Finding the Balance

I’ve had some amazing English teachers. The ones that you can tell stories about at dinner. English teachers that wore tweed suits and pulled out pocket watches and pranced around the classroom reading Whitman. Dead Poet’s Society-esque teachers. But they aren’t who I first learned to write from. It was my dad. It was sitting next to my dad on the couch in our kitchen as I watched him edit  rewrite my middle school essays. And now, I do the same thing with my little sister. She brings her rough draft to me along with a cup of tea, and we sit down together on the couch in the kitchen. I take over the keyboard.

“This is better here.”

“It’s structured better if you do this.”

“Oh! I’m going to add in this idea.”

It’s not completely a monopoly, but it’s close. We have conversations, but they consist of me explaining the changes to her and asking what she thinks. I don’t circumvent my suggestions with leading questions or free writes or fake trips to the bathroom so that she can think on her own.

This week’s articles about plagiarism and next week’s article about power and authority in the Writing Center have really led me to reflect on whether my family’s “writing tradition” is okay. Where is the line between plagiarism and editing? I believe learning-by-watching is valid. Art classes give “master assignments” where students try to copy a master piece of artwork. Musicians sample past artists’ songs. English students practice by writing papers in the voices of established writers. Copying is a method of learning—or is it cheating?

What I do with my sister is so different from what I do as a Writing Partner at school. With my sister, there is no pretense of equal power dynamics. I’m the authority figure, passing on what I know about writing to her, just as my dad did with me. I give clear suggestions, I write all over her paper, I take over the keyboard. I don’t sugarcoat exactly how I think she should change / edit / rewrite her paper. Whereas, in my consultations, usually we focus more on creating a collaborative, peer-to-peer environment where the student retains complete authority and ownership over their ideas, their paper, the consultation. The article was really interesting, then, because it focuses on power dynamics and authority, and the struggle for tutors to “recognize and use their power and authority without becoming authoritarian” (97). When I work with my sister, it is much more like the directive example on page 106 than the previous consultations or even my own consultations at the Writing Center. What I still struggle with, then, is which method is better. Maybe both. Maybe neither. Maybe every single context is new, and I have to find a new balance between too “authoritarian” or speaking to some “postmodern idea of authorship” (100), being direct and indirect.

Ooh So Pretty

All of readings for this week seemed to centralize around one theme: focus. In other words, where or what should we focus on when writing, reviewing, commenting, reading? Winalski discusses how she—wrongfully—focused on form rather than content. She writes, “I operated under the assumption that what I wrote was much less important than how I wrote” before going on to write what is personally my favorite quote, “My papers screamed ‘Style and structure essential, content optional!’” (Winalski 303-4). I instantly—almost as “instantly” as Winalski seemed to come to her magical realizations regarding the true nature of good writing (where content is essential) a mere four pages later—related to this passage. Way too often, I find myself sweating the smallest of details, to the point where I become paralyzed. In fact, this reminded me of the readings regarding writer’s block. I get so stuck on making sure my first few lines or paragraphs sound pretty that I lose all sense of an argument. Essentially, I too focus on the wrapping paper rather than the present inside. I have all sorts of glittery bows in my writing arsenal—long sentences followed by short punches, fragments, creative uses of the thesaurus—like Winalski describes, but I rarely focus on what it is I’m actually wrapping. Thus, Winalski argues, or rather shows through her personal growth, that we should shift our focus from just writing prettily to writing about important content—ideas we care about, have thought through, want to communicate to others—in a pretty* way. Both parts are important, but content should be primary and form, secondary.

In her original article, Nancy Sommers argues teachers’ focus in reviewing and commenting on students’ work needs to shift as well. She writes, “The problem here is a confusion of process and product. […] To identify such problems [usage errors, for example] in a text at this early first draft stage, when such problems are likely to abound, can give a student a disproportionate sense of their importance at this stage in the writing process” (Sommers 154-5). She argues that teachers, by focusing on small issues like grammar rather than high-order issues such as with argument or ideas, teach students to prioritize wrong. In essence, the misplaced focus of the teachers in their commenting misplaces the students’ focus during the revision process—the “disproportionate sense of importance.” Instead, comments should enforce the idea that the drafting process is continuous. It is chaotic. It should be chaotic. Teachers should force students back into the chaos of re-thinking their ideas in order to make them more comfortable with that headspace—so that “it is a sense of revision as discovery, as a repeated process of beginning again, as starting out new” (Sommers 156).

