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.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Normally, I write off-line before I post something here.  Although it may not seem like it, I look at what I've written two or three times before I post it--taking words out and so on.  With this post, I'm more or less writing uncensored.  And that's dangerous business.  My students know it; I know it.

I really didn't like my last post because I didn't say what I really wanted to say.  I thought maybe it didn't fit--and besides, it was a little too private for a public audience.  And it also involves another person.  So what's at stake here is wildly interesting and complicated--the question of locus.  A blog is more or less a public space.  So how much of yourself  do you let hang out there?  I said in one of my previous posts that vulnerability isn't an all-or-none dichotomy.  How much we let others know of our story (under some kind of vague assumption that our story is not only our story) is situated.  No--I'll never let it all hang out, certainly not in a public forum.  I'll tell more to my students, for instance, than i will to others in this space.  And I have some very close friends to whom I'll tell a lot more than that.

My students are placed in this same situation--they have to make decisions on precisely how much generally not-public information they can let go.  The situation is always complicated by the vulnerability-authenticity-interesting relationship.  When we say just what people would expect people to say, well, that's boring.  And I think that's what I said in my last post.  I was uneasy about going a little further and saying, I'm not alone anymore, which is probably obvious to any reader of these posts.  My story is really not about the astronaut who sailed off.  My story is about rescue and the importance of love.

There is some kind of relationship that I shouldn't be avoiding: a relationship between my students and the other students (and me) and between me and you.  Of course that's not a strict relationship, but it's not far off.


In the days of the early space explorations, I imagined the possibility of an astronaut being cut free from the mother ship (duh) by in improbable space particle zinging through the steel tether.  I know we have seen this in some movie (probably in Kubrick’s 2001): the jet pack fails to ignite and you see the astronaut floating off.

You might have a few hours before the carbon dioxide filter fails to operate, a few hours of drifting off.  That’s seriously alone, entirely disconnected.  I’ll leave you there, with your memory of things you have done, people you have known and loved, all of it on the beautiful earth below, while you drift off in space, the brilliance of the stars around you.

Since my wife died twenty-seven months ago, I have had to think carefully about being alone—although I would hardly call my first year of thinking careful.  My neighbor’s wife also died a few weeks ago.  She was 42.  I like Matt, so he has been on my mind. Knowing what he’s going through, I should go over to talk to him, but so far I haven’t.

Both of us know there is quite a difference between being alone and being lonely.  We had very strong marriages, which in an odd way, prepares the surviving spouse for the single life, protects him or her from loneliness.  But he or she is very much alone, not to the same degree as my imagined astronaut, but alone, the empty house, the empty bed, the solo meals.  After a while, you almost get used to it.  Some people even say they like it.

I generally enjoyed reading my students’ essays yesterday-the English 2000 students were writing about the significant changes there have or are experiencing in their lives; the Life Writing students were writing about being vulnerable in their lives and writing.  I was a little disappointed by some of the Engl 2000 students’ essays—many were a bit flat, one or two not very well written. This shouldn’t surprise me because I don’t grade them, have minimum word counts, or require reviews and rewrites.  I just have them write—kind of as I am doing here.  Mostly, I just give them the opportunity to write and be read. 

There were some good English 2000 essays, however.  I saw only two Life Writing essays, both of them striking.  I'm going to comment here on one—it was long, as if the student couldn’t stop writing until she had worked out through her writing this problem of being alone.  She is twenty-two and has never had a boyfriend.  She focused in her essay on dealing with that.  Her essay gripped me and it will anyone else who reads it—it was a serious meditation on the link between being vulnerable and being alone.  Like Matt and me, this student is not lonely; she has a loving family and a plethora of good friends.  Nevertheless, she wants a relationship, which puts her in the alone category.  Remarkable about her essay was both her insight and her willingness to come out there with her desire and self-questioning.  Most of us prefer to pose in the we’re-all-right-by-ourselves-don’t-need-anyone-else category.  I’ve done my share of posing there, too, although I know without a doubt that I’m hard-wired for love.

I think that for many reasons, most of us are looking for a life-partner, but for perhaps more reasons, the search too frequently leads to heartbreak and after a while, people begin to pull in on themselves.  It takes courage to stay out there—that was the point of Brene Brown’s TED talk and my student’s essay.  Courage to stay out there.  In writing, in love, both of which may be a symbol for everything else.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


I kind of have a break in my afternoon after having spent most of the day reading students' essays, one set on the changes they are now experiencing in their lives (English 2000), and another set on the relationship between vulnerability and writing for my Life Writing classes.  I'm also trying to get over a cold with the aid of thermalflu or something like that, which has made me a bit woozy, so who knows what I might write.

