Tag Archives: Teaching

Starting Again, and Focusing on Writing

The start of the fall semester should mean that summer is over – though the weather outside in Louisville reminds us otherwise. Regardless of the weather, I realized a while back that I tend to set my annual internal clock by the start of the academic year. My new year – my resolutions, my reflections, my sense of renewal – starts not in January, but in the autumn with a new academic year. This year, as with every year, I find myself busy beyond belief (hence the paucity of posts since July) but also invigorated by a campus full of students again. There is always a sense of promise, a sense that this semester, whether as teacher or student, there will be a breakthrough of learning, of inspiration. (Am I a bit on the sentimental side about these things? What do you think?)

Working in the University Writing Center is particularly conducive to optimism. 143We work with any and all writers in the university — undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff — on any kind of writing at any stage in that writing. Our goal is both to help the writer improve the current project, but also to help teach the writer new strategies to use on writing projects in the future. In practice, we see a lot of people who come to us at moments of extreme anxiety about their writing, and, most of the time, when they leave they have a clear plan for revising their writing, and feel more confident about their work. (The fact that almost half of our visitors schedule return visits during the course of the year is a testament to the fact that we must be doing something right.) We ground our work in an ethic of care and an ethic of respect for the writer and I think that comes across to people. It’s hard work sometimes, and exhausting, but rewarding for both the students and consultants. (It’s also a space that has political potential in the university in ways that need more exploration, but that is for a future post.) So it’s not hard to feel optimistic when you know that this is what the work for the year will be.

Much of the preceding paragraph is not news to those who work in Writing Centers, which are becoming much more common in U.S. universities. (Even so, it felt good to write it). But I realized, while in Britain in the spring, how little the concept of a university writing center was understood there. When I would tell wc-signpeople that I was director of the Writing Center at UofL, many people had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained what we do, from the individual writing consultations to the classroom workshops on writing to the events such as the week-long dissertation writing retreats we hold, the lack of understanding often turned to envy. It’s hard not to like the idea of a writing center. And, in places where there are writing centers, like the marvelous one in at Coventry University, they have become  valued institutions. But I missed the commitment to writing instruction in universities there that I think writing centers exemplify.

My point is not that I wish more UK universities had writing centers (though I do – and if anyone is reading this and wants me to come over and help set one up…..). My point is that, while I enjoyed my time with my British colleagues so much, and learned so much from them, it was meaningful in coming home to again be part of the Writing Center, and all the things we do. Simple as that.


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.

Teacher as the Enemy? Again?

My father used to say that there were three things people always thought were better when they were young: religion, sports, and schools. He was right that, in all three instances, there is often a hazy nostalgia for the old days when religion was meaningful and sincere, when noble athletes played for the love of the game, and when school was place of discipline and rigor. Like all nostalgia, such memories tend to be faulty and created primarily to reassure ourselves with soothing narratives about our own lives. Unfortunately, when it comes to education, they are narratives that also contribute to a political climate that is proving destructive to education.

Anxieties about education tend to rise in bad economic times when the middle-class begins to worry about whether the cultural capital schools are supposed to impart will continue to be transformed in the economic capital that keeps them in the middle class. As I’ve written about elsewhere, there is a perpetual education crisis in this country (though the crises of the past seem to be forgotten when the youth of yesterday grow up to be the productive adults of today). Unfortunately, this time around, it seems to be targeted more than usual at teachers.  And so I can’t help but rant a bit.

The rhetoric surrounding the recent strike by Chicago teachers as well as the release of the movie “Won’t Back Down,” reinforce a punitive, anti-teacher attitude that is continuing to wear down the teachers I know. In this particular narrative, contemporary teachers are money-hungry, lazy union hacks uninterested in the learning of their students. It’s fascinating to me that high pay for teachers is always seen as problematic in a culture that reveres high pay for corporate executives and others in the business world. (And don’t get me started on how teachers get paid too much for all the “time off” they have. There are any number of studies that demonstrate that most teachers work close to 60-hour weeks throughout the school year, more than making up for any “time off” they get over school breaks. What’s more, most teachers now are buying many of their own supplies for their students, something not exactly expected of those in the business world.) But, somehow, the representation of teachers has continued to deteriorate in recent years. Teachers often used to be portrayed as stiff and perhaps a bit drab, but still important. Now they are portrayed as the worst thing about schools (unless of course they are they one, heroic, “teacher who cares” who transforms students in a single year,)

Clearly, I don’t buy that teachers are the core problem in schools. Of course there are less-than-effective teachers in many of our schools. But it’s deeply discouraging that so many people see the solution to that problem to be to berate teachers, begrudge them reasonable pay, threaten them with hypersurvelliance and dismissal, and then hope they flock to the profession out of their commitment to children. It may be human nature to lash out at the personification of the education system, but it’s not going to make education better – it’s not even going to make poor teachers teach better (news flash: more testing does not make for better teacher – a topic for another day).

What the anti-teacher rhetoric keeps us from discussing are the systemic problems in the way we approach education. By focusing vitriol on teachers, we’re not talking about the growth of bureaucracies, at all levels, that mandate more and more paperwork from teachers – a problem that comes from policies from all political sides, by the way. We’re not talking about how the demonization of government that began under the Reagan administration has drifted down into the perception of schools. As a culture we’ve begun to bring into schools the myth that the private market and competition are always better in every endeavor in life and that everything can be quantified or it doesn’t matter. As a teacher who has worked with students of many abilities and many levels, I can tell you that the best teaching I’ve done, and the best learning my students have done, could not be quantified in any way. What’s more, my best teaching is not spurred by “competition” or “efficiency”, but grows from collaboration and support. Education that responds to a world in which flexible thinking and engagement and literacy is the key, does not emerge from rigid testing regimes and punishing teachers. I’m not the first person to say many of these things, I know. It just frustrates me so that we seem to be making so little headway against the anti-teacher rhetoric.

The irony here is that, for many of the conservative politicians decrying public education and calling of testing and punishment, have not learned the lessons of their own upbringing – or the upbringing of their children. The most affluent public and private schools spend their money on small class sizes, individualized instruction, and lots of arts, music, and creative ways of thinking about solving problems and creating knowledge. These affluent schools trumpet such approaches to education in their public documents and affluent families send their children to them with great pride.

Yet, as a culture, Americans don’t want to believe in culture. We want to believe that every achievement comes from individual effort alone. Material and cultural influences on individuals are antithetical to the punitive, Calvinist view of life that Americans cling to. It’s all about predestination – you show forth your true character through your grades and, if they are inadequate, you deserve to be  punished and shunned.

The sad part of all of this is that the teacher-bashing so fashionable right now won’t make teaching any better. For one thing, great potential teachers, like the brightest undergraduates I teach, shy away from teaching because it has been made to look like a thankless, embattled profession. What’s more, punishment is rarely the best way to get someone to improve their work. Of course there are weak teachers in many classrooms. Yet you’re not going to identify weak teachers only through standardized testing – lots of weak teachers can drill students on limited content to pass a test. We need to begin by creating more flexible, nuanced methods for assessing how teachers are doing in the classroom that include looking at a range of student work and observations of teaching. In addition, there needs to be more support for teachers in terms of mentoring, in terms of resources, in terms of smaller class sizes. And we need to be willing to pay for education, big time.

Yeah, ok, a guy can dream right?

Sorry for the rant. I wish it had made me feel better.

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.

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.

Space, Boundaries, and Movement

It’s been wonderful to have a couple of weeks of travel after the conference was over — great times in Ireland and Scotland with family and friends. But I don’t want to miss the chance to talk over the next few posts about some of the ideas that are still turning over in my head from the Sheffield conference on Study of New Literacies.

(First, a side note just to thank Julia Davies and Kate Pahl for a wonderful conference. Not too big, great presentations, and thoughtful and smart conversations, both formal and informal. It did energize my thinking and give me new directions to think about and people to read. I may not mention everyone I spoke to or heard present, but there was much to learn from.)

The set of ideas that I seemed to me to keep coming around in the conference – and that have kept me pondering since – has to do with space, movement, and boundaries. Although they came at the question from several different directions, I was  intrigued by the ongoing discussion of the how our literacy practices are shaped by and shaping the spaces in which they take place. And space here is something that we are inhabiting and creating both on and offline. In fact, one things I was particularly pleased about was the work everyone was doing at troubling the binary divide between online and offline. Instead there was much more recognition about how we not only move on and offline quickly – and all the more so with smart phones and tablets becoming more common – but how difficult it becomes to separate cause and effect, or place and space, between the digital and the embodied. A number of presentations and conversations raised questions of how digital technologies connect us, yet also how they can establish barriers and obstacles that can cause us either to give up, or try to find away around. At the same time, we respond to these digital spaces not just with our minds, but also with our bodies and emotions and bring those back, in turn, to the online places we inhabit.

Cathy Burnett, of Sheffield Hallam University, raised a serious of questions about space, mobility, and boundaries in her presentation on classrooms she is observing. I was fascinated by her descriptions and analysis of the kinds of boundaries teachers often try to create in the classroom – both online and off — in terms of students’ practices (and teachers’ as well). She noted moments when students disrupt such boundaries and how that both brings them into sudden focus, and also challenges us as teachers to define the nature and purpose of the boundary. Her discussion of the ways in which such boundaries shift, open, and close almost moment by moment had me thinking about the courses I had most recently been teaching, as well as what I have observed doing at their computers outside the classroom.  There is an image of students deeply focused on computer screens, oblivious to all around them, is rarely true. Instead, as Burnett’s presentation pointed out, students move away from the screen, use their bodies to shape their interactions with the technology, get up and wander the room, make side comments, even as they continue to post comments on a forum or engage in a class assignment. While there are connections here to ideas like Robert Brooke’s discussion of underlife in the classroom, I like the way she theorizes this not simply as a set of behavior’s, but also as practices located in specific texts and contexts. Her challenge to think of “siting as a productive practice” in which we engage with the mobility and shifting boundaries of our teaching and of literacy practices resonated with me. I can’t wait to read more of her work on this.

It also make me think of how, when students are outside of school they find that they are still navigating these spaces and boundaries, sometimes created in the home, sometimes by those who control online environments, and adapting their reading and writing to the spaces they can find and work within. It made me think of how, in my own research, I see young people working within and around the online popular culture spaces they encounter. As I’ve said other places, while Gee’s idea of online “affinity spaces” as places were people are drawn by interest first, regardless of identity are true to a point, it is also the case that offline identity shapes not only the affinity spaces we are drawn to, but how we react and respond to the interactions once we get there. What’s more, the negotiations of language and culture we have to engage in online affinity spaces seep back into our embodied lives and are not left behind with the computer.

It also connected with comments and presentations by David Barton, Keri Facer, Margaret Mackey, Karin Tusting, Eve Stirling, and others at the conference, and got me thinking more about where my thoughts about my research are taking me next. But that will have to wait for the next entry or two.

My Thing About Blogs

I’ve wondered, over the past decade, why I have been hesitant to start a blog. It’s not a matter of thinking that there aren’t ideas on blogs worth reading. It’s not that I don’t value the interactive nature of blogs. It’s not that I don’t value a collaborative approach to knowledge generation or that I haven’t learned from some of the blogs I have read. You know, some of my best friends write blogs.

Yet I have hesitated writing one myself and I don’t even follow as many as I should. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the course I’m teaching this spring, I wouldn’t be writing this now. But that raises for me the question of why, if I am interested in writing, in popular culture, in digital media, haven’t I joined in with a blog? And I’ve come to several tentative conclusions that this project, this blog will put to the test.

