Monthly Archives: May 2013

We all need readers – celebrating the Dissertation Writing Retreat

As I write this sitting in England, I know that back at the University of Louisville they are getting ready for the last day of the University Writing Center’s annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. All week a dozen Ph.D. students from different disciplines across the University, have been coming to the Writing Center each day for a day full of writing, individual consultations, and mini-workshops about dissertation writing. It’s a week that is a great benefit both to the writers and to the consultants and staff. Blog entries both from the Writing Center blog from this year and from last year here (as well as some entries of my own from last year, here and here) give you some flavor of the event and the impact it has on everyone involved. While I have had a fantastic spring being on a leave where I have been able to focus on research, I do miss much about the work and the community in the Writing Center – and in particular the community, productivity, and satisfaction that takes place at the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

The importance of the Dissertation Writing Retreat for offering a space for graduate students to not only work on their writing, but to engage in conversations about the conventions, craft, and processes of scholarly writing, is all the more vivid to me given the conversations I have had with graduate students here. While there is no doubt that the graduate students I have met with here, at a number of different universities, are getting support and feedback from their dissertation directors, it is also clear that, for most of them, there is not the additional support for writing that we offer back at the UofL Writing Center. Of course it is essential to learn about research methods and ethics and to have guidance about the content and analysis of a dissertation. Yet it is equally important to remember that writing in a new genre – and a dissertation-length work is always a new genre – must be learned. Such learning comes from explicit conversations about genre conventions, from feedback that focuses on rhetorical concerns, and from attention to the processes of writing and revision for scholarly research writing. The UofL Writing Center – like many writing centers – offers that kind of response. And even if a dissertation director is offering good, rhetorically focused writing response, just having another set of eyes on a writing project is always helpful. (One of the students I am currently directing is taking part in this year’s retreat and I am delighted that she is having another person to offer thoughtful responses to her writing.) Offering thoughtful and constructive response and criticism is something we do at the Writing Center every day, for all members of the University community, not just at the Dissertation Writing Retreat. There are only a few writing centers (or writing centres) at British universities (though some, as at the University of Coventry are doing excellent work). And too often here, as in the U.S., Writing Centers are thought of as having only a remedial mission, rather than serving writers at all levels, for all purposes. I am grateful to the staff at the UofL Writing Center – Adam Robinson, Ashly Bender, Nancy Bou Ayash, Jennifer Marciniak, Tika Lamsal, Barrie Olson, and Matt Wiles – as well as all the participants, for making this year’s retreat such a success and for proving, once again, the value of good writing response for all writers. I miss being there and wish you luck with the final day of writing.

Rashomon for Researchers

One of the great gifts this spring has been the opportunity to sit down and talk with brilliant, insightful people and just have the time to explore ideas together. Last week Cathy Burnett generously made time to talk with me and I learned so much in our conversation together. We were talking about student literacy practices, but particularly about how factors of embodiment, emotion, technology, community, physical space, institutional power – among other things – all swirl about and figure in to how people read and write (or don’t read and write). We kept coming around to two particular questions. We can know that all of these factors – and more – shape literacy practices and perceptions of agency at any given moment, yet how do we understand which of these factors is most at play in that moment? What’s more, even if we begin to understand what is happening, how do we write about it?

Both questions are ones I have been struggling with this spring, but the second one was one Cathy and I were particularly wrestling with. The problem with writing about research is that it so often flattens out the multiple phenomenon taking place into a singular, straightforward narrative. One reason for this is that the research itself can sometimes be focused fairly narrowly. But, even if a researcher is trying to take into account multiple forces and multiple perspectives in a setting and set of events, the linear nature of writing tends to peel away the multiple possibilities and imply a focused, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for what is being written about. As Gunther Kress and others have noted, the nature of print literacy, by moving us through one work after another, pushes us toward linearity, toward cause-and-effect thinking.

