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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Personal Writing in the Classroom: De-Voicing

Personal Writing in the Classroom: De-Voicing

Monday, May 16, 2016


The following is a brief more or less reflective essay. I asked my students to see what they could come up with in 60 minutes of writing, and I thought I would do the same. So here's what I wrote in 60 minutes about de-voicing:


All writers and writing teachers think about voice. Academics are usually quite silly about it—arguing about whether there is any such thing and if there is, what it is. As both a writer and teacher, I have considered voice central to my teaching and writing. Because I study and write about social class, I have linked voice or de-voice to social-class issues. My lack of voice was certainly tied to my unease with my social class origins—rural and decidedly working-class.

My early years were on a small Wisconsin dairy farm with seventeen cows and eighty acres. I lived with my parents, two siblings, and grandparents and their December child in a three-bedroom farm house. It was probably about sixteen hundred square feet. We lived close. We didn’t have indoor plumbing, much less a telephone.

So I grew up with rural, working-class language. I didn’t have trouble with my voice in the two one-room school houses I attended, grades 1-8. All the kids more or less came from the same social class and shared the same language. Only the teachers, Bob Murphy at Rockbridge and Betty Newkirk at Brush Creek, would have devalued our language, our “Me and Chuck fell into the creek yesterday,” or “Melanie don’t want to come to school.” Mrs. Newkirk, whom I adored, would have been particularly snippy. She thought Danny, my classmate, and I might do well in high school and even go to college. Neither Danny nor I (we were a class of two) had heard of college. Because we were in a rural, one-room school house,
both of us were worried about going to high school, where we would have to mix with the town-kids, the ones who had gone to big schools with maybe 40 or 50 kids in a grade, something unimaginable to us.

I remember in eighth grade when Danny and I had to go to Buck Creek School, sun shining, and spend the morning taking a test that would place us in the accelerated or non-accelerated freshman class at Richland Center High School (they openly tracked back in those days in fear of being left behind by the Russians, who had launched Sputnik). I can see the school house now—a white, clapboard school house with a large play yard, a softball diamond, swings, and teeter-totters. Large windows going to the top of the twelve-foot single room where we all sat and were tested. Karen Stibbe, a girl I later tried to have sex with, and Christine were there. And Dale Pauls and Pat Manning—now that I think of it.

I remember when I was told I had made it—I was in the accelerated class. I remember walking up our long driveway after having gone into town for church. I don’t know how we got the news, but I think my mother told me that I was in. Danny, too. I had been very worried that Danny would make it, and I wouldn’t. I didn’t really know the significance of making it “in” or being “out,” but I had some sense. Dale and Pat didn’t make it. Karen and Christine did.

Being “in” or “out” may in part have been based on intelligence, but I don’t think so. I can’t account for Danny—who was clearly as intelligent as I was—but my mother came from a half-educated family. Her mother had graduated from Ripon College in about 1910—highly unusual for a woman back then. My grandmother came from a family of reasonably successful farmers and I think her uncle was the president of Ripon. My grandmother, however, had a premarital pregnancy (J) and married the son of--get this--a traveling salesman. Same think happened to my mother, who had a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where she, too, had one of those kinds of sexual relationships and had to marry my father, who came from a long line of rural, highly uneducated farmers.

My mother was determined that I would be “literate”; that is, I would sound as if (my voice) I were educated. So she policed my and my siblings’ language and made sure that we read, read, read. She got my siblings and me hooked on books. That’s how I got “in.”

I didn’t realize this would be a narrative. I wanted this essay to go elsewhere, but as is usual in my writing now, when I get going, the narrative finds its own path. I know that because I was in the accelerated class, I was comfortable with my language. I was considered “smart.” I was, however, aware of social-class distinctions. (This is interesting). I knew there were kids who were way above me: their parents were wealthy, one girl, with whom I fell in love, was the mayor’s daughter; another one of my loves was the daughter of a physician and owner of the major clinic in town. I was able to negotiate these class differences by my classroom performances, athletics, and socio-political accomplishments, but I knew there was a difference—the ones from up there, and me.

I am timing myself—seeing what I can write in an hour—the time frame I have given you. I have several moments—I have them visually—when I was an undergraduate and graduate at the University of Wisconsin. I remember a moment in a class on Pope—and perhaps other 18th Century writers. This is hard to describe. There were about 40 people in the room, arranged in rows while the professor (a clearly very nice person), lectured. I just remember in the Q&A, asking a question. And then another. It was daring to ask a question. I don’t know why I did, but I just put myself out there. It was kind of like I was bored, listening to everyone else, and I just wanted to be in the conversation. I was giving myself voice.

I had another moment like this when I was a graduate student at Wisconsin. I remember a seminar. I think it might have been with Richard Dembo—one of the giants of the New Criticism movement. I remember trying to pay attention to the conversation—perhaps 20 of us sitting in a circle—and wanting to make a statement, ask a question. This was the same as with the Pope class. If you don’t talk, you are odd man out. Even dumb questions mean you are there—willing to get into the conversation.

I remember in both of these instances worrying about my language, about whether I would say something incorrect. And so while the conversation was going on, I had picked a spot of interest, a moment in which I could contribute to the conversation. But I was so busy rehearsing my sentence or series of sentences so that I wouldn’t speak ungrammatically, that by the time I had raised my hand and was called on, my question was yesterday’s news.

