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.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Being Single

You know you're single when you've moved to a new town and have gone for a bike ride and got a
flat tire five miles out and your expensive portable bike pump doesn't work and you're wearing road bike shoes.

--I know what I want for Christmas.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Thinking Slowly

While I'm procrastinating on another project, my mind slipped (trying to avoid that other project), back to the struggle trope. One of my good friends said she had to struggle to read the Freirean quote on critical thinking that heads this blog. She said, "I slowed down to understand this challenging bit
of text.  I noticed two things.  First, I had to wrestle with the language to consider how to read “critical thinking-thinking”—which I like, as an expression, but it was a challenge to capture.  And I circled around the text to sort out the complicated constructions and to construct for myself the meaning.  I think reading can often be a 'struggle.'  So why not writing?"

Racing ahead in my mind, I can see this post is  going to be too long (and I need to get to that other project). I know I had to read Freire slowly when I first stumbled across him--as with my friend, Mary, I had to read forward and back, thinking through and digging into his ideas. It's worth analyzing why this passage and so much of the early Freire is difficult to read. The ideas are not complex--we're just not used to those thoughts--"an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them." OK--use of "dichotomy" is a bit problematic--Freire means a break, a division between opposing forces. In capitalist America (and particularly in Louisiana), we'll have some trouble with that concept--we're people, God's people, and he put the earth and animals (and the universe) here for us to use--the Universe is our Eden. So it's a bit difficult to imagine a stone as important as us.

I'm really procrastinating. I would enjoy, like Mary, going through this passage sentence by sentence. I have spent a class period with my students on this paragraph, slowing down, if you will, to read seriously, turning what might be a struggle into, well, into something else--a walk in a garden where friends sit on a stone bench and just talk and think about things. We don't have to get anywhere or do anything; we just consider, wonder.

I am wondering now whether struggle is a consequence of speed--and that we create struggle for our students by hurrying them, giving them lots to read and write and prove to us that they have read and written.

Let me offer a for-instance: why don't we spend more time having students write and read and respond (to what was said, not how it was said) to each other in class? Quiet time. Like in a garden. Music. Writing and responding to each other as pleasure.

I have to stop. I really have to get that work done.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanks, Bruce and Liquidiamonds: I want to acknowledge your comments and ask others to go back to Lad Tobin's book, Reading Student Writing.  I'm taking notes right now, digitizing some of Lad's insights--and there were many.  Here's one when he writes about his classes: “ . . . my students produce pieces that are aimed at actual humans who might actually be interested” (125).

Lad and I both address the phenomenon of "Reader's Block," teachers who procrastinate, recreating in their reading the scene they have set up for their writers. Lad seems to have given up on the rhetoric and composition community (personal communication); I'm hanging in there. The question I'm asking--why can't we stop creating rhetorical situations that push students away from writing when it's so easy to invite them in? I think this is actually a very interesting question. Enough with this struggle trope.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

How We Know We're Wrong

I'm writing this just to remind myself as I'm going through Lad Tobin's book and taking notes (he and I are so much in synch--very surprised we never got together).

Here's one of my mantras (and I've probably said this before): if you don't like reading what your students wrote (and most likely, they didn't like writing--the struggle issue), that's proof that you set up the wrong rhetorical situation.
I wrote too hurridly--not giving full space to Mary (and I hope John Bean isn't reading this blog). I'm going to cite Mary's reply (I think this is all right, because she posted it in a comment):

"Ouch Irv! I think you have indeed either misunderstood or taken my comments too much out of context. When I referred to a bad workout, I meant that sometimes even those things we enjoy involve difficulty. And I think it's important to talk with students about how it's perfectly natural to experience these moments (same goes for practicing a musical instrument). It doesn't mean we stop. It doesn't mean we still can't enjoy the broader experience of the activity. In the context of writing, I tell my students all the time that writing is thinking and sometimes thinking can be messy! But if they stick with it and get feedback, they can work through to clarity and deeper thinking. This is true for all meaningful writing, including what you refer to as naturalistic research (which I find quite interesting and valuable!)."
I know that sometimes writing is a struggle and that maybe we have to teach students how to push through the struggle. What Mary is doing is foregrounding for students the nature of the struggle and making it an object of inquiry. I know of course that Mary is helping her students discover ways of coping with the frequently difficult writing situations students face in academic and professional environments. I think Dewey has an interesting passage in Experience and Education in which he compares education (as opposed to mis-education) to game; once in the game, the players play almost for the sake and pleasure of being in the game, the rules and moves almost hardwired into who they are. As a game freak and biker, I understand what Mary's getting at--the struggle becomes part of and a pleasure in the game. We know if we're doing the right thing with our students in this game of writing if we get reports from them about the pleasure, struggle notwithstanding, of the game.

