Teaching Writing: The Renewing Varieties Experience

Many years ago in a junior high civics course, I remember being introduced to the idea of a democrat and a republican. In the requisite textbook there was a short, bulleted list of the respective platforms. Not long after, I was frustrated. The textbook offered no connective tissue, no explanation from one statement of belief to the next; neither did my teacher who clearly valued his role as a hockey coach more than that of our civics teacher. At that time, of course, I was not familiar with the divisions, the belief systems, or the issues that defined one party from another, but I had to memorize those short lists of what was a democrat and what was a republican for a test at the end of the week. My mind raced, “But why this and not that? Why that, and not this?”

The same thing happened to me fourteen years ago during my first weeks of graduate school. I was introduced to the history of composition studies in a class on theory. In those first weeks and certainly through that first year, I remember feeling what Bartholomae (1985) described. When introduced to the university, we mimic, we take on roles to gain entry. I was a ventriloquist, taking on the voices and beliefs of nearly every assigned reading. Everything, in bits and pieces made perfect sense. Everything was an equally viable contribution toward a greater understanding of an imposing discipline. Our professor, an excellent teacher, was not prone to handing out slogans, or given to simplifying matters. Looking back, I assume that he did not want to impose his perspective, or to short-circuit our messy journey of discovery between theories and their surreal authors whose names became, themselves, something to hold on to. Although I have gained critical distance in the more than decade since, my sense of the formidable nature of composition studies as a field has lessened, but not dissipated.

In those earliest, inchoate days I was only interested in the relatively carefree association of attending classes, enjoying the company of my small cohort, and occasionally demonstrating my knowledge in end of the quarter in essays written to my professors. At that time, I was primarily interested in the aesthetic gain of reading and talking about ideas-as-ideas. I wanted to make composition studies as a field “hang together” because it seemed to me a challenging, complex intellectual puzzle.

But, our relationship to knowledge and our perspectives on that knowledge within a field noticeably shift when we act in different circumstances and take on different roles. I recognize this in my own history, and it is emphasized by the fact that over the last twelve years I have played significantly different roles in five very different academic institutions. When I think about my time in and between these settings, a mash-up of William James’ title comes to mind –on “the varieties of English experience”. The degree of variety, the utter plurality of experience is inspiring. There are many ways to measure this difference –in focus, in purpose, in action, or between individuals, colleagues, departments, the universities themselves etc. For example, many good teachers care about knowledge only in as much as it can be applied to some advantage in their classrooms. Others relish the role of debating theory and pedagogy with departmental colleagues. Some, want to contribute to theory and knowledge in the field itself, publishing in national journals and attending conferences, etc. My own interests have changed at every stop, generally enlarging in ambition and scope. But a great deal has been learned through observation, and the willing adoption of local interests, which without much haste I typically came to share; I value, it seems common action. Perfectly defensible teaching-of-writing happens in many contexts; takes on many forms; and calls many guiding principles by different names. This is how, in the end I have come to this present task. My understanding of composition studies has advanced as much through my own personal growth across contexts as it has through the discovery and application of our formal literature along the way. It is the unusual nature of mixing the two that presents new difficulties even when some discovery seemed to convey resolution.

As Phelps (1988) noted, theorizing is autobiographical. And what I have come to understand about the field of composition studies neatly parallels what I have come to understand about myself as a professional within it. Upon entering the profession, I assumed that there was a center, that there was a conceptual place that I would eventually discover by which the broadest structures of the field would reveal themselves. After a bewildering introduction, I came as many peers did to take comfort in the phrase “process-approach”. But more so, I came to value it for its yin-yang relationship to “current-traditionalism,” or more abstractly stated –product versus process. In our age, even now, this easy dichotomy should not be dismissed; it played a useful part in my own development. During my first quarters teaching writing, I emphasized time for revision, multiple drafts, peer review, etc. These were things that I absorbed from somewhere. But whatever the details of my use of “process” in the classroom, my adherence to it along with colleagues afforded us a collective “in-ness,” a cache. Or at least we believed it did; we knew the “secret language” of good writing instruction; we knew what writing teachers did. That confidence, albeit temporary, was vital. The certainty of “process” however shallowly defined and imperfectly applied, was buttressed by our belief that there were teachers who did not know what we knew –they only graded final products. It was our shorthand. It offered us a reprieve from an otherwise imposing task –teaching– in an otherwise imposing field. But fashionable belief can, and does, eventually stunt discovery and curiosity. Every night doorman grows tired of the password.

