AL 833 Reading Responses

Reponse #1

At the end of my senior year of high school, I went on a “Great Books” kick. I had been spending a lot of time in the library, both at lunch (because I was fighting with my friends and didn’t want to see them) and during my AP Spanish class (because I was so far ahead of the class that my teacher let me go hang out in the library and read). One of the books I read during that time was A Room of One’s Own. I can’t remember why I picked it, but in rereading it now, I do remember the flush of identification with the text that I felt when I first read it.

Not only did I read it in high school, but I ended up contributing to the decision to add it to the AP English Language and Composition class curriculum—something that got me in trouble with students a year younger than me. Many of them complained to me that they had to read it and that it was a stupid book, and this is the first time I’ve revisited it since apologizing to a lot of people that were mad at me. I feel silly for apologizing now because I feel the same way, if not more strongly, about the narrative and arguments that Woolf presents as I did when I first read them and imagined Shakespeare’s sister, and getting kicked off the lawn at Oxford. (Women can walk on the lawn there now, but only if they’re alumni; the dons will still make you walk on the path. I am not sure what their library policy is.)

An important concept for me upon my current reflection is the idea of access. Woolf’s concern here is not whether women know how to write. Women’s literacy is presupposed for much of the work—I imagine given the prompt of “a speech on women and fiction” a different person could have given a talk on how to teach women to write fiction, or creating fiction circles as a recreation like a crafting circle…actually, now that I type that, it seems like a good idea—very much like the “fan fiction” produced largely by women in communities on the internet1. But I digress. The issue here is access to the social position that would allow women to write as, not an incidental to their life, but a major practice. Who has the financial ability to devote time to creating something that the market does not ask for more of? Who has the time in the first place to spend on writing aside from being drained by a crappy job that you have to hold in order to live on your own? I have for some time been reflecting on the major deficit of creative or personal writing of any kind I was able to do while working at the job I was at before I came here for school.

I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning….all this became like a rust eating away at the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.” (38)
Maybe I am too presumptuous to compare a difficult year in the life of a twentysomething working at a non-profit in a terrible economy, writing (among other things) for a living but not wanting to do it to the type of life the author lived before coming into an inheritance that allowed her to write full-time, but it is nice to have some recognition that I am not the only person who has found it difficult to do work of creative and meaningful character aside from one’s employment when that pursuit is difficult or draining.

A theme directly applicable from this text to my own pedagogy is “the effect of discouragement on the mind of the artist”. This is certainly a valid statement in the context of asset-based community development, which seeks to address the fact that traditional means of intervention in fragile communities tend to emphasize deficiencies and lacks, serving to further discourage downtrodden people. This strategy of community organizing addresses the discouragement people like teenage mothers or welfare recipients feel because of constantly being labeled as needy and ignorant. Everybody has skills, and every community has resources (even if they are empty lots that might be turned into gardens or liquor stores that might be convinced to sell fresh produce) that can be mobilized to produce change (or literal financial assets—sometimes this approach is used to help people start businesses in their community with their skills).

In the same vein, my approach to teaching students in Preparation for College writing is to immediately focus on what they are bringing with them to the classroom— every student knows how to do something. Discouragement has a pernicious effect on a writer in the world at large, but it is harder to address the general population of discouraged writers in the world than it is to corner 23 of them in an introductory college writing course. I want my students to be excited, and not terrified, to identify themselves as writers and literate human beings!

Today in class we wrote about and shared what we thought were the characteristics of “good writing”. One of the first things mentioned in our class discussion was confidence. One of our small discussion groups ventured that good writing shows that the writer is confident in her words. I did not necessarily expect this answer to come up but I’m glad it did, since the list we generated will be serving as guiding principles for them as they start their first paper assignment, and will also contribute to the grading rubric for it. I am looking forward to seeing how their papers (on the topic of one of their literacy assets) develop and to see how they apply the principles of good writing to their own work when asked to do so.

