Changing the Rhythm

This week’s readings connected may of the ideas we’ve discussed in previous classes and examined how they converged to reflect on the role of a writing center specifically. I really appreciated how Bawarshi and Pelkowski nuanced North’s claim, which I had initially agreed with on the most fundamental level: writing centers are not “fix-it” shops, rather, they should strive to help students develop the skills necessary to become “successful” writers. There’s the rub these postcolonial theorists point out: how (and by whom) is “success” defined? What is at stake when you, as a tutor, interfere in a student’s writing to “change its rhythm?” (North 239).

Bawarshi and Pelkowski presented the idea of writing centers as “contact zones” between discourse communities to facilitate the creation of a “mestiza consciousness” in which students are aware of and able to navigate multiple (even contradictory) identities while situated in the dominant academic discourse community. In this way, “the writing center can, in a truly postmodern sense, become a structure within the university that examines and exposes its context at the same time as it functions within it” (54).

I found myself applauding this solution as a measured compromise between rejecting acculturation and acknowledging the reality of academic writing in college. Writing centers should totally do this– I stopped halfway through the thought as I realized “writing centers” wasn’t the true subject of that sentence: it’s me, the writing partner, who was going to have to make this change happen. The stakes were suddenly raised, these articles weren’t just abstract musings about the role writing centers anymore, I had a personal responsibility to put their theories into practice. How exactly, though? What does pointing out that academic discourse is just one convention (not necessarily the best convention) of writing? I held out hope that the Reger’s article would show me what a post-structuralist tutor pedagogy looks like.  

And low and behold, Reger said in his abstract we’d be dealing with case studies! Good, solid, specific techniques for how to be encourage critical consciousness! Right?

Haha nope. Just two examples of Reger failing at this endeavor.

So far, I haven’t had a consultation in which a student’s writing style is severely tortuous, partially because they come from a marginalized background and a different discourse community. If I had, however, I could easily see myself resorting to just correcting them, as Reger did. He did reflect on what he ought to have done to allow the student to form a mestiza consciousness, but he didn’t show how exactly to articulate the he wanted to communicate. These case studies didn’t do a lot for me.

Finally, at the end of his paper, Reger came close to explaining what I wanted to hear.

“In practice, this means changing how tutors explain errors, as well as academic discourse itself, when responding to the writing of underprepared students. Avoid absolute “wrong” or “right” judgments—identify errors always as what is expected by professors in academic discourse. Emphasize that academic discourse is not necessarily the best or the ideal, but what is expected in the context of the American university. Couch explanations in terms of better understanding academic discourse and how to write within it. Through these methods, the writing center tutor can aid underprepared students by explaining academic discourse and improving their writing within that context—and thus help underprepared students maintain their unique identities by switching between discourses, rather than forcing a permanent choice” (46). 

I could hear Young’s screams in the distance.

What if they ask why? “Why do I need to write this way? It doesn’t make more sense to me.”

On some level, these conventions are arbitrary. How should Writing Partners explain that, say, a certain sentence structure is expected by professors (maybe because it improves clarity, or just makes grammatical sense) if the student simply doesn’t see the issue without, on some level, privileging the conventions for academic writing? Is there a sense in which students have to know the rules of academic writing in order to legitimately negotiate their identities and determine when is is appropriate to “switch” between discourses?

What about cases in which students from non-marginalized backgrounds (a white athlete who shared stories from his family’s trip across Europe over the summer), write in a very convoluted manner? What should we tell him about writing conventions? Does he also form a “mestiza consciousness?” I guess what I’m trying to get at here is, on some level, aren’t most people, at least to some extent, switching between discourses when writing an academic paper? How many students were raised in such a way where there wasn’t a moment in which they learned there were specific academic writing conventions? What do y’all think: is a part of the stereotypical affluent white person’s identity changed if the “rhythm” of their writing is altered?

I suppose the role of the writing center is just to make students aware of the fact that these conventions exist, whether they’re legitimate or not. From this point, the student can take this knowledge and fashion their own identity as a writer, but one that is not imposed on them in a “fix-it” shop as the best way to write. They can follow Young’s advice and use their own personal voice in writing, or they can completely conform to academic conventions. The point is, though, that they’re aware of this choice. 

