Thursday, May 12, 2005

Revisiting How We Address Usage Errors

Mike Rose

I agree with Kathy Evans' take on addressing usage errors. Readers sometimes take my concerns about a grammar focus (in Lives on the Boundary) or my findings about "premature editing" (in the early writer's block study) as a wholesale condemnation of instruction in grammar, usage, etc., but I like Kathy's formulation and advice.

Friday, April 15, 2005

What Counts as “Student-Centered”? Rethinking my Work with Developing Writers

Lee Torda

When I first began teaching at Bridgewater State College, I was appalled that at-risk students had to take a not-for-credit course, Fundamental Skills (FS 101), prior to enrolling in Writing I. Asking working class students to pay for a three-credit course that would not help them graduate seemed unconscionable to me, and I was happy to tell anyone who would listen. And it was in this way that I became involved in teaching a special section of Writing II for students on academic probation. I, naturally, began the semester with this question: how did you get here? There were lots of answers, but one was rather startling and very disturbing: all of them had taken FS 101 (and often the other remedial course the college offers, Fundamental Skills in Math) and, whether they passed the pass/fail course or not, had done badly in other courses and landed, in their second precarious semester, on academic probation. This is a textbook case of what Samantha Caughlin and Sean Kelly are writing about in “Bridging Methodological Gaps: Instructional and Institutional Effects of Tracking in Two English Classes” (RTE, 2004).

Caughlin and Kelly suggest that one of the reasons tracking fails students is because it can become “inextricably interwoven with the teacher’s conceptions of students’ needs and abilities” and thus “constrains the level of instruction and the coherence of the curriculum” (20). While I agree that tracking can shape teachers’ conceptions of students’ abilities and thus constrain the curriculum, it is important to realize that this isn't necessarily the case. Indeed, at Bridgewater we have an illustrative counter-example: most of the students in our special support sections not only passed EN 102 and stayed at the institution but were legitimately off probation within one or two semesters of taking the course. I wish there was time and space here to chronicle their many success stories. But I believe their success came out of two things: 1) the willingness, on the part of the class and myself, to talk honestly and openly about past failures and what was at stake during the semester; and 2) my full-on, force-of-nature faith in the kinds of classroom practices I used in all of my writing classes combined with an equally intense faith that these students would be fine—perhaps more than fine—if they just gave it a chance.

I believed in my pedagogy so much that I suggested that the students currently being funneled into sections of FS 101 would be better served if we taught special, targeted sections of EN 101 supported by a writing fellows program in BSC’s Academic Achievement Center. And the institution took me up on it.

Which brings me to my point: I’m in my second semester of teaching our college’s new targeted sections of EN 101, and nothing I typically rely on has worked. Not that everything has failed, but nothing has entirely worked—not conferences, not drafts, not writing workshops, not portfolios, not book clubs, not my tough love schtick. It troubles me that students have so many absences and that they blow off conferences and just seem so okay with failing. It troubles me even more that these are the largest populations of non-native students and students of color that I’ve worked with at the college.

One day when students either hadn’t read or didn’t understand the text we were reading, I explicated the text and thought students would hate that I was doing this. I was this talking head. Well, not quite: I’m moving around. I’m making charts and drawing arrows. I’m soliciting information and ideas from students. But it’s all me. I’m the star. I’m the ringmaster in this circus. But, after that class, students did the reading and, even if imperfectly, did a much better job of talking about what it meant. I’m embarrassed that this sort of old-fashioned modeling, cult of personality teaching is what helped students most. But, really, I don’t think I should be. I felt sure I knew what student-centered meant, but it doesn’t mean only and exclusively that you do things that have the students in charge of their own learning; instead, I’m realizing, it means that you are responsive to the ever-changing material conditions that the students in your classroom present you with. It does feel as though what I’m doing this semester sometimes gets me more actively involved than the students. It does feel as though what I’m doing is lecturing about writing and reading more than getting my students to engage in meaningful acts of reading and writing sometimes. But what I am not doing, just to confound Caughlin and Kelly, is lowering my expectations for student work in these classes. If anything, I was nearly blasé about their ability and entirely too faithful to practices that were clearly not working. I was teaching one way and thought that I didn’t need to change, but, with this population, I am always being asked to change. To try something a different way, to conceive and reconceive each class period--sometimes mid-way through the class: revision is not linear and not perfect and not something you only do in first year writing.

