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.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Evidence-based Writing

The Trump administration has banned evidence- and research-based terminology from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Apparently, the CDC is supposed to imagine science in dialogue with local community conventions. If you are talking to a community of flat-earthers, you need to exercise caution if you claim the earth is round, even if you started east from Raleigh, NC and continued dead east until you came back to Raleigh. Perhaps the compass was compromised.

I suspect that most people who were not beguiled into voting for Trump think that we should ground our opinions in research and the evidence research has uncovered. On the opposite end of the teeter-totter lies reasoning based on what your friends told you was true. One kind of reasoning seems based on information passed on through writing; the other, through oral discourse.

I side with evidence- and research-based reasoning.  I know that rhetoric can bend facts until they turn back on themselves, but still, if we didn’t honor the basic enlightenment period move from myth to science, we would still be sending messages by smoke-signals or horseback. I view with incredulity any governmental or educational system that decided to says “It is so, because I say it is so.”

The discussion about the banned phrases (and reasoning) took on WPA-l a different turn, some teachers with secondary school experience noting the reductive consequences of genuflects to evidence-based writing linked to testing, formulas, and argumentative genres. The mis-educative consequences of testing, formulas, and argumentative genres have shaped secondary and post-secondary instruction since the late 40s. David Coleman, the chief architect of the English Language Arts section of Common Core, in his assault on personal writing (“Bringing the Common Core to Life,” 2011) is largely responsible for the negative turn of “evidence-based” discourse, leading to some confusion about its merits.

In his address, Coleman ironically cites the lack of evidence-based, argumentative genres in primary and secondary schools. In fact, Appleby and Langer in their most recent study (“A Snapshot of Writing Instruction at Middle Schools and High Schools,” 2011) show precisely the opposite, the dearth of expressive forms of writing and dominance of argumentative genres, notably of the five-paragraph sort. Teachers in secondary schools are consequently aware of the testing game and the destructive rhetoric of “evidence-based” writing. Post-secondary teachers concomitantly know that “evidence-based” and argument sells well to administrators and colleagues.

Consequently, the phrase has taken on multiple meanings, leading to confusion and often counter-productive teaching practices. Certainly most educators would agree that when people makes claims, those claims should be based on facts rather than mythology. In our dreams, political discourse would be grounded in evidence and research—in our dreams. But as educators, we should also pay attention to the full range of discourse—and to our students’ attitudes toward what we teach. Certainly, we want our students to experience a rich array of rhetorical situations and genres. But we don’t want to fixate on evidence-based arguments to the exclusion of the many other genres that can draw our students into the rich world of writing.

We always need to ask at the end of our courses, have our students (and have we) enjoyed the experiences of writing (and reading). If not, something’s wrong—probably too much of Coleman.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Writing: A Happy Marriage

I have been listening to Ann Pachett’s essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by which she means, I take it, her marriage to writing as well as to her second husband. I have read several of her books—she’s a first-class novelist. In her essays about writing, she is writing about the art of writing fiction. God bless her for her novels.
But I want to re-contextualize her generally sage advice within a different frame, the one to which I have devoted my adult live: encouraging others/students to write the way they breathe, speak, sing, or dance. In a way, my thoughts are contrapuntal to Pachett’s. She is writing about writers, in spite of her disclaimer, in the Romantic tradition—people who are set apart from the quotidian.
I resist this tradition of imagining people as writers and non-writers. I know that was not Pachett’s intent—she doesn’t seem to have thought about writing, like speech, as a gift that belongs to all of us rather than only to those of us who are “writers.” This tradition is grounded in social class stratification, marking “artists” off from the rest of us.
But if we imagine that she is talking about writing as a right rather than a privilege, much of what she says could improve the way writing is taught in academic environments. I am going to comment on only one.
You learn to write by writing. Write a lot. Get into the flow of writing, and you will move forward. This simple truth is complicated by genre theory and dysfunctional teaching, much of which is unwittingly grounded in social class reproduction.
I’ll skip my link to social class reproduction about which I have written extensively on this blog, in articles, and in Going North, Thinking West. So to genre theory:
Pachett is writing about the uber-genre: fiction. But in a certain sense, she is also writing about writing, that literacy gift that should be available to all of us but which is through the educational industry denied to the working classes.
Still, Pachett, a writer with upper-middle-class origins, offers advice that writing teachers should heed. If you want to bring writing into your lives, you need to write and write and write. And you need to choose your readers/commentators wisely. Writers need to read their readers rhetorically. It would help if they are able to read their readers within a larger social construction that reserves for circulation writers from the privileged social classes—and from the gender and racially privileged classes [that’s me]. And don’t go to school to learn how to write.
I have been teaching and mis-teaching forever, swayed by my desire to be accepted in the field (and thus, ventriloquating  thoughtless verities, like the importance of argument).  I want to push the opposite: please, let’s help our students fall in love with writing. And get rid of these junk readings and useless discussions. Stop pretending that you are teaching your students how to think. Perhaps think instead about how your induction into higher education has taught you how not to think while thinking you are thinking.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Revealing Ourselves in Our Writing?

