End of Semester Celebration!

Well, I would like to celebrate, but honestly I’m too exhausted.  I have finally completed all of my papers, presentations and projects for the semester, and I haven’t an ounce of energy left.  I knew graduate school would be a lot of work, but I did not expect to feel so drained at the end of the semester.  I supposed the added work and pressure of teaching two sections of college composition was a contributing factor to my exhaustion.  However, I would have to say that I consider this semester a success (I’m still alive after all).  I’ve learned so much from each of my classes, particularly my Theories of Writing course, and I honestly feel that all graduate teaching assistants at CSU should be required to take the course.  Perhaps if the course were presented and taught as an introduction to rhetoric and composition they would all be required to take the course.  But as we’ve discussed throughout the semester, Rhet/Comp is still struggling to be seen as a legitimate field of study.

Because of this class I’ve given serious consideration to the course that I teach and the assignments I give.  I, of course, will still assign the 5 major papers required by the department, but I want to add in other forms of writing.  We teach our students that the term “text” applies to more than just words on paper, and I would like to challenge my students to produce various forms of text.  Of course, the mere thought of assigning and assessing oral and/or visual presentations is intimidating, as it is not something I have done before.  I am much more comfortable working with print texts, although, as indicated in my previous post, I am not a fan of grading those either.  Still, students, after they graduate and become “adults,” will be asked to produce texts through multiple media.  Whether the purpose of a college education is to create well-rounded individuals, prepare students for the work force, or simply say that you can follow through with something, the composition course within the overall academic system can provide students will practical skills, but those skills may lose some of their practicality if they are confined only to paper.

My students say that they enjoyed the course (surely not all of them are being 100% honest), and I am glad, but I feel there is definitely room for improvement in the way I teach and how well I help my students develop the literacy skills they will need for the rest of their collegiate careers and their lives after they graduate.  It is the job of an educator to push and challenge her students and also herself.  I’m still not sure I count as an “educator” yet, but as they say, you must “fake it ’til you make it.”

I hate grading

This semester, I have been required to read and offer feedback on student papers, and for the first time, assign a grade.  I cannot say that I am a fan of this.  The reading and commenting takes forever, but I still prefer it to having to put that grade, a number, at the end of my final comment.  This has been something that has challenged me throughout the semester, and I thought I had finally grown comfortable with it, until I began grading my students’ fourth paper of the semester.  I was discouraged and disappointed by several of the first papers that I graded, questioning my teaching practices and ability.  I wondered what had gone wrong, if maybe I was just a horrible teacher since so many of my students seemed to have missed several key objectives of the assignment such as using an appropriate tone, not alienating their audience, and providing support for their claims.  I eventually came across better papers that assured me that I had not completely failed, but I was concerned about the number of strong writers whose papers were subpar.  As usual I made notes of common problems to provide global feedback and also to know what to emphasis next semester, but I asked myself, “what about this semester?”.  I wanted to know what I could do to help my students learn for the short while I still had them in my class.

I began by thinking back over the semester.  Much of what I have learned in the Theories of Writing course I have wanted to apply to my own teaching, but I have not had much opportunity to do so.  Here was my chance to implement some of what I had learned.  I care about the thinking and writing that goes into my students’ papers.  They care about this also, but are also concerned with the grade indicated at the end of my detailed comments (the grade I hate assigning).  I was disappointed that so many good writers had not written to their highest ability, and I knew they could do better, so I offered them the chance to prove it.  I asked them to read over their papers and my comments, write a reflection on the problems with their paper that may have kept them from communicating effectively with their chosen audience, and make the necessary changes.  It seemed the best way to make both myself and my students happy:  I get the better thinking and writing; they get the better grade.  But then I worried if offering this revision would raise too many students’ grades, and this would reflect badly on me as a teacher.  I didn’t want anyone to think that because my students’ grades were so high, I was not holding them to the standards of the department, that I was not challenging them.  I realize how silly the thought was, but given that at the beginning of the semester I was told that the average grade in the course is a “C” and all of the talk about how often students are upset about the grade they receive, but this is a good thing because it means the teachers are doing their jobs, I still worry that even though I know my students have done the thinking and writing necessary to earn a “B” or “A-“ in the course, others may not.  I made it very clear to my students that simply completing the optional reflection/revision would not be enough to improve their grade.  They had to show careful consideration and critical thinking about their own writing and the needs, concerns, and expectations of their audience.  I am hoping that I receive some quality work, but since the assignment is not due for a few more days, I will have to leave the results TBA.