Response #2

James Slevin uses Miguel de Cervantes’s grand novel Don Quixote as an organizing strategy for his essay “Genre as a Social Institution”, as well as a guiding metaphor for how genres of writing are as much metanarratives that guide our actions and thoughts as they are sets of patterns and strategies we employ in our writing and that we teach.

I’m not sure if it is psychologically unhealthy (do I care about the answer to that question? Why do I even wonder?) but I have used various literary genres as metaphors and lenses to view and make sense of my life and what is going on around me for a long time. Chivalrous romantic knight is not a role I often see myself as, or lay over my self to divine answers to my current problems, but I have cycled through various others. I think most people who have to put up with me are glad that I have cycled out of the angsty bildugsroman Caulfieldesque phase. Office comedy and farce seemed highly appropriate comparisons in the occupation I had before I began teaching and studying once again this semester—not only does it make office drama more tolerable to imagine yourself to be Jim from The Office, but it excuses you from your own role in the drama. It is, of course, never the hero’s fault that things are going crazy at work, it is because everyone else is so hilariously incompetent.

I have been struggling for a metaphor to work from in my new subjectivity as a graduate student and as the instructor of a college course. Frankly, my biggest personal wellspring of characters where I might find an analogy to my own life, superhero comic books, seems to have run dry. (There are very few teacher superheroes, incidentally. The occupations of superheroes tend towards the white-collar professions in general, such as scientist, lawyer, and very frequently journalist; there are some professor heroes but they are rarely shown as teachers, as they usually ended up in their radioactive state from spending too much time in the lab. There are also very few mainstream superheroes with working-class professions.)

I had never really thought of “the essay” as having such profound generic qualities as are argued by Paul Heilker in The Essay: Theory and Pedagogy for an Active Form. Frankly, the essay seems in his definition to fit into the superhero genre: it is an entity that he argues has a fantastic origin story (from the mind of a Mad Frenchman emerged a colossus!), extraordinary abilities to perform wondrous tasks (seriously: doesn’t “chrono-logic” sound like some mutant power?), and an obligation to use its powers for good—to save the world, or at least, composition. It even has arch-enemies: it is inherently anti-scholastic (beware the Scholastic, he who goes bump in the library!) but he places it as the rival to the thesis/support form, which has ravaged our fair city for years, stripping our students of creativity and acting as mental dictator. The epistemological skepticism that he also names as one of its defining features would help it fit nicely into the current wave of superhero fiction—namely, the “grim and gritty” genre filled with anti-heroes and unclear definitions of what is truth and what is justice.

The essay as defined in this book struck me as very similar to a distinction made by my freshman composition teacher—between a “keyhole essay”, which is similar to the thesis/support form and structurally flows in a way shaped like an old-fashioned keyhole, and a “cloverleaf essay”, which loops back and forth and all over, crisscrossing the main point of the essay (the implied thesis) in the center, like a cloverleaf overpass for a freeway.

Yet, the idea of using the cloverleaf in an exploratory fashion—heading in without knowing where I was going—was not a lesson I took out of that class. We still had a strong emphasis on having a thesis (even an implied thesis) that we should be working from as we constructed our papers. There is a power to diving in headfirst and starting to write, though, and also a pleasure. I’m afraid the pre-writing exercises that Heilker describes might take away the freedom to explore that is one of the abilities he praises the essay for holding.

Can you teach people how to break the rules? If you’re teaching it to them, then aren’t you setting up an alternate set of rules? I’m afraid that by defining the essay against what it isn’t, as the opposite of the five paragraph essay (which is a term he never uses, but I think my students would understand better than calling it “thesis/support”) that it eliminates other options. The binary logic that he sets up is troubling to me. He does list a whole slew of writing genres other than thesis/support and magical marvelous essay, but he doesn’t do much with that list. It’s tepid gesture to the fact that there are many, many genres our students can write in. His definition of the essay is not a magic bullet that will fix the anxious rigidity our (my) students have been taught as long as they’ve had to write papers for school (for the most part).