And it does not take long to realize that under that thin surface, the forms that instruction takes and the institutional structures in place to support those forms regularly lead to vastly differing pedagogies. At the five institutions in which I have taught –comparing only the first year writing classes between them– I adopted the general conditions at each: Humboldt State University, critical cultural studies; Minnesota State University, literary-oriented pedagogies with a sequence of first year courses in composition taught with titles like “literature and poetry 102,”; Concordia College, a program-wide service-learning pedagogy; University of California, Santa Barbara, a writing-across-the curriculum pedagogy with an associated writing-in-the-disciplines curricular tributary; Allan Hancock Community College, a developmenal English curriculum on an Air Force base. Given this background and my sensitivity to it, it is perhaps not surprising that I am fascinated by studies of the history of English which focus on the nature of its trajectory and development within smaller, local domains. After reading Donahue and Moons’ (2007) Local Histories I have come, recently, to believe that most of us are imbued with at least two disciplinary histories –the local one in which we acteffectively if colloquially, and the “meta” one in which we theorize regionally and nationally. If there is cognitive dissonance, we regularly ignore it. If we are perceptive, we recognize potential in the symmetry and in the certain discontinuities; if we are diligent as individuals, we are not constrained by either.

For those that pay attention, this local-meta dynamic could be viewed as problematic (in some instances it is), but on the whole it is a vital source of friction that can replenish our desire to consume, and even produce new theory and research. For it is that –expanding move– the theories and theorizing as thinking heuristics, that often clarifies these sources of friction; or more formally, it is the research, as it accumulates, that acts as a potential corrective. However this mix of local and “meta,” of theory and research, of experience and intuition, of context shifting and role-taking plays out, we rely on both stability and uncertainty. The trick, of course, is to get the balance right.

The nature of “English” and how we attend to it depends upon a wide-range of shifting roles and interests in the individual who moves between contexts with different purposes and responsibilities. What we want for our discipline alternates between our ever-expanding and contracting allegiances to these different realms –our students, ourclassrooms, our specialized knowledge domains, our department, the university, national conferences, theoretical constructs of the discipline itself. Very often we work toward common gain in many areas at once; very often a quirk, or agitation in recognition of one will cause a ripple effect through the remainder.

Workplace Literacy: A Short Questionnaire (Under Revision)

Workplace Literacy: A Short Questionnaire (Under Revision)

My question is, is it possible to create a “fun” and short set of questions that can also offer useful glimpses into a professional’s workplace literacy experiences? The goal is to create a short, approachable list of questions that professionals, across many different fields, wouldn’t mind answering.

That is my goal here with the following list of questions that I am currently working to improve and revise. Suggestions and revisions are welcomed in the comments section. See the current draft of the questionnaire below.

The “Turkel” questionnaire: Tell us a bit about you and your workplace

Studs Turkel is well known for offering glimpses into the lives, thoughts, and beliefs of working people. In even more playful formats, Vanity Fair has the “Proust questionnaire”. And “Inside Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton is well known for asking famous actors Bernard Pivot’s list of questions. This is a list of questions asked in a similar spirit –for fun, but also to give us some insight about you and your craft.

We are, of course, not as famous as actors on the “Actor’s Studio,” nor do we have a crowd of adoring fans as fascinated with our answers; still, we want to know: Who are you? What do you do? And what, briefly, is involved in the work that you do?

With this in mind, please take a few minutes and address the following prompts in as much detail as you want.


I. Tell us a bit about you:

Briefly, who are you?

What do you do for a living and where do you work?

Of your daily responsibilities, which are the most interesting, or most regularly annoying?

What are the prominent, or interesting features of your workspace(s)?

II. Tell us a bit about your workplace:

1. What is your favorite word in your workplace (or profession)?

2. What is your least favorite word in your workplace (or profession)?

3. Are there an unusual phrases, or terms that you are likely to hear only at your workplace?

4. What are some common mistakes that others make?

5. What technology is most important for your work?

6. What does this technology help you do?

7. What are the most important sources of information at your job?

8. Do you have any “tricks” for finding, or managing information at your job?

9. What from your past prepared you most for the job you have?

10. If you had a minute to advise someone just entering your workplace, what do they need to know about writing, or the process of writing to succeed?

Thank you!

Composition Forum (Fall 2012): Threshold Concepts, Learning, and Movement

Check out my recent co-authored publication:

(Fall, 2012). Threshold Concepts, Learning, and Movement: A Case Study in Two General Education Courses. Composition Forum (special issue on transfer). (26).


“This article ultimately suggests that threshold concepts might prove a productive frame through which to consider questions related to writing and transfer, and also to general education more broadly.”

Following the lead of Bass (2009) and Robertson (2011), Linda Adler-Kassner, John Majewski and I have worked, with a recent CCCC presentation (2012) and a Composition Forum (2012) article, to help introduce and advance threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2006) as a flexible conceptual and research heuristic through which to study and describe the nature of transfer in writing.

We also presented our findings at: “Complicating “transfer” articulating thresholds for writing and learning across disciplines.” College Composition and Communication Conference (CCCC). St. Louis, Missouri, March 21st-24th, 2012.

In follow up research, I am currently using the threshold concept literature on liminality to identify and describe the tacit and discursive schemas-for-writing that graduate students, who also self-identify as working professionals, “carry” between their academic and workplace settings.

Bass, Randy. A Hitchiker’s Guide to Threshold Concepts, Student Learning, and the Teaching of Writing Within the Disciplines. 2009. TS.

Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: An Introduction. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. Ed. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land. London: Routledge, 2006. 3-18. Print.

—–. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Issues of Liminality. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding. Ed. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land. London: Routledge, 2006. 19-32. Print

Robertson, Liane. The Significance of Course Content in the Transfer of Writing Knowledge from First-Year Composition to Other Academic Writing Contexts. Diss. Florida State U, 2011. Print.

But what is a threshold concept?

A good place to start is -“Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and Professional Development”: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html.

“The threshold concept framework focuses on the identification of what is fundamental to the grasp of a subject and is essentially a transactional curriculum enquiry requiring a partnership between the relevant subject experts, educational researchers and learners.” Cousin, G. (2009), Transactional Curriculum Inquiry: Researching Threshold Concepts, In: Researching Learning in Higher Education: An Introduction to Contemporary Methods and Approaches, Routledge, Abingdon & NY, Chapter 13, pp 201-212.

Thoughts on: primitive mind, literacies, landscapes, and writing classrooms

My own introduction to the notion of “information literacy,” in the broadest sense, came from my appreciation of nature writers and nature writing. When reading Roderick Nash’s (1982) Wilderness and the American Mind for the first time, I was struck by his conceptual description of human cognitive development as it corresponded to the perception of moving through changing physical environments with a primitive mind. This was, of course, a description of the broad forces that shape human history, much like the ever-popular writing of Jared Diamond. The passage that struck me and has continued to fascinate me for years:

We might begin with the anthropological axiom that until roughly twenty million years ago our prehuman ancestors dwelt in an arboreal environment … At this distant point in time, as noted above, there was no dichotomy between prehumans and wild country. But about fifteen million years ago it appears that climatic changes and fire began to reduce the area of forest in central Africa and other seedbeds of man. Prehumans gradually left the shrinking arboreal habitat and began to adapt to life on the plains and grasslands. (preface, Nash)

First, the notion that at a certain point in time “there was no dichotomy between prehumans” and the wild landscape is a key notion. Certainly, we have since changed this in radical ways. We live and work now, for example, in virtual worlds and with thousands of tools assembled great distances from our immediate environment. But in inchoate forms of the earliest human histories, we were living completely in the environment, certainly solving problems like other animals do, but solving problems only within the confines of the environment near-hand, with tools derivative primarily of the surroundings in which we lived.

