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 20, 2015

Following my last post, I had a conversation with a close friend--one of the most intelligent people I know--about who cares what you think? She said something about how most people's self-oriented thoughts are boring. We were talking about memoirs, the essence of her claim being that the only memoirs worth reading are those written by people who have gone behind the veil.

Most of us  have been veiled. We have learned to think in the way our culture has taught us to think. I doubt that I need to cite evidence for this claim. The function of culture is to indoctrinate those within the culture into the dominant way of thinking. The dominant way of thinking is unsurprisingly controlled by those who benefit most from the dominant way of thinking. So in a way, I agree with my friend: who wants to read memoirs from those who have been brainwashed?

I don't know where to go from here. Who has and hasn't been brainwashed--and who's washing our brains? On the surface, it seems as if people who read and have been perhaps super-educated are those who might have evaded the washing machine. A book by Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, challenges this assumption of educational-privilege. Schmidt, a physicist, argues that the more degrees you have obtained, the more you have been washed. He makes a good case. The more degrees we obtain, the more we benefit from the existing order--and consequently, reinforcing that order to maintain our privilege.

These are random thoughts. I don't expect anyone to take them seriously. I think, however, that if we find a way to encourage and listen to the voices of the disenfranchised, we might move forward rather than running in place.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

This is my characteristic rambling. I'm thinking about David Coleman's remark with zero sense of irony about student writing: "that no one gives a shit about what you think." I'm willing to grant that Coleman was carried away by the moment and his own importance in his address to the New York Department of Education in 2011.

But still: he addresses a central problem in writing instruction. I cope with this problem. There's a kind of reigning ideology out there somewhere that imagines depersonalized writing as the holy grail of writing instruction. Personalized writing (scatalogically emphasized by Coleman) is what we want to get away from.

In a way, I get this. We're imagining that we can write about the world out-there without warping it from the in-here. In a sense, this out-thereism is the endpoint of the enlightenment, scientism, truth.

It's not too hard to understand the classism involved in this opposition between the subjective and objective (Bourdieu)--and also to suspect the ways in which the dominant classes manipulate the perception of the objective--they are, after all, in control of the discourse.

I'm going to reflect on my students' writing. Clearly, when I give them writing topics that ask them to think about their lives, their histories, their dreams, they write like Shakespeare. When I move them outward, asking them to write about the outer-world with some reference to themselves as the ones perceiving that world, their writing flattens out.

Some hang with it, but others seem to have lost the connection between themselves and the words they are throwing onto the screen. When I ask them to write about about a subject (a la Coleman) with no reference to themselves--well, this writing isn't a lot of fun to read--and quite obviously for them, not a lot of fun to write.

I know that when my students are in their texts, I really enjoy reading and responding to them. I do this with pleasure.

I know that when I write with myself in the text, I write with pleasure. I do it for the sheer hell of it.

I recently wrote a long essay about teaching with perhaps too much of myself in it.  But I have to wonder, as someone asked me, who cares about you?

I take this question seriously, and I really can't work my way out of it.

Here's the end. I know I like to write when I am 100 percent in my text. I also know that when my students tell me about themselves, that's the writing I like to read. I \ like to read because I get to know them. In our classroom, we become a community through our writing (about ourselves).

I'll leave my thought here before I go back to rewrite my essay and try to take a bit of myself out of it. My question still is: what are we teaching them?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Writing for Social Justice

On the WPA-l listserv, Kathleen Shine Cain asked for articles on writing for social justice. I think she has in mind a course teaching or encouraging students to write for social justice.  I wrote the note and created a bibliography below that I decided to repost on my blog, mostly because I was thinking of a course I might want to teach. Here's what I wrote to Kathleen and a list of references I created (actually, this is what I wrote after I wrote to Kathleen):
Writing for social justice can’t be divorced from how we educate and have been educated. I don’t agree with a lot of what is in the books below (except for what I’ve written), but you can see this is a rich and long discussion. I think most of the references concern how we should be (or not be) teaching students to work for social justice. Jessica Singer’s is probably the closest to making the argument you seem to be aiming at. 

I don’t think any of the books or articles address: here’s how you write for social justice. I would run this course by having students investigate social justice issues in the surrounding community.

I would work from their experience—having them write about their memories, experiences, perceptions of social justice, and work outward from there. I'm thinking of any times they or their friends have been the victims of social injustice--or instances in their communities in which they have witnessed social injustice (and if they haven't seen any--well, there's a topic for discussion). I would also want to them to write about how they reacted, how they would have liked to react, how they might have wished others would react.

