Loss of Voice

I should, as usual, be doing other things. But my mind is on teaching right now–and writing about and doing teaching. I had the pleasure of a long skype conversation with Rich Haswell this afternoon; we were reviewing many of our common ideas about teaching writing in the process of excavating the history of holistic assessment. At the end, I was thinking about how much I regret that Rich has retired–one of the people who seriously knows productive ways of teaching writing, who understands that writing in the classroom (and this was one of Moffett’s points) should as closely as possible resemble how those of us who are writers write. I have written before that as writers, we write to communicate, we circulate texts the way we circulate conversations, real people having real things to say to people who matter. Moffett has theorized the move outward from the self to friends, to acquaintances, to an anonymous audience writers have been internalize by interpreting it through the people the writers know.

Real writing is so different from the bulk of school writing, which I have called writing as performance, students writing to follow a teachers’ formula in response to a task with some description of criteria for success set down. I realize that in every speech act, there is some degree of performance. But as performance takes over, writers lose authenticity and voice. And performance for an extrinsic motivation is simply generally painful to read. That’s the essence of school writing, as opposed to real writing.

When we create in the classroom conditions that will impel students to want to write, to share their thoughts with each other, to write and write back, we are close to the conditions of real writing. And I believe that we learn more about an activity by  doing it in real as opposed to fake time.

When students are allowed to write naturally (yes, I hear my critics), they will maintain and develop the positive attitudes toward writing with which they first began to scribble.

Here’s my hypothesis: if we promote a positive attitude toward writing & toward themselves as writers, we will be helping writers face uncomfortable writing situations. Students with a positive attitude will probably procrastinate less, will feel more at ease, and consequently perform (in those performance-laden situations) better. And the opposite is very likely true–negative attitude leads to increased procrastination. So what are we doing when we create negative attitudes toward writing?

It seems to me that any teacher could discover a way to assess whether she has promoted a positive or negative attitude toward writing. That should be easy. And if negative, figure out what she is doing to make students feel that way.

Just a side note on voice–we were talking about voice in class the other day: what if one of the functions of school (and writing classes in particular) is to take away students’ voices? For evidence, we might look at the link between voicelessness and the bulk of school writing.

[If you can think of any research that has investigated the relationship between attitude toward writing and the ability to negotiate unfamiliar writing situations (this relationship could be generalized), please leave in a comment.]

9 Replies to “Loss of Voice”

  1. Well Irv, initially I enjoyed assigning literacy narratives because I believe they serve as a gateway to not taking away their voices, but helping students to better their voices. However, you have caused me to wonder if helping them to better, to change, or manipulate their voices, is the equivalent of taking them away.

  2. Benjamin Goodwin from Utah Valley University gave a good talk at Western States a couple of weeks ago about procrastination and understanding it as a reasonable strategy for some students. The talk didn't focus on what you're asking about, but it seems relevant. (www.uvu.edu/basiccomp/faculty/)

  3. Nearly every one of Irv's thoughts are supported by some research done by Jan and me (I'm her husband). We interviewed college students who were self-sponsored writers—students who wrote on their own, independent of academic writing. They voiced an almost universal dislike, even dismissal, of the academic assignment, and one of their reasons was the way it questioned, appropriated, or supplanted their voice. Irv says that teachers should find out if they are generating negative feelings about writing in their students. Smart advice that writing teachers especially should heed. What good is everything we have taught students about writing if the student leaves college disinclined to write? A final thought, maybe connected. One way to make students shun writing is to treat them and their writing as non-singular.

    —Rich Haswell

  4. Thanks for your responses, Rich, Sarah, and Ikea.
    It's kind of remarkable that in the Outcomes Statement we didn't think about including student attitude toward writing. None of us thought of that–no one suggested it. Now that's remarkable when clearly promoting a positive attitude toward writing should be one of our primary objectives. Rich's research supports what my friend, Karen, and I have found in our research here–the good writers, some of whom have given up on their writing, typically resist writing tasks with tight constraints–i can see I have a problem here that I'm going to turn into a blog entry (navigating between entirely open to too tightly constrained).

    I am thinking, Ikea, that you might be referring to literacy narratives that have been genre-ized, teachers like me (i have done this too often) looking for central features of the genre to help students with their writing, turning what could be an intellectual and emotional adventure into another one of those boring assignments–the kind Rich refers to. I think students have voice, lots of voice. At most, we should just be setting up situations in which they can let their voices show through writing–and get to know each other through their writing.