Shifts in landscape, shifts in perspective -photo: Damian Koshnick

Second, we do not often think that the literal changing of a landscape directly impacts our physiology and therefore our cognitive functions. Climatic changes led to a change in our immediate landscape, pushed us from the forest to the plains and, as a result, was a primary factor in changing the kinds of thinking required for survival. As Nash continued:

In the open, spacious environments vision assumed an importance it lacked in the dense, dark wilderness. Adapting, prehumans developed remarkable visual ability. In part this compensated for the superior sense of smell and hearing and the speed, size, and strength of other animals. Good vision was early man’s competitive edge. Coupled with a developing brain, it enabled humans to plan ahead. A lion a mile away across open country, for example, was a solvable problem; one hidden in dense cover (classic wilderness) often meant death. With their eyes prehumans bought time to think. Sight, height, and openness meant security. What came to be known as wilderness was scary. … It followed that for millions of years our distant ancestors preferred open environments, where the eye and the brain could function, to the dark primeval forest. Once early man left the thickets he was loath to return to an environment that neutralized his visual advantages. Indeed, when he could he burned forests in order to convert them to open grassland. Edges of clearing and heights of land became favored living and hunting locales. (preface, Nash)

New distances to a horizon, and our changing ability to perceive it fundamentally, therefore, changed our identity as nascent humans. Presumably, the visual cortex became an even stronger component of the neural circuits that guided our thinking. Planning became possible; it was the direct result of our ability to see to a horizon. Our new environment -with distances- allowed us to scan for danger and opportunities, and to plan our routes to avoid, or find them. Beyond developmental sciences which certainly tell a more intricate and complex history of this, I am always -personally- intrigued when I can consciously recognize lived moments that incorporate the most primitive aspects of my brain. This happens frequently to me when I am hiking in the woods, and I am simultaneously startled and comforted by the sharp smell of wood smoke. I know, consciously, why this must be such an energizing and pleasing experience. Wood smoke brings the awareness that there are other humans nearby with warmth and safety. It brings the assumption that they are probably preparing to cook food. The smell of wood smoke has to be one of the most direct paths to decision-making processes that have kept us alive over centuries. The same seems true, to me, of those opportunities to stand at a vantage point, to look out over the ocean, or the valley, or a great plain. Very little, in my view, biologically satisfies a person as much as those moments when we gain critical perspectives on the environments in which we stand. Sure, the Grand Canyon is pretty, but this to me is the real, primitive reason we are drawn to it by the millions every year.

What of our current situation then? With this question, I have two scenarios in mind. What of global warming and the way it will steadily change our environments? Certainly we are very good now at adapting, but there is something about storms, large storms in particular, that still surprise us. Storms narrow down our fields’-of-vision (electricity goes out for example), push us back -despite our cognitive and technological advances- back into the immediate just like heavily forested-environments required of us. Our attention shifts perceptively from planning, and anticipating, to reacting. But, more appropriate to my professional interests in the teaching of writing, I am thinking of the other constantly encroaching environments -primarily virtual- in which we now work –and plan. What sort of visual and therefore planning advantages are we afforded with technology on a daily basis?

As a teacher, I am often most interested in this question as it corresponds directly to the classroom. Conceptually, and pedagogically, the work across “information literacies,” and particularly “literacy landscapes” are currently key, motivating concepts in the teaching and learning of writing. Between them, we try to capture and take advantage of our deepest orienting perspectives biologically and socially through technology. Biology and social orientations and habits change, but change slowly. And it is important to remember that these orientations and habits often do not convincingly correspond to the technological and virtual worlds in which we now write, plan, and organize our lives.