I would them have them read and respond to each other and then write more, exploring from these examples thoughts about social injustice, what it is, why it is, what's being done or not done about it, what might be done--the kind of writing in which they look on the internet and find out what others have said and done about these issues. So they might write again, having written, read, and having been read.

Then I might have them explore the seriously pressings issues in this local community (Philadelphia) and/or their home communities. This could be online exploration and onsite exploration--done in teams. There is of course no end of problems in Philadelphia, beginning with the schools, poverty, homelessness, the high incarceration rate, literary rates, unemployment, community deterioration, community/police relationships. I would also have them ask what Drexel has been doing about some of these problems (we have several real and pseudo community-based programs). I would have them keep records and notes of all they are discovering and discuss in class that what we are doing is research and have them talk and write about the importance of research--how it can promote social action, social responsibility.

I would want them to write up the results of their research which might also point toward social action. I would have them investigate ways of publishing their research, what they have discovered through Drexel publications, through community newsletters, through newspapers. I would probably want them to explore ways of making a class book (it's easy; I've done this before - see  Writing Ourselves --  that we could put online; or as an alternative or supplement, a class blog and find ways of drawing readers into their class blog--really an issue blog, the issue being social injustice in our area. I would want them to finish the course with social action suggestions: what can be done from here; what they might do--or maybe reflections on the tension between the call to social action and their own struggles as they try to negotiate the demands of school and their dreams of finding work that will be more like play than work.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have them read anything--at least not anything scholarly. Well, I might have them read Anyon's classic article & maybe Burton Clark's article about The Cooling Out Function--and some excerpts from Lareau's book (and maybe try to get an interview with her--I think she's still at Temple).

[Now that I've written this, I think I've planned a course for myself].

Below is a list.  Again—when you’re talking about social justice, you are also talking about school system that perpetuate social injustice—as if that is in part their function (which it is [see Bowles and Gintis]):

Anyon, J. (1980, Winter). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162, 67-92.
Berlin, J. (2003). Rhetorics, poetics, and cultures: Reconfiguring college English studies. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press. (Original work published in 1996.)
Berlin, J., & Vivion, M. (Eds.). (1992). Cultural studies in the English classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Routledge.
Blitz, M., & Hurlbert, C.M. (Eds.). (1991). Composition and resistance. Portsmouth, RI: Heinemann.
Brodkey, L. (1994). Writing on the bias. College English 56, 527-47.
Clark, B. (1960). “The Cooling Out Function in Higher Education.” American Journal of Sociology 65, 569-76.
Dews, B. & Law, C. (Eds.). (1995). This fine place so far from home: Voices of academics from the working class. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn't this feel empowering?: Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review 59, 297-324.
Friere, P.  (1994).  Pedagogy of Hope.  (R. Barr, Trans.). New York: Continuum.
Frey, O. 1998. “Stupid Clown of the Spirit's Motive: Class Bias in Literary and Composition Studies.” In Shepard, et al.
Gee, J. P. (2004). “Learning Language as a Matter of Learning Social Languages within Discourses.” In Language Learning and Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Approach, ed. M. R. Hawkins. Clevedon, 13-31. Clevedon UK: Multilingual Matters.
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities. New York: HarperCollins.
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
Peckham, I. (2007). The stories we tell.  In K. Cahill & L. Johannessen (Eds.).  Considering class: Essays on the discourse of the American dream (pp.  169-182).  Berlin: Lit Verlag.
Shor, I. (1992). Empowering Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Shor, I. (1996). When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thelin, W. and J. P. Tassoni, ed. (2000). Blundering for a Change: Errors and Expectations in Critical Pedagogy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Finn, Patrick.  Literacy with an Attitude.
Greenbaum, Andrea.  Insurrections.
Singer, Jessica. Stiring up Justice.
Johnson III, Richard Gregory. A Twenty-First Century Aproach to Teaching Social Justice.
Also look at mine: Going North, Thinking West: The Intersections of Social Class, Critical Thinking, and Politicized Writing Instruction.
Those are some of my favorites. I can’t help but add:

Bowles, H. & S. Gintis. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America. New York: Basic Books.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Taking Writers out of Writing

On NCTE's Teaching and Learning forum, there has been a discussion about the use of first person and the writer's presence. I am going to make a claim: when we ask students to take themselves out of their writing (as David Coleman, Common Core) has said we need to do, we are mis-teaching writing. I recognize that some genres and rhetorical situations require authorial evacuation, but I am convinced that author-evacuated prose should in our classes be the exception, not the rule. At the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels, we should bring students into our writing worlds, not create writing situations that make them want to be elsewhere. When the rhetorical situation demands it, people can write author-evacuated prose, but that should not be the stuff of our required writing programs.