    I'll look at that link, Sarah. I know how procrastinating can be productive–but I don't think that when it's working in tandem with fear of writing that it's productive. Those last minute essays tend to reinforce a negative attitude toward writing in the normal protocol of essay handed in, essay graded and critiqued, essay handed back, grade observed, comments unobserved, essay crumpled up and thrown in the trash can with some muttering about the stupid teacher.

  5. Hi Irv,

    Based on the many awful writing assignments I’ve seen over the years, I would agree that much school writing results in negative attitudes, future anxiety, and reluctance to write at all. However, I think you are unnecessarily setting up a false dichotomy between “performance” and “natural” writing.

    I’d rather talk about effective communication.

    Think of language acquisition: over time, children imitate and then eventually perform language. Any home video demonstrates this, but linguistics also verifies it. Performance in this sense is a repetitive action, circumscribed by parameters of what’s meaningful. (Think gender.) If children can’t perform speech acts that effectively communicate to others, then they are not “speaking” well.

    Written language is no different. Writing in an academic context, and in the context of a composition course, in particular, must also adhere to audience expectations. So while I do not promote or condone designing assignments which are about following “a teachers' formula in response to a task with some description of criteria for success set down,” I do wholeheartedly promote the study of how writers communicate effectively to their readers. And this means examining the rhetorical moves that writers make, and eventually, examining how genres function and why they function as effective communication acts the way they do. The social action of genre is a performance (“typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations”) but this does not mean it is a “fake” social action.

    The big question that your approach forces me to ask is this: even if students feel comfortable and positive about “writing” as a result of your teaching approach, what specific skills and knowledge have they gained which they can transfer into future academic situations? If students are conveying their ideas/thoughts/feelings in your class, is it a possibility that the only context in which that is effective communication is your class?

    I very much want my students to have confidence and positive feelings about writing, but I want it to come about due to achieving a certain kind of writing. I have found, for example, that my students feel extraordinary pride when they can conduct an effective analysis of someone else’s argument, showing why it’s effective or not. I create situations where my students are learning with one another about certain genres, and in my research I have also found that student writers truly value being able to see and understand how scholars in their discipline write effectively. They see themselves as effective writers when they too, can perform the genres of their discipline – because it means they have become actors and communicators in that community. It’s authentic action, authentic communication.

  6. I think Benjamin would agree with you, Irv. One of the things I liked about his talk was respect for students and their reasons for making certain decisions. He talked about working with students on strategies for decreasing procrastination *without* framing that procrastination, as so many faculty do, as signaling there is something wrong with the student (morally, intellectually, or otherwise).

  7. Irv; you post brings to mind the unsubstantiated (I think) convention of third person writing for research. I used to be an adherent of "no I" when writing in for academic purposes.

    This semester, I allowed the use of first person in reporting and evaluation genre assignments for two reasons: 1) link their everyday experiences to opportunities to join the conversation that should be college life 2) to give them a real-life understanding of what "writerly" (don't know if this is a real term or not) ethos is – beyond the ability to cite others.

    Students kept track of their activities for a 24 hour period. They then identified the activities that either frustrated, confused, or even enlightened them. They then did field research (surveys, questionnaires, direct observation) to determine whether others were experiencing the same frustrations, confusion, or aha moments. They then used reporting to share information with a target audience, using their field research as support for their information.

    Removing the students' ability to use "I" would have minimized the importance of the research they did. Just because they aren't graduate students or experts, there is little reason for them not to take ownership of their ideas and findings. Indeed, in matters of ethos, who is more credible and trustworthy than the student experiencing something?

    The reports surprised me. The use of "I" was limited largely to "what I did to get this info", and "I found x to be a problem" as a way to enter a conversation. Topics ranged from problems with procrastination and possible ways to address it, to the advantages of a power nap, mid-day. The students shared their results via discussion with their class peers, to great reception.

    Students don't need to share highly personal, internal thoughts to feel an ownership of their writing; they need to know that they have ideas worth sharing, methinks. I agree with Prof Goldschmidt's notion of writing as a communicative action. My role as "instructor" (though I shudder at the term…perhaps "guide" is better?) is to help students to see the places where they can use the social action of writing to others, as a conversation (ala Palmquist, with props to Miller, and to Burke., and my hero IA Richards). Since one of the texts my university uses is "They Say / I Say", this concept is reinforced for them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *