Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Problem with the One Week Workshop

During the summer months, teachers around the country often seek professional development opportunities. To this end, many turn to the one-week workshop to fill gaps in their content and/or pedagogical knowledge.

One-week P.D. serves a vital function, and I've been fortunate to attend some terrific summer sessions ranging from one to four weeks. Note: I'm not talking about summer classes from which one earns university credit, although workshops often offer credit opportunities.

The College Board encourages current and new AP teachers to attend their workshops, theoretically so that AP teachers will be prepared to teach AP classes when school commences in the fall.

So what's the problem? Simply, a one-week workshop is no substitute for an advanced degree or a graduate-level course in rhetorical theory or rhetorical analysis.

Recently, as the summer draws to a close and teachers return home from their AP workshops and begin preparing for the coming school year, I've seen an increase in the number of online inquiries from teachers seeking assistance in preparing to teach AP, particularly the AP lang and comp class.

Teachers who acknowledge doubts about their preparation and who seek help in online forums certainly deserve accolades. I admire their willingness to say "help, please." Their willingness to take advice from other teachers shows a desire for excellence in their teaching.

At the same time, I'm troubled that some teachers enter the AP lang and comp class not knowing the meaning of rhetoric, even as they ask about the difference in rhetoric and style. Most English teachers focused on literary analysis rather than rhetorical analysis in their university coursework.

Unfortunately, rather than actually preparing teachers who lack a background in rhetoric and / or communication studies, the one-week AP workshop diminishes the worth of those teachers who do have substantial knowledge in rhetorical studies, whether through an advanced degree or grad-level coursework.

Put another way:  The one-week workshop doesn't sufficiently fill gaps in knowledge about rhetoric. It merely gives the false impression that a teacher has sufficient knowledge. The one-week workshop (read: The College Board) is guilty of what Tom Newkirk calls the "deskilling" of teaching in Holding Onto Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones. 

At this juncture, I feel compelled to offer a little self-disclosure: I do not teach AP lang and comp. I do, however, have substantial grad-level coursework in rhetoric and communication, including courses in argumentation theory and rhetorical criticism.

I don't blame teachers for wanting to teach AP courses and for grabbing the opportunity to do so; after all, AP students are generally more motivated and easier to teach than reluctant learners and students with poor reading and writing skills.

However, I do hope these teachers will seek to improve their knowledge by taking grad-level courses in rhetoric and argumentation.

I hope they realize a one-week workshop is no substitute for intensive, long-term study at the graduate level with a professor devoted to "the art of persuasion, beautiful and just."

I hope teachers realize that identifying chiasmus, litotes, synecdoche, etc. is no substitute for constructing essays using Neo-Aristotelian Criticism, Fantasy Theme Criticism, Cluster Criticism, Pentadic Criticism, Generic Criticism, etc. Sonja Foss's Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice is a good source for learning more about these methods of critiquing rhetorical artifacts, which, incidentally, aren't limited to nonfiction texts. In communication studies, pretty much anything has rhetorical value and, consequently, is subject to critique, including architecture, fashion, music, art, speeches, etc.

And while these methods of rhetorical criticism may not be necessary for one to teach the AP lang and comp class in its current incarnation, it certainly behooves teachers undertaking such an endeavor actually to know something about this communication field--something more than one learns in a week.

Revised: 8-22-2011


  1. I'm torn here, Glenda. On the one hand, I (knowing about your own situation) largely agree with you that the best people aren't always put in front of the appropriate classes. On the other hand, I don't particularly agree with the framing of your argument. I learned more about teaching from a 4-week summer PD opportunity than I did in all of my coursework combined (and I bet you can guess which one I'm referencing here :) ).

    The issue isn't so much workshop vs. coursework. It could be a discussion of worthwhile workshops (the one that we went to) vs. worthless workshops (the AP one you mention). It could be a discussion of the way administration has a bad habit of ignoring qualifications when drawing up the schedule. I'm just wary of seeing your blog framed as workshop vs. graduate work. Both of those methods of PD have fantastic and dismal incarnations.

    I know that I would want my child in a class taught by a Folger workshop alum over a class taught by a random Shakespeare PhD. I also know that I would want my child in your AP Lang/Rhet class over one trained in the workshop you reference (as an aside, if mom is reading this, don't get excited. The child in question is for reference purposes only). The question isn't so much workshop vs. coursework, but one of faculty that strive for the best PD, regardless of the form that it takes.



  2. Scott,
    Your comments are exactly why I included the second paragraph and specifically targeted the one-week AP workshop model that bills itself as a substitute for intensive study.
    The Folger TSI isn't a typical workshop in several respects: 1. Attendees have literature backgrounds; 2. Attendees write extensively, including a primary research paper and curriculum. 3. Nothing trumps the Folger TSI. It's in a league all its own, which is why I'm constantly pushing the Folger philosophy.
    I understand your point, but there's a reason you're in a PhD program yourself, part of which includes valuing the rigor of grad work.