Friday, April 27, 2007

This week

Ok, I admit it. I posted this blog at about midnight on Friday, but then I got worried about the content and deleted it because I thought it was too personal. However, I have decided to re-post it and be unafraid of what I originally said. So here goes…

This week I want to talk about the article we read in which the author suggested that me need to look at ourselves in the classroom, not only the students. In the article, Royster and Taylor state that we need to look at both teacher and student identity to “re-shuffle these relationships and re-make the balances in order to make recognizable that negotiation of the classroom identity involves an interaction of all parties, sometimes with competing agendas” (LE, 214).

I was particularly struck by the diary of Taylor’s teaching experience. With my recent acceptance of a GA ship, I have become acutely aware of her worries and ponderings within the journal. I was in a high school classroom for a year doing student teaching and I team taught a freshman seminar course with a seasoned teacher at my undergrad institution, but this time I am REALLY, REALLY nervous. Each of the other times I had a teacher on hand in the room to help me, this time it’s all me.

I began to wonder just what it is that I bring to the classroom as a teacher and a student in one. I wondered if I would have any trouble separating myself from the student part when I am supposed to be leading a classroom full of students. What exactly can I offer them? Will I be able to handle an unruly student? Will I try to save the students I think might still have a chance, like Taylor did? How will I handle the situations that Taylor had and if I approach them differently will I have any repercussions?

Aside from the fact that I have become very nervous in my own life as a teacher, I think more than anything Taylor and Royster have helped me to see that reflection and analyzing myself as a teacher will ultimately give me a better picture of how to better help myself help my students.

It seems like a cliché, I know, but when it comes down to it, we’re all probably a little or a lot terrified the first time we step into the classroom as THE TEACHER. I’m just glad to know that I am not the only one who will go through all that anxiety and that what I bring to the classroom as the teacher is just as valid as what the students bring to the classroom themselves.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A Few Words on Amie Wolf

I really enjoyed chatting with Amie Wolf on Monday, however one of her answers to a question that seemed very poignant. When we asked what was her biggest problem in teaching BW, she responded that people have negative perceptions of the basic writing courses. Since she is at a largely athletic school, people seem to think that the program is strictly for athletes.

It struck me as odd that people would still see athletes as being “dumb”. It’s almost laughable that we create a dichotomy of having a healthy mind OR a healthy body. People can and do have both, but I think we tend to think of college life in terms of absolute, you either spend all your time studying or all your time playing a sport, period. It was also very interesting to me that she decided to talk to her students early on in the semester about the fact that they are not “dumb” but perhaps just need extra help, but it doesn’t help when tutors are outright calling the students stupid.

I almost can’t imagine how it must have felt to be a student in her class the day of the meltdown over the perceptions of how others see basic writers. However, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel. If the students are allowed to choose to go into that class, then they understand, recognize and are trying to correct the things that could possibly hold them back. That is a lot more than I can say for most first year students. These students (the basic writers) are the true learners. They have missed a step somewhere along the way and are willing to go back and lean the skills they need regardless (however sensitive to them they may be) of other’s perceptions. That in itself takes more courage than anything.
I commend the basic writing students for having the courage and the strength to attend a class that makes them feel badly in order to become something they desire. I commend Ms. Wolf as well for fighting stereotypes and giving her students confidence. I think that by letting her students know “they are intelligent people and that they just need to work on expressing that intelligence to others” is brilliant. Because EVERY scholar, whether basic writer of not still needs a little reassurance every now and then

Friday, April 13, 2007

Literacy in so many definitions

In Jerrie Cobb Scott's article about literacy deficits she says that deficit pedagogy exists because "It is reasonable to assume that we have either failed to get to the root of the problem or refused to accept the explanations offered" (LE, 205). She says this in reply to Mike Rose’s ideas about “students on the boundary.” However it seems to me that her statement is a little too restricting, which is odd because she takes great pains to point out that the definition of literacy is too narrow. “The root” and “the problem,” as she states in her quote, imply that there is only one problem and if we could just find the answer, all would be well. She also implies with this statement that we might already know the answer, but we have decided to not accept the explanations offered.

