Racial Justice and the Writing Center

This week’s readings really hit on a lot of insecurities I have as a Writing Partner.

First, to begin with Diab et. al, I really resonated with the example of the Writing Partner who has to help a student with a paper on outlawing bilingual schools. At the beginning of the semester, I had to help a student with a paper arguing against safe spaces on campus. My experience was a little different than the example given, because the student himself identified as a racial minority, and he had talked about his argument with his professor a lot, and nuanced it a lot. It was a thoughtfully constructed argument, but to me it was based in a premise that I just simply didn’t agree with. I also admit that I think it did influence my consultation with the student, in that I was simply less-engaged. It was my first consultation with someone who had different ideological beliefs than me, and I think that since then I have grown as a Writing Partner and am better equipped to deal with such a consultation. But that consultation was a learning curve for me, and I will admit that it made me uncomfortable.

At the same time, I don’t know if it would have been my place to say to the student that I didn’t agree with his idea and therefore he should change it. He had discussed it in-depth with his professor and had obviously put a lot of work into the idea. I’m unsure about exactly how much Diab’s article advocates for Writing Partners to actually work to change their student’s minds. Specifically about the example the authors give about the student who is advocating for outlawing bilingual schools, Diab et al writes 4 points that the tutor can ask the student to evaluate: “(1) the warrants that inform the argument; (2) the implications of the causal chain he constructs among immigration, English, school dropout rates, and criminal activity; (3) the subsequent image of the Mexican immigrant his argument constructs; and (4) the impact–intended and unintended—on Latino/as in his class, in the writing center, and in other locations as well” (Diab et al 5). I think a lot of these questions are very pointed, and while perhaps useful in a debate about bilingual schools, is the Writing Center really the place for this?? I don’t know.

Obviously, I want to make our campus a safe place for everyone, but I’ll admit that I DO prioritize minority viewpoints because of historical and (let’s be honest) current-day discrimination and alienation. BUT I also am unsure whether the Writing Center is the place for this kind of ideological questioning. The fact is, as a woman of color I am TIRED of educating people about these kinds of things. It’s so important but I really can’t, for my own mental health, do this kind of educating ON TOP of my regular work in the Writing Center. If someone comes in with an essay, I’m going to work on improving that essay and not on changing their ideological beliefs. Yes, I will be critical of all their ideas whether they line up with my own or not, but solely with the intent to help improve the arguments and ideas in the paper.

I think Diab et al are asking too much of student Writing Partners, and too much of one consultation. I would not have felt comfortable asking that student writing against safe spaces to change his mind, because I think he was constructing a thoughtful argument rather than a racist raving. I think the greatest issue with Diab et al’s argument is that they do not make this distinction. It is ok to question someone’s argument if it simply is one-sided and has not been thought-through. But if this is not the case, then what is our role??

Embracing a flexible pedagogy means addressing power-dynamics!

Perhaps the experience that most let me down about my high school education was how it made my best friend feel. Not just my best friend, but many of my friends. It made them feel like they were not enough. Like there were two groups of people: those on the “honor track,” the “smart” kids, and then themselves. I can’t even count how many times my friends told me they just weren’t “smart enough.” This hurt me especially in the case of one particular friend, who to this day, remains one of the most incredibly intelligent, resourceful people I know.

Yet she never seemed to do that well in class. Teachers would always pick on her for talking. She complained about being bad at math. She couldn’t sit still in the classroom. School was not a setting where she thrived.

How did a school system convince one the smartest girls I know that she was not “smart enough?”

I think this questions works well with the struggle Carino encounters with regards to non-directive versus directive pedagogy. Let me be clear: I came into reading this article with a secure bias: nondirective pedagogy is so good!! It doesn’t take ownership from the author, and it allows the student to be their own writing-self!! It’s amazing!! How could anyone argue against this??

Then I read this: “From a more political stance, Nancy Grimm, in Good Intentions: Writing Center Work for Post-Modern Times (1999), has questioned the ethics of nondirective methods, contending that in adopting them centers “unwittingly ‘protect the status quo and withhold insider knowledge, inadvertently keeping students from nonmainstream culture on the sidelines, making them guess about what the mainstream culture expects’” (Carino 100).

Isn’t this describing the exact kind of cultural capital we addressed when discussing how writing centers are places of colonization, pushing forward one narrative of what “good academic” writing is? What about students who don’t start from the same line as others? What if they simply don’t think the same way?

