Sunday, May 6, 2007

Sara Biggs Chaney: All things to All Students?

I’ve not yet taught a composition or basic writing course, so I’ve no first-hand experience of a situation like Sara Biggs Chaney describes in “Study of Teacher Error: Misreading Resistance in the Basic Writing Classroom.” And I hope that I don’t have that kind of experience, either, even if I recall one of my father’s favorite sayings as I type those words: “Wish/want/hope in one hand and shit in the other, then tell me which one fills up first.” (I think that was his course way of teaching me that hoping against hope and wanting what you cannot have is foolish and/or a waste of energy.) That said, I found myself sympathizing nonetheless with Chaney’s sense of disappointment upon learning that Amber had plagiarized much of her final paper for the BW course, especially after Chaney described becoming personally invested in helping her student, Amber, achieve the so-called “critical gesture.” I also admired her thoughtful and critical reflections about how she may have been able to better assist Amber. However, I found myself becoming somewhat irritated the more Chaney went on about how she felt she’d failed Amber by being “guilty of a misreading” the student’s expressed resistance to the academic institution, generally, and to composition, specifically (33). Not because I don’t appreciate her desire, as both an instructor and a caring individual, to help each of her students achieve academic success, because I really do. Rather, I am not convinced that she failed Amber in any sense of the word. Her solution didn’t work, sure; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have worked, or that it wouldn’t have worked in a similar scenario with another student. Chaney’s article, at least for me, begs the question: Can an academic institution and its constituent programs (like Basic Writing) be all things for all people? Or more realistically, should they even try to be all things to all people? I don’t want to be misconstrued here as cynical and/or unsympathetic, but the fact of the matter is that educators cannot win them all, as the saying goes, no matter how sincerely or desperately they may want to. So while I truly appreciate the critical and rhetorical paths of inquiry (and their pedagogical relevance) Chaney followed in her search for answers to the Amber conundrum, it seems to me that ultimately an educator has to recognize that a student’s membership in the university classroom is elective, regardless of her educational experiences and socioeconomic status. She does not have to be there, she chooses to be there. Thus I’m kind of baffled when Chaney says that Amber “does not value academic essay writing, has no internal motivation to excel at it, and is nonetheless compelled to practice it by an institution that insists on a universal value for academic writing that she just doesn’t buy” (33-4, emphasis mine). It sounds like Chaney is indicting the institution as somehow oppressive by forcing its students to practice academic essay writing. She lends credence to this notion later when she rather absurdly remarks, “it was unfortunately not within my power to stop assigning writing in the writing classroom and take up some other topic Amber found more practical” (35). Really? It was unfortunate? What about the other students in that class? Besides also being so-called basic writers, did they find the practice of writing in a writing course impractical? Because, I mean, that really is a damn shame to make students write in a basic writing course, especially if one of those students thinks it’s “worthless.” Now I’m not suggesting that placing a universal value on academic writing is good or bad, right or wrong, or whatever. But it is the status quo of most liberal arts institutions and, so far as I know, enrollment is not compulsory. All educators can really do is give their students the best shot possible, working with individuals when they can, but in the end doing what’s best for the greatest number of them. What is “best” will change, of course, with experience and knowledge; but educators cannot be all things for all students. Though it’s good to reflect on relative successes and disappointments, learning what works and what doesn’t, Chaney should accept that she did for Amber what she thought was right at the time. It didn’t work, true, but that’s a far cry from “failing” her student.

Chaney, Sara Biggs. "Study of Teacher Error: Misreading Resistance in the Basic Writing Classroom." Journal of Basic Writing 23.1 (2004): 25-38.

Friday, April 27, 2007

"Paradigm Clashes Among Basic Writing Teachers: Sources of Conflict and a Call for Change."

Above is the article I am recommending.

The title pretty much says it all but, basically, this article looks at sources of paradigm clashes (i.e. the linear narrative of writing ability, basic writers aren't basic thinkers) among BW teachers, discusses sites of resistance, the BW teacher's role, and suggests breaking down walls between different belief systems for the benefit of BW students.