This is a little bit of a different, well, focus, in my blog post, but lastly I wanted to talk about the idea of a “stalled’ writer from Sommers’ Re-Visions article. Now this is something I really, really connect to. I feel almost like Jackson—each essay is an isolated event “outside of [my] control” (Sommers 253). It somehow just kind of happens, and if I’m lucky, it happens well. But that’s just it—it feels like luck. Like I’m not cognizant of my writing abilities or how my essays happen. Maybe that’s a bad thing, but maybe it’s a good thing too. It lets me start fresh and sometimes even avoid the trap of formulaic writing. I get a fresh beginning each time, just like Sommer’s described in her original article. However, the consequence is that I have a hard time, like Jackson, applying feedback between different essays and assignments.

All in all, I really enjoyed and related to this week’s readings!

*By pretty I mean with style, whatever your style is (from flowery to scientific).

**sorry Tinberg and Rutz! Maybe next time.

Experiences with ESL

Through the Draper Center program at Pomona, I have had the wonderful, wonderful opportunity to get to know Blanca, a cook at Frank Dining Hall, who is one of the most, well, wonderful people I have ever met. A new aspect of her job has been to write down the ingredients of each dish for the student’s information and to help give instructions to other workers. This need to be able to write in English inspired her to want to learn the language, thus leading to her participation in it and the setting of so many new goals. Over the year I have worked with her, she has tirelessly studied flashcards, grammar exercises, textbook chapters … and thanks to her dedication, she has improved tremendously.

Simply put, she is amazing.

One of this week’s reading talked about the negative consequences of monolingualism, which can ignore “the writer’s and readers’ need to engage the fluidity of language in pursuit of new knowledge, new ways of knowing, and more peaceful relations” (Language Difference in Writing, 307). Further, it posits a better alternative: The “Translingual Approach.” It “sees difference in language not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading and listening” (303). It rejects “discrimination on the basis of language identity and use,” claiming instead that it aims “not to replace knowledge of one language with another, but to build on students’ existing language abilities” (308). So much of this article made me think of my experiences with ESL (English as a Second Language teaching). During my first couple sessions with Blanca, I ran into an obstacle: Power Dynamics, a concept that is also important in terms of establishing authority in writing, but was especially apparent when I—a 19-year-old native English speaker—wanted to teach Blanca—my elder—how to speak Spanish. Just as the writer establishes a position of authority (and thus “power”), it felt uncomfortable for me to feel like I was in the “power” or “authoritative” position as a teacher. As we got to know each other better, it felt like the problem—that discomfort—just miraculously resolved itself. However, now having read this article, I think I understand better what happened.

Translingualism makes learning new languages a mutual experience. The article talks about how a teacher might not know all the languages they are trying to include in a translingual approach, but despite that fact, the teacher, too, can learn from the experience. In fact, everyone learns under a translingual approach because it follows not a hierarchy of language (in which English dominates), but rather a mutual sharing of language knowledge. That is exactly what happened with Blanca. The more she helped me with my Spanish as I taught her English, the more it became a mutual experience. This reciprocity in turn balanced out the power dynamics, turning both of us into the student AND the teacher. As a result of this, both Blanca and I have become more confident not just in our new languages, but also in the role of being a language learner. Since both of us were “students,” we both felt more comfortable making the mistakes necessary to learn. 

*Okay, there’s a lot more I want to talk about, but I’m trying not to make every blog post 6 pages long. Gotta save something for class on Thursday 🙂

 

(Jenny) Love <3

“OMG THAT DESCIBES ME EXACTLY WOW I BOW DOWN TO YOU JENNY LOVE”

