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, 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. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Low-Stakes, Free-Range Writing

Some people on the WPA list have commented on low-stakes versus high-stakes writing: in which situations do students put the most effort.
In response, I imagined another continuum: real and fake communication. I'm engaged in some real communication there--although the rhetorical situation is, let's say, strained. I'll put it bluntly: I don't think we're helping our students by putting them in fake communicative situations, when what we're really doing is creating data to justify whatever grade we give them. Writing simply doesn't work that way. It works by having something serious to say to readers (real or imagined) who care about what the writer is saying. I might have this backwards--but I do know that real writing is from me to you and back again. The "you" can be a friend, a lover, a collection of people in a class, or the world. But no matter what the level of generalization, the you has to be real. When it's fake, you get bad writing.

A couple of years ago, my students at LSU wrote a book about their writing experiences. I'm going to post the link here. Some apologies are due: they make me look like a good teacher. Truth is: they made me a good teacher. My point here is that all of the writing was low-stakes, ungraded, leaving the students the freedom to explore their emotions and ideas through writing. You might be able to use portions of this book with your students.

Class of 3301

Friday, September 12, 2014

Upside Down and Backwards

The more I think about it, the more I think I and my friends have been teaching upside down and backwards. I don't have this all straight in my mind, but here goes:

We have succumbed to the myth of transparency. This myth of transparency feeds off the myth of grades.

The keynote speaker at this Drexel assessment conference after making some reasonable claims floored me when he said, we have to get the students on our side, and we do that by grades.

I did my usual double-take, rolled my eyes, and groaned to register my disapproval. Typically, no one noticed me.

So the speaker went on: Grades is how we motivate them (has he read Dewey?) and we have to be clear about our criteria for determining grades. That's why we create rubrics. We let them know explicitly what we're looking for and different levels of achievement for each criterion. That's transparency.

In my last post, I admitted my sins, the decades during which I have promoted this transparency myth--it is, after all, what lies behind genre theory. I don't want to oversimplify, but according to us genre theorists, we recognize that discourse is not free-range; in specific kinds of situations, readers tacitly look for the markers of a particular genre that fit the rhetorical situation (and for markers that the writer has the right to speak). So we try to clue students in on how this works with writing. And we let them know that writing comes bundled in genres. Which, more or less, it does.

I can't entirely explain why I no longer think that genre-based instruction is a good way to help  students with their writing. This conference, however (and ironically), has solidified my thinking. There have been some very good people here, but I have heard trope after trope, "culture of assessment," "bottom-up stuff," "evidence-based assessment," and so on. Most of the discourse is based on transparency: tell the students clearly what you're looking for; create a rubric/grading scheme that reflects those objectives; evaluate them on the basis of that scheme; evaluate your teaching on the basis of how well your students have performed; close the loop--re-imagine your instruction so that your students will do better the next time around.  [My compliments to Christopher Nelson and Stephen Hales for eloquently challenging this paradigm.]

I want to make two points: there are a lot of well-meaning, incredibly talented people who are hopping onto the assessment train; the train is traveling away from teaching and toward upper administration positions. I say this, knowing that these people are incredibly talented and many of them serious about their commitment to student learning. But I think there is a kind of genuflecting to these popular tropes, and the tropes (or cliches) in some way take over student-centered learning.

I have other critiques of the assessment movement, but I want to get to a point about teaching writing. I will try to say this in a way that minimally offends.  But here: I have already said that we mis-teach by creating fake audiences and fake rhetorical situations (and I have done my share).  I think we teach our students more about writing when we construct writing situations from which we don't know the outcomes. We don't know what we are looking for. When we pose a general writing topic and tell our students, let's see where we can go with this. And where as teachers, we are simply curious about where our students' writing will take us.

To teach like this, you have to get rid of the notion of grades and criteria. You have to think of writing as a mode of communicating, not as a method of the student showing the teacher that the student knows how to do something. This all seems so obvious. Why are we doing it so wrong?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Free-Range Writing

I have been attending a conference on assessment at Drexel and consequently reflecting on my different ways of assessing and teaching writing.

I have in my career traced a trajectory, but I have found myself tracking back to my beginnings. I began teaching high school with an open attitude toward teaching writing. I simply wanted my students to enjoy writing and reading what their classmates had written. I became a bit sidetracked here and there by the imagined imperatives of preparing students for college, indoctrinating them into various versions of my interpretations of academic discourse, relying primarily on Lucille Payne's The Lively Art of Writing--the best resource I have seen of the well-formed essay.

Along the way, I discovered Virginia Tuft's book Grammar as Style, one of the other jewels in my struggle with writing. I have not met Virginia or Lucille, but I owe them.

