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.

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.]