Social Class Reproduction

Four Rules for Teaching Writing:
Image result for image: joy of writing
Always give writing assignments that

1. you will enjoy reading;
2. students will enjoy writing;
3. students will enjoy reading what others in the class have written
4. you will enjoy writing.

If any one of these conditions were not true, then it probably wasn't a very good assignment.

Advice I give to my students: When your words surprise you, you know you are writing.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Revealing Ourselves in Our Writing?

I followed the conversation on WPA-l about the “personal narrative” that morphed into a conversation about the dangers of students revealing themselves, and then into IRB concerns and unitary versus fragmented identities, echoing Berlin’s misguided attack on so-called expressivist writing. And then there is the sidestream slip into the horrors of academic writing (the polysyllabic, depersonalized kind). At some point, I end up shaking my head, thinking helping students into the wonderful world of writing is really so easy. Why make it hard?
I am somewhat reluctant to post on my blog another conversation about writing and education. One of my good friends said about my travel posts (see: So You Want To Drive to Panama?) and my writing/education posts, where did you lose your sense of humor? She had a point: Writing about traveling (through space and in one’s head) is essentially funny. I get too serious when I think about education. I take it personally whenever I read about one more student who has been turned off from writing, usually (if not always) a consequence of how teachers have taught him or her to hate it.
But I’m going to write out a few humorless thoughts anyway.
First: Jerry is right; academic discourse has loosened up let’s say since the 90s. But revisiting the Hairston/Trimbur conflict might help to resituate this discussion--I think in the late 80s. I meant in my discussion the awful academic discourse, writers signaling they have read so-and-so and know about such-and-such, using language that only full professors might understand. We use language to claim our position in privileged social groups. And then label language usage of those who are not in privileged positions as substandard.
I think most readers in the WPA-l list recognize how their graduate training has taught them how to signal their membership into the privileged group—leaving their organic language behind. Working-class academics like Val and me have had to disguise through our language our social class origins—because we were “wrong” and those born into the privileged classes were right. Gary Tate’s “Halfway Home” is one of the more powerful testaments of the sound barrier through which lower or working class students have to pass in order to be heard. One should also read Berger and Luckman’s The Sociology of Knowledge.
But to this “revealing” question: I confess that I don’t entirely get it. Let’s imagine that as a teacher (preferably tenured) that you could get away with abolishing grades. It’s not hard to do. Just say to your students, everyone (except for the people who don’t show up) gets an A—and let’s go from there. So instruction and your responses to student writing is grade neutral. Nice place to be. You can actually write back and forth to each other as communicators rather than as students and grader.
When you create a community of writers in your classroom, with you being one of them, the “revealing” question drifts away. No one is being required to reveal anything he or she doesn’t want to. If I ask students to write for an hour about transitioning from high school to college, I simply want them to write to the other students in the class what they, the writers, feel and think about the transition. In my classes, with the exceptions of portfolios, all writing is written to the class. The students know this; thus, they make their own decisions on what they want to share with the other students. I can’t think of a better way to introduce audience concerns: it’s lightyears better than “Imagine you are writing to a senator . . . .” So I don’t get the “revealing” question, particularly if the teacher has the courage to get rid of grades.
I think the controversy over the “personal narrative” genre is generated by teachers who still give grades, for which reason the primary audience is teacher-as-evaluator (Britton et al.), even when the essays are shared with other students in the class. It is also a constructed rather than a de facto (Beale) genre. As others on the WPA-L list have noted, much of our writing is grounded in personal experiences; again, reasoning works from the ground up, from personal experiences to others’ experiences to generalizations to speculations (Moffett). And narrative is simply a strategy. Maybe people could be more accurate and write about the autobiographical incident (immediate or removed), the memoir, the chronicle, the first-person biography, all of which might invite subjects that would engage student writers (tell us about someone or a group of people who were important in your life). It seems to me that anyone could write and share essays in genres like these.
I wish I could think about something that is funny about all this, but I can’t. I’m really bothered by any teaching that discourages students from writing; taking the gift of writing away is like cutting out someone’s tongue.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The WPA-l list has once again captured my attention when there are other items on my personal list that I should be doing, now that I am back from my road trip with Lola to Panama and back. I unaccountably find myself lying in my bed at night, my eyes open, thinking of the engaging comments on the list, the different ways of interpreting required writing courses and more broadly, higher education.
I’m writing here rather than on the list for two reasons: I tend to write too much for a list posting, and I want to shift this blog from traveling back to writing about teaching.
I have loved keeping track of my trip to Panama and back through writing. I am half-inclined to pile with Lola into my car and drive though South America, if only I didn’t have to cross the border into (and possibly back through) Panama. In many ways, I think the foundation of that kind of travel writing is the kind we should be encouraging in our required writing classes. The foundation is grounding one’s writing in the writer’s personal experience and from there working outward to consider other experiences, possibly leading to generalizations and from there to theorizing.