I also owe Charles Cooper, who taught (and to some extent mis-taught) me about the relationship between genre and writing. I wrote a dissertation and a few articles on that subject and spent many years with large and small scale assessments using a focused-holistic scoring scheme. We didn't like to call them rubrics, but that's more or less what they were. I used my knowledge of assessment strategies to inform my teaching. I kind of bought in to the cliches of transparency, letting the students know the specifics of the criteria I would use to evaluate their essays in a specific genre. I wrote an electronic textbook for this. It wasn't half-bad.

But I've been thinking a lot about assessment lately and juxtaposing some of the assessment cliches (like "bottom-up," culture of assessment," and so on) against my actual practice. Most of the cliches ring hollow when measured against what I really do--which to my mind is help students fall in love with writing. Or at least, in like. I am certain that if our students come out of our classes having a negative attitude toward writing, we haven't succeeded as writing teachers. I'm 100% sure of that.

Here are a few things about assessment: When you create criteria and rubrics, you are being reductive--at least about writing. You may be in your structuring of assessment undermining what you purport to do (help students have a positive attitude toward writing)--and I will say right here, if you're not doing that, you should perhaps be teaching something else.

When you create criteria and rubrics, you are fencing the writer and his or her writing in. You are reducing the writer as a writer.

Image result for picture of buffalo
I think it's better to leave open spaces such that you will be surprised by what the individuals in your class write. Don't imagine what they will write; imagine yourself and you and your students as free.  Allow yourself to be surprised by what they write. I'm thinking of this as free-range writing.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Grammar and Mechanics
I recently led a session on grammar and mechanics for a university wide committee on writing at Drexel University. This session was in response to several complaints from committee members about all of the errors students make. So I wrote a document that helped me lead the committee members through the "errors" issue. They found it useful, so I'm posting it here in case other WPAs might want to use or amend it. I know it could use some reorganizing, but . . .

Go to Important Links on the sidebar to the right, and I think you'll find it.

Reading Student Writing

This is the second entry I have made on this blog today. I have not posted my first entry on this main page. It was a bit too personal. If you want a glimpse into my personal space and its connection with my theme here, you can go to this page.

Yesterday, I finished Lad Tobin’s book, Reading Student Writing. I’m surprised that I waited this long to read it. I told Lad in an email that I resisted reading Student Writing when it first came out because I knew from other blurbs what was going to be in it, and I was jealous that Lad had written it before I did.

I’m glad I got over my jealousy and read Lad’s book—it was like reading another side of myself.  Lad moves more toward the psychoanalytic and more deeply personal than I do, but nevertheless, here’s what we know about teaching writing: when teachers and students are enjoying what they are doing in the classroom, students will learn more, retain more, and very likely want to keep learning long after the class is done. I think of the narrator’s description of Gus in Deadman’s Walk. It was something like, “Gus was convinced that he had been put here to enjoy himself.”

I think the same thing about teaching and learning. The good times in life and in the classroom need, however, in some sense to be structured; one has to do more than move from one good time to another—I’m referencing Dewey here and his theory of scaffolding. In a writing class, we need good times and a sense of moving forward. With the right attitude, we can even discipline ourselves to engage in difficult projects, get involved in the overall sense of the game with some hard innings because we have learned to love the game.

With Lad, I am surprised (and quite frankly, fascinated) by resistance to playful teaching by teachers who for whatever reason think they need to be hard, give hard assignments, be hard graders, who haven’t discovered the fun in teaching writing.

Something weird is going on here. Are we in a new wave of Engfish, fake writing, junk? A friend of mine recently reviewed an article in which the writer seriously argued for “antecedent” writing—writing before writing, writers going through the motions of researching, organizing, and writing, writing that wasn’t real writing.  Really. The Research Paper reborn. The writer’s logic had something to do with misplaced notions of transfer. I’m thinking of the logic behind Castor Oil.

Dewey claims that if we can’t make our field interesting enough so that students will engage in the learning process for the pleasure of learning, then we are misteaching. Dan Pink gave a TED talk in which he examined the mysteries of motivation. His message should be no surprise: extrinsic motivation (like money and grades) are highly inefficient for long-term learning. People learn more when they are learning from the inside out; they are also more likely to be life-long learners.

If teachers want their students to enjoy writing (and I’m deeply suspicious of any teacher who would not embrace this goal), they have only to follow a few simple rules, the rules that Lad and I share. First, it’s an old saw that what the students write, the teacher should write. Adhering to this dictum, teachers might construct their writing tasks with the following criterion: give assignments that you know your students (and you) will enjoy writing, reading, and responding to.

If we don’t start reading the essays as soon as students have turned them in, we gave the wrong kind of assignment. If we don’t look forward to reading our students’ essays as if they were novels, we are wasting our time as teachers and our students’ time in the classroom. We haven’t realized why we were put here.