Category Archives: Writing

Rewriting the Future

A recent article in the The New York Times (“Writing Your Way to Happiness”) talked about the research by psychologists such as Timothy Wilson who maintain that writing can lead to changes, not only in mood, but also in our perception of self. There has, for a while, been research to indicate that if we write about how we’re feeling, there can be a benefit to how we handle trauma, or just our daily emotions. But the work of Wilson and others argues that, in addition, if we reshape the story we’re telling in our writing, that can have positive effects on our perceptions of self. To quote the article:

“The concept is based on the idea that we all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. But sometimes our inner voice doesn’t get it completely right. Some researchers believe that by writing and then editing our own stories, we can change our perceptions of ourselves and identify obstacles that stand in the way of better health.”

The article discussed several studies in which people, after thinking and writing more positive narratives of particular circumstances, ended up with more positive experiences and outcomes than those in control groups who did not do the same kind of writing.

As a writing and literacy teacher, I thought immediately about the literacy narratives that are often assigned to students in both K-12 courses and in universities. The goals of these assignments vary, but often consist of having students reflect on the events that shaped their identities as writers and readers. I’ve assigned these kinds of essays in a number of different courses (and tweaked them for different purposes, sometimes including criticism of cultural constructions of literacy and institutions) and have found the stories students told sometimes reassuring, sometimes disheartening, but always endlessly fascinating.

But what the research by Wilson and others made me think about was a new way of conceiving approaches to revision with literacy narratives. Rather than simply work with students to help them make the draft more focused, more coherently organized, etc., is there value in having students rewrite the drafts in ways that retell the stories about their reading and writing experiences? The point is not to have them create fictions about their past. But what if they considered alternative explanations for what happened? What if, rather than seeing themselves as the victim of experiences that have consigned them to the identity of a “bad writer” they re-interpret those experiences? Or, what if, in addition to the literacy narrative about the past, they write one about the future that tells a different narrative in which they regard themselves as effective writers? Can we have an effect on the confidence of student writers in this way?

How do narrative, memory, and emotion work together to shape our perceptions of agency as readers and writers? (Still working on that one…)


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.

Literacy in a Material World – in the Writing Center

As I mentioned in my previous post, working in a writing centerreveals the fluid nature of materiality/immateriality when we think about literacy. The material context of literacy can be immediate in a writing center. Students sit down with a draft, an assignment they’ve been handed in class, maybe their notes or a book they’re writing about. Their material text is the focus of their concern and it quickly becomes the focus of our concern as well. The classic image of writing center work is the consultant and student sitting at a table, leaning toward each other, talking intently about the draft in front of them. It provides the focus of the conversation and work on the draft is the central motivation for the student.

What’s more, how the consultant responds to the material text has been a oft-discussed part of writing center scholarship over the years. Should it sit in front of the student or between the student and consultant? Should the student read aloud from the draft? The consultant? If the consultant writes on the draft, does that appropriate agency from the student as a writer? These are all questions that have been on the minds of new consultants to our Writing Center that I’ve been working with the past couple of weeks. If we focus on the images in the writing center, the questions about the text, and the concerns of the student about the draft, if would be easy to imagine that the material artifact is central to our concerns.

Yet, even as the consultant works on the text in front of her, there is a powerful tradition among writing center scholars and consultants that maintains that the material text is not the most important element of the consultation. As I mentioned before, writing centers often drag out the oft-used Stephen North quote that their job should be to produce “to produce better writers, not better writing.” It’s a compelling quotation and I don’t disagree with it – and I’ve pulled it out myself more than once in teaching new consultants or talking about our Writing Center with faculty. Yet, as the students in my Writing Center Theory and Practice course proved the other day, pull out the term “better writers” and begin to unpack it and you quickly find yourself in the realm of the immaterial considerations of literacy. We try to tell ourselves that we know what a “better writer” is, and how to help a student become one. Still, every attempt at the definition leads us to the kind of abstraction that we recognize as elusive and endlessly contextual.

