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, June 30, 2016

Paul Thomas' Blog

Paul's last entry begins:
To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)
All teachers are incredibly important, but high school English teachers will always have a special place in my heart. I am in my fourth decade as an educator, spending almost two decades as a public high school English teacher (many years coaching and teaching/advising journalism/newspaper as well) and now in my second decade as a...

Anyone interested in teaching should go to

Paul Thomas' Blog

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Fear of Writing

Some friends on WPA-l are engaged in a mild conversation about the pleasure of writing. I want to elaborate here and then let one of my students, Jake, describe his problem with writing & how it has been taught.

I know my position is not popular; it might even be called dangerous. For a host of reasons, I would not recommend it for untenured or non-tenure track WPAs. Essentially, promoting the pleasure of writing is uncool--it's not rigorous.

I have, when trying to make my position sound more scholarly :-), called it the transfer of affect. I think one of the best ways of helping students negotiate difficult rhetorical situations (the kind I usually call school writing--I think in A Theory of Literate Action, Chuck Bazerman calls them school genres) is to encourage a positive attitude toward writing.  As others in the WPA-l discussion have noted, making a positive attitude primary does not stop us from teaching many other writing and research skills. I work with my students on grammar, style, rhetorical theory, and research strategies.

I think we can make all of these interesting and pleasurable, although several of my students are clearly enduring my grammar lessons. But above all, I want my students to come out of our class having enjoyed their writing and reading (mostly reading each other) experiences. Achieving this objective is really not very hard. In fact, it's fun. If you look at Rachel's essay at the end of this post, you'll see why.

I do know that encouraging pleasure in writing has invigorated the writing program I have been directing at Drexel. Almost all of the teachers have embraced it. The students as well have responded positively to it. My colleague, Karen Nulton, and I have significant research to support these claims. I think, however, focusing on the pleasure of writing is not the best way to make friends with administrators and other teachers who very likely do not enjoy writing. These are the people who believe in minimum word counts and a required number of scholarly sources.

I need to let Jake speak. But I do want to ground my theory as essentially a progressive, liberatory pedagogy. More lately, educators like Will Richardson, John Tagg, and L. Dee Fink refer to it as engaged learning--Tagg pushing for The Learning Paradigm College. None of this is new.

Here's Jake's description of why he had come to loath writing:

After some consideration, I have decided to completely rewrite my essay.  Why?  Well that’s because I still have no clue what I want to write about.  I wrote my first essay about the power of words since it was the easiest thing to write about, but I still wasn’t that interested in it.  The main thing I wanted to pump out was how fascinated I was with the deaf 20 year-old story, which isn’t much to go on.  While I was reading Professor Peckham’s response to Chris Z’s essay, what he wrote about caught my attention.  Professor Peckham was curious as to why some students can’t find something to write about when provided a blank canvas.  It is pretty strange if you think about it.  Everyone has different opinions, ideals, experiences and thoughts, so there should be at least one interesting thing to write about, right? 
Even when I realized this, my mind still remains so empty that my head would have better use as an over-sized pickle jar.  I can’t understand why this is, but Professor Peckham provides another hint that really set the gears in motion; “There is no reason why people should not like to write—unless they have been trained not to”.  Reading this really makes things clear; the reason I’m not passionate about writing is that I was conditioned all throughout school to see writing as a chore.  This is all due to the various different English classes from grade school to high school.  I can’t recall a single class where I could reflect on anything that I wanted to.  All of those classes just had the same old routine; read a book, do work about said book, and then make a book report.  As you can probably guess, doing something like this wasn’t the least bit enjoyable.  In fact, the rules for writing got more constrictive throughout the years.  Those English classes left little room for creativity and really put a damper on my feelings towards writing.  I honestly wish that that phenomena could be fixed for future generations, but I don’t have the time nor drive to do something about it.
                After reflecting on this, I’m still very concerned for my writing career.  Is there any possible way that I can recover from this deep-rooted bias towards writing?  In general, writing doesn’t seem like something boring.  To express one’s complex thoughts upon a piece of paper (or more commonly today, upon a computer screen) in a way so that other people can feel the same way you do just by reading seems pretty interesting.  Maybe if I started to keep a personal journal, I can get to the root of the problem.  I’m glad that I finally realized my problem with writing.  After all, the first step towards recovery is acknowledgement.

Jake was writing about his last essay. Really, I could post so many powerful last essays from my students to demonstrate how students can enjoy writing. I'm going to link to Rachel's -- both because it was a compelling essay and because Rachel came into this class utterly loathing writing. That's not how she went out. Her shift in attitude wasn't because of me--it was because of the class.  

For the record: there aren't any word limits to this assignment. I just basically asked students to write a reflective essay, for themselves first, for the rest of the class after.

Frankie: My Glasses

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Pawns in the Game

I  was recently interviewed by a writer from The Atlantic who had surprisingly read my book, Going North, Thinking West. I know that when I talked to the writer, I let loose with many of my concerns about the way in which we (un)teach writing in our required writing courses.

In the interview, I was a bit of a loudmouth. I imagine myself (and I really mean " imagine") as a reasonably reasonable member of our field--our WPA charge being . . . well, I don't know what it is; it might be legitimating our profession with helping students improve their writing on the side.

I used to think our purpose was to help students negotiate their rhetorical situations in other disciplines. This line of thinking can lead downward into dirt: our charge is to prepare students for uncomfortable rhetorical situations, the nadir of which would be a timed, five-paragraph essay arguing something about which you don't give a s&#t for a reader who also doesn't give a s&#t about what you believed but has to assign on the basis of your performance a number or a grade.

I  have said before (shades of James Sledd) that required writing programs (RWP) are possibly a farce. We know historically that the birth of RWPs were gate-keeping mechanisms to keep the rabble out (Berlin). Our current strategies may not have advanced light-years beyond this placement mechanism in the 1870s that determined writing ability by asking students to parse: "He said that that that that that that pupil parsed was not that that that he should have parsed."

I may have also let loose in my interview my interpretation of the money-making, highly unethical practice of requiring incoming students to take a year of required writing and then while pretending that the course is soooo important hiring part-time labor to teach it--and in the process making a significant profit to fund non-productive tenured faculty to do next to nothing and administrators to do even less. Although one should hesitate to assign correlation to causality, the statistics of the decline in TT faculty since the 70s, the increase in part-time labor, and the corresponding increase in higher administrative positions should at least occasion pause.

Writing program administrators, as many of us know, are collaborators in the project. I don't know how deeply I want to go into this: I am channeling Sledd and Crowley. Maybe this is how many of us feel when we've been too long in the game. Perhaps we no longer believe in the arguments that gave us a reason for being.

Let me compress my argument. How many writing programs still spend time teaching MLA documentation? Why on earth are we focusing on citation and documentation when most writing situations don't require them? How many writing programs eulogize argument as the overarching genre when most writing situations fall within other supra-genres (Bazerman, Theory of  Literate Action)  How many programs have students read mind-numbing academic articles about who-knows-what in order to write about who-knows-what for a grade?

In the long line of progressive educators stretching from Whately to Dewey to Freire to Moffett to Elbow, I desperately in what might be the end of my career want to promote the love of writing. I just don't get why others in our field would want to situate writing within the frame of hard work and pain--the kind of thing you put off until the last minute.  Why do we want to teach students to hate writing?

This is a serious question: why do we do that? What do our actions have to do with social class reproduction (see Bloom, "Freshman Writing")? What do we do to make sure that our children and the children of others within our social class fraction will more easily negotiate the gauntlet of our RWPs than students from working-class and other minority backgrounds will be able to do? How do we as writing teachers become pawns in the game?