In writing this argument, I see that scene from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where Deep Thought tells the beings that the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. There was only one answer, but they didn’t like it and went in search of something better; the ultimate question. Perhaps we have not asked ourselves the right question yet. Are we coming up with answers for which we do not know the question?

Scott says that there are two reasons we are still teaching “deficits” when it comes to basic writing. First, is our narrow definition of literacy and second is our resistance to changing our ways of instruction (205).

Her argument about the narrow definition of literacy is that we tend to define it in simplistic terms such as “the ability to read and write.” She broadens the definition to something along the lines of one being able to function within society or “the act of socially transforming oneself to the level of active participation in and creation of a culture” (206). I pose this question: Is it essential for one to be able to read and write in order to be able to actively participate in a culture?

In our culture, the answer is: absolutely. How do you function, let’s say, in a grocery store without knowing how to read the prices on the shelf, without knowing which bill is which denomination (the colors help a little, but that isn’t always the case), how would one write a check? Participation in and creation of our culture requires a minimal literacy of the “restrictive" reading and writing definition.

The person shopping for groceries must not only be literate in the reading and writing sense, but must be literate in societal ways in order to successfully get groceries. Thus, we need BOTH kinds of literacy. Especially in a society and culture that depends so much on written communication that is has even developed mores to go along with written communication (such as sending out invitations, RSVP-ing, sending thank you notes, etc).

In a classroom, we focus on one kind of literacy, the ability to read and write. Why then does Scott feel the need to take literacy outside the classroom? Is it not the classroom in which we seek to develop the literacy of reading and writing? Her argument seems to be taken out of context in order to "broaden" the definition of literacy.

Scott’s other point, which I will touch only briefly, is that we are resistant to changing the ways in which we instruct. If we do not have the answer, why should we blindly change our instructional ways? Scott says we, “know more about the negative attitudes than how to change the,” (208). In this, she is correct, we can see the attitudes, but we just aren’t sure how to change them. She does give us a few theories on how to create a better learning environment and states that we need to create a “comfort zone that facilitates interactions across groups” (211). However, can we truly do this if our students are unwilling? For every teacher out there with a negative attitude, there is a student to match. Perhaps our students are just as resistant to change as we are.

The final question that Scott’s article left me to ponder is this: How then, do we change our thinking and ideas so that students and teachers alike can see literacy as more than just reading and writing, and what steps can we take to begin merging the definitions as well as changing attitudes?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Comparing Apples to Oranges: Science in Basic Writing

In Mike Rose’s article, “Narrowing the Mind and Page,” he talks about the ways in which we seek to explain the mind of a basic writer, we are partial to “using a singular, unitary cognitive explanation” (LE, 23). Rose links this classification phenomenon to the idea that everyone can function in the world only according to their level of IQ. His overall term for the classifications is “Cognitive Reductionism,” which seems to be fairly correct.

I think Rose has a good point here. Why is it that we as teachers, educators and experienced writers tend to “pigeon hole” basic writers into one category or another when there is a wealth of reasons why a writer is failing to advance in style, form, or grammar?

I think a lot of our need to classify goes back to the idea that in order to make the field of composition and rhetoric “valid” it must rely on more scientific methods and mimic the highly respected fields of the sciences. In our attempt to categorize basic writers we are also attempting to validate composition by using the same methods one might use in a chemistry experiment.

Rose is simply saying: Basic writing is not a science. We can not use the methods and THEORIES from other fields to produce explanations as to why basic writers still exist.

Rose then goes on to tell about the “field dependent-independent” experiment in which subjects were asked set a metal rod straight within the confines of a wooden box; those who set it upright regardless of the tilt of the box were labeled “field-independent” because they saw the box’s orientation as separate from the rod’s (LE, 25-30).

While reading the experiment I wondered how in the world there was a link between this experiment and writing. I also asked myself what I would have done as a subject in this experiment (I am field independent) before I read the possibilities of what a subject might do. As I read that field dependent subjects were linked to those who write poorly, I was curious as to why they might be poor writers.

On page 26, Rose shows us a personality explanation of the two which offers that: field dependents are more social, tend to take social cues, and depend on others for reinforcement whereas field independents are more individual, use themselves as reinforcement and have internalized frames of reference.