As a consequence of the Teaching and Learning forum on first person, I asked my first-year students whether they came to our university expecting that academic writing would prohibit first-person prose. Sixteen said yes; two said no.

My colleague, Karen Nulton, and I have been surveying students' attitudes toward writing as they enter and leave our courses. We alway ask students whether they have been taught the five-paragraph essay (a prototypical author-evacuated school genre). Eight-seven to ninety percent say they have. And with rare exceptions, they say they hate it. They hate that kind of writing.

We know from our research that students want to write--but they want to have freedom of form and topic; they want to be creative. They hate writing when they have to stuff their thoughts into pre-conceived boxes, formula writing. They love to write when the thoughts unfold as they write, not when they are supposed to have the thoughts before they write.

I think the dislike of writing in boxes is obvious to people who love to write, who love to find out who they are and what they are thinking as the words roll out, almost on their own.

But we far too often teach a different ethos of writing--an ethos seemingly designed to kill the spirit of writing.

This is a long introduction to a frustrated comment from Dorothea Reiter--a high school teacher angry about what she has to teach when she knows that what she's teaching is the opposite of what she believes: Dorothea would clearly love to teach the love of writing.

Dor's comment below was the consequence of my post in which I asked, why are so many secondary teachers teaching a myth of writing that is seems like flat earth theology. Why are they demanding author-evacuated prose when that's not how many of us (and sorry for all you others) at the university level teach writing? Basically, at the secondary level, they are teaching counter-productive myths that lead to bad writing and bad attitudes toward writing.

Dor sent me the following (her frustration is probably widely shared among high school teachers):

Message From: Dorothea Reiter 

I absolutely think that the testing industry is the driving force behind how we teach writing in public schools in this country, and it is a travesty. What choices do we have when we are evaluated based on student performance on these mindless, student essays? How can we expect K-12 students to embrace writing as a contemplative process with many contributing factors, such as audience, attitude/tone, mood, etc.? If I do not adhere to and teach the formats required by the tests, how can I expect to continue in the position of a public school English teacher? The law now states that my district can fire me if my students do not pass muster as measured by their asinine test. What good can I do for students if I am not in the classroom? Add to the quagmire the current trend of heterogeneously placing students in "untracked" English classes and my need to differentiate my instruction for up to five levels of learners in every section, and it's a wonder we even manage to teach them the five paragraph model at all. AND, most of the new testing models lend themselves to a four paragraph essay, not a five paragraph essay. We are losing ground on every front. I could go on, and on, and on...


I am an ex-high school teacher. I hear Dor, the frustration of someone who wants to teach serious writing, not writing in boxes.

I think that for those of us in the postsecondary level, we have some obligation to fight against the testing industry driving bad instruction. We have to unite in support for teachers like Dor. There must be a way to do this. We have Doug Hesse president-elect of NCTE--and he knows. I think on our local level, we have to fight back against the testing industry and the consequent bad teaching of writing. I suspect we have parents on our side--parents who are unhappy about their children having to complete these awful writing tasks, as opposed to a child coming home and eager to write about some kind of fantasy or memory, about a way of thinking about all that he or she is feeling, she being front and center in her writing.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mostly a Dream

This post will be a few words from me and then more thoughtful ones from Patty Ericsson.

If I'm interpreting Patty correctly, we both are deeply suspicious about the worth of the "research paper," complete with works cited (and like who really cares whether the works cited is in mla, apa, chicago, iieee, or namaste style (Patty's note was in response to my question--what's namaste style?--no comments please about my cultural ignorance).

Keith Rhodes has a good tactic: he said something like: I just tell my students if I can easily find what you found, then it's good.
[image: by theSong]

I make a practice of hyperlinking. If you hyperlink when you can, you don't  really need a reference in your works cited, do you?
I think I wrote in one of my entries below that I'm ok with research--but research of a special kind, let's call it naturalized research. There's nothing wrong with getting our students to check  their information or preconceptions against what others say about that (Ben Carson and Donald Trump should try that) or in trying to find out something more about something you're interested in. But there's everything wrong with asking your students to do library (scholarly) research on something they are not interested in and then write up a report, or what's worse, an argument, about what they discovered, complete with a works cited. I keep asking teachers who think we should be teaching that kind of nonsense: do you like reading those?????