But. It is very interesting. The suggestion (or reminder) that you can write without trying to make a point from your introductory paragraph, that you don’t have to know where you are going in order to get somewhere or make meaning, and that you can write with a sense of ambiguity: these are enervating reminders, and they have carried me at least as far as this final paragraph. We shall see where I will go from here. Up, up, and away? Perhaps. Off to class first.

Response #3

This week I have been wondering about the embedded assumptions about writing that hide in my assignments and in my expectations for my class (and future classes). I had a hard time grasping this question while we wrote on it in-class last week, but I think I have a better grasp of it upon reflection.

I am inherently skeptical about jargon and I have an extremely low tolerance for bullshit. I don’t mean to be crass in this reflection—but the concept of something being “BS” or BS-ing your way through a paper is really relevant to how I feel about writing in college and the world. I think I find BS to have two meanings that are related, or perhaps I mean that there are two pathways to get to a piece of writing that is full of BS: either you don’t quite know what you are talking about and you are writing to fill up space and sound smart, or you do in fact know a lot about your subject but you are compelled to write in a style characterized by extraneous verbiage for some reason. BS is unclear and unpretty. An aesthetic purpose for complicated language (as opposed to direct and straightforward language) is appropriate—but this is not the same thing as purposeless indecipherability.

One jargon/BS red flag I noticed in many places during my work in the nonprofit sector was the triple noun clause. It is what it is—people using three (or God forbid four) nouns in a row to describe some new concept. I have seen these types of constructions come up with great frequency in technical writing about nonprofits and community development. (This habit of neologizing is also used in academic writing, but I find its use especially annoying in situations where the audience includes people of widely varying reading levels.) This type of language pains me. It hurts when I hear it. Some of these phrases have filtered into broader use (including technological terms like “content management system”). (I don’t know if this is something other composition scholars have ever touched on, and frankly I have no idea where to look. I am still acclimating to this new academic situation and learning the dialect of discourse that is used around here…)

I want to teach people to write with clarity. I have worked with people who were dead convinced that their audience really wanted BS, but I believe deeply in my heart that all audiences prefer clarity. You can be clear and intellectual; you can be clear and artistic; you can be clear and complex. But the quickest way to your purpose is to say what you mean (unless you are using irony, which I believe in too). Clarity is not the same thing as writing at a lower reading level, although sometimes that is an appropriate strategy depending on your audience. Clarity is not necessarily an explicit thesis statement. Meaning can be evident in your sentences and in your work as a whole without holding the reader’s hand and briefing them about what is to come, or summarizing it at the end.

My freshman writing professor taught (and still teaches) an essay called “Engfish”—I still have my coursepack from that class but it is packed away in my parents’ storage unit in Detroit. I really need to retrieve it, because his selections of texts are eccentric and relevant, and I would like to revisit them in light of being able to design my own course as the project for this class. Anyway, Engfish is like English…but fishy. Something smells funny about it. It is in the language we speak, and yet it is unrecognizable as something anyone would ever think to say. This was his lens for addressing the problem of BS in college writing. I have had experience talking to colleagues about BS in their professional writing, and of talking to my peers about this issue when they have asked me for help with their papers. I am not sure how to introduce this into my freshman writing classroom in a more delicate and audience-sensitive way than shocking them with a cuss word.

How do people who identify themselves as writers, as people who value “good writing” (whatever their definition of that is) survive in a world where terrible, incomprehensible writing is the standard? I was only out of college for two years and I caught myself today pondering my deep rhetorical wounds. What if annual reports were exciting to read? What if memos or staff emails were funny or ironic? What if grants were persuasive from the beauty and simplicity of their language instead of just the validity of their request for money?

