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.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Displeasure of Reading and Writing

I'm still reading Tagg. He's not giving me new information. As I pointed out in my previous blog--Tagg's is progressive pedagogy: Dewey, Freire, Moffett, Judy, Rose, Elbow, me.

Perhaps what surprises me is that student/learning-centered pedagogy chronically remains in the back seat--if not in the trunk. Educators pretend to care about student learning, but . . . well, particularly as they gravitate into upper administrative levels, educators lose their foci on student learning, focusing instead on numbers and forms--really, the appearance of teaching. If you think of Plato's parable of the caves, this retrogressive progression might be inevitable: the higher your social group membership, the more abstract your perception (Bourdieu). At the highest level, you are with the stars. Forget the fools in the shadows.

From the perspective of upper level administrators, or worse, politicians, our students are shadows. The higher you fly, the less you see on the ground. You reiterate commonplaces that sell in your social group: the most common one being the Socratic trope about the declining literacy and cognitive abilities of the kids these days. Unfortunately, this trope and the theorized remedy--usually
framed by standards, outcomes, and assessment--smother good teaching, the kind Tagg describes in The Learning Paradigm, and Dewey described in Experience and Education. Key to good teaching is knowing how to learn with your students.

I have many things I have learned from my students, but I am going to focus here on two that really bother me.

I have recently been struck in my student's portfolios by how many of them say they no longer do self-sponsored writing and reading. They feel stressed, too busy. I suspect that many of their postsecondary school activities are disengaged, the kind assigned by tough-love teachers, brainwashed, as Jeff Schmidt (Disciplined Minds) describes it, by their passage through the educational gauntlet. (I know: I think I've survived the brainwash).

Because the students are disengaged, they put off their work. Then they get into a frantic mode, which is always counter-productive. They write bad stuff, stuff they don't care about. They just want to get it done and turn it in to the teacher, whom they hope to please.

Here's what one of my students wrote:

For me personally when doing research papers on traditional topics in school I more or less just gather the required amount of sources, get the facts and then spit them back out onto the page in a way that I used three or more sources. I also found that when researching a topic that you are not interested in you never do more than you have to; it’s an obvious fact that I wish my old teachers had noticed but then again I always thought they gave us these projects as to learn the right way to research and cite properly.
Who wants to read that kind of writing? The normal response is to whine about student writing.

I feel terrible about what we are doing to our students. I'm going to frame and reframe my questions:
  • When your student leave your writing classes, are they more excited about writing then when they came in? 
  • Do you have a way of discovering the percentages of yes and no and what what you might do to improve your courses so that you get more yeses? 
  • And if they don't enjoy writing in your classes, what on earth is your logic? What?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Objectifying (Student) Texts

While reading John Tagg, The Learning Paradigm College, I have thought more about the essential mis-educating practices that encourage, as Tagg frames it, surface rather than deep knowledge. I like the way Tagg revives Dewey’s notion of education verses mis-education. Mis-education creates surface knowledge, the kind of knowledge one absorbs for tests—or essays to be graded. Tagg characterizes this as episodic vs semantic knowledge, atomistic vs holistic—linking these dualistic categories to entity or incremental theories of knowledge—the former implying people are born with fixed abilities, the latter, that people learn and grow. 

The overall frame opposes performance to learning, the former proving a knowledge or skill for an extrinsic reward (grade/money), t
he latter for learning for its own sake, exploring the world and integrating the new knowledge with old knowledge, transforming both old and new knowledge—semantic knowledge, the words gathering meaning by their relationships to other words and their grammatical function as opposed to episodic knowledge, bits and pieces to be reproduced on tests or other performances and then forgotten.

In many ways, this conversation links with a WPA-l conversation on reading—the teacher imagining that her responsibility is to teach students how to “read critically,” generally giving them texts they wouldn’t read on their own and having some way of testing whether they had read the assignment.
I’ve made and over-made my point on how wrongheaded this is. I want to ignore this hard-reading theme to think more about grading, a consequence of a conversation I had with a friend, who has recently stopped grading her students’ essays and found herself enjoying teaching and writing more—and her students likewise, learning and writing.

Our conversation led me to think about the objectification of student writing. When we grade/evaluate an essay, we objectify it. In total disregard of Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory, we reduce the text to an object, not a medium for inter-subjective exchange, the dialectical flow of thought between a reader, a text, and the writer’s ideas within the text, and the culture speaking through the writer, reader, and text. No, rather than something alive with thought, it’s an object to be graded. The text has in a sense lost its meaning. It is little wonder that students dislike being graded and teachers dislike grading. To grade “objectively,” the teacher has to objectify, take the life out of a text, kill what they imagine they value.

What a difference when the teacher is allowed to “read” the text, to interact with it, to listen to the life within it and respond to it inter-subjectively. Suddenly, writing is alive: the student’s text and the teacher’s response—hopefully, intermixed with other students’ responses. Suddenly, it is a pleasure to be reading and writing back. And for the student, it is a pleasure to have been read. It’s not overly difficult to link this theory of reading or objectifying student writing to Freire’s theory of objectifying peasants.