I am now, I think, at the end of my career. I wonder whether my early experiences in de-voicing have not pushed me into over-voicing.  I might have a reputation as an iconoclast. I really don’t like academic discourse (writing). I don’t like depersonalized writing, the kind that takes away writers’ voices. In a sense, I’ll bet I am still engaged in social-class warfare. I am saying to the dominating classes (the ones who profit off working-class labor), I speak. I was not born into your class, but I have my voice.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Description of a Reflective Essay

Below is a note I wrote to my students about the next kind of essay we want to write. I think my students have been writing wonderful essays--I have certainly enjoyed reading them. If you read some of the samples I have linked to in my extended description, you will see why. 
This has been a wonderful class—forming a close community of writers. I have been thinking that my job is to create conditions for students to do the best writing they can do—and that clearly involves having them write about something that drives each one of them, something they are clearly passionate about. Several of them have written about the link between passion and writing (and what happens when there is none).
Here is my description of the reflective essay:

Many people have wondered what this kind of essay is like. People have tried to define "the essay" (by which they meant the reflective essay).  It has a long history, beginning in the late 16th century with a French physician named Montaigne.  The best definition I have heard was by the writer Aldous Huxley when describing Montaigne's essays: They're just "one damned thing after another."  (Huxley [one of our great writers], by the way, was plagiarizing.  Some sixty years earlier, Mark Twain defined life as "just one damned thing after another." And then Toynbee, a contemporary of Huxley, said that "history is just one damned thing after another." Apparently, quite a bit is just one damned thing after another.

A more extended description:
This kind of essay mirrors the journey of the mind as the writer thinks through writing about a particular subject. The essay might begin with the writer recalling a particular incident the way Karen remembered when she couldn’t make it up the hill. The incident provides an occasion for reflection, as the writer thinks about the incident and follows her thoughts, wherever they lead. The writer doesn’t wander without purpose, but she might seem to be wandering in her thoughts—this is the journey. If she is lucky she will discover at the end of the journey something she didn’t know when she began.
Many of you have been doing this kind of writing without knowing it. Think of Zoe's deciding to follow a different path, although she has no idea where it will take her (kind of like a reflective essay), of Rachel's, of Abbey's about Tommy, of Kayla’s about death. I could refer to many of your essays where you have gone deep in your thinking. I think the essential characteristic of this kind of writing is a willingness to think through writing and to travel without knowing where you are going; but at the end of the journey, you seem to have realized what it all meant. This might be like life.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Pleasure in Writing

The following is a continuation of the discussion in WPA-l about the importance of student attitude toward writing. I think of the topic somewhat intemperately as fake verses real writing.  I also interpret this as writing as communication, expression, or discovery verses writing as a performance.
It’s probably healthy that we have such an array of positions on the importance of students’ attitudes toward writing. I don’t think the range of our attitudes toward their attitudes represents a false dichotomy, Ed. I think of it as a continuum with all sorts of words one could use to represent the left side (soft, elastic, female, nurturing, subjective, personal, yin, and so on) and likewise on the right (hard, rigor, male, discipline, objective, impersonal, yang . . . [Peckham, “The Yin and Yang of  Genres”). The words we use obviously frame our thought (Lakoff, Elephant) as we attempt to control the discussion along ideological, political, gender and social-class lines.

Ours is obviously far from a new discussion—one that tends to move glacially, if at all. I track it back to Whately’s introduction of the Summer Vacation (about 1828) topic because he couldn’t stand to read any more declamations (I know the feeling). The Dartmouth Conference was certainly an important moment in this discussion. We don’t seem to have moved too far off that discussion, some of us siding with Moffett and the British, others lining up with Kitzhaber and the Americans (I know: that was framing).

I have been heavily influenced by the 60s, Moffett, Britton et al., Freire, Elbow and others who line up on the importance of a student’s affective experience. Any one of us falls somewhere on multi-dimensional continuum. I think of a continuum in terms of the disposition map Bourdieu created in Distinction. I for, instance, spent the first three years of my life in a single-mother household and had a contentious relationship with my father, a stern authoritarian, after he returned from the war. So guess where I land on the continuum? And I imagine my position is the consequence of reason:-).   

David opens up the old discussion—hmmmmm, why are we requiring FYC? We can of course make up all sorts of reasons (and we have), many of them having something to do with justifying our jobs, salaries, and research time (and having about 50% of this very important required writing course taught by part-time teachers). It’s always worth rereading Crowley (personal)—another good read here is Tom Miller and Brian Jackson’s “What is the English Major for?”—somewhat ironically in the same issue as Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle’s manifesto (bookending the CCC issue—I’m sure Deborah Holdstein had that in mind.

This is already too long. But let me suggest (with the illusion that I’m thinking [Peckham, “The Stories We Tell”]): check with your students at the end of the course (better, do a program-wide survey so that the answers are disconnected from the teacher). Survey the degree to which students enjoyed the course, the writing they did in the course, what they did of didn’t like about it, and what they learned about writing in the course. I’ll bet (again, thinking I’m thinking) that if they didn’t like the course and didn’t like the writing . . . well, I’ll leave it there. But let me recommend John Tagg’s The Learning Paradigm College (the importance of engaged learning), Dewey’s game theory in Experience and Education, and probably Mihaly Csikezentmihalyi’s Flow and consider what they have to do with teaching writing.

The most important move I’ve made in my own illusion of thinking bends back to David’s discussion: I have moved away from the focus (and necessity of) academic discourse (again: remember Elbow’s dissection of that genre) and toward teaching writing for life. I think writing is a gift, like language. If we turn our students off from writing, we should perhaps ask ourselves some hard (sorry) questions.  See Kaitlyn's essay.