I definitely drew some strange looks when I excitedly proclaimed this to myself (I did this week’s reading in the Motley). But it was so true! This reading spoke to me in more than just a conceptual way—I saw my own process reflected in it to a much further extent than all of the other readings thus far. The first thing that struck me was that “writers who use stiff rules are the ones who most often experience writer’s block” (Love 144). As I wrote about in my personal reflection, my high school English teacher gave me a piece of advice that has informed my writing process ever since: “Grab your readers by the throat, and never let them go.” It was meant as good-humored advice, but ever since then I write my introduction first. And I know—I know!—that we aren’t supposed to, but I just can’t help myself. I feel like I think, and thus write, in a very linear fashion. I can’t focus if I don’t start with the intro, even though the pressure to find that perfect hook when I don’t even know the substance of my essay becomes crippling. Here, I get blocked—I struggle to find an introduction, and without the introduction I feel like I can’t write the main essay.  It’s a humdrum cycle—repetitive and inefficient—that perpetuates when I start with the intro.

Perhaps one method to escape my “stiff rules” might be first-order thinking (thank you, Elbow). By definition, free writing is rule-less—all I have to do is “get words on the screen.” But even then, I experience writer’s block. And it is so, so frustrating (at the very least, Love reassured me that this is a wide-spread phenomenon). Further, it affects my identity as a writer, which is essential to making a paper my own. How can I call myself a “writer” or even someone who “enjoys writing” if every single time it is a frustrating, difficult, stressful, <insert anxiety-related adjective> process?”

Love also brings up a point about deadlines, which can both spur and hinder the writing process. This has always been somewhat of a sore spot for me as well. You know that essay due in three months? Yeah, I’m the student that wants to meet with the teacher about it today. Three months early. Yet, and this has always killed me—for every single essay, I find myself writing it as the deadline looms dangerously close. I want to start early. I try to start early, but it feels like no matter how early I begin even incubating ideas, no real progress is made until the very last minute. Until I have absolutely no choice. And then I’m left with something that doesn’t quite feel hatched, but must be turned in. Essentially, I feel powerless.

…and that leads to the next article (Flower and Hayes), which I wanted to discuss (briefly) as well. They began the article by discussing the following idea: “The notion of discovery is surrounded by a mythology which, like the popular myth of romantic inspiration, can lead writers to self-defeating writing strategies” (21). Yup. That’s me. I totally admit it—my current strategy to deal with writer’s block involves staring (really, really intensely staring) at the computer screen in the hopes that words will magically appear. I know it’s not actually helpful, yet I do it anyway.

What I loved about this article, beyond how relatable it was, was the idea of taking back control: “It is important to remember that this process is not a creative accident” (22). An accident is something I can’t control—it’s a Eureka moment, some divine intervention, words magically appearing. But by redefining the creative process as a “problem” to be “solved,” Flower and Hayes eliminate the accident—the part we as writers can’t control. Instead, we hold the reins and thus we have the power to overcome obstacles such as writer’s block. And the first step necessary to the full actualization of this requires recognizing the problems we have “because people only solve the problems they give themselves” (23).

*Wow this was a long post.

**Kinda feel like I say that about all my posts…

A lot to think about

Bizzell discusses something essential: What is the effect of the “socialization” of “basic writers” on their relationship with their home community? Socialization refers to the process basic writers undergo to learn the conventions of a discourse community (namely, academia) and subsequently become a part of it. The illumination of the importance of social context has been a key. We are not hermits. We live in social contexts, we write in them, and they have an effect on us. This has come up in pretty much all of my blog posts, our class discussions (remember the one about local vs. global?), and readings. Yes, writing is—quite obviously—inner-directed (we write our thoughts, cognitive processes allow us to write, etc), but it is also outer-directed (the social contexts and discourse communities we are members of). But so far, once we identified that social contexts do, indeed, exist, and yes, they do affect writers’ abilities and their success in writing and so forth, all of our focus has been on how to help struggling students gain access into the coveted discourse community. The happy ending being, I assume, that once you are part of the community and understand its conventions, your writing will improve.

