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.

Monday, July 20, 2015

What We're Aiming For

I could have foregrounded many student essays exemplifying what we're aiming for. I just reread Annelise's--and I want to post it here. Hers was a rewrite I had missed--technology gaff. I want to foreground here how interesting our students are--and how clearly they can explain themselves. I'm really sick of teachers who devalue student consciousness--perhaps as a way of overvaluating their own. I could post here several students essays, but I just reread Annelise's and wanted (with her permission) to post hers. This essay was in response to my writing task, Walking through the Doors--look at Student Essays to the right. I should add--Annalise knew she was getting an A. You might be able to see that what grade she would receive had nothing to do with what she wrote.

Post for: Walking Through the Door
Although I could not predict what I would be confronted with in college and what exactly I would have to adjust to, my entire upbringing has been preparing me for adaptation, specifically for this year’s transition into adult life. As mentioned in my autobiographical introduction, I was not taught a religion, where logic and faith are fused; instead I was solely taught logic. While my family takes an atheist approach to acting logically, I find it spiritual to decide in the present moment what the right way to act is. Hinduism, which teaches to reflect on the present moment, has guided me in this while allowing me to feel self-reliant and in control. I chose this route in high school, but because my family’s beliefs are so similar to mine, I never felt I really had to expend any energy to explain and practice my way of living.
This year has presented more challenges than all four years of high school combined; I have had to rethink in order to coexist with my environment while holding fast to my principles. It has been stressful to apply my morals to every action I take, but it has taught me responsibility. For example, living with my roommate, a person who did not understand “organic food,” and refused to hear an explanation, taught me to accept that I cannot educate everyone, and it is not my job to. All I can do is trash-dig for recyclable Easy Mac containers when she is not looking! Learning to balance my beliefs with my actions in a way that does not interfere with my relationships with people of opposing perspectives will probably be a lesson I learn in future years of college as well. Hopefully, the more my ideas interact with my environment, the more they are exercised, and the stronger they become. Like muscles, the stronger my beliefs are, the more capable they are to lift me out of hard situations that will surely present themselves in later years.
Luckily, this year was a test-run.  My most stressful environmental stimuli have been related to academics, socializing, and life-style development--that is, the weight with which I exercised was light enough so that I was not afraid of hurting myself during practice. Applying my perspective to these aspects of daily life has given me acumen, and I feel I am now a more adaptable, independent person as a consequence of my experience at Drexel.
For example, in my winter term’s English class, I was assigned an essay about identity. That was the prompt, to right about identity, whether it was specific, like Hispanic females in politics, or general, like the role of identity in job hiring. I chose to write about my identity as a vegan. In retrospect, answering the prompt this way gave me insight on the role veganism plays in my overall identity. An excerpt from this essay shows my then-new understanding of how large this role is, saying:
Similar to other identifiers, I am only aware that I am vegan when it is relevant; a person may only think about his or her level of education, for example, if he or she is having a conversation involving critical thinking. What makes veganism different from other identities is how often food is relevant to one’s life.  Since I am confronted by my eating choices three times a day, at every meal, maintaining the same outlook on consumerism is a continuous conscious process for me. Sometimes I even have to debate myself on why it is I am being so particular and demanding of my food, while I watch my roommate microwave Easy Mac. It requires self-reflection and recognition of my identity, something cannot be said of many other identities.
Although veganism is one of my main identifiers, I had never written about its influence in my life before this assignment. While many people in the class complained that the assignment was vague, the experience I had with this exercise was beneficial, because I was not pressured to research facts about an unheard-of subculture or political party, for example. The students who struggled to do the assignment were the ones looking for a rubric and an outside source of knowledge. It was enjoyable for me to write about something that had already been within me, waiting to be said.
The lack of structure in the assignment allowed my voice to be the focus of my writing, not the rubric. Therefore, writing the identity essay let me hear my voice, specifically on the topic of veganism, and finally see and fixate on the belief rather than letting it hide away in my head. This example, as well as several others-some involving school work, some being social- have allowed me to solidify ideas that already existed in my mind.
I am not alone in my views on this, Finke, et al. agree, saying of works of writing “the resulting creative cognitions can be focused or expanded according to the task requirements or individual needs by modifying the preinventive structures (p.240).” When I redesign assignments to be focused more on my need to discover myself, I find writing is a more creative and easily-flowing process. This idea has been said many times in English 103: writing for one’s self first and for an outside audience later makes the writing process easier, and the overall writing better.
I felt like this year’s transition has been insightful. One year has provided me with experiences that allowed me to listen to my voice for the first time and learn from listening to this voice- meaning self-reflecting on- who I am. In fact, not all of the hypothetical situations that I prepared myself to manage have actually happened yet. I like to think if they ever do, my self-understanding will be strengthened enough so that I can trust myself to overcome them in a way that not only preserve my integrity, but will further teach me. As I am currently learning, writing is a powerful method to bring awareness to my own voice on topics and issues. Writing frequently about daily obstacles and reading my pieces may reveal solutions I already have in my head that only become externalized and obvious when they are put on paper.
Slater, Annelise. “First Draft Vegan Identity.” Drexel University. January 16. 2015
Finke, R., Smith, S., Ward, T. “Creative Cognition: Theory, Research, and Applications.” 1996. The MIT Press.

It's worth looking at Annelise's comment about herself as a writer:

Myself as a Writer

This course has taught me to write for myself, and because of that I finally think of myself as a writer. When I write to follow a rubric, I don't consider myself anything other than a student doing homework. But, if the sole purpose of writing is to write, then I feel like a writer because I am choosing what thoughts I want to discuss, and the process is left up to me, not by the limitations of a rubric. Keeping a private journal and responding to classmates' essays has directed me to this self-realization as a writer.

In addition to being a "writer" now, I also find writing to be more enjoyable. I owe this to the grammar sessions in class. Since I feel more secure in my understanding of grammar, I am able to experiment with sentence-structure without the fear of sounding illiterate! This wave of exploration in my writing has given me new ways of thinking while I write. I think to myself "what would phrasing this the other way do to help or hinder the overall message." which was never a thought I had before, at least in the first-draft phase. The metacognition behind writing and realizing I control messages through my writing decisions make the process very interesting and fun for me.

Writing is also therapeutic.  When I am stressed in school, writing helps me vent. Several of my personal journal entries have contained some form of rant about my workload. It isn't the most fun concept to explore in writing, but it is efficiently relieving. After ten weeks of this, I'm more patient with myself, a better listener to myself, and am more comfortable in my own thoughts. Journals are not limited to the negative; I plan to write throughout the summer as a way to relive the day. When I look back and read, I can re-re-live! I was surprised this term, when I would read past journals, at how readily the emotions come flooding back from the memories. I'm grateful to have a new escape that serves to help me and as entertainment. In class, reading comments taught me that the more you re-read, and revisit the work, the more ways you see your work. This ties into my intro autobiography about how I want to see as many perspectives as I can in my lifetime...little did I know, writing was the way!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Naturalizing Writing—The Happiest Place on Earth

Wonderful CWPA 2015 conference at Boise. Thanks to all who worked to bring this off in the beautiful town of Boise. I want to come back. To live.

I thought about many issues while attending sessions, listening to the speakers, and talking with old and new friends. I will try to focus on one.

I wandered into a session entitled “The Wonderful World of Administration: Improving Our Programs Using Tools from the Happiest Place on Earth.” I’m slow, but after a while, I caught on. I leaned over to whisper to my friend  sitting next to me, “Do you think I’m the only person in this room who didn’t know where the happiest place on earth is?”

Beth nodded and said, “Probably.”

Since I am neither a Writing Center person nor a Disneyphile, I was misplaced in this session—as I may be displaced in life; nevertheless, I got something out of this session. In her presentation, Nicole Caswell said an instruction to Disney hosts is “Make sure each visitor leaves Disney World happy. How can we make sure that every student leaves the Writing Center happy?” she asked. She didn’t seem to expect an answer.

Uncharacteristically, I didn’t respond, but I thought: Write their papers for them.

I also thought, the happiness exit would be a good credo for our writing classes. We should as writing teachers have as one of our primary objectives students should leave our class happy—our class, not our course.

There was a lot of talk in the conference about transfer. Underneath the question of transfer lie the overt and covert purposes of required writing courses (the convert ones are complicated, involving money and the maintenance of social categories).

