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.