I’ve had consultations where a student has come in and been able to have a lengthy, in-depth discussion about their paper with very little “instruction” or direction from myself. I’ve had other consultations where a student has come in, terrified, unable to answer any of my questions. For the latter sort of consultation, I’ve noticed that giving the student a checklist of things they should accomplish has been very helpful for them. With these students, I can’t just speak abstractly about the ideas in their paper, they want some sort of direction. I’ve had to adapt how I run a consultation based on the needs of the student, and each student comes in with different needs. (As a believe our school systems should be adapting the way their teach material depending on how different students learn.) Different needs leads to different responses, doesn’t this make sense? So, there was my answer, easy, right?

But then Carino complicated this idea further, “Jane Cogie (2001) demonstrates how, from session to session and moment to moment, tutorial methods shift from directive to nondirective and, as a result, so does the authority of the participants” (Carino 111).

The idea that power dynamics are shifting with the conversation, and not set in stone, is compelling, but difficult to handle. Once you’ve turned authoritative, is there any way to turn back? How do you balance your response to a student with the different power dynamics it involves?

I’ve noticed that many of my consultations that are less directive are with upperclassmen, while many of the students who come in needed more direction are first-years (usually working on ID1s). Is the lack of power dynamic in the first example the reason that my consultations with these students end up less directive? Is the power dynamic with the first-years the reason my consultations end up more directive? How do I separate the two? Can they be separated?

Is Trump teaching us to plagiarize?

On the eve of this election, we all have Trump on the mind. Apparently, though, so do these readings. Martin’s essay makes a point early on that is eerily familiar to anyone currently following this election cycle:

“Western business education, with its emphasis on economic theories and the free markets, may have a detrimental impact on students’ values, attitudes, and consequent behavior. Students thus engage in behavior that will maximize their self-interests” (Martin 262).

Who better reflects the domination of the American business world than Donald Trump, who is estimated to be worth around 3.7 billion US dollars? He has claimed that he wants to run America like it’s a business. When Hillary Clinton criticized him for tax evasion he simply interrupted her by saying “That makes me smart.” This is reflective of a sentiment not only in business but also general life and how “success” is measured in America. You have to game the system, get away with whatever you can get away with, and most of all put yourself over everyone else.

The study found, contrary to popular belief, that an individualist identity more so than a collectivist one led to higher levels of plagiarism. More surprisingly, “The findings were that a semester of economic education declined students’ levels of honesty and increased their self-interested behavior” (Martin 270). So, even just a semester of understanding the key components of our economic system taught students the importance self-interest. While I’m not suggesting that economic education supports plagiarism, I do think that it teaches the importance of self-interest, as the purpose of business is to increase profit of your company over everything else (as background, I have taken 1 semester of macroeconomics).

Martin points to other important contributing factors, such as vagueness in plagiarism policies at universities and lack of consequences for behavior (Martin 271). I don’t actually know Pomona’s policy on plagiarism. I know that I’m not supposed to do it, but how are my professors going to know? They have to read hundreds of pages of student papers, how can they check each one? I also think a large problem is that citations are often difficult and time-consuming, and therefore easy to mess up. I would argue that a lot of plagiarism in unintentional, because students haven’t been taught how to cite properly. ID1 classes are the spaces for this kind of instruction, but I don’t think that only addressing these issues will fix the whole problem.

I do think that there is culture of self-serving in American academia that is shockingly Machiavellian. A meritocracy essentially teaches people that if you are “successful” (which in America often means having money or influence) then you have done something right: you are hardworking and smart. If you are poor, then it is because you are lazy and dumb. Because if you are smart and hardworking and poor, then you should be able to move up in the ranks of society, right? But what about policies that have institutionalized poverty? I saw a recent Atlantic headline that asked “Would you rather be born smart or rich?” The byline said something along the lines of “Your answer is determined by whether you think America is truly a meritocracy.”

I’m just going to say it: I would rather be born rich.

How does this connect to plagiarism and Trump? Plagiarism is characterized by Martin as a “self-serving” action. While I don’t agree with that characterization entirely, I think it really is reflective of the America we find ourselves in on the eve of this election. Self-serving action is ok. You must get to the top no matter what. And once you are at the top, you can say and do anything you want, because you have won the system. So the question that I must pose at the end of this post is: Do you think we can escape a culture of plagiarism without escaping this culture that valorizes self-serving action?

“Be Concise?” — One Student’s Journey Through High School and College Feedback

One of my earliest memories of my writing was turning in assignments in the fourth grade that were pages longer than my friend’s. They would always look at my cramped handwriting, two lines of text within a single line of ruled paper, with awe and I became something of a superstar in my classroom for it. I wrote so much: I was so smart.