Class and Literacy

I have always been interested in literacy.  I didn’t use the term “literacy,” but I wanted to learn more about it.  I remember wondering how it is we learn to read.  I had been doing it so long that I could not remember the specifics of how I learned.  I also wondered what it was like not to be able to read.  I grew frustrated with trying to look at a word and not read it.  It just didn’t work.  I pestered my  young cousins with questions like “what does this word look like to you?” and “what do you think this means?”.  My only responses were annoyed looks and “leave me alone.”  Over the first two summers of college, I worked as an Americorps intern for a literacy program designed for elementary aged children in low-income areas.  During the junior year at the University of Oklahoma, I did research on literacy instruction.  It was these experiences that opened my eyes to literacy as it was connected to class (in this case economic class). Scott Paris stated in his Reading Research Quarterly article, “Reinterpreting the Development of Reading Skills:” “learning to read… is the foundation for learning and academic achievement (184).” It is difficult for students who cannot read or cannot read well to do well in school (so they are affected by class in an educational sense).  In a society that privileges books over other forms of texts, that requires advanced writing skills for almost any “middle to upper class” job, how are these individuals to affect the material conditions in which they live?

And what about the individuals who can read, and write, but not in the way typically required in “academic” discourse?  Donna LeCourt says “Writing is a social practice, not only a place from which to explore classed identity but also that which classes identity” (38, emphasis in original).  I have worked at a writing center and taken classes in which styles and dialects other than EAE are discussed as being just as valuable, but I have witnessed more often students struggling to sound like what they assume the academy wants.  And their assumptions are correct. In her article, LeCourt provides examples of “heuristic prompts” that students in other classes were given.  Her examples include questions such as “‘What in your home life has influenced you the most in terms of language and how you use it?”; “What in your academic life has influenced you most in terms of language and how you use it?’ and ‘Was the language you used at home different rom the language you used in school?’’ (35).  Later on that same page LeCourt provides a summation of one student’s perspective.  She writes, “language use = class difference = cultural difference, that oppositional rhetorics seek to expose” (35).  This student, Diane, is frustrated by her “inability to practice correct and grammatical skills” (qtd in LeCourt 35). Diane provides a great example of how language use and literacy practices are used to point out difference, and not just to acknowledge it, but to mark it as “other”.  Rarely in our culture does “different” mean just that.  Usually it means “different, but in a worse way,” occasionally “different, in a better way.”  I see academic literacy practices today as trying to erase difference, not be elevating students’ individual languages and dialects to the same level as academic language, but by eliminating them.  True, this view is based on my own limited readings and experiences, most of which are from working with students from small-town Oklahoma or inner-city OKC or Tulsa who were disappointed because they had been marked down for “writing how they speak.”  From my experience in the writing center, especially colloquia, and my short time in graduate school, I have seen that a lot of great material is being generated on class, race, gender, and other forms of “differences,” but I think there is a long way to go to overcome traditional literacy practices.

“Culture of Power” and “White” vs. “Black”

Last week in E501:Theories of Writing we shared out stories of our experiences with the “Culture of Power” in our educations.  I think that sharing out stories with each other was a valuable experience, and since then, I have continued to think about my own story as well as those of my classmates.  First, I suppose I should provide my story again.