I followed the conversation on WPA-l about the “personal narrative” that morphed into a conversation about the dangers of students revealing themselves, and then into IRB concerns and unitary versus fragmented identities, echoing Berlin’s misguided attack on so-called expressivist writing. And then there is the sidestream slip into the horrors of academic writing (the polysyllabic, depersonalized kind). At some point, I end up shaking my head, thinking helping students into the wonderful world of writing is really so easy. Why make it hard?
I am somewhat reluctant to post on my blog another conversation about writing and education. One of my good friends said about my travel posts (see: So You Want To Drive to Panama?) and my writing/education posts, where did you lose your sense of humor? She had a point: Writing about traveling (through space and in one’s head) is essentially funny. I get too serious when I think about education. I take it personally whenever I read about one more student who has been turned off from writing, usually (if not always) a consequence of how teachers have taught him or her to hate it.
But I’m going to write out a few humorless thoughts anyway.
First: Jerry is right; academic discourse has loosened up let’s say since the 90s. But revisiting the Hairston/Trimbur conflict might help to resituate this discussion--I think in the late 80s. I meant in my discussion the awful academic discourse, writers signaling they have read so-and-so and know about such-and-such, using language that only full professors might understand. We use language to claim our position in privileged social groups. And then label language usage of those who are not in privileged positions as substandard.
I think most readers in the WPA-l list recognize how their graduate training has taught them how to signal their membership into the privileged group—leaving their organic language behind. Working-class academics like Val and me have had to disguise through our language our social class origins—because we were “wrong” and those born into the privileged classes were right. Gary Tate’s “Halfway Home” is one of the more powerful testaments of the sound barrier through which lower or working class students have to pass in order to be heard. One should also read Berger and Luckman’s The Sociology of Knowledge.
But to this “revealing” question: I confess that I don’t entirely get it. Let’s imagine that as a teacher (preferably tenured) that you could get away with abolishing grades. It’s not hard to do. Just say to your students, everyone (except for the people who don’t show up) gets an A—and let’s go from there. So instruction and your responses to student writing is grade neutral. Nice place to be. You can actually write back and forth to each other as communicators rather than as students and grader.
When you create a community of writers in your classroom, with you being one of them, the “revealing” question drifts away. No one is being required to reveal anything he or she doesn’t want to. If I ask students to write for an hour about transitioning from high school to college, I simply want them to write to the other students in the class what they, the writers, feel and think about the transition. In my classes, with the exceptions of portfolios, all writing is written to the class. The students know this; thus, they make their own decisions on what they want to share with the other students. I can’t think of a better way to introduce audience concerns: it’s lightyears better than “Imagine you are writing to a senator . . . .” So I don’t get the “revealing” question, particularly if the teacher has the courage to get rid of grades.
I think the controversy over the “personal narrative” genre is generated by teachers who still give grades, for which reason the primary audience is teacher-as-evaluator (Britton et al.), even when the essays are shared with other students in the class. It is also a constructed rather than a de facto (Beale) genre. As others on the WPA-L list have noted, much of our writing is grounded in personal experiences; again, reasoning works from the ground up, from personal experiences to others’ experiences to generalizations to speculations (Moffett). And narrative is simply a strategy. Maybe people could be more accurate and write about the autobiographical incident (immediate or removed), the memoir, the chronicle, the first-person biography, all of which might invite subjects that would engage student writers (tell us about someone or a group of people who were important in your life). It seems to me that anyone could write and share essays in genres like these.
I wish I could think about something that is funny about all this, but I can’t. I’m really bothered by any teaching that discourages students from writing; taking the gift of writing away is like cutting out someone’s tongue.