If people read my “narrative” of my travels, they might see what I mean: I was writing about more than getting from point A to point B and the sights along the way. I was writing about the differences between traveling and staying home, taking chances and staying safe, learning how to travel alone through the unknown; really, learning how to travel alone with, I hope, some sense of humor about the situations in which one might surprisingly find oneself.
To relate to the “narrative” and “personal writing” discussed on the list: we are straitjacketing ourselves as writers and teachers when we imagine narrative and personal writing as self-contained genres. Our thinking and writing may begin with our personal experiences, but I we naturally work  outward to include in our thinking the experiences of others, and from there, we make comparisons and perhaps rethink our own, moving us into the world of generalizations and theories.
Seriously aged teachers (and Russel Durst) will recognize that I am only ventriloquizing Moffett, who was himself working from theorists like Vygotsky and Piaget.  
As I remember it, Moffett claims in Teaching the Universe of Discourse that utterances are packed with different moves, really, different levels of abstraction. He characterizes them as writing about what is happening (now), what happened (then), what happens (generalizations through comparisons), to what will happen (theorizing from generalizations). His way of imagining the universe of discourse seems far more useful to me than getting locked into limiting discussions about the personal narrative or personal and impersonal writing.
Anyone who had glanced at my blog—or who has worked with me for the past four years (I’ve changed my mind about teaching writing)—knows that I consider students’ attitudes toward writing an important criterion when we evaluate the effect of our teaching. I am only echoing Dewey, Bean, Tagg, and several others on this list (like Nancy) when I say that an important measure of your success as a writing teacher lies in how you and the students in your class have encouraged each other to want to write more. There are of course other skills we should teach about writing, but if you have discouraged their desire to write, you have taught the wrong thing. Dewey calls this mis-education.
I could take this line of thinking into the discussion of social class reproduction, in which higher education and required writing courses are complicit, but others, like Maria, have already described how our required courses and the social structures in our programs perpetuate social class discrimination. I have also argued in Going North that curricula privileging argument, academic discourse, and so-call critical thinking contribute to that discrimination. So I’ll let that rest.
Let me imagine a course (somewhat like what Jerry has described in his deconstruction of personal and impersonal, teacher and student [think Freire]) based somewhat on my claims:
1.     Students write about some kind of personal experience (not restricting their essay to narration (thanks, Jerry)). Many of us have them write about such things as their in-school and out-of-school experiences with writing (or pick your field—music, math, history or any combination)
2.     They read each other’s essays and write back and forth (and discuss) about each other’s experiences.
3.     They write another essay based on what they learned by reading each other’s essays and having others read theirs, perhaps rethinking their own experiences (generalizing).
4.     They read and write back and forth (and discuss) these generalizing essays.
5.     They might speculate in class how they could get information from other students or non-students about this topic. They brainstorm research methods (internet, surveys, interviews [in person and online], libraries). They investigate ways they can engage in each method and perhaps work in groups to develop a research plan; since time is getting short, they might work in teams of two or three, each team working on one research method).
6.     They complete their research and write up as teams or individuals what they learned by their research and what they learned about that research method.
[Ok—this is too much for a semester; maybe we should make this a year course.]
7.     They engage in some discussions (and perhaps further research) about how they keep track of their information and let readers of a future essay know where they got their information (with some discussion of how different rhetorical situations invite different methods of documentation) note: I don’t have a works cited here.
8.     They write a final essay letting others in this class (and possibly other classes) know what they have learned about the subject through this investigative process. They might speculate (theorize) on how ways in which teachers might improve their methods with regard to the subject (or how students might take charge of their own learning processes).
9.     And of course, they should read and write back to each other’s essays and perhaps reflect on what they have learned about the subject, about learning, about research, about theories of attribution, about rhetorical situations, and about writing as communication (or non-communication) as a consequence of this project.  
The teacher should have some way of assessing (as Ed, Norbert, and I have argued) the success of a project like this. I would start by having some way (Karen Nulton and I have written about this in an essay in an upcoming book) of assessing the degree to which the students were engaged in the project. If they weren’t, how could they help us improve it so that they would have enjoyed writing, researching, and reading and writing back to each other.
Note that this kind of curriculum does not require students to buy a book (again: that’s Moffett). If you need models, collect them from other students in previous courses; this does help, but I have found students learn most productively from reading what the others in their class have written.