In much of Writing Center scholarship, this conflict between the material text – and the student’s focus on improving that text – and the immaterial goals of creating better writers – often ends with either a lament about students’ inability to get beyond their focus on the material text understand or a somewhat condescending satisfaction that we know what is best for students (even if they don’t recognize it) and should continue to work toward our immaterial goals.

What if we took a different approach? What if we made the tensions between the material artifact on the table and the immaterial concerns of the consultant part of the explicit conversation during the tutoring session? What if the first set of questions consultants’ asked not only addressed the students’ concerns about the draft that motivated them to come to the Writing Center, but also at the less tangible questions about writing that concern us? What if we did a more explicit job of grappling with the abstractions with students first – and not just at the conclusion of the session – and used that as the framework for considering the material text?

If we think that students are intelligent and deserve our respect, let’s not play games about the agenda taking place during a consultation.

More soon.

What Can You Accomplish in a Week? Part 2

It’s the last day of the UofL Writing Center Dissertation Writing Retreat. As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the questions I was pondering was what the participants attending could expect to accomplish in a one-week retreat. Obviously, no one was going to write an entire dissertation. So what would constitute a successful week for the writers? The consultants and Writing Center staff?

As the week is drawing to a close, one thing is clear – the energy and attitude around the entire week has been positive and productive. The commitment of the participants to writing every day and then engaging in individual consultations has been impressive and inspiring. What’s more, the discussions about writing during the group writing workshops – from problems and obstacles to aspirations and solutions – have been enlightening and useful to everyone involved. My sense is that all the participants feel they have had a productive week.

Yet beyond the words written and pages produced, the people involved in the retreat have talked about other things that they have learned or been reminded of during the week.

First, you can’t underestimate the value of having extended, dedicated time for writing. As one writer noted this week, in the busy lives of graduate students where research and writing must be balanced against other demands of work and family, it is easy to think that writing can be squeezed in as one of a number of simultaneous, multitasking obligations. She was reminded, however, how much difference it made to her writing and thinking to simply have a quiet space and extended time to write and focus on writing. Of course that’s not always possible. But several of the writers have mentioned how they plan to continue to block out some time each week in this way to get some writing done, and may very well come back to the Writing Center to do it. (And we welcome them! We have a great space with the best view on campus.) At the same time, we also talked about the benefit of writing on a regular basis, even if it’s only a sentence or two a day, and how that will keep the writing and thinking close by and accumulate pages faster than people realize.

Also, the participants in the retreat have mentioned how useful it has been to receive the ongoing, timely response and feedback that their consultants have given them during the daily writing consultations. It can take a long time to get comments back from dissertation committee members (and I am as guilty as anyone in sometimes having trouble getting drafts back to my students). What the writers this week have talked about is the benefit of being able to talk about their writing while it’s in progress – and to have those conversations focus on the issues of rhetoric and writing. As Don Murray used to say, there is no substitute for being able to show your writing to someone who makes you want to go back and write and revise more. My hope is that these writers will continue to get that kind of response and conversation both from visits to the Writing Center as well as in writing groups they may form.

Finally, there was the benefit of being part of a community of writers. Writing a dissertation – writing anything, really –  can feel like such an isolated and lonely endeavor. This week all the participants in the retreat found themselves in a community of writers. They’ve talked about the benefit of the support that comes from talking with peers about writing issues and getting both suggestions as well as empathy. They found that talking, and often laughing, about writing, even when your field is far removed from writing studies, can be enriching. And they also found that simply being in a room with other people writing can inspire them to continue to put create words.

A good space to write, productive consultations, and a community of writers – from where I stand that’s an incredible week and a testament to the great writers and consultants and staff that made it all possible.