Purposes invite objectives. In several sessions, I listened to what teachers hoped would be the take-away for students; and here’s what I took away from these discussions: as a field, we may be going over a cliff by complicating the natural act of writing, of letting words flow from our fingers because we have something we want to say about something we care about to people we hope are listening and may have something to say back--the way I am writing here, on a plane heading out of Boise, and thinking about what kind of student writing I love to read, the kind that makes them and me happy when they leave the class.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


I know I have written about assessment a bit too much--imagining a way of assessing our writing programs through what our students say about what they have learned in our writing programs rather than having them "prove" (or argue) what they have learned by their writing performance in, let's say, school (trying to be polite here) writing situations. Key is that we're evaluating our programs more directly than by asking students to perform in an artificially constructed rhetorical situation (unless we argue that teaching students how to argue for a grade is the kind of genre--and social dynamic--that we want to teach). I will say, somewhat selfishly (and in keeping with my four rules of good writing assignments), that it's more fun to read what student feed back to me what they have learned (or not learned) in our writing courses than it is to read essays in which students are arguing for a grade.

I'm imagining the same kind of dynamic--a direct evaluation--of students' learning experiences in our university. I think we can learn a lot by listening seriously to our students, through their writing, rather than by asking them to prove something to us through school writing.

At any rate, at the end of the last quarter, I asked the students to write about their first-year experience at Drexel--with some focus on what they may or may not have learned in our writing program. I've posted their essays over on the right of this blog: "Students Essays Describing First Year at Drexel." These essays were actually addressed to an Associate Vice Provost at Drexel who came into our class to talk to us about her interest in learning about students' experiences, but I also told the students that I would be posting these essays for other teachers to read.

I'm not going to say these are great essays--we do very little revising and rewriting in my classes--and, quite a shift for me, no peer response activities. We just read what others write and write back to each other. Still, I find their essays very interesting. I know we can learn a lot from our students by seriously listening to them--and what better way to listen to them then by paying attention to what they tell us in writing.

On the right side is also a link to a book my LSU students wrote--"Writing Ourselves into Each Other's Lives." They wrote that for other teachers to read, so I hope some of you will look at it. If you want to use any of the chapters, feel free to link to the book or copy the chapters. Let me point to the chapter on "Voice." My students always like reading that one. Another favorite is "Journals." And many of the essays in the last half of the book are, to me, startling.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Scholarship as Social Class Privilege

I'm going to do some kind of presentation next week--or posing questions--at the WPA conference in Boise about alternative forms of "scholarship." I would  like to question the notion of scholarship. I'm a little worried about writing what I really think--that scholarship is pseudo-thinking, only a vaguely disguised form of reifying social class privilege. Actually, once I frame the subject this way, it almost seems as if I don't need to go on. Of course scholarship is a reification of social class privilege,  a way of making certain that the people who are born to a privileged language and more or less objectified way of thinking reserve for their children spaces for that privilege. I could move here to our discipline's conversation about the place of personal writing in our scholarship and pedagogy--a class/geneder/race infused conversation--one notably taken up by writers like Jane Hindman,  Laura Michciche, Victor Villanueva, and Richard Miller.

The objectified pose is always more privileged than the subjectified--let's call that the move toward the pseudo scientific and away from the foul bone and rag shop of the heart. Bourdieu has extensively documented the correlations among class, need, and distance from necessity.

In spite of many challenges, "scholarship" is linked to objectivity (I suppose one could track this to the Enlightenment), with a gesture toward the subjective. But we can't escape that our field, like other fields, are instruments of social reproduction, reaffirming gender, race, and social class relationships through the agency of discourse and cognitive habits.

I don't expect that it will every happen, but it would be lovely if scholarship were to turn its head on its tail, privileging personal writing over author-evacuated prose (Hindman, 2003--I think she was quoting Villanueva who was quoting Bakhtin). The real truth is that I can entertain notions of alternative forms of scholarship because I have arrived--somewhat surprisingly, I might add--achieved tenure and beyond. So the privilege of writing what you think, rather than what you think you need to write in order to be published, might in itself be a reification of social class privilege.

There might be some irony here: when you write in your voice, which is closer to what you think than what you think you should think, readers are more inclined to listen. I certainly find this to be true in my classroom--when my students write from themselves outward to their classmates rather than to me for a grade. That latter kind of writing, which I have called fake writing, is genuinely boring to read.

I doubt that in our field we'll every validate alternative forms of "scholarship," let's call it free-form publication--by which I imagine a non-peer-reviewed venue in which one  writes for the pleasure of writing--the kind of writing I like to sponsor in my classes. If others hear the writer (as verified, for example, by the number of hits on a blog), well, that could be scholarship.

Now that I write this, I think it's pretty lean thinking. But it's what I'm thinking.  I'm kind of hoping  I'll get a few hits.