From Patty (thanks, Patty [and Keith])

It is mostly a dream, Irv.  A kinder, gentler way to honor those whose works we build upon.  Kristin Arola has presented on (and is writing) a piece on Native American (especially her Objibwe) ways of collecting things from nature and the built world to prepare for a variety of celebrations.  Each collection is marked by acknowledging where the “assets” come from, thanking the provider (whether a tree, a plant, or a person), and also by leaving something in replacement for what you have taken—even if it’s a small token.  There is also an important element of community in this gathering and using. She calls her possible approach “slow composition."

So my jest of a Namaste style was (I realized later) influenced by her work, but also my my attempts to make my life and being more peaceful, grateful, and loving. If we would choose a thank you word or phrase that honors or somehow gestures toward an appreciation for the assets we bring to our composing, maybe that kind of citation would be better? What if we considered where the assets came from—the quote, the picture, the movie clip, whatever?  And considered in the context in which these assets were developed? And then finally considered more respectful ways of using/appropriating these assets in our work?  I guess I’m asking what if we threw out the pretty much meaningless forms (although there are some who argue that the forms have lots of meaning). I don’t think our student or us (for that matter) give much of a hoot.

In my pedagogy course this fall, I am asking new teachers to think of their syllabi and assignments as a narrative—that their course is a story and that it is told in the syllabi, assignments, and all the other supporting documents. All of their work is situated in the bureaucracy of the comp program, but I’m asking them to consider that part of the narrative as well.

I borrowed this (copied below) to help them:

I’ll let you know how they do with this.  At least they might have some fun!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Research Paper

A recent discussion on the WPA list concerning documentation styles made me think of some essays my students wrote recently. With Joe Harris and Patty Ericsson, I (I think I'm reading them correctly, but with Joe and Patty, one never knows) don't really spend much time with documentation style. Along with teaching the more or less decontextualized research paper, this is wasted instruction and really not a whole lot of fun. They all use Easybib, but as Joe said--who cares? At most, our students might have to use a particular documentation style in other classes; if other teachers think documentation is important, they can use their class time teaching students about commas here and there. Actually, I do spend a little time on this, but it's minor--somewhere in the orbit of the ablative absolute.

I  think research is important, but as I have probably written elsewhere in this blog, I like to naturalize research. Students are doing it all the time--they just don't know how to link it to the kind research we do--the kind very few of them will ever be doing in the post-collegiate lives.

I'm going to print a research paper from one of my students below.  I have the students first write essays telling the rest of us about their (the writers') previous writing experiences and their attitudes toward writing and themselves as writers.

These quick essays are fascinating to read. Students like to write them; they like to read them, and I like to read them--so that makes it a pretty good writing assignment. In addition, we all learn more about learning --and not learning about writing. We write these essays in class--about 15 minutes. They are remarkably good essays for coming right out of the students' brains.

Then we read and write back to each other. I really like doing this. I also ask them to take notes when they see something interesting that they can use for the next essay--which is to generalize about students' experiences with writing.

For their next class, I  ask them to take about thirty minutes and write a brief essay generalizing from their own experiences and from what they have read from others. This, of course, is research--going outside your head to check with external sources. The students have never considered something like this is research--or the results of their investigation, reporting what they learned, as a research paper. It is, however, my kind of research paper. When YOU think of it, it's not that far from the kind of research I and many of my friends on this list do.

Link to what I asked the students to do:

Directions for Generalizing

As far as documentation, I tell the students that it's kind to tell your readers where you got your information and let them know how to find it themselves. In the essay below, we didn't need to document because they all knew the writers and where to find the specific essay on our Blackboard site.

I like what Kiera did in her essay (30 minutes, but I suspect she might have taken longer--I'll ask her). I like how she takes her generalizations and moves outward or upward to theorize. She worked from her own experience, generalized from others, and let her mind go, theorizing about the function of writing. Nice.

From reading my classmates' reflections on their writing experiences, it seems a general trend that most prefer to write with a type of "freedom" (Nicholas), with "no restrictions or limits" (Ksenia). Lydia mentions her love of writing stories to make herself laugh, and Chris Z. mentions the thrill of storytelling, with "barriers lifted". Most of us have experienced the joy of writing, the satisfaction of creating a secret world or reflecting on the one we live in with no one to judge or stop the flow from heart to pen to page.

However, it also seems that many of us have certain prejudices against writing, some stubborn psychological aversion which tells us that we cannot write properly. We "worry people are not going to understand" (Chris J.). We continue to mark our writing mentally with the red pen of our teachers in high school, rating ourselves as "average" (Branston). These red markings may have damaged our view of what writing is, Zoƫ notes.

