fear the further centering of whiteness within the academy. In the 27 years from kindergarten to my dissertation defense, I had but one teacher of color. So too, in tracing this lineage, I skip over those outside the Amherst line, women, in particular, women like Ruthanna Rauer, Carmen Werder, and Roberta Kjesrud, who taught me much, including this:

Kjesrud ran the writing center at the school where I earned my BA. Under her direction, I tutored four years, my final year helping teach the required pedagogy course for tutors. When I would lead an activity or facilitate discussion, the conversation would often wander or the activity would fall flat. Again and again. Kjesrud was there, in the room, watching, participating, but she never stepped in to rescue me. She let me flounder as I tried and failed to bring the class around again. When she and I would debrief later, we talked most often about presence––about a teacher’s presence within a classroom and what it means for me to inhabit that space as a six-foot-eight white male. I was then, and still am, acutely aware how I can command a room. The easy default is for students to submit to that authority. And so Kjesrud and I would repeatedly discuss my hesitancy (still today) to have a firm hand guiding the class. I error in being too hands-off. Week after week she told me I needed to, as she said, “grow a spine.” We would speak about how to ease a discussion one way or another, how closely to hold a lesson plan and when to abandon it, how present a teacher should be in certain moments within the trajectory of a class session, and when I should or shouldn’t (and what it would look like for me to) assert my own authority in that pedagogical space. 

Kjesurd taught me how to read a room, and she modeled how a teacher teaches another to teach, a role I’d step into more fully years later as a writing program administrator. And, as with Amherst, so too with Kjesrud: even as I retain aspects of her pedagogy (how I understand a teacher’s embodied presence) there are others I discard (such as her concern with the thesis). A teacher’s formation, then, comes not only through imitation and appropriation but also resistance and rejection. 

As I write the sentence above, I cannot help but hear in it the following, from Bartholomae’s essay “Against the Grain”: “If I think of my own experience as a writer, the most powerful terms I can use to discuss the composing process are not prewriting, writing, and revision, but tradition and imitation and interference and resistance” (194). And this, as well: “This is how I think a writer learns, by learning to write within and against the powerful writing that precedes him, that haunts him, and that threatens to engulf him” (198). The same is true for teachers. I hear Bartholomae in my sentences, in my teaching, and the struggle of any teacher is how one might teach within a tradition yet not be subsumed by it, to find the self within that history. And that sentence too has echoes of Bartholomae. These sentences come easily to me, and I find myself sitting comfortably within them and their ideas and the formation and training they articulate even as I wrestle with their presence in my work as a writer and a teacher. 

I don’t think I am alone in these concerns. We’ve all had teachers, we’ve all been formed by them, and we all, at some point, must think through what that formation means for us and for our students. I see this as an ongoing project for composition and rhetoric, for any teacher who doesn’t want to be a carbon copy of what’s come before yet still have a practice informed by, and responsive to, the past. I find I want to turn to Coles here. (It seems I am unable to think through the question of a teacher’s formation without reverting back to the significant figures within my own. How telling this is.) Coles asks Where and how with this problem do you locate yourself? and his where and how point to questions of grammar, to questions of prepositions. Every teacher must, at some point, come to terms with such pedagogical genealogies, locating ourselves within? alongside? outside? against? the traditions that make our own work possible. 

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Against the Grain.” Writing on the Margins: Essays on Composition and Teaching. Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2005, pp. 192-200.

---. “Teacher Teacher: Poirier and Coles on Writing.” Raritan, vol. 36, no. 2, winter 2017, pp. 25-53. 

Boe, John, and Eric Schroeder. “ ‘Failure Is the Way We Learn’: An Interview with William E. Coles, Jr.” Writing on the Edge, vol. 13, no. 1, fall 2002, pp. 6-22. 

Coles, William E., Jr. “English Is a Foreign Language: A Report on an Experimental Freshman English Course Taught Fall Semester, 1965-66, at Case Institute of Technology.” Case Institute of Technology, 1966. 

---. The Plural I: The Teaching of Writing. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978. 

---. “The Teaching of Writing as Writing.” College English, vol. 29, no. 2, Nov. 1967, pp. 111-16. 

Lears, Jackson. “Editor’s Note.” Raritan, vol. 29, no. 4, spring 2010, pp. 1-3. 

Office of Inclusive Excellence. “Undergraduate Student Profile, 2021-22.” Seattle Pacific University,

Pritchard, William H. “Ear Training.” Teaching What We Do: Essays by Amherst College Faculty. Amherst College P, 1991, pp. 127-43. 

Sale, Roger. On Writing. Random House, 1970. 

Varnum, Robin. Fencing with Words: A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College during the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938-66. NCTE, 1996.