The Importance of Conversation

I really appreciate how this week’s readings focused on a part of the writing process we haven’t really critically evaluated so far in the class – how professors respond to papers. I feel like the an acknowledgement of instructor feedback has been implicit in a lot of our discussions about audience and writing style. There is an assumption that the teacher is going to read and respond to a student’s paper, and the student will revise accordingly. However, we haven’t really talked about how the way in which a professor responds to student writing influences how students develop as writers.

Entering the realm of college writing, it becomes apparent quite quickly that there is no formula for producing “good” papers, even speaking strictly in terms of grades, because each professor has their own pedagogy and set of expectations. With any course that involves writing, there is a certain amount of work that has to be done at the beginning to learn what the professor is looking for. I’ve had history professors who love their students to contextualize their research within a certain cultural or historical framework, whereas other teachers have strict guidelines for the structure of the paper. Some of this variance is due to differences in discourse community conventions, but some is due to the idiosyncrasy of the professor. The student is thus expected to synthesize the professor’s expectations with their own writing style, the assumption being that adhering to these standards will help them grow as a writer. How should a student come to understand the professor’s feedback so as to reconcile their own writing process with these new expectations?

In my ID1 class, my professor would ask us to turn in drafts of our essays, and she would type up page-long (single-spaced!!!!) responses to our drafts. These comments represented a thorough engagement with our work, indicating moments where we could develop our ideas more, questions that occurred to her as she read, places where we made unreasonable logic leaps. They also weren’t overwhelming because she provided us with suggestions for ways in which we might fix these problems. In the detail she provided in the feedback, there was an understanding that she respected us enough as writers to believe we were capable of making the changes she suggested. The amount of effort she dedicated to engaging with our papers inspired us to consign ourselves to the chaos of radical revision.

I think the response letters were so effective because they imitated a conversation. In Sommers’s first piece, her example professor comments were the antithesis of conversation. You wouldn’t speak to someone by just saying “elaborate” or “be specific.” Elaborate on what? Be specific in what sense? This feedback is slightly condescending and not particularly helpful. Granted, professors and people too and do not have unlimited time to make painstakingly specific commentaries, but I think it’s not so much an issue of quantity of feedback so much as a different quality of feedback. By reading student papers looking at the content of ideas rather than the cosmetic mechanics of how these ideas are presented, the professor can encourage the student to elaborate and be specific without simply saying so.

This is a point that Rutz brought up: it is important to take the class context into consideration and evaluate how a teacher provides feedback in-person. I’ve always found actually making an appointment to talk to a teacher about my paper to be the most productive form of revision. In this way, the student and teacher can engage in dialogue that helps create a mutual sense of understanding. If the professor learns what the student was hoping to accomplish in a particular paragraph, then they can tailor their feedback so it addresses the student’s writing process, rather than just critiquing the paper itself. On the flip side, students can gain a better understanding of where the professor is coming from in their critiques. Face-to-face communication also forces engagement, so there is less of a chance of a student either dismissing or feeling attacked by impersonal comments scribbled in the margins.

However, making the time for these in-person appointments requires effort on behalf of both the student and the professor, which I think speaks to Sommer’s point about students and teachers creating a partnership: “a transaction in which teachers engage with their students by treating them as apprentice scholars, offering honest critique paired with instruction” (250). As Writing Partners as well, I think we should see our role as one in which we seek to be in conversation with students about papers and help them develop as writers, rather than just “fixing” their paper.

Consultation Scenario

You’re waiting for the last consultation of your shift. As you check the clock, you hear the Writing Center doors open. You turn to see a student proudly sporting a crisp Pomona lanyard around their neck standing awkwardly in the doorway. You wave them over. They shake their head at the tea you offer, explaining they’re just here for an ID1 paper. How refreshing. 

“The professor told us to make an appointment,” they say. 

You ask to see the prompt, which they don’t have. “It’s not a hard paper though. Just write about God in origin theories.” They point at the title of their paper. “See?”

You ask if they have any concerns about the paper. They shrug. You ask if they want to read the first paragraph aloud. They say they’d prefer to not. You ask them to jot down what they think their argument is while you read their paper.

They point to the bottom of their first paragraph. “It’s right there.”

You tell them to write it anyway.