Kaila claims that there are too many structured papers demanded during high school, while Michael says he enjoys these types of more straightforward papers. Stephanie found her overall writing education to be "nourishing" to her personal growth.

There seem to be some discrepancies about who we write for, and why we write. High school has taught us "how to write", but what is the value if we have no desire to write? We must look at finding a balance by both writing for necessary assignments and also recreationally for ourselves and loved ones. I think we could also compartmentalize. If we think of academic writing as having to do more with skill than personality, we will feel less vulnerable about criticism of our academic writings. If we think of casual, creative writing as having to do more with personality, we may be more open to share with others through this medium.

We all agree that writing is necessary for our future careers, and this class seems to be a positive start to changing our perspective on the purpose of writing. If we learn to trust our writing more, as Bransten achieved, then we can come to know and trust one another, too. To know someone through writing, and to reveal oneself through writing, is a powerful tool. I do think the word "trust" is key.

Some of us have already taken steps toward becoming comfortable with our own writing. David was insecure about his writing abilities, so he joined the school newspaper to work on it. Sam discovered a passion for historical preservation and how this relates to writing and reading. Dr. Peckham versed himself in grammar and abandoned his romantic notions to discover the fulfilling reality of being a writer. He "ended where [he] wanted to be".

All of us are on a path to realizing how writing can enrich our lives by connecting us with one another and understanding more about our chosen career fields. If we make the choice to get past our existing ideas of writing, negative or positive, I think we will discover new types of writing that work for who we are and where we wish to go.
Going from here: 
The next obvious assignment (or series) is imagine and construct some kind of survey, distribute and analyze it; do some internet research on specific issues that come out of these exercises; look in the library databases for readable (i.e., not written by rhet/comp scholars--with some exceptions here and there) essays on the subject; then write up singly or in groups the results of what they have learned. At that point, I would like to have them tell readers--like readers of this blog--where they found the information and how the readers could find it also.The would need some kind of documentation.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Sarah: On the Essay

I'm probably violating several protocols here, but I can't help myself. I want to make Sarah's essay on the essay more than just a comment on my blog. I didn't ask her permission. Forgive me, Sarah.

There is much to comment on Sarah's essay.  But let me focus on Sarah's break from the "essay" as a published text and certainly anything with a certain form and key moves (like moving from the particular to the general).  Rather, as Aldous Huxley described Montaigne's essays, the essay is one damned thing after another.  This works for blogs. (I know--I'm doing violence to Huxley's intent . . . still . . . )

Last year I taught I course on "Style in the Essay," a lower division elective. I was bothered by the the definite article -- THE essay?! -- and spent a lot of time thinking about what "essays" have been and meant through time and across cultures. I pulled out my old copy of Lopate's *The Art of the Personal Essay* and thought about how he chose pieces from around the world and across two thousand years. Drawing on what i learned in an MFA on nonfiction writing, and what I later learned about genres as social action, I asked myself again and again, What does the essay DO? What is it that makes each of these pieces in Lopate an essay? What, if any, is the common denominator, the shared aim?

What I finally came to is that we use the label "essay" to describe personal writing about matters of public interest. Topics may range from intimate matters (Montaigne's headaches) to highly social issues (as in Addison and Steele's publications), but the common thread is how the writer articulates her or his subjective experience in a way that invites identification and connection from others who do not personally know the writer. (It's the latter angle that makes some letters "essays" while others remain merely personal correspondence.)

Having reached that understanding of what "essays" have historically done, I next asked myself, "What serves this function today? Is it published essays, or something else?" I rejected published essays pretty quickly, because I don't think they have broad public appeal (another characteristic that I think it essential to the social function I had settled on); they are a genre by and for the hyper-literate, the readers of *The New Yorker* and of literary journals.

What I finally settled on was blogs. I think blogs are the essays of today: subjective experience and perspective presented in such a way as to engage public readers, inviting them to relate, to think, even to respond. They offer writers a chance to decide whom they want to engage, in ways that academic or literary essays do not, and they ask writers to make the difficult move of presenting their own perceptions or experiences in a way that is both true to themselves and to their readers.

I think it worked -- that is, I think the students learned a lot about writing and about themselves as writers, including what it is about writing that lights them up and makes them enjoy the challenges of constructing publicly effective AND personally meaningful prose.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Labor of Teaching

I have been reading/listening to Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Aslan gives us a fascinating, historically contextualized account of the story of Jesus. What we know of Jesus' life is minimal and deeply indebted to oral history (Aslan notes that the notion of oral "history" is quite different from our current literate version, oral history being more concerned with the meaning than the actual occurrence of events).

