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.

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.]