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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Walking Through the Door

Below is an essay assignment I am posting for my class next week. It's a prelude to the next writing task, which will be to write an essay to teachers, telling them what does and doesn't seem to work with teaching/learning writing.

Walking through the Door

This essay will be in part a preparation for our last essay, which will be directed to teachers at Drexel (and really, a wider audience, because with your permission, I may link teachers around the country to what you tell them—I have a blog about teaching writing, and I’ll put your essays up there).

Here’s my thesis--and I don’t think it’s a half-bad one: education works when students enjoy learning about something. It doesn’t work when students don’t enjoy learning. Actually, these claims seem obvious—but I’ll bet there are many professors who would argue with me on this. But one of the things we want to do as educators is encourage students to be self-directed learners such that learning is a life-long project.  Self-Directed learning is in fact one of the twelve Drexel Student Learning Priorities  (aside—one wonders why 12?).  It’s one of the two we have adopted for our writing program.  In general, one might suspect that each of you has decided on a major because you have learned how to enjoy the activities associated with that major. (I know there might be other reasons as well.)

Since I am very interested in writing and would like writing to be a part of your lives, I’m going to make another claim—which I know I have already made in class: if any writing task assigned to you in any course (including mine) makes you have an uncomfortable experience with writing, then you will be inclined to have a bad association with writing; consequently, you will have learned the wrong thing about writing. This is just me. As I said, a lot of people disagree with me. But they’re wrong (joke--maybe).

Ok, let’s get to a topic we can write about. I would be very interested in your experience so far at Drexel. But I’m interested in a bit more than your experiences in courses. I’m interested in how this part of your life is different (I’m thinking of Annelise’s essay here, the essence of which that the childhood part of her is over and now there is that “adult” (and her use of scare quotes was appropriate, given how many of us act as “adults”) life stretching in front of her—and this year might be thought of as walking through the door.

So maybe you can spend a couple of hours telling us (in writing) what it’s been like, walking through the door. It will be fun for the rest of us to read if you can give us some specific issues and maybe scenes, things that happened and made you think about things, about life, about who you are, about what you’re doing (again, Annelise’s essay is a great start in this kind of thinking because she has described for us her changing beliefs—I know I really didn’t do it justice in class today).

As you describe your journey in this first year, it would be great if you would include something about your experiences in your various classes.  I (and a lot of other people) would really like to know about the kind of learning experiences you are enjoying and the ones you’re not. I’m good friends with an associate vice provost here who is very interested in retention issues. I know that I would like to share your essays about walking through the door with her—I’ll bet she’ll learn something by what you write.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Why School? Why Write?

I recently had a conversation with a good friend, also a writing teacher more traditional than I am--but her mind is open. She was somewhat gracefully challenging just about everything I was saying about teaching writing effectively.
I have made most of these claims on this blog: grading essays is counter productive (and socially reproductive); student writing should be authentic, real communication of writer to reader and reader back to writer; writing as performance, particularly in a testing situation, is testing something far other than the writer’s ability to write; argument as a genre is class-based (and probably gender and race); rigor is a male fantasy—I had better stop here.
In our conversation, it seemed as if I were an idiot, just positioning myself in opposition to any generally accepted verity.
I have in the latter stage of my career acknowledged that I seem to think differently—a disposition probably influenced by my defining years in the sixties when thinking differently was thinking the same, or perhaps by my full-court resistance to authority, personalized in my battles with my father, a psychologically damaged World War II veteran who wore his uniform in death.
But I rescued myself from the entirely outlier position by thinking about the “other” tradition I have followed, educators who have challenged traditions: Bishop Whately, John Dewey, Fred Newton Scott, James Britton, James Moffett, Paulo Freire, Ira Shor, Ken Macrorie, Lucy Calkins, Peter Elbow, Don Murray—and Mike Rose, the subject of this post.
There are of course a host of contrarians I have left out in this list—but I am locating an alternative pedagogy within a tradition of writing as joy, as a way of discovery, of becoming, of communicating—not writing as a way of showing teachers that you know something and how to reproduce your knowledge formulaically.
I just finished reading Mike Rose’s second edition of Why School?  As always, Mike writes with voice. He is there, inside his words—a person who has found his life in a personalized theory of education. As all of us who have read Lives on the Boundary know, Mike’s theory of education is intensely grounded in his experience of moving through literacy from an underclass to an overclass.
I realize that my nouns might raise hackles, but neither Mike nor I will back off from our experience: we both came from solid working class and have moved into the academic upper-middle class; we both know the particular advantage of finding a vocation that is our avocation, our work and pleasure being one. I don’t think either of us shirk from recognizing that that privilege is a consequence of our having worked our way into the educated overclass.
This overly-reflexive analysis is a poor introduction to Mike’s second edition of Why School?, a book I recommend along with all of Mike’s other books and standards like Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse,  Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America, and Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words.
The threads in these books challenge testing, education as preparing students for their professions, and education as an assembly line production of the “educated” worker ready to hit Wall Street. Rather, they follow Dewey, who argued that education should lead toward self-sponsored education, the love of learning discovered though educational experiences sponsoring that love.
Mike’s latest book is squarely in this tradition. We need to listen to his voice when he analyzes the intellectual instability of the current testing obsession, which he tracks from the No Child Left Behind, the idiotically named Race to the Top, and now the Core Curriculum (he might have tracked back to the Minimum Competency Movement—he’s old enough). Rather than teach students how to score well on tests, he says, “A good education helps us make sense of the world and find our way into it.” Throughout Why Schooling , Mike celebrates the joy of learning, of searching, getting information from others and layering that information into one’s own conceptions.
I don’t agree with all that Mike argues in this book. I at least wonder about the degree to which we should spend class time teaching students how to accommodate bad teaching/rhetorical situations at the expense of promoting a love and joy of writing. I would like to see Mike write more about this love rather than situating writing instruction within academic expectations, many of which seem downright silly to me, but this is a small critique, one raised before in this discussion (see John Trimbur’s critique of Lives on the Boundary and Ways with Words).
I hope many of you will read Why School?  As with all of Mike’s books, the words slide right by the reader—and I think this is the best kind of writing, rather than writing that calls attention to itself . The reader doesn’t have to fight against the text. If we could teach all of our students to write like Mike rather than (fill in your favorite over-the-top theorist), we would have something.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