I am struck by the idea that we are approaching the technological-interface equation from the opposite direction that we have interactions with natural settings. With the natural setting, in prehuman history, we were intractably a part of our environment. Our steady evolutionary shift was to conceptually, and physically, separate ourselves from it. With technology and virtual worlds, it is the other way around. We went from a situation where we were not an intimate part of those “platforms” to a scenario where we are increasingly a part of them (or they are us). A great reminder of this is to watch some of Steve Jobs first -now humorously clumsy- launches of the Mac from the 1980’s. The crowd was enthralled with fonts appearing on a screen and a digital voice that was able to read it aloud [http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=762035792437485705]. With his pioneering work, and others like him, we have come a long way. How much of our day is spent now, not looking to the horizon to plan, but looking to our ipads, our iphones, or laptops, our blackberries?

Certainly I am not the first here to wonder, or ask –what does this mean? But, set against Nash’s description, I think this takes on a thrilling, more intimate and immediate hue. Despite the fact that we are talking about virtual platforms, there is, inevitably a real-world impact both biologically and in the physical environment. No matter how virtual we become, it is always the immediate environment –physical and social– that determines the value of a technology. This, to me, explains why however brilliant a virtual platform, or technology, now matter how much personal, professional, or social advantage it gives us, we may never have the technological-degree of deep satisfaction that comes from looking out over a valley from above, or the Grand Canyon, or smelling wood smoke in the woods. Will we?

If –information visualization– is the, “the use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition” (Card, p. 7, 1999), then the visualization technology must be able to a) read the data, and b) amplify it in a manner that aids the learners’ focus and purposes. Within this human-computer interaction, there exists the “gap” –that data is lost in the “telescoping” process, between the contextualized, embodied-knowledge goals of the learner, and the data transforming  work of a visualization technology.

As a teacher, even something as basic as “brainstorming” or “concept-mapping” can be surprisingly difficult (and time-consuming) to effectively and convincingly recreate on a virtual platform for a wide-variety of students. This is especially true for classrooms with 20+ students, each with varying degrees of access to and familiarity with computer systems and software.

The problem? –how can a visualization program meet and “amplify” the complex tasks and socially embedded practices of a student? From my perspective as a teacher, and based upon my frustration as a –finder of, and reviewer of free information visualization software, I have concluded that for a virtual platform to help/work in a class, (with even something as simple as “concept mapping”) this requires:

-low-end implementation requirements; there must not be too much training involved, or the program will likely seem superfluous (an added burden)

-flexibility, since all classes enact a wide-range of tasks, the program(s) utilized must be  either numerous, or very flexible (this will reduce the acuity, but increase the conditions for usability and application)

-readily translatable data transfer, the program must be able to utilize data from applications that are common, accessible to students and faculty such as word, excel, etc. or they must be user-enhancing and user-friendly to produce (or reproduce) within the applications’ platform (Google Sketchup as one example)

I have had varied success introducing “concept mapping” options within Excel, in simple and familiar applications like Word, and with somewhat more advanced (and less familiar) programs like VUE. So much potential exists with far more complex software. If the goal of a course in writing is to amplify perception and understanding, we have to keep pushing these boundaries, but as a –teacher– we are often the realists that confront the inevitable obstacles. If we want to amplify our students’ thinking and learning, technology is one of the most promising ways to accomplish this, and yet it is never as easy as it should be, or as it may appear it should be to those working outside the classroom.

Too often, the software which appears ready to use from the language on the supporting website, is not easily manipulated, downloaded, or readily interactive. Most information visualization software that is currently available on the web is the stuff of engineers, or created specifically by and for scientists within specific research institutions. It is clear, as a teacher, that most “free” visualization software, and indeed, most all software requires considerable amount of time and energy to access and utilize. In the end, it may be just as useful to manually “re”present data and other resources to que students’ into the complexities of their “literacy landscapes” until these kinds of virtual technologies will be more context-responsive and individualizable.

My primary conclusion for the moment is that more grants must be made available to support teachers to buy, introduce, and adapt technology into classrooms in realistic and sustainable ways.