They resentfully uncap their pen and begin to scribble. You skim the paper, and your heart sinks.

“Done,” they say. They push their notebook across the table to you. “God plays different roles in origin stories.”

Ah, good. This is fine.

You open your mouth, but you realize there’s no good way to tell this student their paper lacks a thesis, that it’s simply a descriptive review of the role God plays in different theories of origin.

You decide that beginning with the things that are working never hurts. You tell them that they have a very strong understanding on God’s role in the different philosophies. You ask them what about this difference interests them.

Their patience is wearing thin. “They’re just different. I think I proved that.”

You tell them that much is evident, but the fact that God’s role is different isn’t an argument so much as an observation. You make a plug for the thesis, meandering through an explanation for why their paper needs to argue something, dropping buzzwords like “falsifiable” and “textual evidence” and using poorly constructed metaphors. Their eyes glaze over.

You take a deep breath. “Because, ultimately, we want to hear your interpretation of God’s role in the origin theories,” you finish. “Persuade us that your reading of these stories, an insight you’ve discovered, has credence.”

The student shifts in their seat. “I don’t really think I had any insights.”

You point to a passage on the last page. “Whatever theory a person chooses to believe in, God will be a part of it, even if His name is not present in the description of the theory.” You ask what the implications of this observation are for what “God” as a keyterm entails. Is there an intersection between what the different theories say about “God?”

The student offers their own questions, and you explain that the thesis will arise after they’ve searched for answers in the text. The student makes a face.

“I don’t want to be limited by a thesis.” they say. “What if my ideas are too big for one sentence?”

You concede that when the thesis is imposed on the text, it can limit creativity. But the thesis should not drive a student’s inquiry: rather, it is a product of the critical work a student does to answer a question about God’s role in origin theories.

You realize the problem isn’t so much related to the thesis itself, but rather lies in a misconception surrounding the purpose of a thesis. You explain the thesis doesn’t have to be a single sentence. Rather, it should represent the core claim of their paper, the main ideas they’ve uncovered, what the paper seeks to do. A thesis, when used to connect ideas to form a cohesive argument, can serve as a powerful tool to facilitate engagement with texts and generate new ideas.

Vershawn Young is Screaming

I was not a fan of Bartholomae. The pretentious way in which he asserted that a student has to “appropriate a specialized discourse” and  “invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language, finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline They must learn to speak our language” (135). His use of “our” bothers me because it writes himself into an elite academic community into which all students should strive to integrate themselves (because all academics write the same way, right?).

Bartholomae’s argument is basically a really dressed up version of “fake-it-till-you-make-it.” He asserts that even when students are not well-versed in a particular academic discipline, they should imitate the language and writing style of experts within that field until they learn the conventions of that discourse community.

I really wanted to dismiss his entire argument as condescending and insensitive to the particular cultural contexts students come from. However, though problematic, I believe parts of Bartholomae can be read in a slightly more positive light so as to derive insights into how to grow as a writer. At the end of his essay, Bartholomae basically advocates that, instead of remaining comfortably situated within a realm of “commonplace” discourse (self-evident ideas), student writers should attempt to sound like they have more authority than they actually do in navigating complex ideas. This argument could be interpreted as responding to Sommer’s piece: it suggests a way that novice writers become experts.  

While I believe taking risks with their style can promote a writer’s personal growth and development, I’m not sure I agree with Bartholomae’s recommendation that students should imitate the language of a particular discipline. I feel like his philosophy only serves to reinforce the expectation that novice students should arrive at college already writing like professional academics. Unlike Sommers’s argument that students should embrace their role as novices, Bartholomae seems to be advocating that students adopt the vernacular of a discourse community before they can truly understand its meaning.

Bartholomae’s approach discourages students from feeling okay with not being experts in a particular field. In feeling like they have to conform to a particular mode of communication in a discourse community, the development of their own personal voice may be impeded (@Young, hence the screaming). They may see their own ideas as inherently inferior, and instead write what they think an expert in a particular field would say. Why do we hold students to the standards of experts? There needs to be a balance between students acquiring the knowledge to conceptualize new ideas to write themselves into a discourse community and acknowledging their role as novices in a field. Gaining authority through imitating experts does not produce dynamic academic disciples that adapt to changes in thought.