When I was in first grade, I was in Mrs.  A Bates’ class, not J Bates; she was my kindergarten teacher, no relation.  I remember taking home practice readers with strange-looking purple characters and reading the stories at home with my mother in a big chair in our living room  I was a good reader;  I knew that.  But at some point in the year some of the students in my class started taking something called “AR (Accelerated Reader) Tests” over the books they were reading and earning points by doing well on the tests.  I remember wondering what AR was and I was not also participating.  I knew I could read as well as the students participating in AR, and I thought that maybe my teacher didn’t know this.  Maybe she thought I was too stupid for AR.  I was really shy when I was younger, so of course I never asked her.  I remember being afraid of even addressing her by name.  I would just ask her a question without calling her anything.  She was my teacher, and thus the authority.  And even though she was wrong about me being too stupid to take AR tests, she had the power to make that decision, and I did not have the power to contradict her.

This was also during a time when I was beginning to think about “white” versus “black”.  There were not a lot of black students in my school.  I was one of two black people in my class, and there was also a Hispanic girl (in my original free write, I use the girl’s name, but I feel it better to leave it out here since I have no way of contacting her to get her permission).  Anyway, I knew that black people and white people were different on the outside, but I was wondering if we were also different on the inside.  Once again, I did not dare ask anyone, but I noticed that all of the “AR” students were white, and I didn’t know what to think about that.

I doubt my classmates or teacher thought this, but on the off chance that someone not currently taking Theories of Writing reads this post, I want to say that I did not then, nor do I now, think that my teacher was racist.  At six-years-old, I knew vaguely of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and MLK, but I had not (yet) experienced an incident of racism and so considered it a thing of the past, not relevant to me in small-town Oklahoma.  Always accused by my older siblings of “thinking too much” and “asking too many questions” (another reason I did not voice my questions on this matter aloud), I was simply trying to work out an issue which I did not have the experience or capacity to resolve.  So, I fast forward to the present day to find myself with a much expanded mental capacity and many more personal experiences.  I am 16 years older, much more educated, and unfortunate enough to have faced several incidents of racism, some more blatant than others.  I am thinking most specifically of my first encounter when a young white boy, about my age, called me a “nigger” in Walmart.   I had somehow been separated from my grandmother (I think I had wandered off in search of popcorn) and was looking for her when this happened.

Despite incidents such as this, as well as my education I still don’t know if I am any closer to resolving the issue(s) I grappled with as a shy yet curious six-year-old.  I think about the idea of race as a performance, which was brought up in class today. I think about scientific evidence that shows that certain diseases are more common in certain races. I think of my family members, many of whom are confident that there are distinct differences between races (I wonder how many of the differences are psychological, based on experiences and cultures passed down through generations). And I also think about being accused of “acting white” or even “thinking I was white” by other black students in my high school because I spent most of my time with my band friends (who were all white).  Honestly, there were several black students at my high school that I just did not care for very much.  They were loud, aggressive; I was not.  Does this mean that I was not “performing” my race?  I certainly wasn’t performing a stereotype of my race.  In college most of my friends were also black.  Was I performing my race by hanging out with other black students?  What made me different from the other black students at my high school?  What made the black students at my high school different from my black friends in college?  What makes any of us different from Asian individuals out age, or Hispanic individual, or Caucasian?  Does anyone know, or all we all just forming hypotheses, making guesses?

Students’ Own Language vs. “Standard” English

“Should writing teachers require students to conform to EAE, or should they allow students to write in different dialects and styles as appropriate”?  This is a difficult question to answer, and as with other issues in composition studies and writing pedagogy, I find that I must once again straddle the fence, unwilling to make a definitive decision.  As a rhetoric and composition scholar, as well as simply an individual interested in language and dialects, I of course believe that students have a “right to their own language”.  But I also make an effort to be practical, and I cannot deny that the society we live in privileges EAE (Edited American English).  As acknowledged in CCCC’s “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” United Statesian “employers demand a single variety” of English, and I think that to deny students access to that variety, knowing that they will expected to communicate in it, is irresponsible.