The discussion of voice in writing in the Lujan essay spoke to my values in teaching writing. I think voice is an antidote to Engfish—if nobody actually speaks Engfish, then the opposite of it is writing the way you actually speak: “when the writer recognizes in her or his prose or poetry a style, tone, personality, and rhythm that work” (43). And while the monikers Heilker gives to the different aspects that define the essay cause me to raise a rhetorical eyebrow, his articulation of the essay certainly allows for voice. My students handed in their first paper this week, and I can say with certainty that the ones that have made me smile the most are the ones with a strong voice—the student who I can hear on the page.

Response #4

Open-Ended Gaming and Knowledge Making

How do you teach students how to make new knowledge in the post-millennial era?

I love and have a strong intellectual concern for video games and computer games (which used to be totally different things, and still largely are). There exists a difference between a table-top role playing game and a virtual role-playing game that I think is very relevant to the discussion of how to design assignments that let students create new knowledge.

In any kind of role-playing game (RPG), you control a character (that sometimes you get to design, and sometimes is given to you). You explore a world and meet other characters and talk to them or fight them, often joining them and forming a “party” of adventurers who go on quests, solve puzzles, and interact, generating some kind of plot. In a table-top RPG you do this in-person, through talking, rolling dice to randomly determine the success of events, and interacting with other human players. These kinds of games are run by another human being, a “game master”, “dungeonmaster”, or “storyteller”. In a computer-based RPG, you play a computer character in a virtual world that has been pre-designed and cannot be changed on the spot to react to your actions. You may or may not engage with other players (older RPG games like the Zelda series are for one player, but there are contemporary online Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs, such as World of Warcraft, where you work with other players to go on quests, kill monsters, and enact the global politics of the game) but you always engage characters run by the computer.

The difference for me where the generation of new knowledge becomes important is that with table-top game, there are an infinite number of possibilities for development—the person running the game is right in front of you and can respond to the choices players make. They may have a plot that they really want you to follow, but they have to respond to your actions as they happen. Computer RPGs have to be programmed in advance, so while there are often many possible endings or plot lines to follow, there are a finite number that are preordained.

I want to design assignments like a gamemaster designing a problem for my players to tackle, and not like a programmer trying to anticipate every move a player might make in advance. A gamemaster sets parameters for a task, but if they are doing a good job, there are many ways of solving it. A good player often thinks of unusual or untested ways of approaching a puzzle, dungeon, monster, or mystery, even if they are working from a very formalized set of skills their character is allowed to have. In a computer game, a player might “brute-force” a solution by trying every possible mechanic the game has, because there are a finite number of actions that can be programmed (at least considering how computers work these days).

This probably seems like an extremely distant point from talking about Harris’s book. Yet, Rewriting has set of many flights of ideas in my head—as one of my students characterized in her first paper this semester, “explosions of understanding”. I would be very confident teaching this book in a college writing class, both because it provides a very useful framework for thinking about other thinkers and how to situate yourself as a writer, and because it embodies the style of writing I, for better or worse, have internalized as “good”. But you can’t just send students out on a meaning-making quest without any instructions. As a more mature (yet still frequently immature) academic, I have designed original research tasks without having anyone ask me to do it, or give me a question to answer or an issue to tackle. But that ability rests on a scaffolding of welldesigned tasks that I have completed in the past.

In the fantasy game genre, “low-level” characters who are not powerful or experienced receive their quests from other characters. People ask them to do things for them such as kill the dire bear that is terrorizing their village—at least, the gamemaster is expected to give them quests through characters in a more explicit way. Later, as they develop into higher-level characters (through gaining “experience points” for all the things they have accomplished) they may be expected to go looking for tasks to complete, or act as a group based on their own ideals and codes and initiate action themselves. It is much harder to be the gamemaster or storyteller creating a game world for the latter group than the former, but it is also very rewarding. In the same way, I am sure it is much easier to create assignments that lead students down a set path, ask questions with obvious answers, and congratulate yourself when they “do it right” than it is to create a classroom environment and design a course that asks them to make their own quest.