A key indicator: can they hardly wait to get back into the game, or do they put it off until the last minute the way teachers put off reading the results of their play (reader's block). If we see eagerness, in spite of the fact that it may involve struggle, to both write and read, we'll know we're doing the right thing.

Writing as Struggle

In her comment to one of my posts, Mary Goldschmidt (whom I like and greatly admire) refers (I'm struggling not to decontextualize her comment) to writing that is sometimes like a bad workout. I'm framing Mary's remark within notes that I am now taking on Lad Tobin's book, Reading Student Writers.

I am also going to struggle to stick to two points, noting that my struggle, unlike the struggle to which Mary and John Bean (Engaging Ideas) refer, is a struggle not to write, not to write, I think because I have let loose of the personal/impersonal dichotomy. Once we see writing as continuum moving from ourselves outward (Moffett), much of the conflict between scholars like Lad, Peter Elbow, and me and those who think of the personal as squishy, unrigorous (should i say, "unmale"?) deconstructs. And in a large part, I think the "struggle" deconstructs as well.

I'm a mountain biker (Mary's a road biker) and I always try to beat my last time, so I recognize Mary's comparison to her struggle for better times to the struggle to write--one rigor scholars have previously cited to justify making their pedagogies that make their students struggle with their writing in order to struggle with their thinking (Bean), but I think we need to distinguish between games we have voluntarily entered and those we have required. And I am deeply suspicious of comparing a communicating/social activity like writing to a competitive, athletic activity like biking. I don't like to think that I am writing in order to beat my former self or others who may be writing in the same race.

I am about to launch into several directions, so I'm going to try to get to my second point: If we can deconstruct the dichotomy between personal and impersonal, perhaps we can naturalize research for our students. I have probably written in here about this before, so here goes again. The overdetermined concept of the "research paper" has depersonalized, overly scientized research.

I like to think of research like this: I've got an issue that I'm interested in for deeply personal reasons (in my case, the use of personalized writing in academic settings). I write about this, working from the inside out, so to speak. I materialize in writing my own jumbled thoughts and desires. I know that others (like Lad and Peter) are concerned and have written about these issues. So I read a bit about what some of my friends have had to say about the issue. This is like in the classroom where we have our students write about an interesting issue (like what are some of the important fears you have in your life) and then have them read what their classmates have written.

This is already too too long for a post: but you get the drift. The students listen to their friends and then rethink (one could call this critical thinking) some of what they thought and have written about their own fears. So then maybe we can write about fear as seen from the perspective of the class. This could easily lead to some primary research, some surveys or just asking questions/interviewing others outside the class--like focusing on fear as a controlling mechanism, fears of grades, fears of writing (procrastination), fears of loneliness, fears of the unknown, or as one of my students said, of what lies around the corner, fears of the future, fear of girls, fear of boys, fears of death.

Obviously, the next stage is to do some internet searches and then replay our results back into the class, moving the investigation and discussion forward and deeper. We can even investigate how people get caught up in a social system, reproducing the structure of fear as a controlling mechanism, or how teachers who have had their voices taken away by having been graded using grades to take away their students' voices. One can go on. It gets pretty interesting. One can even start using library databases to find accessible (I mean readable) discussions of various structures and uses of fear.

My point here was to naturalize research, the kind I am currently doing by reading people like Lad  and doing surveys of students here with the intent of writing about what I'm learning--with some hope of changing the world.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Inter-species Love

Thanks to Rich, Ikea, Sarah, and Mary.

I'll try to think through several of these issues--and imagine a way of framing writing as natural and writing as academic--I'm thinking of my friend, Mary here.

I'll say this about writing instruction (and I'm replying to Mary): if the way you are framing writing tasks and responses results in impelled writing, you're on. If it's writing as struggle (John Bean--may God forgive him), you're off.

Like Rich and Jan, I'm so much into writing as pleasure, as a way of materializing who we are and how we relate to those around us. If writing (a ghost for living) is a struggle, I think we're creating a destructive educational environment. I'm personal here: I have used writing as a way of understanding myself and how I relate to others. I think students like to use writing like this--and find out about who the others are, a knowledge that feeds back into our self-discovery.