It’s Contextual

“Awk” was scrawled in a thin red pen in the margin of my essay. I reread the sentence my teacher had bracketed off, and it sounded fine to me. I asked my teacher after class what exactly had made the sentence “Awk.” He screwed up his face, no doubt searching for the best words to let middle school me down gently. “Look, here, how your idea trails,” he finally said. “It sounds like you’re just talking to a friend, You’re not being intentional with your words.”

Intentional. The word implies that the use of language is strategic, that writing extends beyond merely seeking to convey ideas: it is also a way to control how an idea is shared. The use of Standard English is, in a sense, an action a writer undertakes, a deliberate way of presenting ideas. According to my teacher, I sounded awkward because my words didn’t sound like writing. The content of my ideas wasn’t what he had taken issue with; rather, it was the particular way in which the idea was transmitted that he found lacking.

I was righteously indignant when showed my mom my essay comments. To my dismay, however, she sided with my teacher. If I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer in an academic community, I would have to play by their rules. I would have to sound like a writer, not like a middle school girl.

Writing became like self-monitoring people perform in other aspects of their lifes. In social situations, you calibrate your behavior to align with the conventions of the interaction. Smiling politely when I talked with adults, saying “Yes, sir,” and “No, ma’am.” These was not how I normally spoke. But it was the version of myself that I presented in particular contexts.

Learning to navigate academic Standard English thus became a tool that allowed me to change my identity. I used vocabulary to establish authority, dropping big words because I believed they gave my ideas legitimacy, according to the parameters of the academic community in which I was participating. If I sound smart, people will be more inclined to believe I am smart.

When I brainstormed essays, colloquial phrases spilled across the page, but they were translated into formal constructions when I began writing.  The hastily scribbled conclusion that “People don’t give a care about who they are” transformed itself into the refined analysis that “Ironically, characters in the novel frequently invalidate their own identities.” Like Cinderella when her fairy Godmother transforms her. She’s the same person, but dressed nicer.

Why?

So she can get into the ball.

This is perhaps the largest issue I take with Young’s article “Should Writer’s Use They Own English.” I’m fully aware that my adoption of a Standard English style does not involve such a culturally, historically, politically, and racially loaded abandonment of my home dialect as it would for students from marginalized communities. I do agree with his main point: that mandating students use Standard English to participate in academic discourse places students from underprivileged backgrounds at a severe disadvantage when it comes to entering academia.

However, these academic conventions still exist. Young addresses this reality in his essay with, “Fish respond that this the way our country is so let’s accept it. I saw: ‘No way, brutha!’ / Also…” Young’s response strikes me as an inadequate way to address how Standard English is deeply entrenched in the academic consciousness. Young argues we should teach language “descriptively,” but what does that look like? How can we teach writing through cultural contexts without essentializing discourse communities?

Can you change these conventions without first entering the community by means of Standard English? Should we instead focus on allocating resources to helping students enter the academic discourse community, and then from within the community, these individuals can change the rules? Dismantle Standard English using Standard English? Or does this just perpetuate a system that privileges one group’s mode of discourse over another? If the use of language should be intentional and strategic, how should we write to change the cultural attitudes toward different dialects of English?

First Drafts Are for Suckers

Words.

Exhaustion. You’re glaring at your laptop screen. Your eyes burn. The cursor blinks mockingly on the blank document. It’s 1:23 a.m., or some other arbitrarily assigned time in the early hours of the morning. You’ve already sacrificed three red bulls to that shrine you built in the back of your closet for James Britton and Edward Corbett. Three words play on a loop in your head: “inventio-dispositio-elocutio…”

Words.

Stiff. Slowly, you bring your fingers to the keyboard. You deliberately press the keys: “Since the dawn of time, humankind has liked to think of writing as a linear process.” It’s brilliant. You remove your hands from the keyboard and begin to mull over the next sentence. You have class the next day, but it’s not real class. It’s a workshop. Your teacher will hold office hours for draft consultations. What’s a draft? Not anything good writers like you are familiar with. You get it right the first time around.

Words.

Process. Your mind wanders to the articles you for class the other day. Experienced writers talking about their definition of rewriting as a process.  Uncovering a “seed” of thought. Writing as more than an arrangement of words, writing as process of uncovering ideas. Or something. You could give it a try. Dump all the legos onto the floor so you can sort through them, choose which you want to build with. Right now you’re reaching into a dark bag, selecting ideas at without fully exploring your options.