However, I found this to be a little bit of a backward “diagnosis” (as did Rose) because as beginning or basic writers we want our students to use other frames of reference in their papers, we want the students to be aware of their readers, and we want students depend on others for reinforcement (supporting evidence).

We also tend to see writing as a form of communication and those who are most social are often seen as the most effective communications. Why then are these field dependent subjects linked to basic writers when they very well could be the best and most likely learners or communicators? Why must we create a dichotomy of being one or the non-one?

Isn’t it unfair to apply principles from one theory to an entirely different field when the subjects are not even completing the same experiment? We wouldn’t compare the “orangeness” of a navel orange to the “orangeness” of a granny smith apple because we know that the two can not accurately be compared.

We are attempting to compare apples to oranges when we use theories from other fields to explain basic writers and I think Mike Rose has it right when he rejects these comparisons. Besides, I really don’t want to see my granny smith apple in terms of a navel orange, nor do I need to see basic writing in terms of “the scientific.”

Friday, March 30, 2007

Taking my inconvenience to make this uncomfortable

In our in-class exercise we reviewed a letter that a student had written to his professor contesting a grade he hadn’t actually even seen at that point. However much it bothers me that the student did not actually know the final outcome of his grade it bothers me more that the student was in an upper-level (post gen-eds) class and still writing like a basic writer. I was very surprised to see that the people who responded to his entry did not comment on the complaint as being a shining example of basic writing, but instead decided to pick up on a few aspects (poor quality, nonetheless) of the letter and ridicule them.

Obviously, this student was writing from a place of anger and frustration and maybe even sent the e-mail to his teacher without ever having done any proof reading. There is really no telling how or when it was that the student concluded it was the appropriate time to send that e-mail to the teacher. In any case, the letter is not something one would expect from a junior or senior and I am left to wonder how it is that this particular writer passed the beginning or introductory writing course(s) and the other courses that may have been heavily steeped in academic writing. Why was he allowed to continue on in his education when he clearly does not have the ability to put into words what it is that he truly means to say?

And so, we come back to Min-Zahn Lu and her article on Shaughnessy in which she argues that writing is a way for people to be able to make the essence of the written words communicable to both the writer and the reader (LE, 59). In the case of the writer above, his true meaning is usurped by the repetition of the phrase “you make me uncomfortable,” and is therefore lost within the babble of cyclical arguments which are not supported by any concrete evidence. What is this student truly trying to say? What exactly makes him uncomfortable? Is it truly his discomfort with the teacher that has caused his grade to be lower that he thinks he deserves?

One of the things that struck me the most is that the student seems to be resisting the changes that come along with academic writing (Lu’s Conflict and Struggle article from a few weeks ago). There seems to be something intrinsic in this student that just will not let him overcome the idea that his writing style was good before his entered college and is still good even after he has disputed his low grades with many teachers (that, have, by the way, been settled to his satisfaction).

Also, this basic writer feels a sense of entitlement. Whereas most of the articles we have read tell us that basic writers are often unsure of their abilities and fear writing. However, this student was so confident in his writing that he is sending a copy of the letter, in which he can not actually express his problem, to the supervisor of his teacher. Perhaps his sense of entitlement comes from his previous success in working the system or maybe he just truly resists the idea that a writer must change and grow in order to become better at the craft.

Friday, March 9, 2007

On a positive pedagogy

Shaughnessy, in her book Errors and Expectations, tells her readers that, “Every word is a potential misspelling” (162). This quote, as did many others, threw me for a moment. I was hit with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. I despaired for a few minutes, got depressed, fretted and even considered ending my teaching career because, after all it was hopeless (I exaggerate, but I did have a moment of panic).

Shaughnessy, on previous pages, pointed out that writers in the academic world are often forgiven for misspellings, but that writers in the professional world are judged for their mishaps spellings up to an including people doubting their intelligence and or education.
Within the world of academia spelling is “viewed by teachers and students alike as the most arbitrary, the most resistant to instruction, and the least related to intelligence” (161). If this is so why is such a great importance placed on spelling outside the academic area, where spoken language is as widely varied as the number of people that speak it? While Shaughnessy gives no answers to that question, she does review some of the misspelling patterns she has encountered.

