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, September 30, 2013

few minutes of undisciplined writing

I'm going to permit myself a few minutes of undisciplined writing about the use of personal writing in the classroom, a subject that will probably be the focus of the rest of my academic years.  I am collecting on my research page statements from writing teachers (and I hope from students) on the use, misuse, or disuse of personal writing.  Some of us have hit in our discussions on the difference between writing for fun and writing for pain (imagining that later the pain will pay off in, let's say, delayed gratification).  My parenthetical statement here opens up the issue of class warfare, if anyone has paid attention to Pierre Bourdieu, or, in inversion, to Lynn Bloom's Freshman Writing as a Middle Class Enterprise--an absolutely fascinating essay chock full of social-class irony.

I am going to make an unsurprising claim here:  teachers who celebrate depersonalized, pseudo-objective writing are -- I'm trying to put this kindly -- falling prey to a program of social reproduction.  I know this is the obverse of Berlin's claim (and I know now that I am writing to my colleagues, not my students--but they're listening in).  Well, I wrote about all this in my book, Going North, Thinking West.  Here's what lies behind this thesis--and I have been subject to this delusion (see Peckham, The Stories We Tell): We're eulogizing a discourse or set of genres more available to middle-class than to working-class children.  That's social reproduction.  Further, I think that we're implicated in the game--in fact, I'm sure of it.  We get into the academic/objective/intellectual/impersonal writing game, we are in some sense trying to increase our personal status within the field and within the very suspect universe of higher education.

I of course know that colleges and universities pretend they are educating.  But really, are we all beguiled by that claim?  How can we interrogate (think critically) about the function of higher education?  And how can we interrogate the various games we play when we derogate writing for pleasure and fun (personal, expressive, exploratory, seriously communicative writing) and elevate supra-genres like depersonalize argument, assignments (and I've given many of them) that take the fun out of writing?  As I write this, I realize I'm angry.  I'm angry about any form of writing instruction that takes the fun out of writing--and I've done my share of it.  I think that many of our claims about what we need to teach are forms of posturing--postures that we've been taught to assume (Tompkins).

I suppose I'm just reverting to a Freirean trope: we need to pay attention to what our students enjoy writing and work from there.  I urge, as I think Beth put it, a refocusing on self-sponsored writing.  Britton et al., called it impelled--the kind of writing I'm doing here, because I would like to see a paradigm shift away from so-called reasoned writing.  I want to see (and read) writing that speaks clearly, in which writers reveal themselves, and open themselves up to a free exchange of emotions (with some grounding in experience).  Doug and Wendy have of course been leaders in this agenda.  I'm just following in their wake.  I would make one claim and I make it to my students: if you're not having fun here, let's rethink.  And if I'm not in love with what my students write, I had better rethink.

End of rant.

[This is a post on my personal writing blog ( ).  In my English 2000 class, I'm asking them to explore who they speak to the outside world and get that nether world to speak back. ]

Sunday, September 29, 2013

My Sunday morning post to WPA-L

My Sunday morning post to WPA-L is below.  Here's what's interesting to me:  Writing their autobiographies was hard fun (see the link to Papert, 2002) for all but one of my students--and I am quite certain she will break through her block.  Writing an autobiography for your classmates--well, it's both a simple and complex assignment.  As I note in my post, the writer has to face several challenges as they decide on a theme (most of my writers did) and which events or emotions or relationships to write about--and how deeply to go into them and how to mix their narratives with their reflections.  They all remarked on what they learned about themselves and others by writing these.  In sum, although they enjoyed writing, it wasn't easy.  It was hard fun. (thanks, Seymore, for that notion).

I had an interesting telephone conversation with my long-distance friend Carra last night--all  of my conversations with Carra are interesting.  We were trading back and forth some thoughts on, well, let's call it predictability.  I wouldn't have thought that my students' autobiographies would have fallen into that range, but I discovered after reading them a kind of theme in the collection of essays (treating the collection as a kind of macro-essay).  The dominant element was family.  Almost all of the writers (if not all) focused on their families, their closeness, how they became who they are because of their families, the difficulties in moving away and adjusting to life at LSU, of how much they miss their families and how they have tried to cope with their new lives, and their unease with what lies before them, now that several of them are about to graduate--an unease mixed with excitement.  These are all courageous, wonderful students and writers.  As a reader, I am irresistibly drawn into their worlds as they write about this moment in their lives.  I am with them--actually, in more ways than one because after Sarah died two years and two months ago, I was in a similar situation--a loss, an emptiness that I thought would never be refilled.  Being single after forty-one years of marriage, well, it's an entirely different and relatively bleak world; you have to recreate another one.  I wouldn't call it scary--I'm too experienced in life to be frightened by it anymore, but it's like scary.  It's like you have to make something out of the void.  So I suspect that when reading my students' essays, I was drawn into them almost as if I were reading about myself in an alternative universe, having passed though the black hole.  