Del Principe, Ann. "Paradigm Clashes Among Basic Writing Teachers: Sources of Conflict and a Call for Change." Journal of Basic Writing 23.1 (2004): 64-81.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Something Apropos, I Don't Know

In "Literacies and Deficits Revisited," Jerrie Cobb Scott offers her definition of literacy as "ways of knowing, accessing, creating, and using information" (207). Though this is a rather broad definition—perhaps to the point of being nebulous—I find it valuable nonetheless in that it allows for the notion that all students come to the classroom already literate. Granted, many students are not literate in any ostensibly traditional or academic sense; but it is relatively safe to assume that every student has and employs ways of knowing, accessing, creating, and using information in his/her daily existence (per Scott’s definition), and is thereby literate. Understanding literacy thusly, Scott seems to suggest that the challenge—or at least one challenge—is to develop a pedagogy that not only acknowledges these kinds of literacies but also utilizes them as a means to academic literacy. This reminds me of an article by Gerald Graff ("Hidden Intellectualism") wherein he describes a similar scenario but with slightly different terms. Graff doesn’t speak to literacy or its various definitions per se, but rather argues that the root of the problem is the pervasive tendency of educators who, operating from positions of traditional pedagogy, fail to utilize or even acknowledge the implicit intellectualism their students have already developed as a consequence of their participation in non-academic, or vernacular, culture. In other words the problem is one of pedagogical theory and application since he believes that "inside every steet-smart student (which is to say, every student) there is a latent intellectual trying to break out" (23; emphasis mine). Thus the burden of responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of educators to develop teaching methods that take advantage of "the extent to which adolescent lives are already often ‘steeped in argument’ and ‘critical theory’" by virtue of discussion and debate about so-called "philistine pursuits" (i.e. music, sports, film, fashion, etc.) (22). By using students’ vernacular knowledge as a vehicle for their acquisition of academic knowledge, Graff suggests that education will better facilitate the development of student voices that are both recognizable and effective within the public domain. Similarly, Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade advocates what Lawrence Grossberg refers to as a "pedagogy of articulation and risk" (334). This is a multi-cultural teaching approach that "values and learns from the cultural literacies students bring to the classroom and assists them as they expand those literacies and develop new ones" (334). In fact, Duncan-Andrade’s is a more comprehensive approach to solving Scott’s complaint about "the recycling of deficit pedagogy in basic writing," if only because it "believes that a rigorous multicultural curriculum should be a marriage of the student’s culture and canonical culture" (Duncan-Andrade 331-2), as opposed to Graff’s, i.e. merely flirting with the student’s culture as a means of seducing him or her into the canonical bed. I would encourage anyone interested in this subject to take a look at either or both of these articles, though both have their flaws.

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey M. R. "Your Best Friend or Your Worst Enemy: Youth Popular Culture, Pedagogy, and Curriculum in Urban Classrooms." The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 26 (2004): 313-337.

Graff, Gerald. "Hidden Intellectualism." Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 1.2 (2001): 21-36.

Scott, Jerrie Cobb. "Literacies and Deficits Revisited." Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Mountaineering *(and a picture for TW's delight)

After reading Mlynarczyk’s "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate," the question I found myself asking was: Poetic, Expressive, Transactional—what difference does it really make to the basic writer? I don’t mean to sound condescending or glib (ala Matt Lauer to Tom Cruise), but ultimately isn’t it engendering a familiarity with the conventions and practice of writing that is the underlying purpose of the basic writing classroom? If it is, then any or all of the above kinds of writing are not only relevant but important, too. As someone who has toiled quite a bit in all three categories of writing throughout my college tenure, I’ve found that though each of them presents certain unique challenges in terms of structure, style, tone, and etc., the writing skills one develops in the process of any one them are not mutually exclusive of the others. That is, becoming more familiar with the composition of, say, more prosaic forms of writing (i.e. fiction, memoir, etc.) will in all likelihood positively inform one’s ability to compose transactional/academic writing—if only in that it enables the writer to recognize when s/he strays from the intended style. I mean, how many of us have read and/or written essays that come across as more prosaic than academic, when the latter is the goal? Probably all of us have at some point or other been a reader/writer of this kind of essay. So then a reasonable question to ask in a case like that is: Is this a consequence of the writer’s inability to construct academic prose, whether due to a lack of experience and/or training? Or could it just as well be the consequence of the writer’s inability to distinguish between what constitutes academic versus prosaic styles of writing? The answer, at least in part, is probably a combination of both. Thus I agree with Sarah (who modestly refers to herself in the blogosphere as "Creation’s Crowning Glory") when she advocates instilling an appreciation of the entire mountain range rather than only one or two of its peaks. After all, it may be that memoir assignment or that poetry exercise that sparks a more passionate interest in mountaineering, generally. As any climber or mountaineer worth his/her salt knows, you must be practiced in many terrains to excel in the one terrain you prefer above all others. (Okay, I carried the metaphor too far, perhaps, but you get what I’m saying.)