This productionist mentality followed me into high school where I continued to push essays past page limits, desperate attempts to display to my teachers how much I could write, how much information I could squeeze into a single essay, how many thoughts I had in my mind. I took extra time at the end of in-class essays to pencil out all my notes, regardless of whether they addressed the prompt, I was skilled at taking information and twisting it to relate to other ideas. I was rewarded for these things. I know my teachers applauded my writing in-part because of how much I wrote, how many quotes I integrated and explained. Handing in a long paper was the first step in obtaining a good grade.

It wasn’t long before my papers began to get a bit unwieldy. My ideas were developing, becoming more complex, and senior year I was finally given a paper assignment that wasn’t a two-sided prompt. I had to write a 10-page paper over the course of the year as part of my Senior Project. Finally, I was faced with the issue of having too many ideas and perspectives to simply vomit them onto the paper. Finally, I had to do the dreaded: construct an argument.

Looking back on it, it would appear that writing a persuasive essay was the cornerstone of my high school writing experience, just counting the amount of times I had been taught and retaught the “argumentative thesis” and “ACT” (arguable, concise, tenable). But, when finally faced with a long research paper (10 pages was incredibly long, even for senior-year me) suddenly it wasn’t length that I was worried about, it was the fact that I had to fill 10 pages with my thoughts and research. Ironically, it was the long paper that set me free from the confines of length.

Up until that point, the comments I had received on my papers largely reflected Sommer’s criticisms: “most teachers’ comments are not text-specific and could be interchanged, rubber-stamped, from text to text” (Sommers 152). In fact, many of my teachers had short-hands they used for comments such as “word choice” (wc). Sometimes, I would just receive “?” next to a section of my writing. However, suddenly this changed with my Senior Project. I had a revelation much like Winalski’s my senior year. I found myself sitting down with my teacher and talking through my research. Her comments were structural, developmental, rather than vague and resembling copy-editing. I think this assignment was freeing for both me and my professor. She didn’t feel constrained by the “ACT thesis” or the five-paragraph essay. Our discussions were about my research and my experiences and how they influenced my writing. While I have many caveats about writing at my high school, I have to admit that the Senior Project paper achieved its intent: it began to get me thinking about writing at more of a college-level.

In college, I don’t think I’ve necessarily found a solution to my over-enthusiastic writing production. I still largely disregard page limits (largely because my professors do as well) but now it is for different reasons. Often in college, I find myself exploring and developing complex ideas that require pages to explain and develop. Now, I don’t care so much about writing a lot to seem smart, I attempt to relay smart ideas, which often times gives itself to length. I’m not saying that I don’t have room for improvement–being concise in writing is very important, and a skill I am still learning.

I would like to end with a Sommer’s quote I find compelling: “The problem is that most of us as teachers of writing have been trained to read and interpret literary texts for meaning, but, unfortunately, we have not been trained to act upon the same set of assumptions in reading student texts as we follow in reading literary texts” (Sommers 154). I don’t think my teachers in high school regarded my papers the way we were taught to regard literary texts, and therefore held us to very different (I would argue, overly-constructed) standards. No ninth grader is going to writing like a seasoned academic, but their mindset toward revision (largely influenced by teacher feedback) should be tending towards questions about the content itself, rather than superfluous details such as length and comma usage.

This is more of an idealized rant than a thoughtful blog post

Quote

Disclaimer: I don’t know how realistic the ideas in this post are to working with students, considering the structures of academia we live within today and the expectations of professors. But, just for the length of this post, let’s imagine a better world.

I want to start this post with a quote Berggren includes that makes me so sad and so angry at the same time.

“You can write an A-quality essay without any substantive knowledge of the reading….[W]hen it comes time to write a paper, skim the reading material for a few quotes that could reasonably be suggestive of some underlying liberal theme–for example, that The Red Badge of Courage is actually about lesbianism–and use these quotes as evidence of the underlying theme. Make sure you emphasize in your paper that ‘although this topic is not explicitly addressed in the text’ your excerpted quotes can reasonably be suggestive of whatever generalized theme you chose.” (qtd. in Berggren 60)

How I feel after reading this

How I feel after reading this

Essentially, this excerpt (and I do not deny it’s accuracy) is proof that the thesis-driven writing we were all taught in high school values a formula over substance. What does this mean? The fact that the only thinking involved in this described process seems to happen when you “skim the reading material for a few quotes that could reasonably be suggestive of some underlying liberal theme” should be indicative. Now, I’m going to pose a simple question.

Why do we write?

