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.