*(TW: How'd you know?! -->
You were right, ol' boy.
It was a dragon. And St. George, knowing that time
machines are not only implausible but also quite unreliable, simply used
a wormhole conjured by simple 4th Century sorcery
about a year prior to his persecution and subsequent decapitation. I wanted to warn him but I was too busy
admiring my new beard, to say nothing of my concern that doing so could initiate a time paradox and the whatnot. I thanked him, though, and encouraged him not to watch the end of Braveheart while he was here.)

Friday, March 30, 2007

How Do I Know What I Think?

Min-Zhan Lu observes that Shaughnessy’s pedagogy "seldom considers the possibility that the meaning one ‘has in mind’ might undergo substantial change as one tries to ‘coax’ it and ‘communicate’ it in different discourses," thereby suggesting that "‘meaning is crafted’ only to match what is already in the writer’s mind" (107-8). This observation struck me as particularly notable if only because Shaughnessy, in her chapter on syntax, appears to acknowledge and address Lu’s very point. "No sooner has the writer written down what he thinks he means," Shaughnessy writes, "than he is asking himself whether he understands what he said" (79). To this same end, she then immediately quotes W.H. Auden, who wrote: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" (79; emphasis mine). In this way is she not admitting that, while one may begin by writing "what he thinks he means," that meaning might yet "undergo substantial change" during the writing process? Granted, Shaughnessy finishes the passage by noting that a growing syntactic awareness grants the writer with the "power to make choices that bring him closer and closer to his intended meaning" (80). Nevertheless, I don’t think she intends to imply that the writer necessarily had an intended meaning prior to writing, so much as she’s saying that he may begin with a vague notion of what he intends to say about a given subject, then develops that meaning via the writing process. The struggle becomes, then, to faithfully articulate what he means to say as it is generated in the act. Lu’s argument would also seem to suggest—and maybe I’m way off base here—but it would seem to suggest that Shaughnessy does not subscribe to the notion of rhetorical invention. For if Shaughnessy in fact believes that meaning is strictly crafted to reflect what a writer already thinks or knows about a given subject, then techniques like brainstorming, prewriting, and the like would essentially be rendered as without merit. (Or, in the very least, they would be gratuitous as tools used to generate/articulate new ideas, thoughts, or reflections, which is what I generally use the invention process for.) And while I can’t remember right off hand if and/or where Shaughnessy recommends invention techniques (nothing is listed in the index related to this), I find it difficult to believe that she wouldn’t do so. None of this is to suggest that I think Lu is wrong about Shaughnessy’s pedagogy: she’s obviously much more familiar with it than I am now (or probably ever will be in the future). I just thought that particular observation of hers rather curious given what I remembered from Shaughnessy’s syntax chapter. If my logic is completely ass-backwards, though, and you wanna call me out on it by leveling unflattering accusations at me then, by all means, please feel free to do so.

Lu, Min-Zhan. "Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence." Representing the "Other". Eds. Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu. Urbana: NCTE, 1999. 105-116.

Shaughnessy, Mina. Errors and Expectations. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Teaching the Act of Writing as Negotiation: Is it Possible?