Bizzell illuminates an important gap in this discussion—the consequences of joining the academic community, or any discourse community really that isn’t one’s own. To join the discourse community (again, referring mostly to the academic one that comprises academic writing) implies that you were A) not already part of it and B) leaving your current community. This has enormous social implications that don’t seem to have been fully explored. Bizzell states, “Basic writers typically come from less privileged social groups, where the language-using practices are most unlike those of the academy, which reflect the practices of the privileged groups in our society. Hence, basic writers appear to be in more danger than others of being alienated from their home communities by mastery of academic discourse” (Bizzell, 64). First of all, this shows the importance of even having fields of research dedicating to writing and composition studies. Before this open dialogue regarding the process of writing and discourse communities, educators might have—and might still—assumed these students were merely inferior or less intelligent when in actuality “their difficulties with academic writing tend to be a function of the social distance between the academy and their home communities” (64). But the larger problem, I believe, lies in the fact that there is even a “social distance.” We recognize that academic writing is skewed towards the privileged and its conventions are potentially decided by that same privileged class (since they have easier access to “membership”). Yet, we still focus on how to change “basic writers” (writers from home communities distant from the academic discourse community) in order to fit the academia status quo. Why are we asking how to change the students to fit the status quo of the privileged when we could be asking how to change the academic discourse community’s conventions to represent a more diverse population of students? Why are only the privileged reflected in its conventions, leaving “the others” to constantly catch up? And it leads to truly unfair lines of thinking, such as what Ong and Farrell argued for when they said the “language-using practices of such students’ home communities are cognitively inferior” (64).
A lot to think about.

Balance, balance, balance

Reither begins his article by discussing the shift in focus from teaching a “prescriptive” writing process (think They Say / I Say style templates, the 5-paragraph essay, emphasis on a “product”) to a “descriptive” one (a focus on the cognitive processes that drive writing) (Reither 286). However, as Reither points out, this focus on the cognitive leads “us to wonder if our thinking is not being severely limited by a concept of process that explains only the cognitive processes that occur as people write … as if the process began in the writer and not in the writer’s relationship to the world” (286). Essentially, like Bizzell, Reither is arguing that we cannot focus just on the internal cognitive processes; rather, external processes such as social contexts and “discourse communities” also affect our “knowing” and our writing capability. Here, I argue for balance. Just as we need balance between standardization and creative freedom, global and local, order and chaos, so too do we need to keep a balance between the internal and external process that TOGETHER lead to the act of writing.

So, up to this point I’ve pretty much agreed with Reither. However, there are a couple points in his article that I just had to underline in red and write, “NO.” He claims that one “obviously problematic message” is that “writers do not need to know what they are talking about: they learn what they are talking about as they compose; they can write their way out of ignorance”(288). I disagree with his judgement of this as “problematic.” I learn through discourse—whether verbal or written. Often times, I don’t understand a reading or realize its significance until after I’ve discussed it with someone else, whether that person is a peer in class or an imaginary critic of my paper. In other words, I do write my way out of ignorance. It is through writing my paper—and not just writing my paper, but treating it as a dialogue—that I am able to figure out my thoughts regarding a topic and truly understand it. I see this as another learning style, not as something “problematic.”
Secondly, he writes that writing “is one of those processes which, in its use, creates  and constitutes its own contexts” (287). This I have to disagree with as well. He doesn’t say writing is one of those processes that can create context, but rather that it creates and constitutes its own contexts. I don’t believe this is always the case. Yes, writing can create a new context, especially if it is outside of an established discourse community. A often-stressed beauty in our language ability—and by extension writing ability—is the infinite amount of expressive possibilities that can be created. And I do think it is an important point by him in the sense that writing can create a space for itself like the Universe creates the space it expands into*, or dictionaries create new terms to describe new ways of thinking. But I also think that writing often doesn’t create its own context, but remains trapped reflecting previously established contexts within discourse communities. This idea is an essential part of Bizzel’s entire article — successful writing means reflecting and integrating the established conventions in a specific (in this case, academic) social context  / discourse community. So while writing has the power to create new contexts, its success also lies in the writer’s ability to reflect already established ones. And THAT is something remedial programs (to tie it back in last week’s readings) must also learn to focus on. Students don’t just need to learn writing skills and complex ways of thinking: They must also learn how to be members of a dizzying array of discourse communities.

*Definitely tried to channel Tiffany’s comparison-making superpowers when I wrote this.

I agree with Sullivan—begrudgingly

I’m all for chaos.

The state of my dorm room reflects that. So do my notes, my brainstorming charts, the *creative* layouts of my academic essays. And maybe I’m just being romantic, or unpragmatic, or stubborn, but there’s something beautiful about its messiness—something so intrinsically human—that when I read arguments in favor of standardization, the rebel in me roars.