Some software under review:

1. Info Vis Wiki: http://www.infovis-wiki.net/index.php?title=Main_Page

2. Google Visualization API: http://code.google.com/apis/visualization/documentation/gallery.html.

This gallery lists JavaScript visualizations built on the Google Visualization API. Some of these have been written by Google, and some have been written by third parties. Links below point to instructions for and demonstrations of each visualization. Including (potentially, though less immediately applicably) Google Sketchup: http://sketchup.google.com/ which is software that you can use to create 3D models of anything you like. Most people get rolling with SketchUp in just a few minutes.

3. This Google Visualization also includes (bought in 2007) GapMinder, specifically, “Trendalyzer”: http://www.gapminder.org/about-gapminder/.

Within GoogleMaps exists one of the most interesting visualization options particularly with respect to teaching. This tool allows anyone to chart and mark a “journey” within or along a journey. At GoogleMaps http://maps.google.com/, click on “My Maps”. For a sample, type in “Chris Mccandless”. Google maps incorporates place markers, lines attaching locations, with the ability to post photos and notes at each location. Within this tool exists some fascinating options particularly for teaching.

4. There is also a Text Content Analysis Tool: http://www.usingenglish.com/resources/text-statistics.php. Which is similar to: TagCloud: http://www.tagcrowd.com/ and Wordle: http://www.wordle.net/. And a free Concordance analysis website: http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/text_concord/.

5. There are other sites that function much like what can be done with Excel, such as “ManyEyes” which performs: scatterplots, bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, with the additional functionality of word trees, and what is widely known as http://manyeyes.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/. Another problem with this site for education is that it requires that all uploaded data, results are publicly viewable.

6. This site, which is interesting, but I have not downloaded the software: http://nwb.slis.indiana.edu/index.html which is a, “Workbench for network scientists”. This software can be used to map knowledge domains and seems to have a functionality that exceeds excel, and word clouds, tags, etc. Though I have not tested its ease of use, nor its functionality (nor the data sets it accepts) –it does have many interesting samples online that are intriguing at the outset.

7. And these sites with which I am interested, but have had less luck for the moment: visualizing data as a city: http://www.inf.unisi.ch/phd/wettel/codecity.html; Moose -Analysis Technology: http://moose.unibe.ch/tools?_s=xdc6Q8T7zS07ybSe&_k=0YIUk9KD&_n&14; Leyesdorff: http://users.fmg.uva.nl/lleydesdorff/software.htm; the SSEC Visualization Project: http://www.ssec.wisc.edu/~billh/vis.html.

8. InfoZoom: http://www.softlakesolutions.com/index.php/products-a-services/infozoom/architecture.

You can “feed” InfoZoom virtually any data, provided it is in a structured form. From ASCII, TXT, CSV and Excel files via databases up to and including complex ERP systems – as a customer once remarked, InfoZoom accesses anything that doesn‘t resist.”

9. Visualizations for Education: http://www.edcenter.sdsu.edu/visualize-education/index.html.

This site includes a considerable list of sites that incorporates “visualization for Education”. Many of these links are “galleries” and not software for producing visual displays. But it is worth some time (depending upon intention, focus and purposes). At the end of this site is a list of visualization “Software, Hardware, and Organizations”.

10. The Science/Engineering Visualization Challenge: http://www.sciencemag.org/vis2008/.

Of course the variety and number of such options are nearly limitless and depend largely on the class, the goals, etc. of a given assignment and writing course. As a teacher, I am often frustrated by the seeming potential and the gap between teaching, classroom, student access, and technological realities.


Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. Yale University Press: Binghamton, N.Y., 1982.

Stuart Card, J.D. Mackinlay, and Ben Shneiderman (1999). “Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think”. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco

Under Construction, Writing Classrooms …

Photo: My brilliant niece Tallulah, writing, drawing, thinking


I recently discovered a bit of autocognographic writing (2001) by Lad Tobin. He traced the evolution of his personal beliefs and practices about teaching writing alongside, and at times against, the major trends and theorists in composition studies. It was at once both a personal narrative, but also a broader vision of the field. He split composition studies into a familiar series of –pre-process, process, and post-process. At the conclusion of this essay, for example, he was willing to appreciate the value of post-process trends in composition studies, but he wasn’t ready to believe them, nor incorporate them in meaningful ways into his practice.

