Tag Archives: Motivation

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…)

Yes, But Are You Having Fun?

Irv Peckham, who teaches writing at LSU and whose work I have always admired, stirred up a lively conversation on the WPA-L email list this week (is an email list primarily of US university writing teachers). Irv posted several emails in which he talked about how he was organizing his current writing course on “Life Writing” to try to find a way for the students to enjoy the experience of writing, for them to have fun. (You can see Irv’s blog about this class and these issues here.)  This position definitely appealed to me. I’ve written several times and places in the past about the motivations of pleasure in writing (and so many other things we do voluntarily) and how much of what students do outside of the classroom with writing and reading happens because they find pleasure in it. I don’t just mean a sensual, immediately gratifying pleasure, but the pleasure of craft, the pleasure of accomplishment, the pleasure that comes with engaging a challenge and then accomplishing what you set out to do – what one of Irv’s students called “hard fun.” The thing is, this kind of pleasure is so often predicated on having some control over the challenge, over the goals you’re trying to reach. It’s why students who talk of hating writing when they’re inside school having to complete assignments for which they see no purpose or relevance, will spend hours writing fan fiction.

An interesting thing happened on the WPA email list after Irv made his post, however. The responses very quickly became about whether writing courses should allow for “personal” writing or only be about more “academic” genres. Besides being reductive about those categories, what I found fascinating is that very few people bothered to talk about fun, about pleasure. I think, in part, people took the discussion that direction because they mistakenly conflated pleasure as only possible through personal experience and displays of emotion. But I also think that it probably made some people uncomfortable to think we should be thinking about teaching as, in part, creating the conditions for enjoyment, for pleasure, for fun. Those concepts just strike some people as, by their nature, to lack rigor, or intellectual engagement, or “value” in terms of writing in the academy and beyond. Pleasure and enjoyment are inaccurately (and unfortunately) conflated with ease. Yet, as the research I’ve been doing recently – the observations and conversations I’ve been having with students – shows me is that perceptions of agency are dependent in part on emotional dispositions that include a sense of control and the opportunity for the pleasure of craft and accomplishment. If we want students to embrace writing (and we do) then we ought to be thinking, and not shrinking, from conversations about how to create opportunities for them to enjoy writing.

Everyone understands the pleasure of accomplishment, of craft, of “hard fun” in some area of their lives. Writing teachers feel it too, in their writing and their teaching. Even when people complain about the hard work of writing and teaching (and it’s really not that hard) they also know the pleasure of accomplishment in teaching well or finishing a writing project. Emotion is important. Pleasure and enjoyment help create perceptions of agency. Yet so many schools and teachers, at every level, still insist on taking control out of the hands of students, of reducing their perceptions of agency, of conflating pleasure with ease, lest the schools be considered soft and without rigor.  In many ways I know I’m not saying anything new. Freire and Dewey both understood that you have to start from what matters to people and engage those concerns to create a space for learning. Don Murray argued for this too. In one of my favorite quotes Don wrote:

The writer’s basic job is not to say what he already knows but to explore his own experience for his own meaning. His experience may be in the library or in the pub, but at the moment of writing he uses the tool of language to discover the meanings which exist in his experience. As he uses his language to try to put down on the page what he thinks he means he keeps changing the words—he thinks. As his writing develops under his hand his words reveal his meaning, an order evolves as his mind uses language to expose what is significant in his experience.

Discovering the meanings that exist in experience – wherever that may be – involves control, agency, pleasure – fun.

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.

The Two-Way Bridge (Part 1)

If I have problems with the metaphor of popular culture being conceived of as a “bridge” from less worthy literacy practices to more valuable and acceptable academic literacies (see below), how do I imagine we can think about creating our pedagogical bridges to carry rhetorical and semiotic traffic in both directions? Or, to avoid driving the metaphor too far, how do approach teaching reading and writing in ways that actually help young people be more creative and effective interpreters and composers of texts in and out of school?

We have to begin with a sincere appreciation of and interest in what students are doing outside of school. Sounds simple enough, right? But so many times I see teachers from middle school through college unable to bring themselves to the point of genuine interest and appreciation for what their students are engaged in outside of school. The reasons I’ve heard given for this reluctance are many, from questions about the legitimacy of popular culture as a subject to be addressed in school to concerns about whether explicitly opening the door to popular culture might bring offensive material into the classroom to fear that the teacher’s lack of knowledge of what is popular with students will undermine authority in the classroom. And the reasons – and there are many more – sometimes make sense to me, but more often do not.

Rather than kvetch about the problems, though, I’d rather think about how we can engage students in  work with digital media and popular culture in ways that enriches their literacy practices in every aspect of their lives. So I’ll be working, over the coming months, on playing with some of those ideas toward a project Dan Keller and I are thinking about, tentatively titled Teaching Convergence Culture.

One place to start is to think about what actually characterizes more participatory learning? Vanessa Vartabedian and the people at Project NML (New Media Literacies) are is doing very exciting work with this. What I want to highlight today, though, is their list of five characteristics of participatory learning:

  • Heightened motivation and new forms of engagement through meaningful play and experimentation;
  • Learning that feels relevant to students’ identities and interests;
  • Opportunities for creating using a variety media, tools and practices;
  • Co-configured expertise where educators and students pool their skills and knowledge and share in the tasks of teaching and learning;
  • An integrated system of learning where connections between home, school, community and world are enabled and encouraged.

I like the succinct and yet expansive nature of these characteristics and the way that they focus on different aspects crucial to learning, such as motivation, location, and role of the teacher.  I’ll have more to say about this soon.