I was thinking with some surprise on the different interpretations of "Authenticity" that a close friend and I have.  I realize that as I think ahead of my words that I'm going to privilege my meaning, no matter how much I try to acknowledge meaning from a world quite different from mine.  My friend and I come from significantly different social classes, although there are points where our social class origins cross in odd ways.  I know I'm going to privilege my working-class social class origin, which shaped my understanding of "authentic" at the expense of her upper-middle-class origins and consequent different understanding of "authentic."  Until she wrote her post, I had privileged authenticity, perhaps as a consequence of my working-class origins (and there is a lot of research that links being out front with both working-class and upper-class realities).  But she  said that in her trajectory, she had learned to link authenticity to unschooled local color--authentic artists, with a bit of a sneer.

I could take this discussion into a social class discussion of the difference between seeming and being.  I could probably even link it to college education, the way in which we get students to seem at the expense of being--that is, unless they are by virtue of their social class born into the culture of seeming.  I might even tie this to rhetoric, the art of distancing yourself from your message by reshaping your message to fit the social situation.

I think I'll just leave the discussion here.  Our different interpretation of this seemingly innocent word could lead to trouble.  Misreading other words--and there are obviously many possibilities--could do the same.  Our only hope in this uncertain linguistic universe is to be alert, to watch for the signs of wrinkles in the linguistic fabric, remembering that our words are at best vague approximations of what we mean.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Writing that Reflects

Carra and I enjoy having our blogs intersect and play off each other. Rather than comment on my post, she’ll read what I write and then usually have a different way of looking at whatever my subject was, which, in turn, makes me review and adjust my thinking (and I’m hoping that what I write does the same for her).  We’re both writing about writing.  I’m more specifically writing about using personal writing in the classroom—because that’s what I’ve been doing lately—whereas she’s writing about a more general sense of writing in culture—and sometimes, just being in culture.  Nevertheless, our friendship and blogs move us a little bit beyond ourselves, as all good friendships and writing do.
Our latest intersections involved some of my casual claims about natural writing, placing it in opposition (following the tradition of Ken Macrorie) to school writing (by which I mean most school writing).  I didn’t know what I meant by natural writing, but she picked up on it and reframed it as authentic writing, including various takes on what people have meant by that phrase, ending with her own statement of what she means: 
                                                        writing I care about,
writing that grows out of me and my experience, and
writing that reflects the process of its composition.
Actually, she hedged on this—she described what it meant for her specifically within the frame of a multi-media poem she was creating.  I’m still not certain about what she meant by “writing that reflects the process of its composition”—but I’m imagining that it’s writing that is not overly polished—the reader can see, in the tradition of the essai, the writer working his or her way though to a thought or insight, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the form and function simultaneously developing rather than preconceived.
I have a place I’m going to in this post, but I know it only vaguely.  It has something to do with personal writing, authenticity, vulnerability, and love.  I know I want to bring these things together as well as have them play off against each other.  I want these fields of affect to in some way inform productive teaching strategies—which I know might be too much.  Let me see how far I can get with this.
I want to start with the kind of writing that comes naturally to me.  I am a diary addict, so that is the most natural—just me thinking to myself in words that slip through my fingers and onto the screen.  I have no audience (please don’t counter with notions of the other or later self).  I’m basically just organizing my life, my thoughts, sometimes my day.  Sometimes I’m whining, sometimes I’m just reciting a mantra—It will be all right, Irvin, just hold your breath.  In this kind of writing, I am not vulnerable; I don’t take risks; and I don’t censor (ok—there are a couple of things I have decided not to write down).  And love plays no part, other than I think I’m Ok—but I don’t love myself in the same way I love others.
I move outward to txts and emails to the people I love.  This is actually a fairly large group of people who are my family and have become very close friends over the years.  I love to write to these people.  I do a bit of censoring, depending on the features of the relationship, but I’m usually exchanging honest thoughts with this group.  I let them see me from the inside—and they do the same, which is why they are my friends.  When I’m writing to them, the words simply seem to come out of me, almost like when I’m writing in my diary.  This is clearly authentic/natural writing.  Vulnerability can come into play here, although not as much as with a more anonymous audience.  There are certain things that I will write to one member that I would not write to another.  I will write things to Carl, my friend of thirty years, that I won’t write to my son, Jesse, things that I write to Jesse, that I won’t write to my daughter, Heather. Because I know these people very well, I usually don’t have to think about what gets written to whom: it’s just part of the relationship, a part of our connection.  But there are times when I have to think about, should I tell her that or is it better to just be quiet?
I can see this post is getting too long—and I have to write an essay on vulnerability this afternoon (my students are writing one, and I always try to write what they write)—so I’m going to skip a few steps and get to the classroom (although I’m tempted to reflect on the what kind of writing this is—what risks I’m taking and how I have left myself open to readers I don’t know—that is, if anyone reads this).
In my Life Writing class, my students and I wrote brief autobiographies (which I will soon link to from this blog).  They didn’t know each other very well, but they knew the other students in the class would be reading them—and then in a further step, that I might open their autobiographies up to the world by linking to them from this blog.  Obviously, the risks and the possibilities of opening themselves up too much (making themselves overly vulnerable) were serious.  We had several discussions about how far they should go. What family issues and broken hearts would be better kept to themselves.  The flip side of the question is that the more you keep to yourself, the less interesting you are. The less likely anyone will be interested in reading you, the less likely you will be able to connect with others (see Brene Brown’s TED talk), and the less likely you are to connect with others, the more impoverished your life will be.  Still, there are limits.
I had an interesting example (I don’t know how much I’m going to tell you here).  I have my students write in online diaries in Moodle for the first ten minutes of each class.  I seriously want them to know what diary writing can do for them.  I can see their diary entries in a private forum, for which I give them credit, but I tell them, I’m not going to read them.  In order to equalize the writing game, I write a diary entry, too, which they can see if they choose, if you will, to peek.  During one of our how-far-do-we-go discussions, I told them about my entry for the day—a decision I made to only hint at something I had been worried about in my love life.  This was a just-in-case decision, I said, at which point, one of my students asked whether anyone had been reading my entries, and another student popped up and said,  “I always do.”
I hope you’ll get my point, as my students did.  The choice of how far to go is always rhetorical.  But it’s an important choice and in many ways determines the quality of your life. 
I suspect that if you read my students’ autobiographies and what they wrote about writing them that we might reasonably say their writing here has been natural, or authentic—although they certainly were circumspect about some of the things they decided not to reveal. 
After having done some research on the issue (like finding Brene Brown’s TED talk), my students are now writing essays on vulnerability (and I see I am about to complete mine).  Their essays will be a step away in the degree of naturalness from their autobiographies (they have been talking about this), but they have been eager to write them because they are trying to work out in their own minds something about being open to others, their writing being only a metaphor for who they are.  Most of the thoughts they gathered admit of no circumspection, like Hemingway’s: “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed”; or from Linda Joy Myers:  “I’ve often said to my students, ‘Writing a memoir is like taking your clothes off in public.’ True, but it doesn't go far enough. It's like taking your clothes off and reading your journal in public.”
Well, yes—and no.  There are limits—but the essential truth is there: natural/authentic writing comes from opening yourself up to others, to readers you know and ones you don’t.  The same is true with love and lovers.  You will have a rich relationship when you open yourself up to the other—but that’s risky.  We all know what I mean.  What if she doesn’t love you back as you love her?  I think in many ways, that’s the risk of being alive. 
We all liked Brene Brown’s TED talk—although I think we could complicate the issue by exploring how students with disabilities or disadvantaged social groups are made vulnerable by the structuring structures (Bourdieu) of school systems (see Denise Claire Batchelor, “Vulnerable Voices,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 38.6, 2006).  But here are two quotes from Brene Brown about courage (not exact quotes):
Courage is being the first to say, “I love you.”
Courage comes from cor—heart: to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.
What I have written here is close to natural writing, even by Carra’s definition.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