This essay inspired me to start my own autocognography as a teacher and researcher in the field –one that is both personally oriented, but also critically embedded within my own expanding knowledge of practice and theory in composition (writing) studies and rhetoric. What follows is an excerpt of this larger project.


Under Construction, Writing Classrooms …

During my first graduate school and university-level teaching experience, while earning an M.A. in Teaching English Writing at Humboldt State University, I believed in a critical liberation pedagogy. That is not all that I believed in, but it was a critical part of the way I addressed my first year composition students. During my first two semesters teaching composition, I would start each quarter with a direct question to the class, “Why are you here?” They would often chorus, “Because this is a required class.” But I would ask again and demand a broader, more thoughtful answer during class discussion. Although I was interested in their answers, I was primarily interested in helping them to appreciate that this was a legitimate question. I wanted them to be able to ask it as first year students in college. I was a writing instructor who had read and believed in Paulo Freire. I wanted my students to recognize the political, the cultural, the historical, the economic, and the other myriad of forces that shaped their lives, and I wanted them to resist those forces in their thinking and their writing. My pedagogy, and the writing assignments that I gave reflected these goals.

The general liberation (or liberatory) frame that I was utilizing to define the subject in a course on writing proved ultimately dissatisfying. I eventually realized that my interest as an instructor was not in fostering resistance necessarily, but in helping students to pick their head up from the page, and to recognize the forces that compelled them to write, the motivations that both obscured and defined the topics that they chose. My interest was in helping students appreciate those (personal, historical, institutional, cultural, etc.) forces not just so that they might resist them, but also so that they might recognize the value and their ongoing stake in those forces (whatever they happened to be).


Even more now than at the time, I have since come to realize that a writing pedagogy designed around resistance and liberation foregrounds the assumption that the individual can –and even more so should– escape, or become liberated from the forces that he/she decided to resist. But resistance should be just one response amongst a wide array of other options. A liberatory, or a critical pedagogy (at least in the forms in which us first year TA’s were adapting at Humboldt State it for the first year composition classroom) often devalues the role of institutions and cultures unnecessarily. And I recognize now, even more than I did then, that this kind of frame can also dramatically over-simplify the integrated nature of the individual as an entity within a wide array of socio-cultural, historical, etc. forces that cannot be easily shed. And, in fact, helping students recognize and work amongst, and within, as opposed to unnecessarily against those shaping forces creates opportunities for a more balanced, open, and varied writing pedagogy. I believe that allowing them to be both appreciative and critical is what will help them evolve into more adaptable and proficient writers. A good writer must contribute, of which critique is but one option.

In the interim years, my interests and opportunities in the academic setting have steadily shifted my focus beyond the first year composition classroom, to work in professional writing at many levels and in many different institutional settings. But, in part, the kernels of this early teaching experience resonate and even drive my focus in these expanding realms. As Charles Bazerman (1994) put it, “The teacher’s role in defining the dynamic of the classroom is realized not just through intellectual commitments and conscious choices but also through the personal history that shapes the personality and competences and attitudes of the person who walks in front of the classroom” (p. 61). Over the last two years, my personal history in the academic setting has shifted from an adjunct instructor’s role who appreciated theories in rhetoric and composition, to a full-time instructor, a professional writing consultant, and an active researcher in the field. These changing personal roles in the academic setting, over time, have had a significant impact on the way that I think about identity and participation. As I write this reflection, I am in the midst of a long process, a shift, from a history of knowledge consumption, to a strengthening identity as a scholar who has dedicated himself to mastering the research and publication skills involved in knowledge creation.