To me, however, it seems to be a problem of mathematics, in a sense. Perhaps a student has written a paper in which they include 600 words, of those 540 are spelled correctly and 60 are spelled correctly. Mathematically, the student had spelled 90% of the words in the paper correctly. However, as teachers, the marred 60 words are what irritate us and keep the paper from being as good as it could be ( I am strictly speaking of spelling, ignoring grammar and punctuation problems that are present as well and which can make a paper problematic in its self, but are unimportant in the point).

While the non academic world might see the paper riddled with spelling errors and condemn the writer, I think it is important as teachers of basic writing to commend the writer for spelling 90% of the words correctly and encourage them to look at the patterns they recognize in their correct spellings to see if any fit in their misspellings.
We are encouraging and rewarding the student for correctness, not punishing them for incorrectness. While this might seem as though I am looking through rose colored glasses, I can see where encouraging attitudes such as this could help a writer to let go of anxiety. While the problem will remain and should be addressed throughout the semester or term, there is an advantage to looking at the positive. Besides, 90% anywhere else will earn an A.

Monday, February 26, 2007

More than you might think

I want to talk a little more about the letters written between graduate students and basic writers as described in Gail Stygall’s article “Resisting Privilege” as it is presented in Landmark Essays on Basic Writing.

On page 191, Stygall shows her readers one of the letters written by a basic writer, James, and then gives the response of Dee, the graduate student. Stygall notes the response Dee gives is almost three times as long as James’s and suggests Dee is “comfortable writing, even to someone she does not know” (192). It is also noted that James “asked no questions, while Dee feels it appropriate to ask eight questions” (192). Stygall goes on to point out that James’s handwriting is labored and “tortured,” and that Dee simply responds to James as a “teacher” by echoing him and asking him more questions about himself, thus requiring a reply.

However, I find Dee’s reply a little calloused and cold and I find Stygall’s analysis of James’s letter to be a little simplistic. If Stygall and Dee were to take a second look at James’s letter, they might see a more complicated letter than they previously thought.
The exploratory letter actually has a lot of questions embedded within it. Here is a list of questions I see within the letter:

1. Where were you born?
2. What are some of your interests?
3. How far into graduate school are you?
4. How many credit hours are you taking?
5. Where do you work?
6. What are your career plans?

James has written a perfectly conventional introductory letter in which he has described himself and the things important to him. When James asks Dee to tell him about herself, he intends for her to “echo” him, but his intentions are poorly met. While Dee seems comfortable writing to James about “feeling wimpy,” she does not echo him in a way that truly acknowledges his letter. Dee turns a letter that is supposed to be about her (a letter that should have echoed James’s by giving him more basic facts about herself) into a myriad of half-responses laced with more questions. The response letter seems to be less of a correspondence and more of a quiz.

I’m not sure how the barrage of questions will aid James, especially if he feels as though Dee has ignored his genuine attempt to learn more about her. What is it that makes Dee’s letter superior to James’s in Stygall’s eyes? Sheer number of words used? Dee’s ability to fill a page without really saying anything important or giving an actual reply? Why is it acceptable for Dee to write a letter filled with questions and ignore James’s true inquiries? Dee’s letter, to me, seems unfocused and misguided when read as a response to James’s.

It is clear that James and Dee both have different expectations of what an introductory letter should be and each is functioning within their own parameters of comfort. Which "comfort zone" is closer to our own and how do we move between zones to meet the needs of the other person? How do we step out of the rhelm of "teacher" and "student" and become communicators?

Friday, February 16, 2007

College Acculturation

In her article “Conflict and Struggle,” Min-zhan Lu talks about some of the ways in which teachers might view basic writers and help them develop into academic writers. While each theory has good points, there are also places where each can be seen as lacking.

For example, in the section about acculturation Lu relates the experiences of basic writing teachers’ feelings of “being in but not of the English profession” (138, LE) to those of the students they were teaching. The students were in academia, but not of academia. Herein lies the debate of how to assimilate the students into academia. Lu overviews a few theories about assimilation which range from moving students form “orality” to “literacy”(141) to the idea that a student’s anxiety about writing will go away over time as the student is assimilated to the world of academia (141).