A special thanks to the participants:

Naouel Baili, Tanvir Bhuiyan, Brynn Dombroski, LeAnn Bruce, Alex Cambron, Anis Hamdi, James Leary, Mohammadreza Negahdar, Zdravko Salipur, and Charlos Thompson.

And a thanks to the Writing Center staff:

Ashly, Bender, Robin Blackett, Laura Detmering, Becky Hallman, Jennifer Marciniak, Barrie Olson (who had the idea and did the research to plan the retreat), and, of course, Adam Robinson.

And thanks to Beth Boehm and the School of Graduate Studies for their support for the retreat.

We’re all tired, but very happy. For more on the Dissertation Writing Retreat, see the UofL Writing Center Blog.

Traveling Different Roads at the Same Time

A month goes by in a hurry before I’m back on the blog. A pressing deadline for a book chapter and some teaching to do came first, throw in a conference, some dissertation chapters to read, and the daily life in the Writing Center and suddenly…well, we’ve all been there.

Still, even though it’s been almost a month since 4cs, that’s where my mind is on this rainy Saturday morning. As usual, the conference was a good time and a good time to talk with smart people, plan new projects, and eat good food. Oh yes, and there were sessions to attend. Two in particular stuck with me.

First, I went to hear Doug Hesse, Nancy Sommers, and Kathi Yancey  read the work that came out of a writing project in which they each wrote about a different object each day for thirty days. As they described the project, it was driven by their interest in questions such as, “What may be learned about the evocative power of objects from a sustained attention to them? How do objects reveal or conceal their origins? And what may we learn about the acts of composing from a sustained project over thirty days?” Certainly all of this was contained in the work they did. For me, though, it was a powerful reminder of the power – and the joy – of the essay. Each of the works was a beautiful and insightful exploration of ideas, of possibilities, of connections. As I listened to each author read, I not only was taken inside the consciousness of another person, but I was taken deeper into my own. Doug’s reflections on music and identity, Nancy’s on food and family, and Kathi’s on images and histories, had me simultaneously following their journeys, and thinking about how similar objects and experiences in my own life had led to my questions about identity, family, and history. All  three essays were immediate and powerful reminders of how writing works as way in which we explore our own minds, and then invite others inside. I may be going on too much with the adjectives here – particularly “powerful”  – and yet the power of writing as an individually and collectively transformative experience and medium is what I have been continuing to think about since the session. That session is moving me back to my own essays, though they’re not of the quality of these authors’ work. But it was reminder that writing in print does something special – it opens up the interiors of life to us. And I hope it was a reminder to those at the conference that teaching college writing should be more than about thesis statements and academic discourse. It also should be about the exploration of ideas and the transformation of our ideas. If you want to see a similar project the three writers did at a conference and then turned into published work, track down “Evocative Objects: Reflections on Teaching, Learning, and Living in Between” in the March 2012 issue of College English.

The next day, then, I heard Richard Miller talk about literacy in a digital media world. Richard pointed out that he doesn’t publish in conventional academic venues anymore, whether in print or online.  (You can find his great site/blog/ideas at text 2 cloud.) He then proceeded to remind the audience that everything we know about writing, reading, communication, authorship, and everything connected to it is changing, and changing again, and changing again. He’s not the first to point this out, of course, but he made the compelling case again for how, in a field about composing and interpreting texts, we’re like the folks standing at the end of downhill train, looking backwards down the track and wondering what those things are zipping by so fast. I don’t disagree with him at all. If there’s anything my conversations and observations with students have shown me time and again is that they are engaged with digital media in ways that are often very different in their conceptions of time and text than ours. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t buy into the “digital natives” idea, that young people are completely different in how they engage with texts and we can’t understand what they do blah blah blah. But I do think if we want to understand how they read and write and communicate, we can’t assume it’s the same way we read and write. And we have to talk with them, work on digital media with them, and play around with it ourselves. That means more than using print, it means we have to learn to compose with video and images and sound (and I’ll  have more to say about that soon too.)