There is much to think about in Aslan's reading of the story of Jesus, created by writers or group of writers from 60 to 120 years after the crucifixion. The story is a much a story of the times within which it was written (somewhere around a century after the crucifixion) as it was a story of the three to five years within which Jesus turned preacher.

Aslan frames the two stories within tribal struggles for land but also within the move from agrarian to feudal economies, from egalitarian to radically hierarchical social structures, from self-sufficient farmers to impoverished laborers who worked to service the wealthy, the ones nearer to the seats of power, nearer, that is, to the seat of God. You could say Jesus was the Bernie Sanders of the poor.

Aslan opens with a picture of the annual rituals at the Temple of Jeruselum, describing the various sacred and physical levels though which people could pass, according to their spiritual rank, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and social status, with the people of the upper levels gathering tithes from the lower levels. It is not too much to say that the lower one's level, the more real one's work. At the upper levels, the high priests mostly created rituals, swung incense, and wore  robes that set them apart from the rabble.

Although he didn't last long, Jesus was a teacher.

Since this blog is mostly concerned with teaching, someone asked what this post has to do with teaching.

Here's the short version of what I was thinking:

Let’s assume God and the Jesus of the Bible are myths (trying here not to offend anyone who thinks there is a White-bearded male God and that Jesus is his son).

From there, let’s review that initial scene—the people coming to the Temple with its ascending layer of rooms through which fewer and fewer people are admitted until you get to the high priest, the only one permitted to go behind the veil of speak to God, the wizard of Oz, I guess.

In order to get in to each room, you are required to make sacrifices and give to the person/priests in charge of that layer progressively more significant tithes.

The order of priests are progressively richer and wear more ornate robes and jewels, signifying their exalted status (their nearness to God)

The people who do the real work in the culture are the laborers; the males make it to the second room, the women to the first. I think you’re also blocked according to your ethnicity.

The higher you go, the less real work you do; the more your “work” lies in constructing myths that what you do is work, but you’re mostly just creating rituals and myths that legitimize your position and wealth.  So you hang around swinging incense and muttering incantations and so on while others support you because they think you are doing something significant.

I can imagine links to educational structures. I'm reading a vaguely related book, Disciplined Minds, by Jeff Schmidt. Schmidt analyzes the ways in which professionals are taught to think and act (and not cause too much trouble--no turning over tables in the temple).

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Writing What I Think

I had a student say after posting her firsthand portrait: This is so different from high school writing: I can write what I think instead of writing what I think the teacher wants to hear.
I'm thinking more about "the essay" and the writing process. Of course we have to use the writing process when we're writing for publication. But I think our field has been compromised by our ancestry--our origins in the literature department, that we have to teach our students how to write publishable work and in so doing have alienated them from the flow of writing--the kind most people do in their nonacademic lives. And in so doing, we may end up alienating students from writing, the same way we do with reading when we push them to read like literary critics instead of consumers who read for the pleasure of reading and getting lost in the worlds and words of the writer.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Rather than respond to a response, I'm entering a post because I can see that I am going to go on at length:

Kurt asked:

Irv, I wonder: do you think your system is viable (in terms of the grade distribution and/or the timing of when grades attach attaching grades) for untenured faculty (whether they be pre-tenure TT or adjunct)? Despite the extent to which it is theoretically, pedagogically, and operationally sound, might it not offer too much exposure--too much fuel, maybe--for contingent faculty to use? The "academic freedom" position is, for many who teach writing, an ideal rather than a practice. Thoughts?

Thoughts in response to Kurt (and thanks for your  note, Kurt):

We can't shy away from the social stratification system and unequal distribution of pay, prestige, and privileges (reproducing the more general cultural system) at play in English departments. Sometimes, there are phatic gestures of equality that no one believes. I wrote in "Acting Justly" about the social stratification system in English departments--tracking back to the Wyoming Conference Resolution and its watered-down descendants (also see "Whispers from the Margin"). English departments are simply usually unconsciously articulating the larger function of the university--one of Althusser's ideological state apparatuses (with some gestures of pushing against orthodoxy).

Social reproduction theory is only the frame for my response. As actors, we have some degree of consciousness but it's easy to overstate our case. Grades--and the way they are institutionally naturalized--are only one more strategy in the social reproduction game.