About Not Reading in a Writing Class

My friend and colleague Scott Warnock mentioned something about my anti-reading philosophy in his blog about online instruction. I started to write a comment that was clearly going to be too long, so I'm going to finish it here:

Well, actually, I lost it, so I'll try to rewrite it:
I minimize if not eradicate outside reading in my writing classes. In about 1968, James Moffett made the sensible claim that the only books students need in a writing class is each other's writing. I have long taken that to heart. I want students to be circulating their writing, reading and responding to each other in real communicative fashion (which also rules out the kind of criteria-centered, fix-it kind of peer response for which in my most of my career I have been an advocate). I start from the premise that I'm a writing teacher, not a reading teacher. Writing is what I have studied; it's what I know about. And it's what I love to teach. I have not specialized in reading.

I of course understand that when one is writing, one is reading and that when one reading, one is writing--but this dialectic points toward a different notion of reading than Bartholomae and Petrosky in their misguided way champion. Truthfully, when I have my students working on a project (right now, they are working on writing advice for writing teachers), I do encourage them to do some internet research to see what others may have said about teaching and misteaching writing. We also read some articles on the subject, like Gary Tate's wonderful essay, Halfway Back Home, but not many. As I said, I really like to minimize reading anything outside what we write. That's what I and my students enjoy doing.

I can't resist throwing in my anti-critical thinking spiel following the same line of argument as I did with my anti-reading theme. But I've written about this before on this blog, so I'll stop. Maybe I'll post a link to a chapter I wrote about critical thinking in Going North, Thinking West (see Important Resources to the right).

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

An Act of Grace

I'm working through grief about Ali. I've been here before--or at least in a place too much like this one, but that doesn't make the journey any easier. I'm one thought away from crying.

When people ask me, innocently, how are you?, they really just want an easy answer, a sign that everything's okay and we can continue on with our day unburdened by other people's griefs. My problem at this stage is that if someone asks me, I tell them probably in some attempt to unburden myself. I know from hard experience that keeping grief inside doesn't work. It festers there. On the other hand, you can't shout it from the rooftops. Some people really don't want to hear.

These thoughts and one of my friends led me to a new thought about personal writing. I have for decades used writing as a way of getting things more or less "out there," not keeping them "in here." Of course they stay inside, but by having them out there as well, they're just not as bad. Sometimes, I  even figure things out. I think that being able to use writing like this is an emotional resource and that we should at least in our writing classes give this gift of writing to our students.  A few years ago, my students wrote a book of advice for writing teachers. If you look at the chapter on "Journals," you'll see how students use writing to cope with some of the difficult problems we face in our lives.

Writing Ourselves into Each Other's Lives

A close friend of mine has been listening to me whining. I called her on the day Ali died. She had had a particularly hard day herself, coping with something very sad in her life. She listened to me for about an hour on the phone, I suppose you could call it bearing witness to my grief. I talked to her the next day and she said something striking.

She said something about how it made her feel better by making me feel better by her listening. I can't remember her exact words--but I had never thought of personal writing from this point of view. It goes something like this: the writer gets some sort of release by opening up those emotions, fears, hurts that our culture teaches us to cover--the places where we are most human, and as Bene Brown has said, most vulnerable. I had never thought about how opening up is a gift of sorts to whoever was gracious enough to hear you. I haven't quite said it yet: the reader gains by opening up to hear the writer. It's really an act of grace.