It would be easy to find these two session, both of which I found inspiring and intelligent and insightful, at odds with each other. But that wasn’t the case.  Doug, Nancy, and Kathi used digital media and images with their essays to create multimodal performances, and Richard’s presentation was an essay as well as a digital presentation. And I know that none of these ideas are brand new, they were just done so well that they revived my thinking and got me motivated to get back to my own work. Besides, conflict wasn’t what I felt. Instead I felt the thrill of having so many things open to me as a writer and teacher, and a bit overwhelmed – in an excited way – about everything there is to do. The question is not which road I want to follow, but how to travel multiple roads at once.

The simple art of listening to – and caring about – what students say

Time for a bit of rant today.

I was at a local conference on teaching recently, doing my dog-and-pony show about how students engage with digital media outside the classroom and the implications for how we approach teaching reading and writing (I’m never certain, by the way, whether I’m the dog or the pony in this particular show.) This was for a group of faculty and graduate students across a variety of disciplines. People were pleasant and polite and there were some productive questions. But, during and after the session, I was struck, as I often am by the surprise among some faculty at the idea of having ongoing conversations with students about what students know. Then I did a guest lecture at another campus and there were similar questions, and a discussion thread on a professional online list I follow went the same direction. As I said, what surprises me is that the idea of starting our teaching by talking with students about what they know still strikes many people as radical. What disheartens me is the attitude of far too many faculty and instructors that what students know is irrelevant or uninteresting.

There’s always a lot of talk in my field about having a “student-centered classroom” and often discussion about whether we should do so. But, from what I see, this is a non-issue because too often I see attitudes that are barely “student-tolerant,” let alone “student-centered.” There is so often such a lack of respect, at least at the college level, toward students. “They don’t want to do the work,” “They can’t read and write,” “I won’t read their course evaluations as long as I have a Ph.D. and they don’t.” “What they know outside of class is what I’m trying to teach against.” Sigh. No one students come into our courses wary, beaten down, and wondering about the relevance of anything we are trying to teach them. As a writing program administrator, one of my hard and fast rules has been no mocking of students and student writing – even among ourselves. It is, of course, immature, unethical, and disrespectful to do so. It is also exactly what students fear we are doing with their writing. If we don’t take their work seriously, why should they? Do we want our writing mocked by colleagues, editors, reviewers? I can’t enforce this rule, but I do try to make the point that teaching is an art of patience and compassion as much as of the transfer of knowledge.

I’m no saint. I get frustrated with students who are resistant, or seem unwilling to do the work, or dismissive of what I’m trying to teach them. And sometimes I think they are truly resistant and we won’t reach them. But, at the risk of going a bit Yoda on all this, I think underneath so much of what is performed as resistance and boredom is fear and anger – fear of not understanding or of being assessed and found failing once again, and anger at feeling belittled, humiliated, and treated condescendingly. When I find my frustration rising, I try to remind myself that you never, never know when you might get through to the resistant student. One cutting remark now might make me feel better, but loses that student in my class forever. But continued respect may allow that student to receive another comment later in the semester in a way that is productive and, once is a while, transformative. I was often a resistant student as an undergraduate. I can see myself in the student sitting in the back of the classroom, slouched in a chair, daring someone to try to teach him. The teachers I responded to were the ones who communicated respect for student ideas and created meaningful assignments. We could all tell the difference. So much recent research on student writing shows that students respond best – and by best I mean productively able to incorporate instructor comments into their writing – to instructor comments when the comments demonstrate a clear respect for the intelligence and ideas of the student. This doesn’t mean we don’t offer critique and suggestions, but just that we see students as intelligent people with ideas worth communicating, as people who want to be heard and respected.

