This post reviews Philip Marzluf, “Writing Home-Schooled Students into the Academy” in Composition Studies 37, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 49-66
Marzluf, professor and director of the writing program at Kansas State University, here pens a thoughtful reflection on the challenges that arise in composition courses when conservative Christian homeschoolers enroll in them. The attraction of this paper is not so much its empirical base as in its grounding in a more theoretical literature that seeks to understand what professors should do with ideologically narrow-minded students in classes that require exposure to and conversation with multiple perspectives.
Marzluf interviewed seven previously homeschooled students at Kansas State, six of whom identified as conservative Protestants. He spoke with each participant four times over the course of a semester and collected and analyzed the papers they wrote for their classes.
Marzluf is very explicit that he is speaking neither as a critic of nor an advocate for homeschooling, and he is also not concerned with the academic achievement of these students relative to their non-homeschooled peers. All he cares about here is how these students interpreted their experience in the secular university and how professors can best teach them.
He found that these Christian homeschoolers experienced a bit of difficulty at first in their writing classes figuring out how to write for a non-Christian audience. Their early papers tended to included a lot of proof-texting from the Bible and were usually about predictable topics with predictable theses–homeschooling is good, abortion is bad, homosexuality is wrong, government should stay out of family life, and so on. Most of these students had led fairly sheltered childhoods (all described how a major motivator for their parents’ decision to homeschool was fear of “danger lurking in the public schools.” (56)) But gradually these students figured out that the rhetorical strategies that they had always relied on at home are not acceptable in the academy. With their professors’ help, they were able to construct new forms of argument that rely less on Biblical quotations and more on secular forms of evidence. They did not, however, change their views on the topics they discussed in their papers, nor did they grow more hospitable to alternative perspectives.
As students grew in their awareness of secular modes of discourse, they also became adept at identifying “ideological hotspots” where they believed the university was biased toward the left. Examples include repeated “bashing of George W. Bush” in classes, unquestioned commitment to evolution, and commitment to gender equality. Nevertheless, these students came to embrace as their own a very thin form of tolerance. They didn’t change any of their own views, but they did come to accept that college is about allowing everyone (including themselves) to speak their minds. They were able to temper their need to turn every class into an opportunity to evangelize without compromising their own commitments.
After surveying his students’ attitudes, Marzluf lays out some practical advice for professors who teach such as these. First, he counsels modesty in any attempt to “convert” such students to open-mindedness. He notes other research that has shown repeatedly just how little most students actually change in college. Most college students, like these homeschoolers, become adept at segregating their classroom selves from their real private selves. Professors who feel the urge to transform their students are likely to be disappointed.
Second, Marzluf advocates that professors strike a balance between pedagogical sensitivity to their homeschoolers’ world view and the secular identity of their college classroom. Professors will likely have better results if they enter empathetically into the Christian self-understanding of these students. They may even be able to draw such students into a bit of self questioning by assuming heuristically some of the same beliefs these students hold and then using them to raise questions. For example, if all people are sinful, including the student, then could not he or she be mistaken about some of his or her beliefs? This is the only example Marzluf gives, but many more could be devised. In my own teaching at an explicitly Christian college, my freshman writing course subject matter is the history of Church splits. My students learn that committed Christians have disagreed with one another for millennia about all sorts of issues. Exposure to the astonishing diversity of Christian beliefs is a very effective way to get my students, most of whom are very like the students being studied by Marzluf, to begin to question some of the beliefs they were raised with. I think that’s the sort of thing he’s advocating, but to be able to do this well a professor would need to know quite a bit about Christianity, and I’m not sure how many writing professors in the academy would be willing to bone up on their Church history for the sake of their one or two homeschooled students.
Even as they grow sensitive to the theological orientation of their students, Marzluf reminds his colleagues that they should not feel obliged to surrender the secular nature of their classroom. Homeschoolers do not have a right to preach or intimidate students they feel are godless or too liberal or what-have-you. Professors have the authority and responsibility to maintain an atmosphere of tolerance and openness in the classroom, and they do their homeschooled students a disservice if they do not teach them how to discourse in secular modes. He describes successful strategies for helping students revise their papers so that they transform their rhetoric from “sacred home situations” to “the expectations of public and secular audiences.” (p.63)
I very much enjoyed reading this article. Perhaps that’s because its intended audience is college writing professors, and that’s part of what I do for a living. But surely many who are not directly involved with composition courses would find Marzluf’s thoughtful description of the tensions between conservative students and the liberal academy engaging. I personally appreciated his sensitivity to the beliefs of these students–he has strong words to say against the occasional professor whose personal bigotry against Christians bleeds into his or her classroom. But I also appreciated how his sensitivity did not overpower his commitment to teaching these young adults some of the skills necessary for democratic deliberation in the public square.
I would be remiss not to mention briefly that Marzluf occasionally reveals little awareness of the world of homeschooling. He calls HSLDA the Home School Legal Defense League at one point, and he suggests in one place that racism may be a defining motive for homeschoolers [none of the many studies of parental motivation have ever found this to be the case]. But these are minor quibbles. Though its empirical base is weak, Marzluf’s article is eloquent and wise.