School-reading; School-writing

I'm engaging in a little avoidance writer here (blogs are clearly great for that).  I had two experiences yesterday (actually four) that have to do with my subject here, so I want to get them down.  The two that I'm not going to write about were my experiences with my classes, my English 2000 (the second of our required writing classes) and my English 4023 (Life Writing).  Both were very pleasant experiences and they have a lot to do with using personal writing in the classroom, but I'm going to move to two other experiences: a dissertation defense and my telephone conversation with a friend, who is also blogging about writing, although from a different perspective than mine.

I was the dean's representative in the dissertation defense.  The candidate is a very good teacher--she's been an elementary school teacher for some years.  Normally, I'm kind of cool-headed in a defense, but I became progressively irritated as I sensed in the discussion a less-than-critical perspective on the ethics of teaching school-reading (which is the same as teaching, to my mind, school-writing).  Actually, I got angry, but I kept my anger within and (I think) only displayed a kind of mild irritation.

The research (dept of education) focused on the use of a Commonplace Book, as it has been used by Denis Sumara.  Sumara has students reading a text multiple times and each time writing their thoughts in the margins of the text--and underlining and highlighting.  The candidate had teachers replicating this practice while reading YA "memoirs" (I am scarequoting because of the general practice of calling autobiographies memoirs just as many like to call diaries journals--for obvious and somewhat silly reasons).

The first reading is a traditional school-reading--teaching fifth graders to read for plot, character, language use & so on; the second, I gather, is a more free-form intertextual act, writing back to the book.  I call all of this school-reading and really, just a bunch of junk.