It’s not a trick question, and it’s much easier to answer than you might imagine. We write to convey our thoughts. Speech does the same, but writing can reach much farther audiences, crossing space and time with ease. Writing, as we’ve discussed, is also a lot more polished and thoughtful than speech, which often happens in spur of the moment and has little room for revision. But, bottom-line, we write to convey our thoughts. So, what affect does the thesis formula have on our thoughts then? This is easy again: the thesis applies a formula to the way we think academically. We are teaching our next generation of writers to think in a formula, to write without thinking.

The implication that we must teach students to write just for the sake of writing is disturbing. Writing is a vehicle for the end-product, not the end-product itself. The end-product is the critical thinking and analysis that takes place throughout the essay, the arguments that are raised and refuted, the ideas and synthesis of readings and discussions. It can be messy, but that’s ok. The whole reason we think at all is because we live in a messy world and we are trying to make sense of it, and every paper works to make sense of a small piece, but in the end it’s not going to solve the entire problem. I disagree with Anne Berggren that “I do see the practicality of being able to go on automatic pilot, so to speak, to write a paper” (Berggren 60). I don’t. She continues that, “students are as constrained by time as the rest of us and will opt for efficiency and fit the paper to the thesis if they can” (Berggren 60). Again, we see a product-based mindset.

In a post-industrial, post-colonial materialized globe, is it any surprise that we have materialized scholarship and thinking as well?? We value efficiency and the ability to generate a product more than the product itself. For example, the app industry has blown up, with programmers working to fill market niches they create themselves, without thinking about the larger implications of what they have created and what it is actually adding to society. I argue that this is what we run the risk of doing to scholarship as well. What if professors cared more about producing a book than the ideas that went into those books? If that sounds insane, that is what we are already doing to the young writers of our generation.

I was especially taken with this section of Berggren’s piece: “I began to wonder whether the course of history is now being changed because a generation of citizens has internalized the school ideal that all good writing begins with a thesis statement” (Berggren 59). She uses the example of Republicans “simple unified slogans” in the 2004 elections. People like to be spoon-fed information, and that is what a thesis-statement does. But that discards nuances, internal disagreement, intersectionalities. The thesis statement wants to take a genuine issue of scholarship and tie it up with a neat little bow. This is not way to teach writing. This is no way to teach thinking.

Writing is chaos. Reading is work. I don’t think either of these things are wrong.

PS – have y’all read any Aristotle? There is no structure there. As far as I’m concerned, if Aristotle can do it, so can I.

Writer, Reader, Audience

The question of audience is really interesting with regards to college writing, because at first the answer seems obvious: the audience is the professor! But then, as Ede and Lunsford point out, there are a host of other people you are also writing to. For example, peers within the class who can also engage with your writing and frame it within the larger picture of the class. Also, the authors you read in class, who helped formulate your arguments and ideas, as Ede and Lunsford write, “with whom we have seen ourselves in silent dialogue. As we read and reread their analyses and developed our responses to them, we felt a responsibility to try to understand their formulations as fully as possible, to play fair with their ideas, to make our own efforts continue to meet their high standards” (168). I think this is a really great way to think about college writing: engaged in discourse with the authors you read and discuss for class. Because, in a way, you are doing the same work as them, examining the same ideas. In a way, you are almost one of their peers.

I became aware of this idea in my history class this semester, because it is a class in a recently-burgeoning field. The object of the class is to explore and write an original research paper, and because the field is so new our research would truly be original. There have only been a few historians and authors who have written about this field, and therefore all our work is seen as engaging with them and furthering the work. Suddenly, I have found historians such as Alpers, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Enseng Ho as my peers, and I am in dialogue with them. How could I not tailor my research and writing style to what I am seeing in them? There is almost a magnetism toward their styles that I, as a history novice, wish to emulate. The academic influence is strong. Here is where I think Ede and Lunsford are helpful again. They ground me: “Hence, although we support Mitchell and Taylor when they insist that we must better understand and respect the linguistic traditions of other disciplines and professions, we object to their assumption that style is somehow value free” (159). I think that Ede and Lunsford here are doing what we discussed last week and fusing Gaipa and Young: they are encouraging engaging with other authors of the field, but also promoting the importance of original style.

Ede and Lunsford also address the complex relationship between readers and writers, essentially how each constructs the other. I think they explain this well when they write, “as they compose writers must rely in large part upon their own vision of the reader, which they create, as readers do their vision of writers, according to their own experiences and expectations” (158). I think an interesting question to address is, what is the significance of this construction? Does it drastically affect how a particular text is perceived? What should we do with the space between the constructed writer/reader and the actual writer/reader?

