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.

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.