So . . . if what you are doing is creating positive experiences for writing, you're doing the right thing. If you're not, you're not. Ask your students and you'll get a hint.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Loss of Voice

I should, as usual, be doing other things. But my mind is on teaching right now--and writing about and doing teaching. I had the pleasure of a long skype conversation with Rich Haswell this afternoon; we were reviewing many of our common ideas about teaching writing in the process of excavating the history of holistic assessment. At the end, I was thinking about how much I regret that Rich has retired--one of the people who seriously knows productive ways of teaching writing, who understands that writing in the classroom (and this was one of Moffett's points) should as closely as possible resemble how those of us who are writers write. I have written before that as writers, we write to communicate, we circulate texts the way we circulate conversations, real people having real things to say to people who matter. Moffett has theorized the move outward from the self to friends, to acquaintances, to an anonymous audience writers have been internalize by interpreting it through the people the writers know.

Real writing is so different from the bulk of school writing, which I have called writing as performance, students writing to follow a teachers' formula in response to a task with some description of criteria for success set down. I realize that in every speech act, there is some degree of performance. But as performance takes over, writers lose authenticity and voice. And performance for an extrinsic motivation is simply generally painful to read. That's the essence of school writing, as opposed to real writing.

When we create in the classroom conditions that will impel students to want to write, to share their thoughts with each other, to write and write back, we are close to the conditions of real writing. And I believe that we learn more about an activity by  doing it in real as opposed to fake time.

When students are allowed to write naturally (yes, I hear my critics), they will maintain and develop the positive attitudes toward writing with which they first began to scribble.

Here's my hypothesis: if we promote a positive attitude toward writing & toward themselves as writers, we will be helping writers face uncomfortable writing situations. Students with a positive attitude will probably procrastinate less, will feel more at ease, and consequently perform (in those performance-laden situations) better. And the opposite is very likely true--negative attitude leads to increased procrastination. So what are we doing when we create negative attitudes toward writing?

It seems to me that any teacher could discover a way to assess whether she has promoted a positive or negative attitude toward writing. That should be easy. And if negative, figure out what she is doing to make students feel that way.

Just a side note on voice--we were talking about voice in class the other day: what if one of the functions of school (and writing classes in particular) is to take away students' voices? For evidence, we might look at the link between voicelessness and the bulk of school writing.

[If you can think of any research that has investigated the relationship between attitude toward writing and the ability to negotiate unfamiliar writing situations (this relationship could be generalized), please leave in a comment.]

Friday, October 31, 2014

Cliff's Edge

I want to write a quick post today, mostly because I haven't written anything in here for a few days. The Drexel quarter is rapidly coming to a close and with it, issues I hadn't anticipated, so I have more or less been keeping my head above water.

I came here in July from LSU. Let's say there is a remarkable difference in the culture of the two schools. In the first-year writing program, I opened up the possibility of grading by portfolios rather than grading each assignment. Yellie's note (above) to Jill  is the consequence of Jill's having switched from a traditional to a portfolio system of grading.

I personally enjoy teaching so much more when I have the leisure of truly responding to student writing--and getting them to respond to each other rather than grading or critiquing so that the student writer can get a better grade when he or she eventually hands the essay in for the teacher to grade/respond to--with the grading generally dominating the response.

I assume most readers understand the hidden curriculum underneath grades--functioning, as ideological state apparati (Althusser). I assume it's equally evident that good teachers don't need them--that in fact, grades tend to interrupt effective teaching, functioning not only as ISAs but creating barriers/difference between teachers and students. 

It seems to me that if you give interesting writing assignments (as I have written before: the kind you would like to write to, your students would like to write to, you would like to read, your students would like to read), you clearly don't need grades to promote learning. I know I have argued in previous posts that students learn by being engaged in the activity and by having writing function as authentic communication  rather than performances that are responses to hypothetical "rhetorical problems" (Wardle, "What is Transfer?," A Rhetoric for Writing Program Administrators).

I started yesterday working with a class of English 101 students.  Here's their assignment.  


Writing about our fears—after reading some passages from Paulo Freire (see the passages at the end of this document)—Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Freire claims that fear is the consequence of oppression--or as he writes elsewhere, domestication. The oppressed person is the subject of fear; one might say that fear is the tool of oppression. A tool, of course, does not act on its own; it needs a user. The user is not necessarily a person (although often it is); it could also be a social system--or a social structure, if you will. It's not too hard, for instance, for most of us to think about the different fears the educational system promotes through the agency of various teachers (who in their own ways have been subjects of oppression, now grown up to become instruments/tools of oppression).

Fears are also associated with risk because when we take risks, we are venturing into the unknown. It's safe to stay within well-worn paths (or formulas): we know what lies before us because we have so often been there before. It's safe just to do what we always have done.

Within this frame, we might be able to write about some of the fears we have—and in particular, the ones that are in any way linked to our fears of freedom—of being free from social and perhaps familial constraints, of being able to act on our own—Freire would call this authentic action.