Let me start with Dewey (Experience and Education).  He claims what should be obvious: a fundamental educational objective should be that students learn how to learn, the life-long learning project, or put in my terms, fall in love with learning (reading/writing).  I imagine (what Carra was quick to critique as a false dichotomy) an opposition between natural (ok--authentic) and school reading.  This dichotomy (which, in my defense, I imagine as a continuum) is genre-based.  Let me be personal: the degree to which I engage in intertextual reading (writing in the text) depends on what I'm reading and why I'm reading.  When I'm reading academic articles and books that I think I'll be using in my academic writing, I write like a madman in the texts, doing the Bartholomae act, writing with and against the writer.  Later, I review the text and put my comments in a database of notes (I use InfoSelect) for easy retrieval.  But when I read for pleasure (ok--these are the extremes of the reading act), I read to get out of my skin, to disappear in the text, and the last thing I would do would be to underline or highlight or write in the text--which would be to pull myself out of the disappearing act.  Reading for pleasure is how I learned to love to read.  It' s why I'm a reader.  It's why, in a rather weird kind of extrapolation, and how I became an academic, discovering a profession I have loved for decades.  It's why I have not spent my life as an autoparts salesman, as my father was (I'm not derogating the profession of autoparts salesmanship, but I know I have loved my job two thousand times more than my father loved his).

I think in that last paragraph, if you are still reading this, you will find the source of my anger.  This practice of school-reading kills the love of reading.  It interrupts the flow of reading, the magic of being elsewhere, of being someone else, of not being me.  In the ensuing conversation (me doing my best to keep my coat and tie on), we explored the link between school reading (why, after all, do we want to teach students how to read like English professors?) and assessment, having a way of proving that we are teaching something.  I'm getting irritated now as I write this--and I know I am getting down only an outline of what I mean--and I hope that you will be able to read the link between school reading and school writing.

Ok, so I griped about all this to Carra on the phone.  She likes to challenge me on just about everything.   She said she likes to read novels like that: annotating, writing in the text, pulling out of the magic of the text.  She told me about her thrill when she first understood what a symbol was--she was reading The Glass Menagerie and in an epiphany understood what the glass menagerie signified beyond itself.  She pushed against all my reasoning, and I pushed back.  Thankfully, we came out of the conversation remaining close friends.  I still think she's wrong, and she's sure I am.  I thought later, she's much more of an intellectual than I am.  I think I'm a pseudo-intellectual.  I pretend to be an intellectual so I can keep my job.  But basically, I just like to read and write for fun, as I am doing here and as I am increasingly doing in the classroom, now that I know I can no longer be fired.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Below is a note to a friend.  We were writing to each other about vulnerability--a consequence of a research and writing assignment I and my Life Writing class are engaged in.  I'm not doing any other post for today, because I wasted a lot of time writing a letter to the editor and now I want to read my students' writings, so I'll just post this casual thought on the link between love, writing, and vulnerability (it really came from something one of my students said):


I knew in your post that you meant that one should go beyond oneself.  I put the other cast to it--doing it just to do it.  Your real key lies in doing something that is beyond the self--and that of course is what Freire is all about.  For him, it's an act of love, which might be another way of saying opening oneself up to others.  My students had an interesting conversation about this yesterday--connecting this kind of act to vulnerability--I'm asking them to do some internet research on the issue before we write about the link between writing and vulnerability.  i love what they come up with.  Caila put it more or less this way: you are being vulnerable when you open yourself up to someone else's position, way of understanding.  You can understand/embrace it only when you have a kind of empathy with the person/people.  I think of it physically: you open yourself up, almost as if you had opened yourself and let this person come inside you -- or at least a part of that person  -- then you are no longer you.  You are you & that other person.  This is of course the act of love; you can do it only when you are willing to be someone other than who you were all along.  Freire's point of course (Bhudda's, Christ's) is that to extend that love, that opening (vulnerability) to the world (Freire's notion of critical thinking is that it admits of no discrepancy between the self and the world). 