The result of my revision? Students in the class, by the end of the semester, are in a place to better participate in academic life. They are not on probation. They have not been dismissed. They have legitimately earned the credit for Writing I when a year ago they would not have.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

On the Ironic Persistence of Exam Questions

Kathryn Evans

Here I am, teaching a class entitled Writing and the Teaching of Writing, telling my students why authentic questions are generally more productive than exam questions. I have just explained that, while authentic questions suggest that the teacher values the social construction of knowledge and genuinely cares about what students think, exam questions can limit discussion by forcing students to play "guess the right answer." Right after I explain this, out pops this question from my mouth:
So, does anybody know what an exam question is?
Sigh. At least I was able to point to a great example of an exam question.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

On Grammar as Usage: “Wait-‘til-late” Responses Come too Late

Kathryn Evans

Noting that "grammar instruction is unquestionably unfashionable," Laura Micciche (CCC 2004, p. 716) advocates a vision of grammar as a rhetorical tool to advance critical pedagogy. We should also, however, reconsider the way we teach the usage aspect of grammar. Usage is rhetorical too, as suggested by Larry Beason’s aptly-titled “Ethos and Error” (CCC 2001). To have the credibility necessary to persuade audiences, students need to have a sense of the appropriate usage called for by particular rhetorical situations. Unfortunately, even those instructors who do attend to usage tend to do so late in the game, often waiting until students’ final drafts to call usage issues to students’ attention.

I believe this “wait-‘til-late” tendency is a misapplication of Mike Rose's (and others') findings that students who are distracted by usage are often stymied in idea generation and fluency. To generate longer and better-developed pieces of prose, students are better-served by ignoring usage issues, at least while they are drafting. Indeed, Nancy Sommers (CCC 1982) has critiqued teachers who tell students to edit and develop at the same time. However, just because we may discuss developing and editing at the same time doesn’t mean we necessarily have to encourage students to do these activities at the same time.

Ultimately, the “wait-‘til-late” practice may be doing students a gross disservice, for the usage errors that undermine ethos are often difficult to overcome; students, then, need as many opportunities as possible to grapple with these issues. Thus, instead of withholding feedback on usage until late drafts, I believe our responses to all drafts should focus on the two or three issues that most undermine students’ persuasive power. When usage errors are among those issues, we should attend to them by making the following points explicit to students:
When we treat error with respect, and when we teach students to address error while editing rather than drafting, we can respond to error in all drafts, thus giving students more opportunities to develop the strategies they need to become better rhetoricians.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Using Passing Theory to Rethink the Book Club

Anne Doyle

My colleague Lee Torda has enthusiastically espoused book clubs, and, feeling that the social-theoretic perspective undergirding this activity was sound, I asked my own FYC students to participate in these clubs. What happened this semester, however, has suggested that a purely social-theoretic perspective is inadequate in explaining the power of book clubs; I believe that Donald Davidson’s notion of passing theory is also necessary to help us maximize the potential of book clubs.

One instance that brought Davidson to mind happened in a group that was discussing Dennis LeHane’s Shutter Island, which takes place in the 1950’s at an insane asylum on an island in Boston Harbor. A black student from the Caribbean focused not on any of the major characters in the novel or on a plot point, but on a minor character, a black orderly, who is perceived by the main character at first as neutral, then later as antagonistic to the main character’s goals. The student noted that this orderly was in the position of working in a hospital run by a white director, staffed by white doctors and nurses, caring for white patients; he invited his fellow students to imagine the pressures under which the orderly worked, the importance attached following his supervisor’s orders and behaving toward the main character as the hospital administrator wanted him to. The book club facilitator reported that this focus on a minor character and consideration of the political and economic circumstances surrounding him shook up the group and led to a lively discussion among group members.