Is there a way to disrupt the way writing about research pushes us toward this way of thinking, or representing events and people? Could the affordances of digital media help us to create multimodal texts where video, image, sound, and words can reflect more fully the multiple factors at play? Should we be creating installations more than writing articles? But, then, how are those texts or installations available for people to access? Or to store? Or, can we write from multiple perspectives, multiple theoretical stances, about the same moment, perhaps even coming to different conclusions that disrupt an inclination to come too easily to simply, linear explanations for what we see? Would writing in multiple genres, as Tom Romano has long advocated, help us disrupt singular arguments and encourage us to pay attention to gaps in thinking, to emotions, to contradictions? Is there a Rashomon for researchers that will help us do for writing about research what such approaches have done for literature and film? And what does all of this imply for how I’m going to approach writing about my current research?

Thanks, Cathy. All this and so much more to think about.

Stay tuned.

How Does it Feel to be Literate?

In the work I’ve been doing this spring I keep coming back to questions of agency. What allows – or constrains – people from engaging in literacy practices. And more precisely, as part of this larger project, I’ve been thinking about how perceptions of agency figure into to the factors that determine agency. When do we feel as if we can participate, or that we can’t?  As Lalitha Vasudevan said at a presentation last year, “How does it feel to be literate?” Although perceptions of agency are shaped by many forces, including power, technology, rhetorical awareness, and material conditions, I’ve been focusing this spring in thinking about how embodied experiences and the emotional histories created through such experiences are often powerful influences on how people understand their abilities to engage in reading and writing. I see people who are empowered and engaged in one setting, suddenly become reticent and unable to participate in another, before anyone has even told them they can’t.

The focus of much research in literacy studies in recent years – including my own – has been on the social and institutional factors that shape literacy practices. This has been important work and I am not in any way writing against this scholarship. Yet while we’ve learned a great deal about literacy works as a function of culture and power, we’ve been less willing to engage in questions of how individuals perceive – and feel – a sense of agency in writing situations. The perception of agency, as opposed to measurable skills, is important in terms of how people respond to writing situations. In particular we have not explored emotion as much in terms of agency. I think people like Marilyn Cooper and Laura Micciche have done important work on emotion and agency (work I will discuss more in a coming post), but I think there is still more work to be done. The emotional histories and the emotional stakes for students in the classroom, for example, have a direct influence on students’ perceptions of agency, and consequently on their ability and willingness to engage in any writing task.

Talking about feelings, even if we call them emotion or affect, tends to make academics nervous. We can’t really measure them and we fear getting dragged off into the sentimental or irrational if we bring them up at all. Tom Newkirk has written persuasively about how emotion makes us nervous, and how that anxiety leads to particular ways of conceiving of writing and responding to students. And certainly in all the writing I have done on issues of literacy and identity over the years I have been more comfortable writing about social factors such as class or race or gender than I have about emotion. Yet every experience, every decision, every perception, is filtered through emotion. Every action has an emotional component that is social and rhetorical – even if it is the display of detachment and rationality (also embodied emotions). As I have talked about this work this spring, I have found the responses of people to be thoughtful and generous and lead me to believe that I am moving in a productive direction.  So my posts in the near future (if I keep my promise to myself to write more posts) will be exploring these ideas about emotion, embodiment, transformation, community, and perceptions of agency (among other things). Stay tuned.

 

Where Does the Time Go?

When I came to England in January for my Fulbright Fellowship I expected to blogging a lot this spring. If there was ever a time that I would be writing about what was going on with research and my experiences, this would be it.

That was January.

Now, as I sit here in my kitchen in Bakewell in May, windows open for the first time this spring, I am surprised that not only didn’t I write more here, I haven’t written at all. Baffling. It’s not as if I haven’t been writing, or reading, meeting amazing people, or thinking. In fact it has been a hugely productive spring in terms of sorting through new ideas, having great conversations, doing new research, doing a bunch of guest presentations, even having fun. And I guess that’s it. It’s not that I’ve been busy in the stressed-out sense of things. But I have been working through new ideas, doing tons of preliminary, informal, messy writing, and reading, reading, reading. And the blog just didn’t fit easily into that work – at least this spring. Clearly still sorting out how I can best use this space.

With warmer weather, though, I feel the urge to get back on here. So expect to see me sorting through – slowly – the ideas that have been bouncing around all spring – agency, technology, emotion, control, transformation, crossing-cultures, and so on. Funny thing, writing.