Yes--the anti personal/pro evidence (I'm getting a little sick of hearing that) based split is genderized and racialized (i think of Ways with Words--also read Unequal Childhoods sometime--very readable) and class-based.  Class based in odd ways mixed with gender.  David Seitz's Who Can Afford Critical Consciousness is good on this.  Unequal Childhoods, too.  Actually, bernstein, now that I think of it.  According to the literature (and my experience--story telling, especially hunting stories; my grandfather was a notable hunting story-teller (actually, a story-teller about everything)), story-telling, the personal experience is highly valued, a way of passing on knowledge, in the working classes.  (i know this is too general--but if you read Lareau, you will see there is something to the generalization [assuming she wasn't lying about her research]).  But there is another side of the working classes (the doing side and the getting ahead side) that is highly instrumental.  The working classes (again the literature and the generalization) see (for their children) education instrumentally.  The more well-off you are, the more you can value the Brahmin (think Emerson) impulse--that's the liberal arts argument.  Sorry I got off on this.  You can see I think I have space this morning.  I'll probably blog this for the hell of it.  I'm also aware that I'm trying to sound intelligent.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why I'm Angry--Maybe

This is far from an original thought (and yes, I am aware of iterative theory).  It's probably a mix of Marx, W.C. Allee, and Steinbeck (who, i think developed his social theories from Allee through Ed Ricketts.  Social reproduction theory posits that cultures act like single organisms (that's from Allee), unconsciously reproducing themselves, developing structuring structures (Bourdieu) that ensure the continuation of the species/culture.  The players in the game are of course unaware of their roles.  They imagine they are acting existentially.  The collective, of which they are a part, imagines (as if it had a mind--as if the individual had a mind--as if I have a mind) it is also acting existentially on the basis of announced (usually rationalized) purposes.  Higher education is one of those collectives in our particular culture.  Let's imagine HEd as a being, a collective, an organism within the larger organism (as our organs are collectives within the larger organism of us).  HEd has the announced purpose of educating citizens to be thoughtful, productive, cooperative, critical thinkers (of course) in our culture, ensuring the continuation and even evolution of our culture (the current standoff in Congress signifies what a great job we're doing of that).  

But the unannounced purpose of HEd is to reproduce the culture, which includes the culture of domination and radical asymmetrical distribution of wealth, status, and privilege (WSP).  I and others have of course written endlessly about this (Bourdieu, Clark, Katz, Gee, Bowles & Gintis and so on).  English departments are no different, although they like to imagine themselves as redistributing critical literacy.  And likewise, our field is no different, imagining such silly things as that we are teaching our students in our writing classes how to interrogate culture and write themselves into a better world.  (and of course, I have to imagine that I am no different either, although here I am, pretending that I have broken free from the structuring structures to think, ironically, for myself).  But just supposing I had a useful thought  born of the anger I feel towards writing classes and any other classes that make students feel what the student I have quoted feel--and I know there are many who feel that way.  Basically, I think we learn counterproductive teaching strategies (the kind that make our students feel off-balance, stressed, disliking what they are doing when they should be loving it [check out Gary Tate's searing essay, "Halfway Home") as part of that structuring structure, of that social mechanism that guarantees the ongoing radical asymmetrical distribution of WSP.  Think about it: who are the kids who get through (I mean through the whole educational gauntlet, leading the to JD, MD, or PhD)?  Probably (and this is obvious) the sons and daughters of those who already have lots of WSP.  I think this stupid notion of rigor is one of the primary mechanisms--we need to make our students work hard instead of enjoy the process of learning.  Maybe I have to think about why this would make me angry.

[ok--I wrote what i was thinking.  as i said, highly unoriginal--but i think it needs to be revoiced from time to time]

And now I realize why I'm angry: I'm probably reworking my anger at teachers/the system that almost killed my love of reading and writing.  I have never been the best of students.  School still bewilders me.  

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Keeping our students off-balance

A student sent me the following note (I have her permission to post it):

