Apologies and Teacher Narrative

Teacher Narrative

This morning, I want to begin with an apology: when I wrote my last blog (before I edited it), I was feeling a little overfull of myself, and I let that spill out onto the page.  I had just had a wonderful day of  working with my students in the classroom; and a couple of other things are going right in my life; and so I simply got carried away with myself in a public sphere.

Apologies having been offered, I want to think in this space about another conversation I had with  Carra–I guess I depend on her to keep my honest.  She has been traveling with me in this personal writing conversation–and the interchanges on WPA-L.  The pseudo opposition between personal and academic writing is of course historical, having been played and replayed many times in the last three centuries–and in our own experience, in the Bartholomae/Elbow conversation (side note: one of my students perceptively noted how Bartholomae was appropriating Elbow’s style in that CE/CCC conversation).

Carra suggested that many of us have a common narrative in which we travel in and out of writing for pleasure.  She painted a kind of mind-map for me, which I have tried to reproduce, but I’m not that kind of thinker, so I’m writing out here my map as my own way of understanding it.  She said there are probably many people in our field who think somewhat as I do, people who have been drawn into the profession because of their love of writing.  Here’s where the trouble starts: this love runs into social demands on the writer.  In school, the writer runs into the teacher.  Our love of writing very likely (as was the case with me–and as is a common narrative) had a lot to do with our love of reading. I’m going to include a link here to my narrative of my — i kind of hate to use the term but — my literacy history.

School is really a killer.  Yes, we learn things there–but frequently, not the lesson intended.  The majority of students learn to dislike reading and writing.  This disaffection is in part a consequence of social class reproduction–which I and many other writers/scholars have explored.  I’m going to stick to writing here.  Probably most of us who are writing teachers managed to survive negative school writing experiences–and of course some thrived (that wasn’t me–see my narrative).  I don’t think it would be too difficult to create a graphic correlation between social class fraction and writer-survival.

Here’s where the story gets complicated:  I think it’s the tension between being and seeming (another side note: Bourdieu links these conditions to social class origins–guess who is and who pretends to be).  We come into being through our non-school writing, which we maintain (and most give it up) in spite of our school experiences.  The school writing is mostly seeming and an unsatisfactory experience for several reasons:  we’re being graded for our “being,” and we soon learn we have to “seem.”

I can already see this is going to be too long.  Let me try to cut to the quick.  By the time we get our PhDs, we’re pretty securely locked into the land of seeming.  We know how to negotiate it.  We learn how to get published, how to cite, how to assume certain poses, how (Judith Butler?) to obfuscate, seem more intelligent than we are, how to be someone other than who we are.  We learn how to “seem” intelligent, learned, how to quote Bakhtin, Foucault, and Butler, trying to insert ourselves in the unfolding conversation.  I know I’m being a bit cynical here; on the other hand, I have too often had to counsel graduate students about the need for simple, clean language–enough of this iterative discourse already.

Most of us probably segue into WPA positions–that was my trajectory after teaching high school for 13 years and returning to graduate school at forty.  When I was a high school teacher, I taught in California according to the closed-door concept.  I basically taught courses in Steinbeck and writing.  In my writing courses I had the simple formula to which I have (now that I am no longer a WPA) returned: create writing assignments you know your students will enjoy writing, that you will enjoy reading, and that they will enjoy reading what the others have written. Dewey and Freire are embedded in this formula:  learning should be exciting and fun, a lifelong project.  And as Moffett said, we are not only teaching what, we are teaching how.  If learning is fun in our classroom, we are teaching learning as fun.  If learning is a pain, well . . .

I am somewhat comfortable about how I handled my years as a WPA.  Nevertheless, much of what I did could be interrogated.  When I was WPA in my two universities, I lost my closed-door pedagogy; instead, I felt as if I were in a fishbowl.  I felt as if I had to create a pedagogical model that could responsibly be repeated by new graduate students and instructors and approved by professors in other disciplines.  Actually, I think I did a pretty good job of this.  I linked our objectives and genres to what we discovered were common in other disciplines.  There is of course an obvious fault line here: what if those objectives make students dislike or even hate writing?  And what if a significant proportion of our objectives in higher education are bogus–just a part of the game of maintaining social-class relationships.  I’m just wondering.

When I was no longer WPA, I felt a certain freedom.  I was no longer teaching in that fishbowl.  I closed the door, and I taught and have been teaching writing the way I know I should have been teaching all along.  Anyone who has managed to get through this reflection might see the threads that lead into unknown directions–like a spider casting her silk into the wind and knowing that sooner or later, one of them will catch hold.

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