So let’s write an essay about the fears that oppress us—that keep us from taking risks, moving outward into territory unknown. This essay, in keeping with its subject, has no required form, other than let’s see what we come up with in an essay if we give each other an hour of writing.
I included an essay that I wrote about my fears and that a previous student had written as samples, and also the following passages from PoP:

From Pedagogy of the Oppressed
1.     The "fear of freedom" which afflicts the oppressed, (3) a fear which may equally well lead them to desire the role of oppressor or bind them to the role of oppressed, should be examined. One of the basic elements of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is 'prescription.' Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual's choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber's consciousness. Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor.

2.     [Footnote # 3: This fear of freedom is also to be found in the oppressors, though, obviously, in a different form. The oppressed are afraid to embrace freedom; the oppressors are afraid of losing the "freedom" to oppress.]

3.     The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to reject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.

4.     To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity. But the struggle to be more fully human has already begun in the authentic struggle to transform the situation. Although the situation of oppression is a dehumanized and dehumanizing totality affecting both the oppressors and those whom they oppress, it is the latter who must from their stifled humanity, wage for both the struggle for a fuller humanity; the oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead this struggle.

5.     However, the oppressed, who have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom so long as they feel incapable of running the risks it requires. Moreover, their struggle for freedom threatens not only the oppressor, but also their own oppressed comrades who are fearful of still greater repression. When they discover within themselves the yearning to be free, they perceive that this yearning can be transformed into reality only when the same yearning is aroused in their comrades. But while dominated by the fear of freedom they refuse to appeal to others, or to listen to the appeals of others, or even to the appeals of their own conscience. They prefer gregariousness to authentic comradeship; they prefer the security of conformity with their state of unfreedom to the creative communion produced by freedom and even the very pursuit of freedom.  
6.   The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being. They discover that without freedom they cannot exist authentically. Yet although they desire authentic existence, they fear it. They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized. The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices' between being spectators or actors; between acting or having the illusion of acting through the action of the oppressors; between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and recreate, in their power to transform the world. This is the tragic dilemma of the oppressed which their education must take into account. 
I invited students to try to read the passages (not an assignment); the most important thing was to  sit down and see what they could write in an hour. Then we met yesterday (my first time meeting them--I sent the assignment to them via blackboard). Before I asked them to read and respond (not critique, not evaluate; respond) to others in the class, we took a little time to try to make it through Freire's first paragraph.  

The students took the paragraphs to wonderful places, connecting these places to their fears (of freedom). Then they simply got out their laptops and began reading and responding to each other.

This is a simple pedagogy. Really, there's nothing to it. Just get rid of the grades, think of some interesting things to have everyone (including the teacher) write about, and let everyone (including the teacher) read and respond to each other.

At the end of every class, I have the students take a few minutes to write in a class journal (my version of Shor's After-Class group) where I ask them just to let me know how class went and maybe anything we might want to work on or change. I'm  including a couple of entries below. 

I know I'm congratulating myself as a teacher--but you would think that after forty years of teaching writing, I would be pretty good at teaching writing--and I am. If I weren't, well . . . 

From Liz
It went very interestingly. This is a different setup from any class I have had, as far as using an online tool as Blackboard in such a way, but I like it. It goes very smoothly and lets us all share efficiently in the short amount of time we have, without having to talk over one another. I also love the assignment, and I think it helps us get to know each other better as well. Another perk is learning new writing styles! 

My point is not my teaching. The real point in Elise's entry: she learned in a very short time "new writing styles" by reading her classmates' essays.  There was nothing forced about this lesson. It was simply natural learning. 

Here's Bethany's entry:

I really liked this way of doing class. I feel like I am writing a lot more, and responding to the ideas in other people's essays a lot more. Not only do I get to see the unique views of my classmates, but I also end up writing more of my own ideas in response to theirs. It is interesting to see other people's points of view.

Bethany comments on what she learns by reading others--and it seems as if this learning stimulates her to do more writing. I  have often seen that when you get rid of grades and focus on the pleasure of writing (Barthes), you open the gate. And when people write and are written to, they learn a lot about writing. The opposite is probably true when they write and get written about.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Here's my idea:

I am wondering whether I can get some help from my WPA friends who might post some ideas in the comment section here.

Here's what I'm looking for:

Supposing you agree with me on the following claims about good teaching:

1. Authentic (I'm trying to re-authorize that adjective) education encourages students to do more of what was being taught, long after the class was over (Dewey).

2. You have done part of your job as a teacher if your students have a more positive attitude toward writing after having been in your class than when they came in.

3. Writing assignments (we should find another way of naming them) should place students in authentic writing situations--writers writing about something they care about to people they care about and for reasons that draw them into the writing situation (as I have been drawn in here). In authentic writing situations, students of course need to be doing something more than writing for grades.