So .  . . yes, the less privileged take more chances when they challenge orthodoxy. Tenured full professors can challenge grading systems relatively unscathed, although people might avoid them in receptions. Part-time teachers will not be rehired. NonTT teachers might be dismissed. Assistant professors might not get promotion and tenure, and associate professors might associate forever.

This scheme might be mitigated and even countermanded by a writing program administrator or (less likely) a chair or (more less likely) by a dean who might commit themselves to teaching rather than social reproduction (I know--this is not a hierarchical opposition--more of a dialectic: I know a lot of very good writing teachers who still grade essays and literature teachers who grade tests).

However, what does it say about our system if we recognize that our pedagogy contradicts our goals but we hang on to it because the structure within which we teach (which usually includes in its Essential Learning Outcomes something like self-sponsored/life-long learning) threatens dismissal if we refuse to engage in counterproductive teaching habits--like grading?

Let me give two more examples of mis-education (Dewey)--ones with which most people in our field would agree but still dominate education: the focus on testing, "measurable" outcomes (I cringe whenever I hear this phrase)--and its link to the testing industry; and formula writing. Even though most of us in the field have endlessly dissed the five-paragraph essay and its cousins, it and other models of formula writing dominate secondary (and in some places, postsecondary) education.

Let's imagine that we want our students to love writing, to love learning (both of which would lead to self-sponsored writing and learning); then we should always ask at the end of our course or curriculum, do they go out of our courses and programs with a more positive attitude toward writing and learning than when we first met them? And by "they," I mean at least 90% of our
students. If the answer is no, then we need to think (critically).

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Post-Process Writing

I will try to  make this post uncharacteristically quick because I'm tying to write out a thought that I am using in another essay. I referred to the question about revision and the aligned project of teaching writing as process in a post below.

I'm somewhat surprised by myself. When John Trimbur announced the post-process movement in 1994, I remember I thought, well--here we are: we have to announce ourselves by announcing the death of our father, another turn in the never-ending series of "turns" in our field.

And now here I am in 2015, post-processing. My logic is not Trimbur's. But nevertheless, as I have written below, I back-pedal on invention and revision. I know in my own writing the value of invention and revision (in fact, I am inventing here for writing I am doing elsewhere), but I like to have my students write and write and write (with invention and revision here and there).

My logic  is simple: I know students get bored by process, spending far too long on an "essay." I think there might be more value in having the students more frequently combine invention/writing, they are inventing (as I am doing here) as they go along. And maybe revise a little--like look back before you post, change some things here and there, but don't overly restrict the flow of writing, of writing as a conversation.  I think my students get more out of inventing/writing a lot than being mired in the process of writing. I can imagine a metaphor for how we live.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Grades Again

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague and good friend (a lot of these posts, I realize, are the consequence of conversations in which I wasn't able to explain myself and then woke up at 2:30 the next morning and thought for two or three hours about what I really meant).

The conversation was about portfolios and grades--but of course when one is talking about grades (and portfolios, a method for minimizing the role of grades), one is talking about so much more--and it's that "more" that I want to get to in this post.

My friend and I were in a group discussing the use of portfolios. Somewhere in the conversation I slipped into a rant. Well, first, I was explaining my use of portfolios as a way of minimizing the role of grades in my writing classes. I have the students submit portfolios at mid-quarter and for a final. Portfolios are  easy to  grade to when you basically give mostly As and Bs in your class. As readers of this blog probably know, I start from the assumption that everyone in the class has an A. All they have to do to maintain that grade is never miss class and do all the work, let's say, honestly.

When I frame the rhetorical situation for my students, I tell them that they have to give me portfolios that I could show to outside readers, like deans or chairs, who might challenge my grade distribution (people who imagine the bell curve as real--see bell curve).  Here is an example of my instructions to students:  final portfolio instructions-Engl 103

This simple explanation led to a kind of rant. I noted that people who use the portfolio system and unhook themselves from their addiction to grades (not a good rhetorical move on my part--but I think I said something like that) seem to give more As and Bs than when they used the traditional grading system because their students write better and they write more.

You can see the rant coming. I was slipping into my I-don't-care-what-anybody-else-thinks-because-I'm-right mode.

The logic is that in order to defend this high proportion of As and Bs, the teacher  needs evidence to justify the inordinate supply of As and Bs (this could lead to an interesting conversation about grades, capitalism, zero-sum logic, and supply and demand).

I think I may have mentioned something about co-dependent grade addiction (another bad rhetorical move--but it is worth noting that when teachers argue that students are over-addicted to grades, the pointing finger curves back toward the self).