At first, I underestimated the degree of change, and the difference between being an academic who was largely bound to a role in the academic setting based on the consumption of the theory of others in the field, as opposed to taking an active role in the creation and eventual publication of findings, and knowledge. Sure, I taught in the classroom and applied theory to pedagogy (and vica versa), but my interests were largely bound either by personal gain, or by my efforts to succeed within the bounds of “my” classroom. Many of these changes between a consumer of knowledge in the field and my work to become a creator of knowledge are difficult, at this point anyway, to identify and name. There are however two ongoing, but distinct projects that have brought many unique things to my attention recently. But there is one particular aspect with which I want to focus for the remainder of this reflection. This point of interest corresponds to the succinct recognition by Dr. Bazerman when he noted:

we are always better off to be aware of the materials out of which it [the classroom] is constructed and the spaces for communication created in the design. Then we can know our options, possibilities and responsibilities, as well as the compelling forces we may be foolish to resist. (p. 59)


As an instructor of a writing course, the options, possibilities and responsibilities are almost always greater than the student participants. The shape and the nature of a class must, to a certain extent, be determined before the first day of class. This typically involves the identification of reading materials, or guest speakers, of resources such as computers, and sourcebooks. This also involves, of course, the identification of assignments that can and must be graded. The materials utilized, the manner in which the course is taught, the fore-grounded pedagogy and the background theoretical foundations generally emerge through the contingencies, and the personality of the instructor. Of course, it would be a mistake to overplay this hand, to disregard the way in which each student brings a history and personality of their own that almost always changes the tone, the shape, the sequencing, the pace, and the purpose(s) for enacting specific activities, or assignments within a given course. Nevertheless, there is an inescapable responsibility that falls upon an instructor to be informed, anticipatory, and responsive. All of this is to say that a course built upon resistance represents an artificial range, it is an unnecessarily restrictive approach. And during my first years of teaching a general first year composition course, I justified this limited “range” by conflating it with critical thinking skills. As an instructor now, I am interested in –how does a writing instructor create, or enact a course in writing across the most responsive and dynamic range possible, and perhaps most importantly, one that actively reflects environments (social, academic, professional) with which students are currently, or will one day work?  Any answer to this question is highly dependent, full of an amazing variety of variables. What, for example, is the title of the course? What are the goals? What is the ideal result? And what can we possibly use to reach that ideal result for the most students possible? To answer these questions, the more the instructor is (to return to Bazerman), “aware of the materials out of which it [the classroom] is constructed and the spaces for communication created in the design” the more materials, sources, and techniques can be utilized that will be acceptable to the participants.

This constant weighing of what is and what can, or should be part of the writing classroom, of also how and why, is what makes our work so damn interesting.

finished product, on display “Pinwheel Bakery” Ferndale, Detroit
for 45 minutes, March 23rd 2010


Bazerman, Charles. “What Written Knowledge Does: Three Examples of Academic Discourse.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 11 (1981): 361-387.

“Process Pedagogy,” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Eds. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick. New York: Oxford UP, 2001: 1-18.

Stanley Fish versus James Moffett on what is writing:


Date: Thursday, March 6th 2011
Title of Post: “Views on the subject of -Writing & Teaching Writing-”

In revisiting this archived article by Fish today:
NYTimes Opinion piece: <http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/24/what-should-colleges-teach/>]

… it is difficult not to recognize the fundamental difference of opinion about -what is writing?- between Fish and, for example, the discourse theorist James Moffett [in his (1968) “Teaching the Universe of Discourse”].

How can we agree about how to teach writing if two such divergent  views are prevalent?

View one, Fish: “… mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages and composition are disciplines with a specific content and a repertoire of essential skills. Courses that center on another content and fail to provide concentrated training in those skills are really courses in another subject.”

View two, Moffett: “But English, French, and foreign languages are not about anything in the same sense that history, biology, physics, and other primarily empirical subjects are about something. English, French, and mathematics are symbol systems … Symbols systems are not primarily about themselves; they are about other subjects. When a student “learns” one of these systems, he learns how to operate it. The main point is to think and talk about other things by means of this system” (Teaching the Universe of Discourse, p. 6).

A pragmatist might conclude that simply recognizing whereby both conceptualizations are possible, this is the most important thing to understand. At the very least then, we can understand how fully our views of the subject might diverge.