Moving from “orality” to literacy is a great idea, if the student has an academic oral base. The idea assumes that the transition is easy and leaves out the possibility that the student has no academic “oral” base. Where, then, do we begin the transition? Can we as teachers teach an oral base before we begin an academic literacy base?

Also the idea that the anxiety over academic writing subsides after the students has made the transition is fair, but not completely correct. Academic writing can be scary even after the transition is “finished.” Several students as far up as PhD candidates and professors still worry and stress over their writing, the anxiety is still there and these people are considered far beyond the days of basic writing. It seems absurd to dismiss anxiety as “passing” while “students get comfortably settled in the new community and sever or diminish their ties with the old” (142). How then does this account for the anxiety of non-basic writers who are well within the “community of academia”? When and where is the line set for assimilation?

While I understand that Lu does not necessarily agree with these theories, and adds some suggestions of her own, it seems as though Lu is still trying to come up with better strategies then assimilation or accommodation as she looks into the future of her craft.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Shaughnessy and handwriting

In class, we spoke about the reasons that Shaughnessy might have chosen to include handwriting in her chapter with punctuation. I think that handwriting is very much a part of a person’s overall experience. Shaughnessy recognizes that a person’s handwriting, whether “good” or “bad,” can give various insights into a person’s past or even present situation.

Just as handwriting can be subjectively good and bad, so can writing in general. There are certain things one looks for when assessing the quality of written paper including; subject matter, syntax, organization and other areas of written language. Likewise, one looks for a range of qualities when assessing the quality of handwriting including; correct formation of letters both cursive and printed, overall legibility and pen (or pencil) strokes.

As many people suggest, a person’s handwriting can add insight to the person as a whole. This is why I think it is important to assess the students' writing ability in handwritten form first. In looking at the form, if it is all block letters or very disjointed, the writer may be suggesting more than just the thoughts on the page.

Also the “correctness” of letter formation might have a direct correlation between the written letters and the ability to “form” an essay in the proper manner. This may or may not be true in all cases, but it certainly might give us insight when viewed as a correlation factor.

However, not all basic writers will have bad handwriting and not all 110 writers will have good handwriting. In any case, I think that Shaughnessy’s point is that handwriting is a tool of communication. If a person can not read another’s handwriting it blocks the communication. Poor handwriting can be seen as improper or uneducated, just as a poorly organized or poorly punctuated paper calls (negative) attention to itself, poor handwriting skills will avert the reader’s attention to the perceived incorrectness rather than the thoughts on the page.

While handwriting is becoming more and more unneeded as we infiltrate computers into society, it is worthy to note that hand written notes still exist and might mean more than ever if it is perceived as illegible. Therein lies the importance of handwriting.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Basic Writing Definition

Defining basic writing can be difficult. For some people, basic writing is the ability to use written language in a way that enables them to function within the academic world. For others, it is the mastery of grammar, form, or any number of other technical features of writing that one might perceive as desirable. Still, for others it can simply be a new form of communication.

In class we watched an interview with Mike Rose in which he said, “Education is an invitation into a conversation.” I relate basic writing to this quote in that teaching basic writing is an invitation, on the teacher’s behalf, to the student, in the form of admittance into the academic conversation. During the interview Rose pointed out that students who feel as though they do not belong or are in some way inadequate tend to get frustrated and give up on education. Basic writing skills can give a student the invitation or competency needed to join in the education conversation.

In The Discovery of Competency, authors Kutz, Groden and Zamel point out that lamentations of teachers of basic writing often include: “‘they can’t think,’ ‘they can’t write,” or ‘they don’t know how to set standards’” ( 6). However, these lamentations are incorrect because the students can think, write, and set standards; they just haven’t developed their writing skills to the point of knowing and trusting their unique writing processes(15).

The development of writing skills and processes as well as trust in those processes is what makes basic writing so important. When the enormous pressure of perfection and correctness is taken away from students they will ultimately find a writing process that works for them and begin to develop into a more confident writer. In a sense, they will feel as though they have been invited into the conversation of education because they now possess the most basic ability to use written communication in a way which allows them to function academically.

Basic writing is a foundation education in which students are given the opportunity to gain access to the writing skills needed for conversation; it is the combination of necessary writing elements into a product that is most valuable to the student.