4. Students should enjoy responding to the writing assignment and should want to read how other students have responded and enjoy responding to those responses (and responding to responses to responses); and teachers should be eager to read and respond to what their students have written.

We have a second quarter writing course at Drexel. The nominal (and quite expected) focus is Persuasion. For the moment, I'm going to collapse the surpa-genres of Persuasion and Argumentation (Kinneavy).

I don't want a lot of reading in the course. In fact, I could get along without any outside reading--I prefer to have students reading what  others in their class have written. So I'm trying to imagine three writing assignments that might fall under the persuasion/argumentation category. These assignments do not necessarily have to be sequenced. At some point, I think we teach our students something valuable about writing by having them write simply for the sake of writing, of figuring out who they are and what they're doing here by trying to write it down (almost a non-audience situation).

So do any of you have ideas that you can include in comments below? I mean ideas you have tried out and have worked? You know they worked when you couldn't wait to read what your students wrote--when you didn't procrastinate but got right into reading and responding (authentically) to what your students wrote?

These ideas need to be only loosely connected to the persuasion/argumentation vortexes of the communication triangle. As I have suggested, they work better when they slide toward the expressive vortex. We might begin by a first writing task. Something like:

Almost everyone in this class is on the cusp of life--you have grown up and are entering into the world where what you say and do counts not only to your immediate social circles but to others, to people you seem to only rub against. This class is a good example: at this point, you don't know each other. You come from a variety of social experiences within which are embedded different beliefs about how people should live. For this essay, I would like to have you think about your classmates and explain to them what you think are the most important values to which you should cling as you make your way through life. I would urge you not to write about cliches, the values like freedom, democracy, and so on--but rather to dig deeper, to try to get at who you are and what you think will make your life worth living not only for yourselves, but for others.

I know this is a complicated writing task, encouraging a superficial response based on the values you think others will agree to. Maybe in this response, you will be able to explore the not-so-readily-agreed-to values.

Ok.  So here's your writing task: Think about the task and give me and your classmates an hour of your time and post your response to our discussion thread . . . . where we will read and respond to each other's responses.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Coming Alive

I have  three things I would like to write about--but as soon as I open them up, they open into a web of other interests. Let me see where I go:

First, I wanted to get down what I meant by unguided peer response and how students can learn from each other by osmosis rather than critique.

If we can imagine subjects close to our students' lives (and that's not hard if we get off the academic, evidence-based writing cliche), we can have students write meaningful essays about their lives and what they're thinking as they try to imagine who they are, what they're doing, and what they might do. Then we create a venue in which they openly and unrestrictively respond to each other as people communicating to each other. This isn't the guided response in which I have specialized for most of my pedagogical career. It's responding to what was said, not how it was said (although the how might merge with the what).
reasons to love being alive | via Tumblr
In my classes, I have ways of encouraging an even distribution of responses so that everyone gets read (by read, I mean gaining meaning through being responded to); still, some writers get more, longer, and more sincere responses, readers responding to them as people. My students notice (and I have them write about this) which kinds of essays get those responses (this has to do with vulnerability). They pay attention to how the most-responded-to writers wrote. And then they think about how they might have written and use that knowledge the next time they write--if they would like responses, notices of their existences.

I had other subjects, but I'm going to stop here. I think that what I've written above might inform our own lives, how we live, how we do or don't open up to each other and how we gain meaning by having others notice that we're alive.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dividing by One

I'm avoiding some other work I should be doing. I had two thoughts I wanted to get down about teaching writing--the first one a consequence of what I was writing to a friend, the second about how students learn from each other.

The first is quick and mostly a re-framing of what I have written before: In our field, we have possibly too easily embraced the service argument at the expense of our commitment to our own field. I realize I am essentializing our field--as if we were an individual rather than a wild array of writers, teachers, social reformers, and searchers-for-meaning-through-what-we-do. Still, let me plow ahead, generalizing from my position and history as someone in the field.

We got over the service-to-other-fields quite some time ago--but I have realized (see my book, Going North) that my later logic of teaching in service to my students has been service to other disciplines in disguise. I have argued that we need to do what we can to help our students negotiate the labyrinth of post-secondary education. That logic leads to genre-based instruction and embracing the four outcomes we laboriously constructed in the CWPA Outcomes Statement. Basically, we want to teach our students 1. that writing (like other discourse performances) comes in genres (we should reference schema theory here), and 2. that we should teach our students how to scope out the genre/rhetorical situation called for in each discourse performance and act or not act accordingly (see my article, "The Yin and Yang of Genres," for a gendered interpretation of whether one should or should not act accordingly).