I am very curious about Bruce Horner’s concluding contention in "Re-thinking the ‘Sociality’ of Error: Teaching Editing as Negotiation" wherein he posits that educators should be "teaching [students] all aspects of writing, including editing, as negotiations in which they can play a role and in which they have a stake" (165; emphasis mine). I’m curious because, though he directly addresses at some length his views on the negotiability of editing, he doesn’t really put forth any practical considerations about how the same technique might be applied to any other, let alone "all," aspects of writing. My question is, is such an approach to teaching writing practical, or even possible? Don’t get me wrong, for the most part I like what he offers in terms of how to approach the process of editing as a means of negotiation in the classroom, especially insofar as he argues that by doing so students are put in a "position to negotiate and re-negotiate the concept of ‘correctness,’ including, importantly, the concept of its negotiability" (159). The potential merits of this kind of practice for the student writers are, perhaps arguably, obvious if for no other reason than it engenders in them a more developed meta-cognitive awareness of the language, its conventions, and what it is precisely they’re trying to convey in their own writing. Nevertheless, I wonder how one might attempt to teach, say, the very act of writing itself as a process of negotiation, especially since writing tends to be a process conducted in relative solitude. (By the latter I mean that the act of writing, even if conducted among fellow contributors to a single text, still can never be done with another since more than one individual cannot collaborate to write a single text simultaneously.) I don’t think anybody would argue that the act of writing isn’t an aspect of writing itself, so with whom would Horner have the writer negotiate, then, while writing? I don’t have an answer for this, really, other than to throw out the suggestion that one could argue that the writer, while in the act of writing, is implicitly negotiating with the material to be written about—i.e. the literal subject or impetus for writing; the mentally-conceptualized material to be written—i.e. the writer’s own thoughts, notions, concepts, etc., that is being conveyed materially; as well as with an internalized "other" or mentally-conceptualized audience/reader. But this does not explain how one might teach students to approach the act of writing as a process of negotiation so much as it constitutes how one might describe or understand the act of writing in terms of negotiation. Perhaps I’m taking Horner too literally on this point, but I don’t think so since he deliberately chose to say "all aspects of writing." That said, and since I don’t presently have a solid answer or suggestion of my own, I’d be glad to hear what, if any, insights one of you lovely bastards out there has to offer on the subject.

Horner, Bruce. "Re-thinking the ‘Sociality’ of Error: Teaching Editing as Negotiation" Representing the 'Other'. Eds. Bruce Horner and Min-Zhan Lu. 139-165.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Accidental Alienation

Was it just me or did anyone else find it painful to read, in "Resisting Privilege," Gail Stygall’s grad student’s excerpted letters to the so-called basic writers—especially given the nature of the course and the assignment? Perhaps I wouldn’t have reacted in the manner that I did if I had been unclear about whether or not the grad students had been kept in the dark, if you will, regarding the assignment’s intent. But Stygall clearly states that her "students knew that part of their task was to try to understand what being labeled ‘basic’ meant to Anderson’s students and what their lives were like at a large urban university" (191). Just to be clear, I don’t mean to unduly criticize the grad students or their efforts since I don’t believe that any of them were acting with any sort of malicious intent. On the contrary, I feel confident they were attempting to do only exactly what they’d been instructed to do and that they were operating as such with only the best intentions. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel that at times there was an underlying sense of condescension (albeit unintentional) and/or trepidation on the part of the grad students, as if they were not quite sure how best to engage with this type of student (i.e. "basic" or "Other" or "outsider," etc.). Thus they determined to err, perhaps unconsciously, on the side of being "nice" (for lack of a better term right now). This is not to suggest that they should have been anything but nice; but rather that they were perhaps overcompensating for an internalized perception of a distance between themselves and their addressees. Maybe I’m only sensitive to this element because of my limited volunteer experience working with inner-city youths in St. Louis and eventually realizing that I was unconsciously overcompensating with them in this very way. By doing so I was, in effect, perpetuating the very "distance" that I was trying to bridge because they were acutely, if not always consciously, sensitive to the subtle differences in the way I behaved toward them compared to other peers or acquaintances. Despite my best intentions, then, they were put off by a pretense I wasn’t then aware of even demonstrating. Once I figured this out and dropped the pretense I was dramatically more successful in engaging with them. Anyway, all this just to say that when working with any marginalized group, be it a class of "basic writers" or otherwise, we need to be careful not to further alienate them by accidentally overcompensating for any perceived distances or differences, no matter how good our intentions.

Stygall, Gail. "Resisting Privilege: Basic Writing and Foucalt's Author Function." Landmark Essays 185-203.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Insider vs. Outsider: An Analogue

In "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone," Min-zhan Lu asks the following question: "[W]hy do we assume. . . that until one can prove one’s ability to produce ‘error-free’ prose, one has not earned the right to innovative ‘style’?" (170). This line of inquiry, exemplified by the preceding Gertrude Stein and Theodore Dreiser anecdotes (as well as by Bartholomae’s anecdote about Quentin Pierce), particularly interests me because it demands that I consider the notion of an insider writer versus an outsider writer. This is exactly the type of consideration I’ve not thus far "deigned" to do from my lofty perch upon the high horse of honky privilege (as I choose to call it). That is, I never really thought to evaluate the work of an outsider (i.e. "untrained" or "imperfectly educated") writer on any grounds other than what’s wrong with it and how can it be fixed? That such a work may constitute an articulate and unique expression of an identifiable and inherently valid worldview has generally eluded me because of the obsessive concerns about mechanics and convention that I’ve been trained to worry about, first and foremost.

