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, March 30, 2016

Embarrassed: Survey Results

PS: I'm working on it. Look at the slightly disaggregated.

I recently had what can best be called “one of those conversations," in which I remembered that in 2010 I had surveyed methods of placement in colleges and universities. I had a good response so that the statistics should be suggestive.  

I probably said I would distribute the results & never did. The results are not disaggregated. I’m going to try to do that later, but later for me might mean never, so I have exported the results and made them available on my blog Look on the right side of this blog if you're interested. 

The results are only 6 years old :), but I'll bet not a lot has changed.  
First file is general results.

The second file is from people who couldn’t respond to my choices.  They listed “other.” Apologies if your name is there & I didn’t black it out.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Thought Experiment

I am not linking this thought game to the more disciplined projects of philosophers, physicists, or Einstein, but I want to imagine heterodox notions of required writing programs in post-secondary institutions. I may be repeating Crowley's 1991 article, "A Personal Essay," but I want to play out my own thoughts here, occasioned, as usual, by conversations with friends who think I'm a bit off.

I assume, following Marx, Durkheim, Berger and Luckman, Bourdieu, and a host of others, that cultures try to reproduce themselves in part through the institutions they contain. Educational institutions are certainly dominant in social reproduction.

So, obviously, is language within the educational project. I'm going to skip the intermediate steps in this thought experiment to get to our required writing programs.

Imagine "college level" writing/language/thinking as a part of the social reproduction project--and of course of required writing programs that may very well exist primarily to haul in profits by requiring courses farmed out to part-time rather than full-time teachers (the excuses for this are legend and more than a little leaky).

But let's say that most people can write well enough to satisfy the exigence of the particular rhetorical situation. If we can ignore concerns like comma splices, split infinitives, subject-verb agreement, and so on, most of which exist only in order to mark one's social class and schooling, most people can write messages that can be adequately interpreted to convey the necessary message.

I--as I assume do other writing program directors--have multiple examples of essays graduate students have brought to me in frustration, saying they couldn't understand them, when if read aloud, the text was perfectly understandable if you ignored the spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors (see Williams, "Phenomenology").

Here's the thought experiment: suppose we accept all writings samples as normative. Suppose we resist the social reproduction agenda of gatekeeping and certifying through the reductive mechanisms of grades, obviously privileging the middle classes who have by and large defined the norms in their own images. What would our writing classes look like?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

About Being Write

I have been writing and thinking about my career as a writing teacher, interspersed with email correspondences, playing hooky by glancing (promising myself they will be only glances) at the WPA-l and the NCTE Leaning & Teaching Forum. These three activities plus my current read of The Rhetoric of Pleasure have occasioned some uncomfortable reflections that kept me awake last night.

I have a kind of push-pull in my psyche, leading, I think to a certain kind of blindness to what I see in others but can't see in myself--unless I start to think about it when I can't get to sleep.

I've been teaching for a long time in a variety of teaching situations. I started to learn how to teach writing when I first worked with the Bay Area Writing Project in 1977. I have been learning ever since. There have been some bad moments, maybe even bad years, but overall, this has been a beautiful life. I know I have enjoyed teaching writing because by and large, I have adhered to the four rules I have at the top of this blog. I learned to lean in this direction with some of my friends from BAWP (missing Miles Myers), but also from my students and with a large lift from James Moffett.

Anyone reading this blog and my WPA rants knows that I think grading student writing is not a very good way of teaching writing. I haven't been grading student writing for about forty years. Well, I did try it for about one semester sometime in the early 80s, but it just seemed silly to me.  I also learned--particularly as a high school teacher with five classes averaging 35 students per class--how to get students to circulate their writing, writing, reading, and writing back and forth to each. I thought and still think that writing should be fun, as it usually is for me. And I think writers should write about what matters to them and to their readers of which I am one (certainly the one with the power of the grade and a bit more knowledge & experience): but I am one, not THE one.  And finally, I think students should work in a variety of genres, but they should work from the inside out, from the specific to the general and then back again, Moffett called this playing the universe of discourse.

I think I know a few other things: like I should write with my students and get my essays in the stack, and I should always look for feedback from them about what is and isn't working in our class. And that they should have a challenging and positive experience in our writing course. Wrap it all up, and that's about what I know about teaching writing.

Here are the horns of the dilemma--that one that kept me up last night. I think I'm right. I of course have some support from others who have followed John Dewey, one of my first great influences. But I also have a lot of friends in our rhetoric and writing community who basically think I'm crazy; others who think, you have a point, but . . . "

In those moments when I can't sleep, I think I close myself off too much from hearing others, from opening up a space for others to present themselves in this wide universe of understanding. I know there are so many different ways to help our students negotiate the world of writing. I know in the writing programs I have directed that the best way of directing is allowing space for teachers to teach in the way they know best. The same is quite obviously true for our student writers.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

On Creativity

"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education." Albert Einstein?--I didn't check it.
I have hundreds of essays that demonstrate that students can write quite well. I often see what T.R. Johnson recounts in On the Rhetoric of Pleasure: students frequently do their best writing when it simply springs out of them in response to a discussion or the teacher simply asking them to "write for about 15 minutes on  . . . .", the students knowing that what they write will be read and responded to by the other students in the class (and non-graded).