The best method may be to foster both EAE and the students’ own dialect.  Students should be reassured that their native dialects are valid and valuable, but should also be made aware that, at this time, the world outside of their writing classroom is not willing to accept dialects other than EAE.   One way of trying to foster students’ proficiency in both dialects in 1974 ( I cannot say what current methods are used) was through the use of “dialect” readers.  The dialect readers used one of two methods, both of which are outlined by CCCC.  In the first students use readers in which “Some reading materials are written completely in the students’ dialect with the understanding that later the students will be switched to materials written in the ‘standard’ dialect”.  In the other method “materials are written in companion sets of ‘Home’ version and ‘School’ version.  Students first read through the ‘dialect’ version, then through the same booklet written in ‘school’ English”.

The problem, in my opinion, with “dialect” readers is that “A dialect is a variety of a language used by some definable group”.  Students in a freshman writing class at a large research institution come from various parts of the country and often the world.  Students from the same state, even the same state, grow up in environments that are drastically different from one another.  A course reader cannot accommodate all of the possible dialects represented, and therefore cannot serve each student equally.  In that case, EAE can be viewed almost as a lingua franca allowing the students to communicate not just with one another, but also with the larger academic community.  This is not to say that I think students’ dialects are unintelligible to speakers or writers of other dialects.  As discussed in the article, “differences among dialects in a given language are always confined to a limited range of surface features that have no effect on . . . meaning”.  In other words, the “minor surface differences” between dialects do not impede a speaker of one dialect of English from understanding another.  However, American English values clarity and directness, particularly in writing.  I don’t think readers in this country are at a point where they would not be distracted by dialectical differences.  And I’m not sure that continuing to write only in “standard” English (which according to CCCC may be simply a myth) is the way to increase public comfort with various dialects.

Honestly, being in my first semester of teaching a writing course, and considering that almost all of my students are from Colorado, most from the Denver area, I have not had to think about how to handle practically the issue of different dialects in the classroom, especially since those who designed the course decided before I even arrived here that EAE was the language of choice.  I don’t know which route to take because I have not had the opportunity to “experiment”.  So, I’m suggesting finding a way to do both:  value students’ individual dialects as well as increasing their proficiency in writing the edited American English that is expected of them in the “real world”.  Maybe I am being idealistic, but I doubt I’m the only one.

Feminist Pedagogy: Gendering the Anonymous Author

I have often wondered whether or not males and females actually have different styles of writing.  This curiosity arose mostly from reading anonymous pieces and having a strong sense that the writing had been done by either a male or a female.  This came up earlier this semester during a lesson in which I shared an anonymously written letter with my students to judge the letter’s rhetorical effectiveness.  As we were discussing the letter, both the students and I began, without realizing it, to refer to the author as female.  When we did realize what we were doing, we paused to question why we referring to the author as a “she” before deciding that the author “sounded like a girl”.  We didn’t really have time to explore the issue further in class, but I have since thought about that instance and others in which I assigned a gender to an unknown author.

In Susan Jarratt’s bibliographic essay “Feminist Pedagogy” from A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, Jarratt brings up this issue of gendered writing directly, referring to it as the “most interesting” and “most controversial” area of research in feminist pedagogy (122).  Jarratt discusses varying views on gender and writing, including that of Elizabeth Flynn, who studied the personal narratives written by both male and female students.  According to Jarratt, “Flynn doesn’t claim to find essential differences in male and female writing but something more like predictable choices of masculine and feminine topics” (123).  This is not something I have noticed in my own writing.  I would much rather write a paper about Spider-Man (which I have, twice) than about a Disney princess (which I have not).  It is also not something I have noticed in my students’ papers.  Both male and female students have written open letters explaining why we should use Twitter in the university and both male and female students are currently writing papers on how the internet has affected the music industry.