Words.

Vulnerability. You hate it. If you write a shitty first draft, someone will see. And then it’ll be all over. Everyone will know you’re a sham. It’s not just your pride at stake. It’s your identity. You’re a Good Writer.

Words.

Apathy. You don’t have time for ten drafts, and you’ve already put so much time into this paper. Easier to just reread, manipulate the syntax, mask the logical errors with big words like “utilize” and “purport.” If you were to rethink the paper, maybe you’d actually find areas that need development, whole sections you can cut. You’d have to continue writing, and you don’t even like your argument. But the professor will, which is what’s important.

Words.

Fear. Writing without a set destination, writing to find your argument. Jumping without a life jacket. Bringing down the bowling bumpers. Or some other overwrought metaphor.

Words.

Maybe you should try to have a draft for tomorrow. Just give it a shot. Set aside the rules of writing you’ve constructed for yourself and write to find the ideas.

Words.

“Writing is rewriting.”

A Question of Access

Last week in class we attempted to define “college writing,” and this week’s readings continue that conversation by attempting to address the question of how a student should best structure their writing process. How do you even do “good” writing? In all three articles, writing is defined as an act that transcends putting words on a page: it is a form of intentional thought. I feel Bizzell said it best: “Writing does not so much contribute to thinking as provide an occasion for thinking” (395).

Elbow defines two different types of thinking: first order, which is “creative and doesn’t strive for conscious direction or control,” and second order, which is “conscious, directed, controlled thinking” (55). He argues that first order thinking is often undervalued in the writing process, which causes students to censor their thoughts before they even have an opportunity to express them. Sommers and Saltz’s argument is similar in that they reject writing as a solely a form of structured, disciplined inquiry. A student should embrace their position as a “novice” in a particular field and look at writing not as a means of fulfilling an assignment, but rather as as a way to develop their thought process and allow themselves to discover what they’re truly passionate about.

I resonated with the positions taken by both of these authors. Especially in high school, I approached writing as a sort of treasure hunt: the gold was buried somewhere, I just had to follow the correct path to uncover it. In college, I was encouraged to take free-writing seriously, an activity which was initially uncomfortable. As I learned to transition from second order to first order thinking, I found myself being more excited by my ideas. However, I understand there’s a level of privilege operating that allows me to be able to access the language required in academic free writing, which is why I think Bizzell’s article is indispensable to the conversation of “good” writing.

Bizzell talks about the importance of discourse communities in informing how a person communicates. Bizzell offers a solution: “To help poor writers, we need to explain that their writing takes place within a community, and to explain what the community’s conventions are” (402). My free writing experience in a biology class would be extremely different from an English class free-write because I’m hopelessly clueless when it comes to STEM. I don’t possess the vocabulary necessary to access ideas within that field, so I’m not even sure how to talk about these subjects. The issue of exposure is even more pronounced for students who come from a background where the only writing they’ve been exposed to is the structured 5-paragraph essay model. or a student accustomed to rigid structure, free writing itself is a form of language they may find inaccessible. To expect all students to be able to willfully shift from second order to first order thinking, or to be comfortable as a “novice,” ignores the contextual nuances that inform how individuals process thoughts. Thinking is far from a solitary activity: the discourse community greatly influences a student’s ability to access certain conventions and be able to engage in dialogue. I’m curious to see what people think is the relationship between language and knowledge: are the two inextricably linked? Is language needed to even form thoughts, or just to express them?

I believe a responsibility of the Writing Center is to streamline first years’ immersion into the discourse community of college writing. It is our job, as peer writing mentors, to think critically about the types of institutional biases that underlay how writing is taught at Pomona. Once we deconstruct the underlying structures in the curriculum, we will be better equipped to bring in students to the discourse community. There are conventions for how certain subjects are talked about at Pomona, things we might take for granted, like what a “key term” even means, or how to close read a passage. Once students know the implicit ropes or “hidden curriculum,” they will probably feel more comfortable regulating their internal thought processes and shifting from second to first order thought. While they may feel like a novice at the beginning, they see a path toward becoming an expert because they know how to get at the material.