I hope that if you have stumbled on this blog about using personal writing in the classroom, that you will read my students' essays after they decide they are ready to put them up.  You'll find them by looking at the links to my class English 4023 on the right.  Move your cursor over there & the links will slide out (sorry--can't resist that gadget).
My post to WPA-L

Thanks, Nick, for your reference to a review of Papert.    In the review, I took some exception to the last two paragraphs (the students not realizing that the fun is just over the horizon kind of thinking--a trust-the-teacher-who-knows-better rhetoric), but I very much liked what Papert said.  I'll pay attention to him and try to connect.  Much of what my students write about their writing locks into his notion of hard fun.  I'll put on my blog some of my students' comments--I think they are very instructive when they write about the difficulties they face when examining their lives and how they are going to explain themselves to the other students in the classroom.  

Out of the ten students I have in my Life Writing class (great class to teach--although I wouldn't say I'm teaching--playing is a lot more like it), only one was unable to break through to that place where the words simply come out.  And she's writing now, trying to examine why writing a short autobiography was so hard for her--she's a good writer, she wanted to do it, she loved reading others', but she ran into a block.  

Actually, when you think it about it, writing a brief autobiography to classmates you are just beginning to know from the inside is far from an easy or simple task.  I would like to have others on this list read their autobiographies and their comments about what they went through while writing them (I assume everyone recognizes the research element here on my part).  I'll put an invitation out to this list when my students say they are ready to have their essays read by others outside our class.  I think that will be next week.  They are really quite lovely to read--although I can't tear apart my pleasure from how well I know and like the writers.

Thank you, Steve and Margaret for your comments and references.   I appreciate all references and am keeping a list of them on my blog.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Rigor Mortis

I just did a search for posts on WPA-Ls on personal writing over the last 13 years.  As I expected, there are hundreds of postings. I'll collect them on my research page & maybe try to code & analyze them.  Most writing professors are suspicios & some downright hostile to the use of personal writing.  If you read Beth Daniel's response to me, you might think there is good reason for this hostility--the times when writing teachers more or less intrude into their students' lives.  On the nether end of this complaint lies the writing teacher who plays therapist--Jeffrey Berman comes close to this, but he has researched the process and to my mind, handles the emotional and psychological dangers quite well.  But there are reasons to worry--I suppose.

But I sense a different source of antagonism--and I don't know whether I'll be able to explain it.  The general culprit is "rigor" combined perhaps with the grade issue.  Personal writing seems too soft, too easy to do, too, well, too feminine--no rigor.  It's this hard stuff (sorry) that gets people excited.  Hard stuff is also more academically rigorous.  One could go a long way with this thinking, but I'm sure you get the point (again, sorry).  

It just seems too easy to give writing tasks that students are going to enjoy and that the teacher is going to enjoy reading.  Everybody's just not working hard enough.

I'm pretty certain that this reaction to fun is crazy.  I think writing should be fun.  I think living should be fun.  I think learning should be fun.  I think Beth said that she wants her students to learn how to learn--I don't think that will happen unless the experience of learning is fun.  And I also think the experience has to be fun for both the teacher & students, in which case a kind of double reinforcement occurs--the teacher and student enjoyment feed and enhance each other.  I am certain that when my students know how much I enjoy being with them and reading what they write, then they enjoy the process of learning, and their enjoyment feeds back to me and to each other.  I know some of my cynical friends will just be thinking, he's just taking the easy way out (that might be true--but I'm all for the easy way out); he's not teaching them what they need to know; he's unwilling to do the hard work of reading lifeless papers.  But I think that a lot of what we think we need to teach is bogus.  This claim is hardly news to educators who have, let’s say, thought critically about education. 

John Dewey was hardly the first or last person to acknowledge that most classroom seat time is wasted (Freire, Kozal, Holt, Postman & Weingarten, etc).  As soon as one notices how little education actually occurs in (and out) of the classroom, one is led to wonder about the hidden curriculum (Anyon, Clark), possibly the social reproductive function of education. 

One assumes that in our field, we are far from immune to delusion, thinking we are teaching something useful when in fact we may just be ensuring through what we teach that the redistribution of wealth, assets, and privileges continues in the current pattern.  Or we think we’re teaching critical thinking without thinking critically about critical thinking.  Or we think we’re teaching writing when in fact we’re teaching our students how to dislike writing and do what they can to avoid writing situations.  Well, there are all sorts of possibilities of misdirected instruction.  And each of us knows the misdirected instructor might be us.

I wonder how much of what we teach in required writing classes proves useful to our students either in their undergraduate courses or in their personal and professional lives.  For instance, all this time we spend on teaching argumentative strategies.  Have you ever seen that U-tube presentation, The Five-Minute University?  Hmmmm.  And I know that the current trope among comp/rhet people is evidence-based writing.  Actually, I don’t have anything against evidence-based writing (or thinking) if it’s fun.  If it’s a bore—or painful—well, I’m not for it.