And then, of course, I read Sullivan’s An Essential Question: What Is “College-Level” Writing?”. And as much as I wanted to fight it, I think I might have to accept that some sort of standard is necessary. I don’t like it, I’m not happy about it, but I do, albeit begrudgingly, agree—especially when I focused on the concept of remedial programs, something I whole-heartedly support.

Here’s how my resolve broke down:

I. Equity vs. Equality

Sullivan discusses at length community colleges and what he calls “non-traditional students;” students unprepared or lacking the skills needed to succeed at “college-level writing” (whatever that means). According to Susan and John Roueche, this applies to nearly “50 perce of all first-time community college students,” a percentage that has not changed “significantly across the United States in the last two decades” (Sullivan 7). Since a unified, agreed-upon standard for college-level writing doesn’t exactly exist yet, it makes sense that students, having attended various highschools, enter college with varying sets of skills and levels of preparedenss. And it is here that we must consider equity vs equality. Not all students are “traditional,” and thus different students need different levels of support in order to succeed—equity (acknowledging students have different backgrounds and therefore might need extra help) vs. equality (the blanket treatment of all students). Acknowledging this, Sullivan goes on to talk about remedial programs and their efforts to address this problem by providing “nontraditional students” with the support and resources they need. However, as Sullivan explains, on a national level politicians are increasingly withdrawing support for these essential programs, citing that the remedial efforts are “rewarding incompetence” (Sullivan 11).  The word “incompetence” I had a similar reaction to as Mai. I even drew an angry face next to it; that’s how much I disagree. It assigns blame onto nontraditional students, something I believe is unfair and uncalled for. Many factors—social, political, economic— could go into a lack of preparedeness, none of which are the students’ fault. And, like Mai argued, if the point is to standardize expectations for college-level writing in order for students to succeed, why would we ever remove a program that helps “non-traditional students” do just that? As James Traub put it, “[t]he right to an education for which one is hopelessly underprepared is not much of a right at all” (Sullivan 10).

In light of this, my bias towards chaos just doesn’t work. Having clearly defined standards would support the idea of remedial programs because the standards would provide a clear idea of what the programs could address and what students need strive for. We need the standards as foundation in order to even judge whether a student is prepared or not.

One point Sullivan, zero points Sam.

II. Real-World Implications

The above reminded me of something important: There are real-world consequences to what superficially appears to just be a theological debate. It’s easy—at least for me—to lose my head in the clouds and forget that what we are discussing matters in a larger context than just *fun* intellectual sparring. Perhaps chaos can be a goal to strive for, but standards are what we need first. You gotta learn the rules in order to break them. For someone who perhaps didn’t have my privalege of attending a private school that’s been preparing me for college since the sixth grade, clearly-defined standards would give a crucial sense of direction amidst, well, chaos. And not just for the students, but for teachers, administrators, educators, politicians.

Sullivan also talks about how teachers are often excluded from the political sphere of decisions surrounding writing programs, an exclusion that leads to important programs such as remedial ones being cut. I’m no armchair general, but it seems to be that definitive standards would act as a sort of weapon against critical politicians. How can we really expect politicians to support funding to help underprepared students reach a “college-level” of writing if we can’t even tell them the defintion of “college-level” writing or what standards we are measuring these underprepared students against?

Two points Sullivan.

However, as we go about finding these magical, unicorn standards (if they even exist beyond figments of our imagination), I do still believe we need to be wary. Students from all backgrounds—social, political, economic, educational—must be considered. All types of educators—not just English teachers!—should be consulted. And we should still make sure the standards address the messiness—dare I say chaotic—nature of college-level writing. There isn’t one right way that works across all disciplines, and this is something we must keep in mind. And finally, let’s say we do successfully come up with a set of standards, I believe there would still be a need for constant revision. They must not be left to stagnate like still water, flies buzzing over old ways of thinking. BUT, as long as we keep these things in mind, standards would provide clarity for all, and they would arm educators in the political debate against remedial—amongst other—programs. Standards are and would be an essential part of this ongoing pedagogical debate.

(but, like, secretly, I still support chaos)