I personally have always felt that the difference in the writing of males and females, if a difference does in fact exist, is found in the language used in the writing, the word choices that males make versus the choices females make.  This belief was shaped even further in a linguistic anthropology course I took as an undergrad in which we examined word choice of different cultures within the United States as well as language use by males and females.  Wanting to look into this a little more before completing this post, I found a website called Hacker Factor:  Gender Guesser, which allows Internet users to paste text into a box and analyze it to determine whether the author was male or female.  Results are based on a study done by researchers at thellinois Institute of Technology and Bar-Ilan University in Israel that examined word choice and parts of speech, and are reportedly 60-70% accurate.  I plugged in four pieces of my own writing.  These were the “verdicts”:

Essay Hist. of the Great Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe and America:  Female (weak)

Essay on the film Sugar Cane Alley:                                                                           Male (weak)

A short story told from the perspective of a 4-year-old girl:                                  Female (weak)

My previous blog post:                                                                                                     Male

After seeing the mixed results, and considering the issue from a pedagogical standpoint, I also plugged in a few pieces completed by my students:

An open letter by female student 1:                                                                               Male (weak)

An open letter by female student 2:                                                                               Female (weak)

An academic summary by a male student:                                                                  Male

Considering the inconsistent results (albeit of questionable reliability), I questioned even more my theory that word choice was a better indicator of gender than topic. I began thinking of Anne Wysocki’s “The Sticky Embrace of Beauty” and questioning why I, my students, and certainly many others, felt we could identify a piece of writing as being authored by a particular gender.  Where do these ideas come from?  I would assume that they are yet another construction of our western culture, but creating a space for students to examine why we construct them is a valuable classroom experience, although, as Jarratt points out in her essay, feminism does occupy a controversial space in this country and often in the classroom (125). But as she also points out, “there’s really no choice about whether or not to do feminist pedagogy, only how to go about it” (126).  I think that they way to get around the resistance to feminist pedagogy, at least in this one area of study, is to examine not only ideas about how and what females write, but also our ideas about how and what males write and should write, as gender construction applies to both.

(legitimacy of) topics of cultural studies in the writing classroom

After reading George and Trimbur’s article on cultural studies, accompanied with our class discussion and some reflection, I can understand the criticism against i, particularly that it imposes ideologies and viewpoints onto the students.  However, I think that there is room, and perhaps even a need, for cultural studies in the writing classroom.  I think that the texts and topics of popular culture are absolutely legitimate texts for academic examination, and not just because they are more closely related to students’ own interests and experiences, although that certainly helps in getting the students engaged and helping them to see the relevance of English as a field of study.

I think the important thing with cultural studies is that yes, students are studying popular culture texts, events, phenomena, but they are not being asked to examine them because they are popular, not really.  The purpose is more to examine why they are so popular.  What about “a Stephen King novel, a horror film, or Monday Night Football” is so compelling that such large numbers of people are drawn to them (Lamanna)?  Why has the text been so successful?  These are questions that we can answer just as well through examining popular texts as we can through literary ones.  Even more, we can ask, since the text is so prominent in our culture, what can the text tell us about our culture in general, or at least how a certain person or group perceives or understands our culture.  This is not to say that the same cannot be done with traditional canonical texts, but there can be a balance.  George and Trimbur quote Joseph Harris on page 81 as saying that students should be looked at “as ‘at once rock fans and intellectuals, who watch old sitcoms and read criticism, who wear Levis and look skeptically at advertising’.  [Harris] recommends such assignments as asking students to look at the way they use popular texts in forming their own identities and, instead of simply applying an interpretive method, to think about how that method works and what its uses and limits might be”. I think that the part about students examining how they use the culture in which they live to shape their identity, their “self” to refer back to our previous discussion of Kinneavy,  Macorie, and Bartholomae, is particularly important because, as teachers, we cannot pretend that this culture is not important to our students, that they are not in some way impacted by it.  But incorporating cultural studies into the composition classroom can allow students to “become better writers, readers as citizens, workers, and critics of their cultures” (Berlin qtd in George and Trimbur 80).

So much of our class readings and discussion have brought up the issue of the student-centered classroom.  Cultural studies is a way to create that classroom because students are empowered and are more of an authority on the topics on which they are being asked to write.  If students feel empowered, like they have something valuable to say, maybe they will be encouraged to think more critically and produce better writing.  It’s worth a try.