But there is something else--and I can't really put my finger(s) on it. It has to do with constructing meaning out of our lives and discovering and communicating that meaning through writing. I really hesitate to say it, but teaching our students how to construct meaning and communicating that meaning through writing is almost a higher purpose, something far beyond the service logic I have previously embraced.

The service logic here isn't bad. To some extent, we have to learn how to get along in whatever communities we find ourselves--we have to, you might say, learn how to speak without noise. But we also have to learn how to speak.

Not getting to my second item on this morning's agenda (although it might be implied in what I have written about the first).

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fake Peer Response

I had a lovely book group meeting with Val Ross and Margaret Ervin last night. We talked about Illych's Deschooling Society, a fascinating book for anyone seriously interested in education--and a critique of what we're doing in our field of Rhetoric and Composition (Illych would say we have constructed a need, forgetting that we had constructed it, imagining it as a priori, disguising how much we benefit from the socially constructed need and our memory lapse).

In our discussion, we predictably veered into claims about what we're doing that counts as good teaching (yes, trying to convince ourselves by convincing others).

I'm going to outline two of my claims, one of which is cemeted in my brain, the other a bit more like mud.

Here's the cement: I know I've written it before, but I have to keep saying it. We should always give writing assignments, the responses to which we can't wait to read. When we give writing tasks that we know might be painful for our students to write, they'll be painful to read. What's with all this pain?

Here's the mud: I have for decades been teaching genre-based writing, featuring guided peer response, based on a logic of performance. I have been teaching my students to recognize the central features in any genre and in their peer responses to act as editors giving advice to the writers so they can revise their essays in order to get higher grades when finally submitting them to me, the teacher. This almost sounds like real-life writing--getting help so that you can be published.

I'm not going to comment on how fake that logic is--based, as it is, on the desire to "be published." Instead, I want to outline how I have recently been encouraging student response. I am focusing on writing as communication. Someone (like me) writes something (like this) and then people read it and they write in response, not to how it was written, but to what was said. This of course is what I mean by a communicative (rather than performative) act.

Students come into my class  well-versed in peer-response. They're sick of the kind of guided peer-response I have been encouraging for decades.

Lately, I've loosened up. So I've asked students to respond almost entirely to what the writer said. This works well if you have students write about something that really means something to them, writing that comes out of their lives.

Students don't know how to respond in this natural way. A serious response has been trained out of them. They give these fake responses to the fake writing, and really, very little is learned.

Here's what I do. I ask students to give me an hour of writing on a meaningful topic (like try to describe what transitioning from high school to college has been like) and I have them post their responses in time so that I can read and respond (to what the writer said) to about ten essays. My responses are models for the students. They get the idea: write back. Communicate. Write real.

Of course you have to get rid of grades to effect this kind of writing experience in your classrooms--but getting rid of grades isn't all that hard; we only think it is.

[I'll write later about how students actually learn how to improve their writing from each other within this naturalistic model of response.]

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mythologizing Syllabi and Grades

It might be clear from the posts on WPA-l that a syllabus is not a legal contract--in spite of wide-spread belief. What's interesting  is the motivation behind this discourse that has lead professors to claim with near-certainty that it is (the head of the curriculum committee at LSU got a bit red in the face when I asked how he knew it was--good friend, by the way).

So: the subject here is the myths linked to the syllabus-contract conversation. The question is why do professors buy into what is obviously a myth?

I know the genuflect to the syllabus myth has something to do with a defensive posture.  Let me frame a counter-posture: We are educators. We believe in the free-floating (that is, apart from grades) value of writing, reading, thinking. We believe in education as somehow being above what can be ranked and counted. And we believe that we want our students to fall in love with learning (and writing) irrespective of the money or grades that reward them for their labor.

So, we're idealists. At least some of us are. So why do so many of us allow us to get locked into this counting game--that the only kind of knowledge that counts is countable?

I know our defensive posture has something to do with the myth of the decline in public education. I have two sources one should read here: Berliner and Biddle's The Manufactured Crisis and Ivan Illych's Deschooling Society. They form the right and left hand of a  argument about the institutionalization of schools; if we have a crises, we can justify more projects and the need for more resources (i.e., us).

This is  an old argument--and one with some weight.  So why don't we feel good about what we do? Why do I have to defend my very simple motivation of wanting my students to love writing the way I do, to know it as way of coming to know, of communicating, of being, of creating community? Why in the academic community do so many of us allow us to frame writing instruction as labor rather than joy? And where do grades lie in this? What ideology lies behind the institutionalized link between grades and learning?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Syllabus as a Legal Contract

I so often hear people claim that your syllabus is a legal contract with the student. I have looked and can nowhere find evidence that this claim is true. A syllabus is not even a contract. The legal contract claim seems to be one of those common myths (like the myth of the crisis in education) that takes on a life of its own, irrespective of their truth values. I would be  interested if anyone could point me toward a  document that substantiates the claim that a syllabus is a legal contract. I've usually thought about it as a guess about where we're going to go.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Performing Writing

I have a million things I want to write about this morning. I'm going to try to focus on J.L.'s comment about fake writing and work out what I mean in my critique of writing for grades.

