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.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Thinking about Age

I have 7 more years before I’m 80. Now there’s a thought!

At the end, you simply think differently about things. You notice that a lot of your friends are dead or dying and you may be in the next wave. This puts a different cast on life than when you are beginning and can’t imagine death. 

Toward the end, your experiences help you get ready to die. The real object is to have made your life count, to have contributed to the collective experience. That contribution plays back to you. All this seems obvious. Even such a seemingly small thing as rescuing a dog is important.

There are actually two vectors: self-realization and social contribution. In the richest lives, these two merge (think Carter); in the poorest, they split (think Trump).

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Evidence-based Writing

The Trump administration has banned evidence- and research-based terminology from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Apparently, the CDC is supposed to imagine science in dialogue with local community conventions. If you are talking to a community of flat-earthers, you need to exercise caution if you claim the earth is round, even if you started east from Raleigh, NC and continued dead east until you came back to Raleigh. Perhaps the compass was compromised.

I suspect that most people who were not beguiled into voting for Trump think that we should ground our opinions in research and the evidence research has uncovered. On the opposite end of the teeter-totter lies reasoning based on what your friends told you was true. One kind of reasoning seems based on information passed on through writing; the other, through oral discourse.

I side with evidence- and research-based reasoning.  I know that rhetoric can bend facts until they turn back on themselves, but still, if we didn’t honor the basic enlightenment period move from myth to science, we would still be sending messages by smoke-signals or horseback. I view with incredulity any governmental or educational system that decided to says “It is so, because I say it is so.”

The discussion about the banned phrases (and reasoning) took on WPA-l a different turn, some teachers with secondary school experience noting the reductive consequences of genuflects to evidence-based writing linked to testing, formulas, and argumentative genres. The mis-educative consequences of testing, formulas, and argumentative genres have shaped secondary and post-secondary instruction since the late 40s. David Coleman, the chief architect of the English Language Arts section of Common Core, in his assault on personal writing (“Bringing the Common Core to Life,” 2011) is largely responsible for the negative turn of “evidence-based” discourse, leading to some confusion about its merits.

In his address, Coleman ironically cites the lack of evidence-based, argumentative genres in primary and secondary schools. In fact, Appleby and Langer in their most recent study (“A Snapshot of Writing Instruction at Middle Schools and High Schools,” 2011) show precisely the opposite, the dearth of expressive forms of writing and dominance of argumentative genres, notably of the five-paragraph sort. Teachers in secondary schools are consequently aware of the testing game and the destructive rhetoric of “evidence-based” writing. Post-secondary teachers concomitantly know that “evidence-based” and argument sells well to administrators and colleagues.

Consequently, the phrase has taken on multiple meanings, leading to confusion and often counter-productive teaching practices. Certainly most educators would agree that when people makes claims, those claims should be based on facts rather than mythology. In our dreams, political discourse would be grounded in evidence and research—in our dreams. But as educators, we should also pay attention to the full range of discourse—and to our students’ attitudes toward what we teach. Certainly, we want our students to experience a rich array of rhetorical situations and genres. But we don’t want to fixate on evidence-based arguments to the exclusion of the many other genres that can draw our students into the rich world of writing.

We always need to ask at the end of our courses, have our students (and have we) enjoyed the experiences of writing (and reading). If not, something’s wrong—probably too much of Coleman.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Writing: A Happy Marriage

I have been listening to Ann Pachett’s essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by which she means, I take it, her marriage to writing as well as to her second husband. I have read several of her books—she’s a first-class novelist. In her essays about writing, she is writing about the art of writing fiction. God bless her for her novels.
But I want to re-contextualize her generally sage advice within a different frame, the one to which I have devoted my adult live: encouraging others/students to write the way they breathe, speak, sing, or dance. In a way, my thoughts are contrapuntal to Pachett’s. She is writing about writers, in spite of her disclaimer, in the Romantic tradition—people who are set apart from the quotidian.
I resist this tradition of imagining people as writers and non-writers. I know that was not Pachett’s intent—she doesn’t seem to have thought about writing, like speech, as a gift that belongs to all of us rather than only to those of us who are “writers.” This tradition is grounded in social class stratification, marking “artists” off from the rest of us.
But if we imagine that she is talking about writing as a right rather than a privilege, much of what she says could improve the way writing is taught in academic environments. I am going to comment on only one.
You learn to write by writing. Write a lot. Get into the flow of writing, and you will move forward. This simple truth is complicated by genre theory and dysfunctional teaching, much of which is unwittingly grounded in social class reproduction.
I’ll skip my link to social class reproduction about which I have written extensively on this blog, in articles, and in Going North, Thinking West. So to genre theory:
Pachett is writing about the uber-genre: fiction. But in a certain sense, she is also writing about writing, that literacy gift that should be available to all of us but which is through the educational industry denied to the working classes.
Still, Pachett, a writer with upper-middle-class origins, offers advice that writing teachers should heed. If you want to bring writing into your lives, you need to write and write and write. And you need to choose your readers/commentators wisely. Writers need to read their readers rhetorically. It would help if they are able to read their readers within a larger social construction that reserves for circulation writers from the privileged social classes—and from the gender and racially privileged classes [that’s me]. And don’t go to school to learn how to write.
I have been teaching and mis-teaching forever, swayed by my desire to be accepted in the field (and thus, ventriloquating  thoughtless verities, like the importance of argument).  I want to push the opposite: please, let’s help our students fall in love with writing. And get rid of these junk readings and useless discussions. Stop pretending that you are teaching your students how to think. Perhaps think instead about how your induction into higher education has taught you how not to think while thinking you are thinking.