I might be misdirected, but particularly in these waning years of my professional life, I want to teach writing as fun.  I almost don’t care what else my students learn if they learn that writing can be fun—and even enlightening.  Writing to express, to learn, to communicate seriously, to explore, to bring to life half-formed thoughts and vague memories you don’t want to die.  I don’t know—I think we might be more productive in our field if we focused on the joy of writing and passed that joy on.  I think we have to begin from that joy—and it’s the joy we feel when we read and respond to our students and they read and respond to each other and are responded to.  Thinking of basics:  that’s basic.  We can work outward from there.  But if we don’t get that one down, well, I think we’re traveling down the wrong road.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Context of the Personal Essay

Thoughts on research:
Ok, I'll have to admit, I've screwed up on this post a few times.  Trial an error.  I'm going to use this page to keep track of my thoughts and sources on the use of personal writing in the classroom.  Better save now, cuz i lost before.  I know the issue of personal writing began in about 1822 when Bishop Richard Whatley (Elements of Rhetoric, 1938 or so) first asked his students to write about their summer vacation, locating the subject in their lives rather than abstractions like Virtue, Obedience, Government, Chastity (just kidding) and so on.  There were all sorts of social class issues involved in this move away from abstract subjects.  That Summer Vacation writing task took on a life of its own, lasting for decades and is now a joke--but one should remember that it was a revolutionary subject in the early 19th century--having students write about their own lives!!! as if they mattered????

Whately, Richard.  Elements of Rhetoric.

I think the reference was on about p. 40 or so.

There were many bumps in the road from the 1850s on--but personal writing was never, for social class reasons, the favorite on higher (or lower, for that matter) education.  The short story here is that the favored genres of writing are going to be those that the middle-middle and upper-middle classes have access to and which the lower-middle, working, and poverty classes don't.  This is a sneaky way of maintaining social class privilege.  There are all sorts of other ways, but the selection of privileged genres is only one (ok--personal opinion here).

I think one of the proponents of personal writing in the early 20th century was Fred Newman Scott in about 1930 or so, University of Michigan.  He was intelligent enough (and not overdetermined by social class biases) to know that students would learn more about writing if they were invested in their topics, and they would learn less if they had to write about subjects in which they had no interest.  I'll check this out in James Berlin's Rhetoric and Reality, but this subject has been written about in several places.  In Rhetoric and Reality, Berlin also recounted the experiment in the University of Colorado, Denver, when writing instructors began to use writing as therapy--primarily in response to the traumas many of their World War II veterans, going back to college on the GI bill suffered.  Teachers in that program used writing as a way to help their students overcome what is now know as PTSD.  These teachers were criticized for dabbling in areas in which they had no training--risking greater trauma as their students relived their wartime experiences.  I know all about this.  My father was captured in WWII by the Germans and put in Stalag 17 or 19--one of the famous ones--for a year.  At then end of the war, when he was liberated, he weighed 90 lbs.  He had to spend another year in a hospital before he was allowed to come home.  He had PTSD for the rest of his life--a violent temper, a wild misdirection, a love of guns and shooting.

I think personal writing was more or less ignored until the mid-sixties, a consequence in part of the student resistance to middle-class culture (see Little Boxes) and the war in Viet Nam.  I was a part of that resistance.  At the same time, there were many educators resisting (linking their resistance to race and social class) the dry pedagogy of the times, exemplified by the idiotic five-paragraph essays.  James Britton et al in The Development of Writing Abilities (1975) reported on the neglect in British schools of expressive writing, a key element in the development of writing ability; relying instead on transactional writing, the sort of writing that was certain to alienated student writers.  This privileging of transactional writing (the sort middle-class students are trained to do [see Annette Larreau, Unequal Childhoods]) was the mainstay of traditional education in Britain and more so in the United States.  There are all sorts of implications and consequences of this privileging.  They concern capitalist ideology, the myth of individualism, meritocracy, and all sorts of mythologies that the ruling classes have unconsciously subscribed to in order to maintain their privileges and the illusion of their merit (as was said of George Bush, who was born on third base and thought he hit a homer).

I have clearly segued into my personal predisposition here, losing any sense or appearance of objectivity (although it is possible that I have still retained some).  But before I get into my own history and consequent bias, I want to get to the Dartmouth Seminar--an event that has been all but forgotten except by a few aging scholars like Joe Harris and myself.  That was an event when writing teachers from secondary and postsecondary institutions in England and the United States met for a week or so trying to hammer out a reasonable position on the best teacher practices for reading and writing (or literacy).  The subjectivists (those who believed in the efficacy of personal [expressive] writing clashed with the objectivists (the academics--largely the Americans).  There's quite a story here and it has been told from both sides.  John Dixon, Growth Through English, described the seminar from the subjectivists' point of view (the right side, by my reading) and Herbert Muller, The Uses of English [see here for a review] presented the American (objectivist) side.  One should also read this article for an overview of the issue.

Lord: that's enough for tonight.  Next installment: my social origins and consequent biases.