The WPA-l list has once again captured my attention when there are other items on my personal list that I should be doing, now that I am back from my road trip with Lola to Panama and back. I unaccountably find myself lying in my bed at night, my eyes open, thinking of the engaging comments on the list, the different ways of interpreting required writing courses and more broadly, higher education.
I’m writing here rather than on the list for two reasons: I tend to write too much for a list posting, and I want to shift this blog from traveling back to writing about teaching.
I have loved keeping track of my trip to Panama and back through writing. I am half-inclined to pile with Lola into my car and drive though South America, if only I didn’t have to cross the border into (and possibly back through) Panama. In many ways, I think the foundation of that kind of travel writing is the kind we should be encouraging in our required writing classes. The foundation is grounding one’s writing in the writer’s personal experience and from there working outward to consider other experiences, possibly leading to generalizations and from there to theorizing.
If people read my “narrative” of my travels, they might see what I mean: I was writing about more than getting from point A to point B and the sights along the way. I was writing about the differences between traveling and staying home, taking chances and staying safe, learning how to travel alone through the unknown; really, learning how to travel alone with, I hope, some sense of humor about the situations in which one might surprisingly find oneself.
To relate to the “narrative” and “personal writing” discussed on the list: we are straitjacketing ourselves as writers and teachers when we imagine narrative and personal writing as self-contained genres. Our thinking and writing may begin with our personal experiences, but I we naturally work outward to include in our thinking the experiences of others, and from there, we make comparisons and perhaps rethink our own, moving us into the world of generalizations and theories.
Seriously aged teachers (and Russel Durst) will recognize that I am only ventriloquizing Moffett, who was himself working from theorists like Vygotsky and Piaget.
As I remember it, Moffett claims in Teaching the Universe of Discoursethat utterances are packed with different moves, really, different levels of abstraction. He characterizes them as writing about what is happening (now), what happened (then), what happens (generalizations through comparisons), to what will happen (theorizing from generalizations). His way of imagining the universe of discourse seems far more useful to me than getting locked into limiting discussions about the personal narrative or personal and impersonal writing.
Anyone who had glanced at my blog—or who has worked with me for the past four years (I’ve changed my mind about teaching writing)—knows that I consider students’ attitudes toward writing an important criterion when we evaluate the effect of our teaching. I am only echoing Dewey, Bean, Tagg, and several others on this list (like Nancy) when I say that an important measure of your success as a writing teacher lies in how you and the students in your class have encouraged each other to want to write more. There are of course other skills we should teach about writing, but if you have discouraged their desire to write, you have taught the wrong thing. Dewey calls this mis-education.
I could take this line of thinking into the discussion of social class reproduction, in which higher education and required writing courses are complicit, but others, like Maria, have already described how our required
courses and the social structures in our programs perpetuate social class discrimination. I have also argued in Going North
that curricula privileging argument, academic discourse, and so-call critical thinking contribute to that discrimination. So I’ll let that rest.
Let me imagine a course (somewhat like what Jerry has described in his deconstruction of personal and impersonal, teacher and student [think Freire]) based somewhat on my claims:
Students write about some kind of personal experience (not restricting their essay to narration (thanks, Jerry)). Many of us have them write about such things as their in-school and out-of-school experiences with writing (or pick your field—music, math, history or any combination)
They read each other’s essays and write back and forth (and discuss) about each other’s experiences.
They write another essay based on what they learned by reading each other’s essays and having others read theirs, perhaps rethinking their own experiences (generalizing).
They read and write back and forth (and discuss) these generalizing essays.
They might speculate in class how they could get information from other students or non-students about this topic. They brainstorm research methods (internet, surveys, interviews [in person and online], libraries). They investigate ways they can engage in each method and perhaps work in groups to develop a research plan; since time is getting short, they might work in teams of two or three, each team working on one research method).
They complete their research and write up as teams or individuals what they learned by their research and what they learned about that research method.
[Ok—this is too much for a semester; maybe we should make this a year course.]
They engage in some discussions (and perhaps further research) about how they keep track of their information and let readers of a future essay know where they got their information (with some discussion of how different rhetorical situations invite different methods of documentation) note: I don’t have a works cited here.
They write a final essay letting others in this class (and possibly other classes) know what they have learned about the subject through this investigative process. They might speculate (theorize) on how ways in which teachers might improve their methods with regard to the subject (or how students might take charge of their own learning processes).
And of course, they should read and write back to each other’s essays and perhaps reflect on what they have learned about the subject, about learning, about research, about theories of attribution, about rhetorical situations, and about writing as communication (or non-communication) as a consequence of this project.
The teacher should have some way of assessing (as Ed, Norbert, and I have argued) the success of a project like this. I would start by having some way (Karen Nulton and I have written about this in an essay in an upcoming book) of assessing the degree to which the students were engaged in the project. If they weren’t, how could they help us improve it so that they would have enjoyed writing, researching, and reading and writing back to each other.
Note that this kind of curriculum does not require students to buy a book (again: that’s Moffett). If you need models, collect them from other students in previous courses; this does help, but I have found students learn most productively from reading what the others in their class have written.
I will add, finally, that in my many discussions with parents and students in the past several years, I am disturbed by how often we teach students to avoid writing (Karen and I have a lot of data on this). I simply cannot imagine the utility of teaching writing as pain.