Tag 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…)

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.

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.

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.

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.

What Can You Accomplish in a Week?

Tomorrow is the start of the first Dissertation Writing Retreat at the University of Louisville Writing Center. This is the first retreat like this we’ve held (and, yes, I absolutely refuse to call it a bootcamp). We’re excited about it and I think we’ve got an intriguing combination of time for writing, mini workshops, eating and relaxing, and individual consultations organized for the ten participants. I’m delighted that it’s going to happen (thanks Barrie, Adam, and Laura) and that we have a range of participants from disciplines as diverse as Engineering,Humanities, Social Work, and the Medical School.

But there is one question that continues dig at me a bit – as it may for the participants who will be coming to the Writing Center tomorrow: What can we really accomplish in a week?

If I think about a good week of writing – make that a great week of writing – I might hammer out a dozen pages or so, and that’s only if I’m really organized and know what I want to do with whatever the project might be. More likely, even on a good week, I get a couple of good days of producing a lot of words, and then I have days in between of making notes, staring at the screen, going back and moving things around, looking again at my notes and the books I’m using, and so on. I certainly don’t think I’m atypical when it comes to academic writers. So, again, given the scope of a dissertation of a few hundred pages, what can we really accomplish in a week?

My thinking at this point – and my hope – is that we might give the participants a jump-start to their writing, some energy to go forward, make even some extra confidence. (That’s why it’s not a bootcamp; we’re about support, not trauma.) More than that, I’m hoping that the combination of writing time and daily consultations might help the writers reframe their writing habits and approaches so that they can work more effectively to finish their dissertations. So it’s not about the pages; it’s about the processes. And I hope they’ll keep coming to the Writing Center (and will tell their friends). To see what happens you can also visit the Writing Center blog during the week.

I’m thinking it will be a great week of writing and talking about writing. Tune in later and I’ll let you know.

Words by Day, Images at Night

I want to take a moment to note one of the intriguing things I have noticed over the years about working with words and images.  It comes down to this: I do much better writing with words in the morning, and much better in working with images at night. I can remember this split being the case since I started taking journalism courses lo those many decades ago. I always preferred writing in the morning, working in the darkroom or with layout at night (not that I was always given a choice.)

Now, even as I’ve moved from typewriters and film to computers and video, I still find myself working this way. I find that writing comes to me more easily, and that I think I produce better quality work, when I get down to it just as I hit my second cup of coffee. When I try to write in the late afternoon, it’s more of a struggle. By nightfall, forget it. I can’t even compose a decent email by late evening.

When it comes to working with images or video or design, however, I feel much more comfortable with the media and the work as the day moves on. Again, I can work on a video in the morning, but I feel clumsy and the indecisive. By late in the evening, though, I’m charged up and eager to go. And, again, I think I make better choices, produce better multimodal texts later in the day. This is most pronounced with video and images, but works still with design of web sites.

The thing I’ve been puzzling over is why I have this split in how I work with different texts depending on the medium and mode. It could, of course, be that I just got started working this way many years ago and have just convinced myself of something that is really nothing more than an unexamined habit.  But it doesn’t feel like that. I have no idea whether there is any research on cognition that would come anywhere close to explaining this, but I rather doubt it. And I certainly don’t expect that my individual experience is in any way generalizable. Yet I have to remain curious why I feel such a split in when I best write  in print and write with images. I do wonder if, in the morning, the kind of linear, word-based thinking comes more easily because my mind isn’t so cluttered with all the other words I’ll be encountering in the rest of the day, in reading and in conversation (since that is mostly what I do all day). I know that part of my trouble writing later in the day is getting focused on a writing project when my mind is still writing emails and talking with students and reading papers, and so on. So, by late afternoon and evening, the associative work of composing with images and design moves me out of words into new media that feel fresh and unexplored. If this is part of the reason for the split, I might feel differently if I spent the day editing video. Writing print in the evening might be a welcome change.

And it leaves me wondering if others feel this way? And, ever the teacher, is there something here that I can communicate to students that will help them move among composing in different modes and media? For now, that’s some words for this morning.

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.