The politics of seeing higher education as a game are probably complicated and sticky, and I do not mean to say that this is how I situate myself as an instructor. But, the metaphors taught by role-playing games strongly influence how I see the world, and they have been a popular culture trope for many years now. I would like to take an approach across genres. Compared to his other points, I am less clear on exactly what Harris would consider “taking an approach” and what he would not, but I think there are valuable insights about how people make meaning and make new knowledge to be gained from how they play games, and the idea of an open-ended game, and I would be a hypocrite if I did not mobilize this asset in the development of my own pedagogy.

Response #5

I owe a lot to my writing teachers, but they did not teach me how to do some of my favorite kinds of writing. I never learned in school how to make a zine, or a blog, or how to write for an activist cause. How, then, did I learn how to do these things? How do other people learn them? Do they belong in the classroom? It seems really odd to me to teach blog writing, but frankly, when I tell people I am working on a degree in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing, that is usually the first thing they assume I study. And they are not totally wrong, although I am definitely not getting my Master’s in blogging

I have very fond memories of the time I spent as editor of the Q*News, an LGBT zine at MSU. We published some really terrible poetry, but also some really great political and humor writing, and were able to engage fellow students in the LGBT rights movement in an exciting way very different from other organizing going on. We both promoted our causes, worked to educate people, and documented the climate of the time, which is especially valuable in retrospect.

But I did this on my own time, as did my fellow writers and editors. I never took a class where I was specifically asked to engage in activism—the implicit expectation of the intellectual community of my college was that almost all students were engaged in something already. So, while I am at least familiar with the concept of service learning, the specific idea of requiring activist engagement outside of the classroom appears strange to me.

The change from activist writing to professional writing in the nonprofit sector was a very difficult adjustment for me to make. While the basic skill set may be similar, there is a wildly different ethos involved. I never learned in school about the difference in ethos between the many genres of purposeful writing that people do in the world—but I could see myself teaching it.

Rather than simply assign my students writing in different genres, or ask them to engage in activist writing projects, I would want them to understand the why behind such different genres and forms. Why do activists write in a certain way? Why do emails sound the way they do? What purpose does that serve compared to a small or large non-profit’s monthly report? What is the difference between an activist MySpace page and an activist zine, or an activist website independent of a social networking site? I appreciate the approach mentioned in the article regarding the documentary “Class Dismissed” of looking at the motivations and root causes behind TV portrayals of the working class. It is important to remember that people and institutions have motivations behind their actions—they do things for a reason, and parsing out that reason’s explicit and implicit components is one of the most useful ways I have found to conceptualize a part of critical discourse.

I consider myself a radical person. I am also a teacher. Does that automatically make me a radical teacher? What does it mean to be one? I don’t think it means exposing students to our pet activist causes, which is why I question conflating activism with service learning. Does being radical mean raising students’ consciousness? I don’t think that’s my objective either. I would love for them to have a “light bulb moment” because of the work we do in class, and I would encourage students to think critically about their own subjectivity, but that is different from leading them toward a particular ideologically motivated and scripted revelation. I think it is, at least. I care about my students engaging with hegemonic culture instead of accepting it, but is it correct to assume that college freshmen are not engaging critically?

Something valuable I was able to experience as an undergraduate was not just engaging critically with the dominant culture in the classroom, but using alternative media to make my voice heard. Blogging, zine-making, and online video production are not only ways that activists can get their message across while sidestepping the corporate media giants, but they are spaces where many voices are allowed to speak. I think this is an important aspect of the radical value of technology that is not addressed adequately in this issue of Radical Teacher—undergraduate student voices are often ignored completely in academic discourse except as a production of their professor’s teaching, but in the online realm, they may develop their own voice and their own audience that can be seen by an outside audience outside of the context of their class in a meaningful way. At the same time, I don’t want to require my students to publish their work online—instead, I want them to go do it of their own volition. Does it make you a radical teacher to want students to do things that are not for a grade, but for a greater purpose, be it academic or activist?

email me at howesfra at msu dot edu