Dr. Peckham,
I want to let you know what's going on so you know why I've been missing class. I am overwhelmed more this semester than I have yet in my college career. Today I am meeting with a counselor to discuss dropping my 3015 course to help alleviate some of this stress, which is why I'm missing today, and discuss how to balance my schooling. I have been trying to manage it all but sometimes I just don't know how to. This reflects in my autobiography. I have been trying to finish my autobiography and add the parts about college, but it's hard because I have been feeling so negative about college lately that my writing reflects that negativity. I hate that. Remember in class when we talked about how we were nervous how our autobiographies were portraying us? Right now mine would portray me as a miserable human. I'm not. I'm the farthest thing from that. But with all this stress I can't think of what to write about in college. The difficulty? The amount of pressure I receive constantly from my parents, my sorority, my friends? How angry I am that my teachers have made me question my passion for writing? It's just a lot to realize that is what I want to say when I used to be happy-go-lucky Gabrielle. When your colleagues try to tell you that writing an autobiography is too easy, it makes no sense to me. This autobiography is not easy. It has made me reflect upon where I've been, where I am now, and realize that I am not where I thought I would be. I know that one of the beauties of life is that it will always turn out how the way you didn't expect, but writing this has made me question if I've done anything in college worth writing about yet. This can be terrifying, especially since I'm already a junior.
She is one of my very good students and writers in my life writing class.  She is really a lovely girl and has a million things going for her.  This note disturbed me on several levels.  I'm just going to think for a few minutes about where we might be going wrong and what we writing teachers can do to at least ameliorate this kind of response to education.  I guess I'll start with the obvious:  Dewey certainly wasn't the first educator to understand that we're teaching students how rather than what--we're teaching them how to learn (Experience and Education).  We want to encourage a love of learning so that learning will for the student be a lifelong project.  Students will love learning if it's an enjoyable, exciting experience, which it has not been for my student above--and we all know that she is hardly an exception.  Higher education seems to specialize in stressing students--preparing for the "real" world, I suppose.  I think we specialize in keeping them off-balance, which might be  a way of protecting ourselves, of maintaining control.  Freire has of course written about this extensively: the "knower" controlling by impelling into others their sense of being ignorant.  
My student is angry that that mechanism is undermining her love of writing.  I'm angry, too.  I think so much of what we do in our writing classes works against what should be our dominant objective: helping our students to love writing.  I used to think as a WPA that we could sacrifice that objective for the more defensible objective: preparing our students to meet the kind of writing tasks they will encounter in their other classes.  But I am convinced that if that latter objective discolors what I think should be the dominant objective, we are failing as writing teachers and as educators.  I think we make up all sorts of crazy justifications for teaching writing as hard work.  Our history if full of good intentions and bad instruction--guaranteeing that only those who have a kind of parental support and certain kind of linguistic environment will be able to endure.  I think the craziest thing we do is to fall into the "rigor" trap--as if life should be hard (all phallic connotations are inescapable).  This is just CRAZY.  I vote for life as fun.  I vote for teaching as fun, education as fun, writing as fun.  
I asked my students in one of my classes to list the kind of writing assignments they have been doing.  You might want to look at them on one of my pages (Kinds of writing tasks--or something like that).  Notice that few tasks are argumentative assignments (not in Kinneavy's s sense of scientific writing).  Yes, yes, I know: everything's an argument (which, I'm sorry, is like saying everything is strawberries).  And so we have gotten into this argument fixation.  Crazy.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

English Project- Personal Essay

I thought the personal essay below was a good example of the new writing movement within the expansive genre of the personal essay.  Athough I have been slow to move to multi-media writing (I have had enough trouble learning how to write text), I am experimenting more the multi-media both in my own writing and especially in my teaching.  It seems, for instance, that we should be teaching students how to link on a reference page to their sources rather than write arcanely formatted Reference pages.  How many of them will be using MLA, APA, CMS, etc., in their professional lives?  Has anyone every thought about how much class time, student time, and teacher time has been wasted working with formats of Works Cited?  Boggles the mind.  Also boggles the mind that we should still be teaching it.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Apologies and Teacher Narrative

Teacher Narrative

This morning, I want to begin with an apology: when I wrote my last blog (before I edited it), I was feeling a little overfull of myself, and I let that spill out onto the page.  I had just had a wonderful day of  working with my students in the classroom; and a couple of other things are going right in my life; and so I simply got carried away with myself in a public sphere.

Apologies having been offered, I want to think in this space about another conversation I had with  Carra--I guess I depend on her to keep my honest.  She has been traveling with me in this personal writing conversation--and the interchanges on WPA-L.  The pseudo opposition between personal and academic writing is of course historical, having been played and replayed many times in the last three centuries--and in our own experience, in the Bartholomae/Elbow conversation (side note: one of my students perceptively noted how Bartholomae was appropriating Elbow's style in that CE/CCC conversation).

Carra suggested that many of us have a common narrative in which we travel in and out of writing for pleasure.  She painted a kind of mind-map for me, which I have tried to reproduce, but I'm not that kind of thinker, so I'm writing out here my map as my own way of understanding it.  She said there are probably many people in our field who think somewhat as I do, people who have been drawn into the profession because of their love of writing.  Here's where the trouble starts: this love runs into social demands on the writer.  In school, the writer runs into the teacher.  Our love of writing very likely (as was the case with me--and as is a common narrative) had a lot to do with our love of reading. I'm going to include a link here to my narrative of my -- i kind of hate to use the term but -- my literacy history.

School is really a killer.  Yes, we learn things there--but frequently, not the lesson intended.  The majority of students learn to dislike reading and writing.  This disaffection is in part a consequence of social class reproduction--which I and many other writers/scholars have explored.  I'm going to stick to writing here.  Probably most of us who are writing teachers managed to survive negative school writing experiences--and of course some thrived (that wasn't me--see my narrative).  I don't think it would be too difficult to create a graphic correlation between social class fraction and writer-survival.

Here's where the story gets complicated:  I think it's the tension between being and seeming (another side note: Bourdieu links these conditions to social class origins--guess who is and who pretends to be).  We come into being through our non-school writing, which we maintain (and most give it up) in spite of our school experiences.  The school writing is mostly seeming and an unsatisfactory experience for several reasons:  we're being graded for our "being," and we soon learn we have to "seem."

I can already see this is going to be too long.  Let me try to cut to the quick.  By the time we get our PhDs, we're pretty securely locked into the land of seeming.  We know how to negotiate it.  We learn how to get published, how to cite, how to assume certain poses, how (Judith Butler?) to obfuscate, seem more intelligent than we are, how to be someone other than who we are.  We learn how to "seem" intelligent, learned, how to quote Bakhtin, Foucault, and Butler, trying to insert ourselves in the unfolding conversation.  I know I'm being a bit cynical here; on the other hand, I have too often had to counsel graduate students about the need for simple, clean language--enough of this iterative discourse already.

Most of us probably segue into WPA positions--that was my trajectory after teaching high school for 13 years and returning to graduate school at forty.  When I was a high school teacher, I taught in California according to the closed-door concept.  I basically taught courses in Steinbeck and writing.  In my writing courses I had the simple formula to which I have (now that I am no longer a WPA) returned: create writing assignments you know your students will enjoy writing, that you will enjoy reading, and that they will enjoy reading what the others have written. Dewey and Freire are embedded in this formula:  learning should be exciting and fun, a lifelong project.  And as Moffett said, we are not only teaching what, we are teaching how.  If learning is fun in our classroom, we are teaching learning as fun.  If learning is a pain, well . . .

I am somewhat comfortable about how I handled my years as a WPA.  Nevertheless, much of what I did could be interrogated.  When I was WPA in my two universities, I lost my closed-door pedagogy; instead, I felt as if I were in a fishbowl.  I felt as if I had to create a pedagogical model that could responsibly be repeated by new graduate students and instructors and approved by professors in other disciplines.  Actually, I think I did a pretty good job of this.  I linked our objectives and genres to what we discovered were common in other disciplines.  There is of course an obvious fault line here: what if those objectives make students dislike or even hate writing?  And what if a significant proportion of our objectives in higher education are bogus--just a part of the game of maintaining social-class relationships.  I'm just wondering.

When I was no longer WPA, I felt a certain freedom.  I was no longer teaching in that fishbowl.  I closed the door, and I taught and have been teaching writing the way I know I should have been teaching all along.  Anyone who has managed to get through this reflection might see the threads that lead into unknown directions--like a spider casting her silk into the wind and knowing that sooner or later, one of them will catch hold.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Writing and Teaching for Fun

Writing and Teaching for Fun

Well, it's a Thursday night and I'm just kind of hanging around my computer and thinking about the personal writing question--not really a question to me, because I am enjoying how I am teaching writing.  I go into the classroom every day to meet with students who are learning about themselves and each other through what they write.

I want in this post to take up the question of transfer that Jerry brought up in a WPA-L post yesterday & which I have included as a post below. If I may be reductive, Jerry notes that personal writing (and again--let's get over the hangup of what is and isn't personal writing-- doesn't move toward generalization.  It remains in the individual's experience, the logic of One.  Academic (let's call it scientific [Kinneavy] comes from a different direction: from research of the many, legitimizing generalizations that can the be applied to the One.  I know this is oversimplified, but that's the general drift.

Jerry then brings up the question of transfer: of what we teach in required writing classes (RWC) transferring to other academic contexts.  I feel myself moving into dangerous territory here and think I should stop, but I guess I'll plunge ahead for a couple of paragraphs.

Ok.  Probably a good deal of what we teach in RWCs is bullshit, everybody's wasted time.  Most of us know what's behind this claim--lots of money, for instance.  Seat time.  Release of tenured faculty for more research because of the cheap labor.  I'm not saying that we couldn't imagine seriously useful writing classes for first & second year students--but, well, I needn't go on.  Anyone who has taken the trouble to ask student at the third and fourth year levels how much those RWCes helped them negotiate subsequent writing tasks knows what I'm saying here.

Let me get to two fundamental questions.  What do I want to focus on in my writing classes.  It's love of writing. It's learning how writing can help you understand more about who you are and who others are (when you read their writing) and then adjusting your frames as a consequence of what you read.  And when you get your students writing about what they are going through (and including what you are going through), they read about each other and move toward generalizations about the human experience by having read about real experiences.  Obviously, I'm relying on Freire here (unapologetically, my personal hero, along with Moffett and Bourdieu).  And if writers can reflect back on this generalizing process--well, what does one need to say?

And finally, the important question of transfer.  I'm a genre freak.  My dissertation was on the uses and misuses of genre.  But now I'm writing about affect transfer.  I think that if students have good writing experiences, they will be more open to meeting new rhetorical situations/demands. If they have made the kind of connect with writing that I and so many others of you have made with writing, they'll be able to move their love of writing and confidence of themselves as writers into new territory--understanding how this move into new territory works.

Writing should be fun; reading what our students write should be fun; our students reading what the others write should be fun; and thinking about all this should be fun.  I'm going to make a claim--if you're not having fun with your students and their writing, well, it will probably show.

The Question of Transfer

I'm going to post Jerry's post the WPA-L here and then struggle to answer his central question.  As usual, Jerry poses thoughtful remarks--and the earmarks of seriously thinking about his question rather than pose a rhetorical question, using the question as a frame within which to make his argument. I'm going to think carefully about his post and a way of engaging in his question.  I'll probably combine this with some links to others who have taken seriously my project of making writing fun.  I'm assuming Jerry wouldn't mind this reposting.

Very nice summary of much of the argument for teaching personal writing.  As David suggested, many of us in the field don't view personal writing as too easy but just the opposite.  And I would take it one notch further: I suggest that personal writing is really a complex of different writing functions that rely primarily on one particular kind of data (i.e., personal experience) and tend to take a similar form (i.e., narrative).  But the purposes of these different "genres" ("sub-genres"?) can be vastly different.  Yet they also share one more trait: a limitation in the ability to generalize from them, because they rely primarily on personal experience and narrative.

Traditional academic and professional writing, different as they can be, share at this abstract level just the opposite functions and features: They use varying kinds of data and take a variety of forms with the intent of generalization.  And for me, this is where teaching personal writing becomes complicated, because the different functions of personal writing "genres" can make transfer a real issue--IF we assume that what students should learn from personal writing assignments should transfer to other kinds of writing and, specifically, academic and professional kinds of writing.

Let me give an example.  This semester, I am using Amy Chua's Wall Street Journal essay, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" as a starting point in teaching students how to actively and critically read texts, summarize texts, synthesize texts within ongoing "conversations," and respond to those conversations.  Chua's essay is interesting, because she relies virtually entirely on her own personal experience.  She mentions "tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting" and summarizes "one study," but she never provides any adequate citation of this research, and she leaves it behind after the 4th paragraph.  Also, notably absent is any data from other Chinese or Asian or other parents. All she provides are sweeping generalizations about Chinese parenting versus Western parenting (in addition, a clear either/of fallacy, among others).  Chua's essay, then, is a lesson in how not to use personal experience in argument.  Yet, there are moments of good personal writing, most notably her anecdote about her daughter Lulu (age seven) when trying to learn a particularly difficult piano piece, a narrative that Chua calls "a story in favor of coercion."  The problem, of course, is that Chua presents this as an example not just of how her "Chinese" (also called by experts in the field "tiger" and even "harsh" and "authoritarian") parenting can produce success for children but an example that, Chua claims, shows the superiority of her kind of parenting.

I don't know about you, but I've seen students--even graduate students--fall into this same fallacy of overgeneralizing from personal experience.  Yet, there are other examples--I think here of a number of Ellen Goodman essays--where the writer successfully relies on personal experience to suggest the possibility of generalizing.  Goodman was very good at telling a suggestive story and letting the reader do the generalizing from her or his own experience, although there were many times, where her personal stories would lead into actual arguments.  But that ability to use personal experience to suggest the possibility of generalization is such a nuanced art, I question the ability of many novice writers to apply their learning about that strategy to their own writing.

And so, I think many of us fall back on having students explicitly state the "lessons" of the personal experiences they relate and then, offer a final conclusion about how the lessons of these experiences could be relevant to that of others, perhaps even the readers.  And this is where I become ambivalent about the personal experience essay.  I understand the argument of having students succeed at writing early on.  Self-efficacy research is very clear: success raises self-efficacy levels and thus, breeds further success.  But the research is also clear that success as causation of further success must be perceived as relevant to that subsequent effort at success.  That is, what students learn from writing the personal experience essay must be seen as relevant to the writing of the next or some subsequent text(s).  That's why I tend to teach the use of personal experience as one source of data for supporting examples and the use of personal narrative as one argumentative strategy.  And I also teach reflective writing, which will include personal reflections, as a way for students to monitor their learning.

I am not saying, of course, that personal writing can't have other, just as important functions. There's research clearly showing the health and well-being values of journal writing that includes writing about personal experiences.  Personal writing can certainly help us explore ourselves and reflect on who we our and our relationship to the world.  But that brings me back to the larger issue of the purpose of the composition course.  It seems to me that if we view the comp course as preparing students to write academically and/or professionally, then the role of personal writing becomes a question. 

So, in the end, I'm not sure that personal writing is really the issue.  Personal writing exists.  It's not "easy."  It has important functions that should not be discounted.  But what's its role in college composition instruction?  And I'm asking this sincerely, because I am truly uncertain what I think about its role.