I was really struck by the following essay. I had simply asked my students to view Ken Robinson's TED talk on creativity and then give me an hour to write in response to the following question:

Then think back over the past two quarters. In what ways have Drexel teachers encouraged you to be creative—perhaps engaging in some kind of activity merely for the pleasure of doing it, for the pleasure of creating (don’t talk about this class)? If you can’t think of any activities in your other studies that encouraged creativity, did you find any activities outside your classes here that encouraged your creativity? Tell us about them if you had some.
Do you feel in your classes and in education in general any kind of tension in yourself between creative or learning activities that you would do simply because you like doing them (like Gillian Lynne—the dancer Ken Robinson mentioned toward the end of his talk) and other educational experiences, the kind you are doing simply to get the credit and grade. If there is any kind of tension, can you describe it for us? I am interested in your thoughts and feelings about this subject mostly because I would like to check out by hearing from you whether Ken Robinson has it right—that schools mostly kill creativity in students—and if he does, I would like to think of what we as teachers can do about it (assuming that creativity is a desirable characteristic that we should encourage in students).
The value of the creative life: If you check my link for Gillian Lynne (worth doing), you will see who this little girl who was a “problem” because of her fidgeting in grade school is at 88 still directing major ballets for the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Here's one of my student's responses. I assume she took about an hour--maybe more, but she's pretty busy. We didn't have any criteria, rubric, or process--no peer editing kind of thing (which I have gotten away from).  One  point shouldn't be very hard to make: as a teacher, I thoroughly enjoy reading writing like this--and being able to write back to her, telling her what I thought about some of what she said:

On Creativity
Virginia Penaloza-Jackson

Although often scoffed at, creativity plays a bigger role in our lives than we’ve been raised to think. As little kids, we are encouraged to be creative and use our imaginations in as many ways possible; however, once we get older and start going through the public school system, we’re taught to tone it down and take the “real” subjects requiring solid facts and logic more seriously. Creativity is for little kids, but grown-ups need to be real. This stigma of creativity being useless in adult endeavors does way more to hurt society than it does to help it. It’s as if society forgets how much more beautiful the world is with art and music—as if society thinks these great and wondrous things appear out of nowhere. Forever talking down on young adults for choosing the unconventional career paths of musicians or artists as if they’ve never found happiness in a song or solace in a painting.

            As a film major, I dreaded talking to adults over the summer before heading to college. “What are you going to study in college,” they’d ask and I’d smile nervously and say, “A film major” to which they’d just stare and blink, uttering behind tight mouths: “Oh that’s nice.” Often times they would also ask what my parents were and when I would explain that my father is a doctor, I’d hear from some audacious people, “Well, wouldn’t he prefer you become a doctor as well?” Thankfully, both of my parents, fancy doctor father and low-income retail mother, support me whole-heartedly.

            Because I am going after my whimsical dream of somehow being involved in film making, I’m in a very creative environment here at Drexel. I have yet to take a single class that did not encourage the use of creativity and free thought; for that, I’m extremely thankful. I could be somewhere where you just learn theory and have to read “useless” text books for the first year—and I know, I know; they’re not useless but it sure feels that way in the moment when you can’t put any practicality in the mix and you begin to lose sight of your dreams. However, the lack of totally strict guidelines can be challenging for me because I’m a very directions-oriented person and like to be told what to do—even though I don’t really. There’s probably some psychological explanation of me just being afraid of what others think, therefore enjoying the comfort of rules to explain myself. Which is also why this super creative environment I found myself is helpful; I will soon grow more used to this freedom and find more confidence in my ideas.

            That’s another thing about creativity: confidence. By embracing our creative minds, we develop a confidence in ourselves. Creativity is one of the barest essences of who we are and when we’re in an environment that shuns our creative processes we lose a bit of that confidence. As author and educator Ken Robinson said, kids aren’t frightened of being wrong. Kids who are encouraged to play in imaginary scenarios, kids who are encouraged to milk their creativity for all its worth; they have the confidence not to fear being wrong. As we are taught to be wary off too much creativity in the “real world”, we become unsure of ourselves and begin to fear. “I’ll sound stupid if I say that” is probably a thought most of us has had as we’ve grown up, but a kid doesn’t care. A kid will proudly declare that dog droppings on the sidewalk look like a cartoon character. A kid will proudly showcase his artistic renderings.

            Thinking on children and their creative lives makes me remember my own childhood before I was afraid. I was so carefree and happy and eager to show off everything; from stick drawings of cats to outlandish ideas of how to decorate a house. I lost some of that happiness as I entered a time in my life when I told myself I had to finally grow up. I will forever regret deluding myself into believing that I had to leave silliness behind—I had to leave my creative imaginings in the dust. Creativity is such a flickering candle in our minds and the brighter we let it burn, the happier we can be. With creativity we have the power to change our situations although others might not notice.

