On Course, by James Lang. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. 300 pp.
Reviewed by Haley Hiers, Stephen F. Austin State University
Lang’s guide to teaching should come as a breath of fresh air to composition instructors everywhere, whether experienced or novice. On Course is not the work to consult for the latest in-depth analysis of relevant educational and composition theory, because it does not attempt to be such a work. In an age where universities are divided into specialized, insular groups, each with their own set of theories and biases, the idea of a universally appealing teaching manual seems outlandish. On Course comes close to being such a storied object, and in its affability and readability does so without seeming overly pedagogical. The unique needs of the composition classroom are not specifically addressed in Lang’s work, but his background in English lends this work credibility in the writing-intensive classroom. Indeed, this primer is versatile in that it addresses a broad swath of issues facing today’s educator. The classroom is changing, students are changing, yet fundamental kinships exist between today’s learners and their educators. Lang tempers each assertion of change within higher education with reassurances that people are fundamentally people, whether students or instructors. In doing so, On Course imparts a healthy dose of perspective, vital for jaded veteran educators and terrified newcomers alike.
In the introduction, Lang establishes the conversational tone that pervades the book, nodding conspiratorially to his colleague audience with a humorous description of his first day teaching college. As a graduate student preparing to teach my first composition class in the fall, I found his tone and honesty refreshing. He establishes a rapport with his target audience, first time college instructors, by speaking humorously about foibles from his first year of teaching and using them as cautionary tales. He addresses the anxieties of every first time professor about how to dress and act by describing his “navy-blue khakis that [he] had cut raggedly into shorts” (21), which he wore on the first day in an effort to seem “like one of them” (21). His first-day mistakes frame his advice for the new instructor, who can chuckle at the image he presents while gleaning valuable information. Instead of establishing himself as an experienced, unimpeachable authority on teaching, he firmly states and reinforces that everyone “grow[s] into [his or her] decisions as a teacher” (40), whatever they may be.
The organization of chapters is efficient and organic. Lang initiates his primer with issues that would logically be in the forefront of a new college instructor’s mind. Each chapter, regardless of its position in the book, provides valuable information to the new instructor with a keen sensitivity toward the issues he or she would be facing at a particular point in the semester. Fittingly, “The Syllabus” and “First Days of Class” come before “Assignments and Grading” and “Academic Honesty.” The “week-by-week” designation on the cover may be misleading to prospective readers, because its implications are very calendrical. Fortunately, On Course uses the structure of weeks more or less loosely, and focuses more on content than on chronology. Lang’s chapters about the classroom environment and the utilization of lectures, discussions, and group work are necessary outgrowths of his instructions about syllabi and first impressions, and naturally give way to more complex issues that form when the classroom grows into a cohesive, interactive unit.
The “Resources” section at the end of each chapter is particularly useful, and provides a wealth of academic work across several fields that has recourse to classroom teaching. Lang mentions a great deal of theory and research, but refrains from analyzing it too deeply in order to maintain his quick pace and informal tone. Instead, he introduces salient principles, briefly explains them in the context of the working classroom, and leaves further research to the canny reader, who can use Lang’s helpful annotations to find the work that interests him or her. Owing to his background in English and Composition Studies, quite a few of the resources that he annotates are of particular interest to members of the field, including “Responding to Student Writing,” by Nancy Sommers, and “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” by Peter Elbow.
One of the greatest differences between a composition classroom and others is the absence of multiple-choice tests and the ubiquity of purely subjective grading. Each student’s work is unique and must be treated as such. Lang does a great deal to address the grading of essays, and gives valuable perspective to the composition instructor. Rather than insisting on one “correct” method of grading, Lang establishes a sound set of principles that form a foundation for any grading scheme. Sensitive to the fact that responsible essay graders must bear the burden of explaining his or her criteria, he advocates adhering to a set of criteria, or a rubric, as closely as possible when grading the mountain of written work that necessarily accompanies the study of composition. Lang’s recommendation of a clearly delineated rubric with room for general commentary is sound and incredibly useful for the new instructor. One of the best ways to “communicate to students…what matters in an assignment” (138) and prevent inconsistency in evaluating student work, Lang asserts, is to present the students with a specific and transparent rubric. Maximizing transparency and minimizing inconsistency is the single best way to prevent disagreements about grading between instructors and students.
A most apt summary for Lang’s work comes in the form of his anecdote about his parish priests at the beginning of Chapter 3. The Monsignor, who was in his fifties and “very formal and traditional” (63), and the younger, more “dynamic…[and] informal” (63) priest in his mid-thirties, are perfect examples of the different teaching styles present in American higher education. Both men gave effective, illuminating sermons, despite their great disparity in style and background. Lang refrains from indicting the traditional or glorifying the cutting-edge by urging instructors to use their own skills and preferences, in tandem with sound educational principle, to teach effectively. Whether describing the role of technology in the classroom or the value of a lecture versus a discussion, Lang gives soundly derived pedagogical options and that can be tailored to suit any instructor or classroom, composition classrooms included.