People often ask me why I am interested in research about popular culture and student literacy practices. There are lots of reasons (I mean, I like watching movies too). But one central reason is that I am continually interested by the literacy practices students engage in outside of the classroom. Unless we understand how they read and write in the majority of their time and how they have learned about rhetorical concepts such as audience or genre or authorship, we can’t teach writing and reading effectively. And, if we want to understand the texts they engage with most often outside the classroom, we need to look at popular culture, whether it is television, movies, social networking, music, or video games. I am continually convinced and inspired by the basic ideas of pedagogy from Dewey and Freire and Murray – we have to start with what students know and help them find was to engage critically with their own knowledge. My guess is that, for anyone reading this entry, I will be preaching to the converted, so maybe it’s a waste of time. But a rant sometimes just needs to be ranted.

Again, I’m no saint. And, I know many, many excellent teachers who treat their students with respect and learn a great deal by engaging students about what they learn outside the classroom and then help students learn things that will make them more creative and critical readers and writers in our classes and at home. For every comment I hear at a conference or online that makes me want to climb the walls, there are far more that are supportive and respectful toward students. And, just as with students, I try to maintain a respect for my colleagues and continue to try to convince them that we need to listen to our students as the first act of teaching.

End of rant.

Ideology, surveillance, and the software in our classrooms

I’ve agreed to write a chapter for a very exciting new collection being edited by Robin Goodfellow and Mary Lea, titled Literacy in the Digital University (Robin’s blog on the same subject is here). I’m grateful for the opportunity to be part of this project. My chapter is going to explore how “course management software” is shaping our pedagogy – in and out of the classroom – in ways we both understand and ways that may be more subtle. More to the point, though, is that I think the construction and use of this software (Blackboard and the like) is often antithetical to what we regard as good writing pedagogy and the effective uses of digital media.

So here’s where I’m going with this right now. Course management software, such as Blackboard, is purchased by universities and often required of faculty and students for everything from distribution of course materials to posting of grades. This software is promoted by university administrations as a set of effective pedagogical tools for use both in and out of the classroom. Yet such software is often hierarchical, rigid, and prescriptive – the antithesis of the kinds of participatory environment most conducive to creative thinking by students and faculty. It is imposed on teachers and students from the top down, difficult to modify or customize, and makes assumptions about teaching and learning that, again, tend to be rigid and hierarchical.

I see the adoption and promotion of such software  as driven by material and ideological imperatives of efficiency, control, and surveillance that are increasingly central to way the institution of the university works in contemporary culture. Course management software is promoted by university administrations as an efficient and centralized method of “managing” university courses. Faculty response to the use of such software is often to complain or shrug, and acquiesce to the demands of the institution. Yet in doing so we are complicit in reproducing institutional and cultural ideologies that are as hierarchical, rigid, and prescriptive as the software. In this way dominant ideological conceptions of knowledge and literacy – tied to notions of efficiency – find their way into writing classrooms even as we may imagine a pedagogy that will encourage students to resist such conceptions.

So in the chapter I hope, at least in part, to argue that university-imposed course management software works to reinscribe particular conceptions of epistemology and pedagogy that, as a field, we have criticized in other settings. I think it is important that we think critically and act more explicitly to resist the implementation and uses of these forms of digital media. We much also teach students to approach the use of these technologies from a more critical perspective.

But all is not grim. I refuse to give up without a fight, an alternative. So I also want to talk about how alternatives to designing digital environments for writing pedagogy that allow students a range of ways to participate in literacy practices in ways that are flexible, critical, and creative. But I’ll save more of that for the next post (which won’t be so long in happening, I promise. January was just crazy on many levels.) More soon.

Genre, Interfaces, and Ways We Teach Digital Writing

I was having coffee the other day with my friend and colleague Ryan Trauman and we got to talking about how we approach teaching people to compose texts using digital media. Trauman is both brilliant theoretically and proficient with technology in ways that I can’t touch. So, when he talks, I listen.

