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.