I had a lovely book group meeting with Val Ross and Margaret Ervin last night. We talked about Illych’s Deschooling Society, a fascinating book for anyone seriously interested in education–and a critique of what we’re doing in our field of Rhetoric and Composition (Illych would say we have constructed a need, forgetting that we had constructed it, imagining it as a priori, disguising how much we benefit from the socially constructed need and our memory lapse).
In our discussion, we predictably veered into claims about what we’re doing that counts as good teaching (yes, trying to convince ourselves by convincing others).
I’m going to outline two of my claims, one of which is cemeted in my brain, the other a bit more like mud.
Here’s the cement: I know I’ve written it before, but I have to keep saying it. We should always give writing assignments, the responses to which we can’t wait to read. When we give writing tasks that we know might be painful for our students to write, they’ll be painful to read. What’s with all this pain?
Here’s the mud: I have for decades been teaching genre-based writing, featuring guided peer response, based on a logic of performance. I have been teaching my students to recognize the central features in any genre and in their peer responses to act as editors giving advice to the writers so they can revise their essays in order to get higher grades when finally submitting them to me, the teacher. This almost sounds like real-life writing–getting help so that you can be published.
I’m not going to comment on how fake that logic is–based, as it is, on the desire to “be published.” Instead, I want to outline how I have recently been encouraging student response. I am focusing on writing as communication. Someone (like me) writes something (like this) and then people read it and they write in response, not to how it was written, but to what was said. This of course is what I mean by a communicative (rather than performative) act.
Students come into my class well-versed in peer-response. They’re sick of the kind of guided peer-response I have been encouraging for decades.
Lately, I’ve loosened up. So I’ve asked students to respond almost entirely to what the writer said. This works well if you have students write about something that really means something to them, writing that comes out of their lives.
Students don’t know how to respond in this natural way. A serious response has been trained out of them. They give these fake responses to the fake writing, and really, very little is learned.
Here’s what I do. I ask students to give me an hour of writing on a meaningful topic (like try to describe what transitioning from high school to college has been like) and I have them post their responses in time so that I can read and respond (to what the writer said) to about ten essays. My responses are models for the students. They get the idea: write back. Communicate. Write real.
Of course you have to get rid of grades to effect this kind of writing experience in your classrooms–but getting rid of grades isn’t all that hard; we only think it is.
[I’ll write later about how students actually learn how to improve their writing from each other within this naturalistic model of response.]