What was interesting – to me anyway – about our conversation was how it revealed our two very different ways of coming at this question. Trauman starts with a conceptual discussion of how software is constructed. He talks with people, on a conceptual level, about ideas such as “layers” and how they show up in different software. His belief is that, if people understand the underlying conceptual frameworks of the software, they can move from one program to another and, eventually, find a way to use any software to create the texts they want to create. This is particularly important for people who are inexperienced with and/or intimidated by digital media technologies. So he begins with the theory and logic underlying the media and helps people understand the tools they have at hand. (And I hope I’m portraying his approach accurately.)

I would approach the same group of people in a different way. I begin by talking about multimodal genres with which people are already familiar – television, film, newspapers, webpages, and so on. We talk about the characteristics of those genres and how they work to communicate ideas and engage audiences. So, for example, we might begin by talking about the nature of the “shot” in film and how shots are edited together to create scenes or narratives, or how images can lead a person through a web page. My goal is to help them to articulate the kinds of texts they want to create, and the genre characteristics they will use when composing. My thinking is that, if they have a general idea of what they want we can then work through – and play with – the software as a way to make it happen.

Neither of our approaches is necessarily better than the other. (And they’re not mutually exclusive or the only ways to approach the teaching of digital writing, of course.) The conversation has had me thinking about the effect of our approaches on our students. Trauman helps people feel comfortable through the machine, and by having a good sense of the tools at hand allows them to work in ways that no doubt help them use the interfaces in more embodied and internalized ways. I can imagine that, as a student of Trauman’s, I’d be able to start using the software in less self-conscious way that would help me focus on the ideas I would trying to communicate – much as I do when I type. That’s a great result to have from teaching.

My approach, by starting with familiar texts and moving from those to rooting around in the software for ways to make genre-connected moves, I hope gives students a particular awareness of the rhetorical characteristics of genre they’re working with as well as an awareness of the deep knowledge of previous texts and genres they can bring to their composing. In this way it’s similar to the ways in which, as we read, and then write with print we begin to draw on the craft and rhetoric of what we’ve read to create our own texts. As the novelist Caryl Phillips has said, “All writers read for plunder.” In my approach, I don’t think I address a familiarity with the tools, and the anxiety about the uses of the software as well as Trauman does, and in his he may not help students connect to the genres they know well as explicitly as I do.

The point here for me, though, is not a critique or endorsement of either or our approaches, for I can see merit in both. What interests me is how we came to those approaches and the effect this will have on our students. My guess is that, like me, Trauman’s approach reflects his own patterns of work and comfort. I know that, even as I read a lot about pedagogy and teaching writing, I tend to gravitate toward the concepts and approaches that fit my ways of working and learning. It’s not that I may not see value in other ways of teaching and try to bring those to the students I work with that I think might benefit from those methods. But, truth is, I what and how I teach is inevitably flavored by my experiences, values, ideologies, and so that students who have me in the classroom are presented with ways of approaching writing – whether in digital or print – that is similar in flavor. Because I find genres and genre theory fascinating, and tend to think through writing and rhetoric often through the genres I know or the texts I’m trying to draw from, I bring that to my teaching. This is inevitably effective for some students and less so for others.

We all tend to fall back on our knowledge and our comfortable way of working and then reach out to others through the epistemologies and pedagogies that make us comfortable. In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow he details the many and continuing instances when we allow ourselves to act in ways we perceive as “right” or “better” but in which we may be ignoring alternatives or the problems with our own approaches. So the conversation with Trauman has given me both another way to teach digital writing, as well as a reminder to be more rigorous in thinking about what is implied in my teaching and how I might find other ways to think about the classroom, even if they are harder and less comfortable for me at the beginning. No Earth-shaking conclusion here, I realize, but sometimes being reminded of what I need to know is enough.

Dancing with Don – Reflections on an 8-year-old Piece of Writing

Back in the winter of 2003-04, back before Barack Obama had been elected to the Senate or YouTube or Facebook had been launched – and when I was still an assistant professor -, I wrote an essay about Don Murray and his scholarship about the teaching of writing.