The more and better claim: Teachers who have overcome their addictions to grades and create in their classrooms a grade-free zone of trust, appreciation, teacher-student collaboration (Freire), and love of writing will see from their students more and better writing. They will see that their students really want to learn--they want to learn more about writing and they want to like to write again--an attitude toward writing generally left behind somewhere around fifth grade. So the students almost necessarily write more and better. The higher grade distribution follows.

Back to the discussion:

My friend said, have you ever had anyone challenge your grade distributions?

He had me there. No, I had to say (but I'll bet they've thought about it). So my constant complaint about fake writing more or less came back into my face.  In my  weak defense: I have--I think even in this blog--used students' portfolios to demonstrate to the Natilie Wexler's (see Personal Writing in the Classroom: A Reply to More Ignorance) of this world that students can write quite well, thank you, that perceptions of "bad writing" may have more to do with bad assignments than with bad writing.

[I'm almost where I imagined I would go ( see Flow)]

Somewhere in the conversation, my friend said he felt as if he wasn't acting fairly if he didn't distinguish between the student who clearly worked hard and wrote well and the student who didn't work as hard and didn't write quite so well.

I will have to admit--I have often when assigning mostly As in my class thought the same thing. I do make gross distinctions--you can see those gross distinctions in the portfolios, but I don't make really fine, criterion-centered judgments, much as I have in the past. Here's what I really think--and I know the lines of logic are blurred:

We should not be socializing our students into reward-dependency: working for the reward. The social reproduction function should be obvious.

I know I'm a romantic, but I simply am unwilling to give up the ideology of looking for the reward in  the action, in the living, in the writing itself, not in the gold star we receive for our performance. I will also add that reward comes from doing something that results in community contribution. I get rewards from knowing I have turned my students on to writing. The money and the grades are highly incidental. I know that we live fuller, richer lives if we focus on living rather than on the gold streets paving Heaven.

I just had my current students read (online) my portfolio instructions--and I asked them whether there are any questions about it. Here's one of the first replies:

"I have read the instructions and am wondering, is the portfolio more for our sake than for anyone else? At least as far as measuring our own growth, this seems to be a useful tool for self-examination on our parts.

I also think that any department heads or administrators would love to read the type of writing done in this class, although they might find trouble putting specific "grades" to it, because of its subjective nature - is that correct?"

She has it right.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Revision, Word Count, and Readers

I would like to write about revision this morning--that, and maybe about ways to frame writing assignments.

Decades ago, I shifted from minimum word count (which matches grading/ranking student writing as one of the more counterproductive pedagogical strategies) to maximum word count--e.g., "no more than c. 1200 words."  The logic is obvious--as is the dis-logic of minimum word counts.

About two years ago, I started using time: "see what you can do in about one and a half hours of writing before posting. Spend about an hour writing and leave yourself at least a half-hour to look it over and make any changes."

I'll just say this works: when the students know that their primary audience is other students in the class (remember, I don't grade), they are concerned with how they textually appear to their peers--let's just say they care more about them than us. When you ask your students to spend about an hour and a half writing, about half of them will spend three. Students are not dumb. They know that what they write and how they write shapes how their peers will see them. We don't need grades to teach them how to see this.

I have been thinking about revision. I have for decades used the first draft/second draft/final revision. We have long noted that when students are writing with computers (like us), revision is not a matter of drafts. Now I hardly ever ask students to revise. I know they are revising as they write and before they publish. Today, I wrote a post on the CWPA list about the link between authentic revision and reading aloud to peers.

I have realized that there's a-textual revision. As well as revise before they send, students virtually revise when they read what others have written. Revision is in their minds: they see what others have done, particularly those who are getting serious responses from others in the class, and they think, maybe I could have done this or that, included or excluded, been more personal, taken a few risks, heard myself speak through writing. When students do this virtually (and I get them to write about it by inventorying their experiences about writing, reading, and being read), they are learning about writing. They don't need to rewrite. Sometimes, they just need to write something new, remembering what they learned from what they last wrote.

I can't help but add: I have been reading somewhat impatiently on the list about all the time teachers waste by having their students read out of readers--as if students don't have a million things to write about intimately connected with their lived experiences. Publishers and academics make money out of these readers. Teachers have students kill time by reading and writing/discussing about what they read (this is the critical-reading strand of our  field). Ways of Reading was one of the worst exercises in this misdirection of writing instruction. If you really want students to learn about writing, have them write--all the time, writing out and writing back and forth to each other. I am hardly the first to note that we learn to swim by swimming, not by reading about how others swim.