The first question is one of time. Blogs began to emerge when I had two young children at home and was also director of the university composition program. I had priorities. Family came first. After that, depending on the time and the emergencies, I could turn to research, teaching, and administration. The reality, however, was that after family and other professional obligations such as my administrative responsibilities, there was only so much time for writing. And, if there was only a limited time for writing, I was going to spend that time writing in venues that I knew would be peer-reviewed, edited, and possibly even read, such as books and journals (and count toward tenure and promotion). I had to be very disciplined about what I read and wrote in order to get that work done. Exploration and musing time was going to be taken up by my family. There just wasn’t time for any other writing. Even now, as I write this, I find myself wondering what will happen to my words. Will anyone read them or is this just wasted typing? I’m well aware of the t-‘shirt that reads, “More people have read my shirt than your blog.” Even with my sons now in college, I find myself squirming at the possibility that I am engaging in wasted type, in wasting time.

The second question is how I work as a writer. Although some people think I write quickly, thanks to an early background in journalism, the reality is that I both do and don’t. On the one hand, I can bang out words very quickly and am willing to get a piece finished and off to an editor without dithering over it forever. Yet the key to that previous statement is “off to an editor.” If I don’t have a sense that there will be someone to look over my work and offer suggestions and critique, I can still write quickly, but I publish slowly. As a journalist and when I publish in books and in journals there are editors — and now reviewers — to help me, to prod me to new ideas, to save me from sloppy thinking and writing. Without the collaborative relationship I have with editors, I get nervous about my writing. I edit and re-edit and re-edit emails to try to be sure I am communicating what I want to say. I am trying desperately to avoid rewriting this paragraph again and again. I don’t like putting writing out there that is less than my best or that others have not been able to help me improve. I’d rather not say stupid things, poorly written, in public. And, if I have to rewrite and rewrite every blog post, that brings me back to the question of time.

People with blogs, when I tell them how I work as a writer, tell me that I will get that feedback from the comments to my blog (if anyone reads it). The blog can serve as a space in which I try out my ideas and get responses that help me develop those ideas. Which brings me to the third question. Although I rely on digital media, study it, love it too much sometimes, at my core I’m a face-to-face person. As anyone who knows me can attest, I like to talk through ideas.  I would choose to meet at the local coffee shop and talk over my latest project with a trusted friend, than try to sort it out through writing (and I always prefer to talk over dissertation chapters with graduate students than provide written comments).  I also scribble lots of notes and write ideas down and I keep private journals that are informal and rambling, but in terms of working through ideas with other people, I would always choose to talk in person.  Why? Upbringing perhaps, I was raised in a family of talkers (my former sister-in-law said we were an “oral culture”). Or maybe it is that I need the body language and non-verbal communication involved in the conversation, or perhaps the speed with which I can modify and respond to ideas.  Or maybe I just like the companionship of corporeal beings. For whatever reasons, I like to talk through ideas.  I love teaching in a face-to-face classroom so much and dread the idea of online teaching, not because I think the latter can never be effective, but because of the joys I get from the former. It also explains why my teaching always involves conferences with students.  And, as I noted above,  when I write for publication of any kind, from books to email, I compose carefully to try to be as precise as possible. (I just rewrote the previous pedestrian sentence about four times. I’m not saying it always makes my writing precise or elegant, just that I try.)

Finally there are the connected questions of permanence and impermanence. On the one hand, I know that any blog post may have a long life online, even if I choose to delete it next week. As someone who has already talked about being careful in what he writes, the idea that the uninspiring blathering of this post will exist out there, attached to my name, for decades, doesn’t comfort me. If I’m going to create texts that will exist for a long time, then I want to be careful of how I write, and that gets me back to problems of how I spend my time as a writer and scholar.  The flip side of this coin in impermanence, or the possibility that my writing in this venue may disappear just as easily as I’ve written it, and that the work will have been wasted. And this last point will be the focus of my next post.

So what’s the point? That blogging is not for everyone? Or at least not for me? Or that I need to loosen up and give it a try? I certainly have felt somewhat defensive when talking (face to face, by the way) to friends with blogs. Given my interest in digital media and writing, it has seemed like a weakness in my background. Now, however, as I prepare to teach a graduate seminar in New Media and Composition Pedagogy, it seemed as good a moment as any to try it out for a semester and see if my resistance to the endeavor changes through practice, or if this is a just a one-time experiment.

More later.