The difference between my interpretation of fake and real writing, writing as performance and writing as communication, is linked to the difference between pretending and being. I have friends who argue that all being is performance. Now that I write this, I almost don't have the courage to go on with my thinking.

But I'm going to try. I'm going to bring this back to student writing. We  know the difference between those essays (of whatever genre) that we love and do not like (hate) to read.  I do not like to read essays (or people) that I interpret as performance--the writer being more focused on how rather than what she writes (some social class issues here). I love to read essays  in which the writing didn't get in the way of what was being said.

It seems clear to me that when students are writing to demonstrate to the teacher their abilities to perform that there will be, except in accomplished performers, a constructed space between the writer and the written. In that space is dissonance. Maybe learning how to disguise dissonance as consonance is what we're after here, but I don't think so. I frankly shudder to thing that as educators we might be teaching our students how to perform rather than be. This might have something to do with why we don't like to read what they write. Maybe we're reading ourselves.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


At Drexel, I’m encouraging teachers to have their students write essays about their educational experiences in writing, describing any good and bad experiences they have had with some analyses of how those experiences affected their attitudes toward writing and how they do (or do not) think of themselves as writers.

Then I would like to have students read and respond (by which I mean respond, not edit or critique) to each other, hoping they will be able to go beyond their own experiences by reading those of others, and then using those experiences to possibly reframe their own (and their own conceptions of themselves as writers). 

I have done this before—students are interested in reading about others’ experiences and comparing them to their own.  It’s very important in this kind of writing that the back and forth between writers be a serious communicative exchange, not a collaborative effort to help each other improve their essays to turn in for a grade (what I have been calling fake writing—I think that any writing turned in for a grade is fake writing).

For the second “essay” (and we must remember that an essay, in Huxley’s words--plagiarized from Toynbee [I think]--is “just one damn thing after another”), I would like to have the students writing an essay moving toward generalizations of students’ school writing experiences and consequent attitudes towards writing. I’m using this as an occasion to naturalize research by asking the students to google search information on student writing experiences and consequent attitudes toward writing. And then finally, I would like to have them use library databases to see whether they can find any interesting articles on the same subject—non-academic ones preferably.

This is a long preface to a note that I wrote below in response to a teacher who wanted to know a little bit more about what lay behind this kind of research, generalizing, and writing experience. I’m just writing it down here mostly to keep track of what I had in mind.
Hello _____

In response to your question about what kinds of things students should be reading when they are preparing to do secondary research in the unit leading up to Paper #2, let me suggest the following:

There are three kinds of sources:

  • ·      other students in the class,

  • ·      anything someone writes in a public space (usually found by googling),

  • ·      print sources (from newspapers to scholarly journals).

I think it's interesting to get the students to look at the different kinds of "other" sources. The important point: other students are VERY important sources of information. When I think of bringing other voices into our own texts (as I did by including parts of your query), students should begin by citing their classmates, finding ways to say, Jessica said " . . . . . .  and so on".  You can make the Works Cited as formal or informal as you want it.

The important point is to have the student compare his or her experiences to her classmates' experiences and more or less naturally synthesize and generalize without making a big deal out of it, something like, "I am really surprised that out of the 19 students in this class, 12 of them have written in journals and 5 others have wanted to.  I thought I was the only one who keeps a private journal, in spite of the time my jerk of a brother . . . "

Along the same line--it's important for students to first describe their own experiences, then read others' experiences, and then rethink (and actually, reform) their own experiences in light of what they have learned from others (this might be called critical thinking).

I might rewrite this later, but right now I just wanted to get it down. I’m really arguing for a seamless connection between the writers and others, and between the three kinds of sources I have described above: classmates, bloggers, and published writers. Our culture, for strange reasons, tries to insert wedges between categories like these, between me and the people I know. 

Needless to say, grades are a great wedge.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Genres and Black-holes

I was thinking about black holes this morning, linking them to writing in- or out-of-genre, and social class theory (reference is always Bourdieu, but one also has to think about Giroux's Border Crossing).

Spacetime curvature.pngIn brief, one can't learn about an event by always being inside the event. One has to move inside and outside the event. Giroux's point was that people learn about social class by crossing the borders between classes. People who hang around in one class are less likely than border crossers to recognize what Bourdieu calls the structuring structures of social class fractions.