That said, it occurs to me that perhaps an analogue to this relationship exists in the world of visual arts with the Art versus Folk or Outsider art dichotomy. On the one side are those who would be quick to justify certain styles of painting—say cubism, for instance—on the grounds that a given artist has been classically trained and/or educated and thus his compositions are the result of artistic intent rather than a lack of skill or proficiency in the medium. On the other side, then, are those who would argue that an artist’s intent, in relation to his skill or proficiency, is irrelevant; rather, the only matter of relevance is a given composition’s impact on its viewer. Basically, it’s an argument wherein one might contend that a cubist portrait by Picasso has more artistic merit than a cubist portrait rendered by an untrained folk artist, even if the latter composition is equal in every perceivable way. No matter which side you of this argument you inhabit, there persists the elitist and dogmatic distinction between so-called Art and so-called outsider or folk art, where the former is afforded a much greater social and economic currency than the latter à la insider writing versus outsider writing. Even so, and contrary to outsider writing, outsider art can be argued to possess in the very least a limited measure of recognition and prestige within the visual arts—a distinction that may or may not be worthy of further consideration. [Sorry for the lack of clarity and abrupt stop—I’ll be back later to add and edit.]

Lu, Min-zhan. "Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone." Representing the "Other." Urbana: NCTE, 1999.

Friday, February 9, 2007

"Man will not survive, he is a asshole"

Let me start by stating right from the get-go that I wasn’t so much frightened or intimidated by the form or content of Quentin Pierce’s fuck you essay as I was moved by its explicit indictment of an educational system that has failed, and continues to fail, its author ("Thank you very much//I lose again" [173; emphasis mine]). Consequently, I was both baffled and disappointed by Bartholomae’s assessment that, in addition to expressing an idea about existentialism, the fuck you essay was simply "a dramatic and skillful way of saying ‘Fuck you-I’m not the loser, you are’" (173). It’s as if Bartholomae, still smarting from the personal indictment some eighteen years after the fact, persists in focusing on his self-perceived guilt for having "failed the ‘basic writers’ of [his] Freshman English class," and Quentin in particular (173). While that’s perhaps an admirable sentiment to harbor, Bartholomae nonetheless fails to acknowledge Quentin’s larger indictment and its implication of an individual who is acutely and painfully aware of the long shot odds on his academic success.

That said, I agree with the student in our class (sorry, ol’ boy, your name escapes me) who suggested that Bartholomae should’ve made a positive demonstration of Quentin’s paper in class. He could have praised its merits—because it certainly has some—and perhaps discussed how one might rewrite a less-explicit version of Quentin’s essay without compromising the power of its content. (Personally, I would’ve stuck with the merits, including the power and function of its explicit language and perhaps even reading some Ginsberg as proof of a kind of a literary legitimacy.) Or, to answer concerns of potential copycatting by other class members, he could’ve used this essay as a prompt for an exercise challenging students to use explicit language in a meaningful way. Regardless, he should’ve have done something to validate and encourage Quentin’s efforts. By doing nothing Bartholomae merely lent credence to Quentin’s assertion that he has, once again, lost.

Bartholomae, David. “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.

Monday, January 22, 2007

#1: What is Basic Writing?

What is Basic Writing?

Truth be told, I’ve never given even a single thought to what Basic Writing may or may not be prior to this moment. Now that I have considered the matter, albeit very briefly, I still don’t know if I’ve any real idea of what it is or how to articulate what I do or do not know. That said, I’ll give it a huck just the same:

Basic Writing is perhaps first and foremost one’s initial discovery and recognition that writing is itself a legitimate and powerful means for not only expressing one’s self but also a means (or an alternative means, in the very least) for confronting and identifying one’s self, if only those facets and dimensions of the self that have previously gone unnoticed or been neglected. (Clearly, I’m more or less working off of class discussion and the recorded interview with Mike Rose.) From there Basic Writing gradually becomes the conscious attempt to develop an ability to convey one’s thoughts, feelings, and/or ideas in a logical and lucid manner vis-a-vis the written word, while eventually—or perhaps concurrently—gaining the fundamental grammatical and rhetorical skills necessary to do so at some commonly accepted level (i.e. professional, academic, literary, etc.) of proficiency. Or the goal may be only to successfully achieve a “higher” level of basic literacy, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a great deal more to it than what I’ve written thus far, but I’m going to let it ride for the time being.