So what happened in this book club? After reading Kathryn Hogan’s dissertation Student Subjectivity and the Study of Literature (University of Washington, 2005), I now suspect that the student first engaged—and then encouraged his peers to engage—in what Donald Davidson (Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation) refers to as a movement from prior knowledge/theory to passing knowledge/theory. Hogan argues that in the act of reading a fiction, the readers must put to one side their own knowledge and experiences (prior knowledge) in order to assume—if only for the space of the reading—the knowledge, experiences, and worldview of an Other. Davidson states that this movement to passing knowledge (or passing theory) is essential for the act of communication. Hogan argues that the adoption of passing theory for the sake of understanding the text may lead in some cases to a permanent change in the reader’s knowledge base. In other words, passing theory can change prior theory. Hogan is interested in this movement as the basis for the transformative nature of literature. In the case of my students in their book club, the Caribbean student not only adopted as passing theory the knowledge/theory of the orderly, but he encouraged others in his group to do so as well, thus prompting them to reread the character’s behavior. The result? Readers made an important connection with the text in a surprising way and, perhaps, their future prior knowledge/theory has been modified by the experience.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Conferencing: Who Should do How Much Talking?

Kathryn Evans

Common conferencing advice is that we should talk less and get students to talk more. An important but little-cited study by Walker and Elias (RTE 1987), however, suggests that who does how much talking is not necessarily relevant.

Looking at five conferences judged to be successful by both student and teacher and five judged to be unsuccessful, Walker and Elias found that students averaged 32.8% percent of the utterances in the highly-rated conferences, while in the low-rated conferences students averaged 33.6 percent of the utterances—hardly a difference.

Rather than who does how much talking, they suggest, successful conferences centered on encouraging students to articulate criteria and evaluate their work using those criteria. The evaluation of student work was ultimately accomplished collaboratively; after instructors elicited criteria from students, they explicitly responded to and built on those criteria.

A case study I'm doing with some of my former students supports Walker and Elias' findings. Like Newkirk (RTE 1995) and several other researchers, I'm using a methodology that prompts students to reflect on conferences by having them listen to and comment on an audiotape of the conference. While Newkirk and others studied one-on-one conferences and I'm looking at small-group conferences, the methodology remains illustrative. After listening to a tape of a small-group conference, for instance, one of my students, Christa, said she had trouble articulating everything she needed to say about her classmate's writing. Remembering Walker and Elias' study (and my practice of using criteria to structure one-on-one conferences), I asked if it would help to have the criteria on the table in front of us. Her reply echoes Walker and Elias' findings: "That would be helpful. That would be really helpful. Um . . . yeah definitely helpful, especially with long papers because, um, at least for myself I'm a visual person and I can't necessarily . . . wrap my head around all of the factors on every single page and every section of the paper all at once." She also countered my concern that I had talked too much, noting that she was "very thankful and grateful when you would start talking." The "listen and reflect" methodology, then—at least in this case study—lends further support to Walker and Elias' finding that who does how much talking is not necessarily relevant to the success of a conference.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Michael Moore on Julie Jung


Michael Moore's discussion of Julie Jung's approach to revision makes mention of the old cliche, and the way it seems to lurch into student writing. This reminds me of Bartholomae's classic, "Inventing the University," where the commonplace, as Bartholomae puts it, is taken to task as a sign of one's relation to the naive codes of everyday life.

I have problems with Bartholomae's formulation, as does Thomas Newkirk. And because I have problems with Bartholomae's formulation, I think I tend to favor Julie Jung's approach. Don't have students write out commonplaces; have them think or write about them. The problem here, as my thinking has led me to believe, is that commonplaces and cliches are deeply rooted in the intersubjective reality of daily common sense.

Rethinking the commonplace or cliche requires also that the student rethink or come to a different understanding of the function of language. In the common sense world, words point to reality; in academic discourse, however, words function as concepts to frame the very reality to which one points. This is no small step.