I don't know where black holes come into this--but I do know that strange things happen to time and space when you're caught in an event horizon. In some way, genres might be like black holes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Do the Clothes Fit?

Yesterday, UPenn hosted  the fall meeting of the Philadelphia WPA (thanks to Valerie Ross, Patrick Wehner, Roger LeGrand, Doug Paletta, Katie Gindlesparger, and Liz Vogel for pulling this off--and to Scott Warnick for smoothly volunteering me to do the same next fall). The day was a wonderful introduction for me into the Philadelphia area collection of writing teachers.

Having Anis Bawarshi give a talk on transfer and genre theory was a special treat. His scholarship and insights have certainly helped me with my thinking about the function of genres in writing instruction. I particularly appreciated his openness and generosity of spirit--there's no other way to say it. I'm very glad that I had a chance to meet him.

So thinking of what Anis and other participants had to say about genre, here's what I want to say--actually, I have boatload of things I want to say, but one of my friends gave me some very good advice about the genre of blogging ('have a picture and keep it short'), so I'm going to try to keep my remarks to one.

I credit James Moffett and John Dewey for reminding us that how we teach is what we teach. I think that we should let our students in on what I have elsewhere called the exclusionary function of genres. That's the kind of high road knowledge that is very likely to transfer--and it transfers across discursive categories (like writing, socializing, dressing). Knowing how to speak and be within different kinds of rhetorical situations--well, that's genre knowledge that helps us frame our ways of being in putatively dissimilar situations.

I'm wandering--and also edging dangerously close to breaking the genre of blogging. I thought I had one point--but I have two.

Here's the first one: when we teach our students to write within genres, we are teaching them how to behave. Rather than teach them how to write in-genre, we need to teach them something about writing out-of-genre. I think that kind of knowledge might transfer.

And the dangers of doing it. In-genre writing can be boring. Out-of-genre writing is dangerous to the writer and to the culture within which that writer is inscribed.

It's more than a little interesting to think about who gets to write out-of-genre. Here's the first thing: people who write out-of-genre are more interesting than people who write in-genre. Let's say, more fun. Or poetic.

Second thing: your social class origin, your gender, your race, your sexual orientation, your physical attributes, and so on have everything to do with whether you think you can risk writing out-of-genre.

My good friend, Eli Goldblatt, brought up Bakhtin in the genre discussion. Bakhtin is/was way cool.

Here's how I see it: genres are like clothes. You know the difference between people who seem to be wearing other people's clothes and those who are wearing their own. Bakhtin's point was that when first we wear them, they don't belong to us. After a while, they do.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Silk Writing

I don't know where this is going today. I just feel like writing. I know I use writing to get a bit closer to who I am and how I relate to the world outside me. I do this in my diary--and to some exent, when I write down my censored thoughts here.

I would like to write something simple and clear. Ok--here's what I think I know. I suspect that most of us are struggling through life. We might pretend that we're in control, that we know what we're doing, particularly those of us who have aged and should have learned how to deal with the vicissitudes of life; but then things happen and we're suddenly lost in a wilderness and we flail, looking for some kind of anchor.

I suspect that many of our students are like those of us who are flailing. If you're not flailing, you shouldn't read this and should count yourselves lucky. I'm imagining that if our students know something about this condition of flailing, that perhaps it's a nearly universal condition and that we can join each other in our struggles to find some illusion of an anchor, well, we might help them realize how writing is like the silk a spider throws out, trusting the wind to let the thread find a home.

Behind Genres

  I must be misreading--it looks as if people are actually reading my posts. I don't want to comment on the self-devaluation involved in my surprise.

But I'm going to write a bit more about teaching writing, trying to push my thinking and teaching to a place it hasn't been.

I know there is a lot of value in teaching students how to write in-genre. But we have to note: the more we describe what we're looking for, the less we're teaching them about writing. The extreme is of course the 5-paragraph essay.  When we describe explicitly what we're looking for (sometimes making these criteria out of our heads), we're devaluing our students as writers--and possibly as people. I know the arguments about explicit and implicit pedagogies. And I'm sympathetic with the explicit strain--but if you can't create writing situations that move toward new meaning framed in new ways of speaking, you're not really talking about writing--or of thinking. I know that framing the genre/non-genre question in this way is quite frankly ridiculous.

However, we must remember that when we are teaching our students how to write within patterns, we are teaching them how to think and be within patterns. I know there's a middle ground somewhere: that our students need to recognize those moments when they need to dress for the occasion and also find those moments when they can look inside and try to figure their lives out through the agencies of their own experiences.