I will add, finally, that in my many discussions with parents and students in the past several years, I am disturbed by how often we teach students to avoid writing (Karen and I have a lot of data on this). I simply cannot imagine the utility of teaching writing as pain.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Day 23. September 11th

We wake a 7:30. A chorus if birds are singing outside the tent. After a while, we get going. Lola hangs around me closely while I’m taking the tent down and packing. It’s a quiet morning, other’s not up, or at least outside yet. By 8:30, we’re almost ready to leave, and I take my eye off Lola. I turn around and she is gone, down by the lake I assume. I walk down over the rise and see her over to the left by the pier. She is rolling in ecstasy on her back again. I know this will not be pleasant. I go over, and yes, this time she is rolling around on a large, dead fish—looks like a pike that has been in the sun for several days. Lola gets a vigorous bath in the lake. She doesn’t like that.
We are off by nine. It was a pleasant campsite. I have planned my time and expect to arrive in Livonia, Louisiana, where I will be staying with my friends, Renee and Paul, in their resurrected Cajun plantation home that had been in Paul’s family for centuries. It’s one of my favorite houses.
At about ten, we stop for a breakfast, after which we make good time through south Texas. The landscape gradually changes from mesquite to taller trees and mildly rolling hills, the houses still far between. I know my trip is essentially over, although Baton Rouge is really the endpoint, as it was the beginning.
Driving in the United States is, compared to driving through Mexico and Central America, emotionally flat because I know what to expect. Consequently, for the first time since I began this journey back, I plug in my iphone and start listening to the theorized final chapters to On the Road, theorized because a dog had eaten the end of the scroll version. I don’t like it as well as the version that ended with what we know were Kerouac’s actually words. I think the theorized version ends flat.
Then I start listening to Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk. Macdonald is a lovely writer—perhaps too lovely, but I love here themes, all of which speak to my journey: death of a loved one, stuttering attempts to recover, failed subsequent relationships, loneliness, interspecies communication (in Macdonald’s case, people and birds; in mine, people and dogs). In one section, while describing a U-2 pilot’s experience while flying alone for 1-12 hours on the outer edges of the earth’s atmosphere, she quotes, I think, Marianne Moore, who said something like, the best cure for loneliness is solitude. That is it, exactly. Driving alone through Central American and Mexico does not make me a U-2 pilot, and I do not have a book as my co-pilot (as did this U-2 pilot, who had a habit of reading Once and a Future King as he flew—I have Lola), but driving alone through strange country for three weeks provides plenty of solitude, enough to make one an existentialist.
I hit Houston by 1:30 and follow the GPS directions (59 to I-10) straight through downtown instead of taking either of the two possible beltways. The GPS was right (in contrast to its usual information Mexico and CA). But about a little east of Beaumont, I hit stopped traffic. It soon becomes apparent that no one is moving. I am worried, because I know Renee and Paul are expecting me for dinner somewhere around six, but I text my situation and Renee, as always, is gracious, and tells me not to worry.
After about a half-hour of getting nowhere, I see a smart driver drive off the road and across the dirt/grass to the frontage road on the right. I squeeze over in the right lane, and do the same, see the traffic piled up down the frontage road but the entrance to I-10 going West (back) is clear, and so I do a quick map check, take I-10 West (back), take the first road north that I can, another slanting northeast, and after a while, one south back to I-10 to circle around whatever accident is on I-10. I think driving through Mexico and CA, particularly on the way down without maps, has made me a resourceful driver.
I lose about an hour and a half. I’m not going to make it to Renee and Paul’s until 7:30-7:45. I settle into driving this last stretch, listening to H Is for Hawk.
It’s getting dark by the time I pass Lafayette. A little later, I reach the Atchafalaya spillway crossing the incredible Atchafalaya swamp. It goes for about twenty miles. I am coming back to Baton Rouge, and I’m a little bit sad, because this is where a wonderful part of my life with Sarah was. Traveling the spillway, I go through this period of my life, almost as if I’m in a time warp.
It does not escape me that I am nearing the end of my road trip by returning to Baton Rouge on September 11, commemorating the day when thousands lost people they had loved, leaving the survivors to cope with that horrible loss and struggle to repair their broken lives. Or that Sarah died on August 11, 2011. If I were a numerologist, I would try to read this language of loss, noting perhaps that we survivors are odd, not even.
But these things happen. It happened to Helen Macdonald and so many others I have come to know who have lost at least half of their lives. We are left to find our new ways on a strange road. I think my road trip through Mexico and Central America and back has been a metaphor for my journey without Sarah, going down without maps or language and coming back with both. My Spanish is still quite terrible. Going down, I met with anxiety any situation in which I had to speak. Coming back, I looked for situations in which others would tolerate my tortured language.
I’m a little proud that I have made it.