            Creativity is a power. Creativity is an essential part of living. Creativity is who we are as individuals. People are afraid of creativity because it’s so unique. Sometimes I look around and I’m disturbed by the sameness, but even as that feeling passes over me I see a brave soul who has conquered the status quo and proudly flaunts their “abnormal” selves. When we allow ourselves to express our creativity, we allow ourselves a deeper freedom. Just as creativity can keep fear at bay,
we need to fight our fears to regain our creative selves.  

Tilting against Grades

I feel as if I am tilting against windmills. It's a little late in life to be attacking these sort of things, but I can't stop. I didn't mean to get into a WPA-list conversation about grades again, but when a friend told me about Quinnipiac's first-year writing policy of no-grade/final portfolio, I wondered how many other schools had managed to reimagine education.

Here are the colleges that have responded to my question of whether they have a no-grade/pass-fail/final portfolio option: University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Kingsborough CC, CUNY; New College of Florida; Evergreen College; University of Maine. 

The general response that I get when I suggest going to non-graded writing instruction is 1. we can't do it because the students are so grade conscious; 2. we are in an institution governed by grades; 3. students will slack off if we don't motivate them by grades.

I am not convinced by the argument that because everyone else is doing it, that’s what we have to do. For academics who prioritize critical thinking, I should think that argument would fall flat on its face. 

I think many teachers know: teachers like to respond to student writing if they are seriously responding, talking back to the students. This is writing as communication. But they do not like/even hate grading. That's why teachers procrastinate with that stack of papers.

Teachers know (and research is clear about this): students look at the grade. If it's an A, they'll read the comments; otherwise, they either ignore the comments or read them in order to fight back. These are not productive learning discussions.

Teachers complain about students who come to them and ask, but what can I do to get an A--the what-do-you-want syndrome. Like who's at fault here?

And finally, we have the argument about motivation--that if we don't motivate them by grades (presumably with high standards, leading to raising-the-bar rhetoric), they won't work on their writing. 

Left out of the grade-motivation argument is how are we teaching writing? Let me assume (and my experience and research confirms this) that most students really like to write--and they want to improve their writing. But some of the ways in which we try to teach writing (the we-know-what’s-good-for-you-strategy); well, if I were a student in a pass/fail course, I would also try to skate as close to the nether edge as I could (a response to Ed's and Val's post). Some of the stuff we try to teach students is pure junk and they know it.

Our research at Drexel is very clear: half of the students enter our first-year classes disliking, sometimes hating writing. Nearly all of them began pre-school and kindergarten enjoying scribbling/writing. As teachers, we have killed that pleasure in writing--the early death usually beginning around 5th grade often in the form of the five-paragraph essay. Our challenge is to bring back their early pleasure in writing. If you're not doing that, what are you doing? 

Anyone interested in this conversation should consider Tagg’s (the learning paradigm) distinction between surface and deep learning, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation or perhaps view Ken Robinson’s TED talk on creativity. Also Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds—which might explain our profession’s inability to unhook itself from grades, even though some teachers know the pleasure of responding to student writing without reducing their responses to a GRADE.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Fools in the Shadows

An upper level administrator, whom I admire, took some exception to my last post. I really appreciated his comment--basically, reminding me that upper administrators do care about student learning but they see the educational project from different angles than when they were teachers. They carry their memories of their teaching careers with them, but in their new positions, they have to respond to a different and expanding constituency.

This post is an apology of sorts for my last post. In my last post, I left far too much room for multiple interpretations of my reference to Plato's Cave, particularly when I referred to the fools in the shadows. As with most writing here, I let that noun phrase roll off my fingers. Actually, the phrase doesn't make sense within Plato's classification of people. I was really thinking about the prisoners chained to the rocks (in the Republic, if I remember correctly, he includes in this category women and slaves), but I liked the phrase, fools in the shadows and there it went.

Now that I have apologized. I want to defend my choice--and contradict it. I still think that the further removed you are from the classroom, the less you know about students and effective teaching strategies. As you move into higher administration, the more abstract students (and teachers) become--in some sense, like shadows. But that's not the same as imagining the shadows as fools.

My more focused aim in that post was the declining-literacy trope that circulates in the public imagination--and the consequent counterproductive "accountability" assessment projects (the most recent being Every Student Succeeds Act).

I recently had a long conversation with a dean in another university.  It was one of the most interesting conversations I have had in some time. She certainly didn't imagine students as deficient or fools in the shadows. Quite the opposite. She understood that the "underprepared" label applied to students is essentially a class-based concept, that there is no such thing as an underprepared student (this is essentially the point of translingual pedagogy).

On the other hand, I know a teacher who thinks that students are lazy and that most of them can't write their way out of a paper bag (that's close to a direct quote), that they need to be forced to write academic essays whether they like it or not.

My point is that my claim about the relationship between locus and perception in my previous post is a hasty generalization, to put it mildly. I am bothered by teachers like the one to whom I just referred. We have too many of them in the classroom. I wonder about a system that not only tolerates this kind of vision but seems to perpetuate it. This gives me shivers this morning.