A writer self-edits their writing from the point of the reader: writer-as-reader. Ede and Lunsford argue that this happens on two levels, “when writers read their own writing, as they do continuously while they compose, ‘there are really not one but two contexts for rereading: there is the writer-as-reader’s sense of what the established text is actually saying, as of this reading; and there is the reader-as-writer’s judgment of what the text might say or should say …’” (158). I think there is a lot of truth to this idea, and being aware of this during the revision process can be very helpful. A good strategy could be to read through an essay twice, once as “writer-as-reader” and then a seconds time as “reader-as-writer.”

Ede and Lunsford and doing some good work with this piece, and I think that reminding students about their audience (maybe ask them who they perceive it to be–just the professor is not enough!) and the discourses they are engaging with is important, because it will give students more ownership of their work and awareness of their writing as being part of a larger tradition.

Re: Vision

Here I will address what I constitute as the death of all student writing: the tyranny of the thesis. I think I understand why I, and all other students (more specifically) in the American public school system, were taught the importance of having a thesis in our essays; our papers needed to say something. They needed to have a goal, an argument to work towards, otherwise my early high school papers would have been a jumble of quotes and disconnected ideas. The thesis was a vision of what the essay would be. I don’t think the idea of a thesis was the misstep, but I think how I was taught to construct a thesis and the importance my teachers placed upon it, ruined many essays for me.

Some characterizations of the high school thesis: argumentative, concise, tenable, permanent.

That last characterization was never explicitly in our prompts, but its prescence loomed implicitly nevertheless. For my high school papers, I was given over a week to construct a thesis, about a week to write a rough draft, and then generally another week to revise it. Simply in the time allotted for each task, is the implicit suggestion about the importance of each step. The thesis was given the most time, and therefore was constituted as the most important. After we constructed a thesis, before we even were supposed to begin writing the paper, we had a one-on-one meeting with our teacher to discuss it. So, after all this preparation, leading up to the final approval of my teacher, how was I simply supposed to change it? Sometimes, I admit, it did happen during the writing process. No problem: go back, discuss it with my teacher, change it for the rough draft. But changing your thesis in the revision process? Unheard of. Sommers writes, about the tyranny of the thesis, “since [the students] write their introductions and thesis statements even before they have really discovered what they want to say, their early close attention to the thesis statement…function to restrict and circumscribe not only the development of their ideas, but also their ability to change the direction of these ideas” (Sommers).

Sommers, in my opinion, hits the nail on the head with regards to student revision. She writes, “The students understand the revision process as a rewording activity…they concentrate on particular words apart from their role in the text” (Sommers 380). Essentially, revision in high school was about synonymous with proofreading. It was never about changing you ideas; it was about how to achieve, largely through wording the sentence structure, their clarity. Sommers expresses this as well, “what is revealed in the student’s use of the thesaurus is a governing attitude toward their writing: that the meaning to be communicated is already there, already finished, already produced, ready to be communicated” (Sommers 380). Did you appropriately convey your thesis to your reader? If so, then revision over.

I think Nelson is a good person to bring in at this point, with regards to the daunting task of changing a thesis. In her personal essay she quotes Donald G. Smith, who encourages “the Great Conversation of humanity” (qtd in Nelson 289). College was the first time I, and many I have spoken to, were required to produce truly original work. The prompt to which you could reply either “yes” or “no” to was gone. And we were being thrown into the abyss of the “Great Conversation.” Essentially, what you actually say in a college essay matters. You are no longer simply being tested on whether you can coherently form an argument on paper, what you are arguing for or against is important.

While students are still trying to grasp this idea, the experienced writers Sommers interviewed likely were aware that what they were saying in their articles or papers held value. Therefore, unsurprisingly, Sommers discovered that “the experienced writers describe their primary objective when revising as finding the form or shape of their argument” (Sommers 384). Though they may have a full written work to revise, their main arguments or ideas are not yet solidified, unlike the students’ linear process.

So, I argue, the permanence of the thesis we shove down student’s throats is the driving reason revision has lost all meaning. Revision: re, to do again; vision, your thesis. It’s right there in the word, and yet somehow the word itself has lost all its meaning. Sommers writes elegantly about the professionals’ writing process, “these revision strategies are a process of more than communication; they are part of the process of discovering meaning altogether” (Sommers 385). The meaning of the essay lies within the thesis, yet with a permanent thesis meaning cannot be changed, and therefore nothing new can be discovered in the writing process. And this is the opposite of why we write. We write to discover, and often this discovery comes with the re-visioning of our ideas. What if we called it “rethesis” rather than “revision”? Would that rid the idea of the stigma it has collected and allow new discovery within the writing process?