That essay was published earlier this month.

When you wait almost eight years for an essay to be published, it’s an intriguing exercise in perspective and self-reflection. But before I get into that, I want to provide a brief background to the essay and it’s long hibernation before publication.

I wrote the essay – titled “Dancing with Don: Or, Waltzing with ‘Expressivism'” –  in response to a call for a special issue of the journal Enculturation. The special issue was to focus on the concept of “neo-expressivism” – a term I don’t particularly like (and one that, for my non-US readers, reflects a rather odd, parochial turf war in the field of rhetoric and composition). But I did see the focus of the issue as offering me the chance to reflect on the evolution of my intellectual relationship with Don Murray’s work, as well as my argument that he has not only been misread over the years, but in fact has largely gone unread and, consequently, been misrepresented by others citing his work. I also saw the piece as an opportunity to pay my respect to Don who, while not a close friend, had been a kind mentor to me and to others.

Donald Murray

So I wrote the piece, sent it to friends from my UNH days for comments, sent it to Don for his comments – which were generous and incisive – and sent it off to the editor of the special issue, where I was told it would be published by the next autumn. A long time ago I worked in daily journalism and was spoiled me in terms of how quickly I expected turnaround in terms of publishing. Still, I have learned to work within the pace of academic publishing and do not get bothered in the least by the one- or two- or even three-year wait to get something published. But I never imagined this length of time.

In the eight years that passed between the writing of the essay and its publication, a lot happened in my life. I had three books published, ended up a full professor, spent a term as first-year comp director, and watched my sons graduate from high school year.

Also, Don Murray died. In terms of this essay, that last fact is certainly the saddest. I had hoped it would come out before his death in winter 2006, not so much because it mattered whether he knew that the piece was published, but because I wanted the essay to be read as a conversation with a living scholar and not as a memorial. Now nobody else was going to get a chance to talk with him except through his writing.

Things moved on. The publication date got posted each year, and then that date passed. The special issue concept passed through another editor before falling apart completely. But at least the folks at Enculturation finally decided to just publish it on its own. It’s sort of out of place in terms of subject matter and tone as a stand-alone article in that journal and I wonder if anyone will ever read it. But, if they do, maybe it will be a different audience than I expected to reach.  I am grateful that it didn’t disappear completely and that they saw fit to publish it at all.

When the editors contacted me and said they were going to publish the essay, they gave me the option of revising and updating it. I read it over again and decided that, with the exception of an explanatory footnote about when it was written, not to change it. I like the passion of it from that time, and decided that the way I framed the argument when Don was still alive is the way I wanted to leave it.

Even so, the publication of this piece has encouraged me to stop and look at what I wrote eight years ago and notice a few things about the distance between the writer I was then and the one I am now. First of all, I was a little surprised to see that there wasn’t more that I wanted to revise. Essentially I think I was still right about my appraisal of Don’s work and that he had often been misrepresented because he had not actually been read in any depth by most rhet/comp scholars. And I think I was right in that his most radical stance, of making student writing and student experience the core of a writing course is an attempt at making teaching truly “student-centered” in a way that most writing teachers are not comfortable taking on. I think this vision of where knowledge is generated is substantially more like the work of Freire than most people realize. But, rather than repeat the whole argument here I should just let people read it.

What I also find intriguing in the in the essay though, is my writing voice. There is a tentativeness about it that reflects where I felt I was as an assistant professor without many publications. Were I writing today about writing from experience, about using the “personal” (whatever that is) in writing I think I’d be less tentative, maybe a bit less passionate. Less defensive, more confident. Maybe it’s the difference between my writing/teaching self that has not changed as much as my “professional” self that is situated by institutions and disciplines. I wouldn’t change a lot in the essay, but the tone in places would shift enough that, while it would still be me it would be a different “me” than eight years ago. As it should be, I suppose. And I suppose that’s a comfort as well.