Saturday, June 23, 2007

Teaching and Theory

What are the core movements in the history of composition (as summarized by Berlin and Fulkerson), and which elements of each can you relate to in your own teaching philosophy?

For me, I am a tangle of all these approaches. I have an intellectual theory (sort of like a philosophy) that totally favors New Rhetoric with its social epistemic beliefs in how language works and how we learn to write, but as I look at my own practice I find that these categories (formalist, expressivist, mimetic , rhetorical or classicist, current-traditional, expressivist, epistemic) are played out in my practice more as the exception that the rule. I can't say I have a practice that is purely one or the other--so, in the eyes of Knoblauch and Brannon, Fulkerson, and Berlin I am guilty of "modal confusion." For Fulkerson, I am guilty of "mindlessness" and must have "[failed] to have a consistent value theory or fail[ed] to let that philosophy shape [my] pedagogy" (554).

Perhaps some of this modal confusion comes from the mixed way I began teaching. I'll try to describe the three different classes I initially taught and their very different approaches. I began at Palo Alto College in 1989 with one section of Freshman Composition II taught at Kelly Air Force Base. It was Lit/Comp. We read Hamlet and poetry and short stories and The Great Gatsby. I sort of lectured and led class discussion and my students wrote critical analyses of the literature--that is, the "critical essay." This is formalist, current-traditional teaching of literature as I had been taught in college. Exigesis. The most important thing was to find sufficient evidence IN THE TEXT for your thesis. Perhaps this was a bit mimetic too (I don't find Fulkerson's distinctions between formalist and mimetic to be clear since often formalist teach in mimetic ways). The next semester I was hired as a full-time temporary instructor with six sections of English 1301 (I was talked into an overload). Searching for help in how to teach this class, I luckily stumbled into Ellen Shull who used portfolios and a writing workshop model for her class. I followed her practice as closely as I could. I also found Beat Not the Poor Desk which provided me with the essay assignments for how I taught 1301 for many years. It was almost in the purest form an expressivist classroom. The topics were personal in nature and the "text" students read was their own lives and the writings of their peers. We might read a novel or two, but these were complementary texts for inspiration and even as models. Students worked on their "writing skills" as they sought "to say what they truly meant to say" in as full and powerful a way as they could. It was great.

The next Fall, though, I for the first time was given a Developmental English class. And my text was John Langan's College Writing Skills. In the preface to the textbook, Langan recounts an incident that shapes his approach to writing. He had gotten a paper back from a college professor with a poor grade and it had some cryptic notes on it that said "log." He visited his professor and asked what this "log" means. The professor replied, "Logic my young man. Logic" (or something like that). His essay had flaws in logic. Since it was my first time teaching, I swallowed Langan's textbook whole and followed it closely. He has clear instructions and good models, so it was easy. It also rang true to what I had considered to be "the essay" from my college and graduate school experience. Thesis--Primary Supports--Secondary Supports--Details. Freshman Comp. II essays were the same things, but on steroids (that is, with more textual support).

So I began (and continued) my college teaching using different approaches or philosophies to teaching with different classes. Developmental Writing and Fresh Comp II very formalist and Fresh Comp I very expressivist. As I moved into teaching in the computer classroom, I became more enamored with "social constructivism" and the "negotiation of meaning" and have always in these environments facilitated the sharing of text. Every piece of writing (except journals) is public. My philosophical center of gravity moved more toward the social epistemic, and thanks to my belief in my own innovativeness by using computers and Knoblauch and Bannon's (I read their book in my second year of teaching and reread it a number of time) assertion of the philosophical and pedagogical superiority of epistemic beliefs, I saw myself as being better than some other teachers who might use other approaches (particularly formalist or current-traditional approaches). I was hypocritical, though, in this position.

I've come to see that these divisions and taxonomies are useful only to a point, and as I pointed out in my critique of Berlin, potentially damaging. I think it is truer to point out the ways in which these categories blend and mix that how they are different. I'll give one example: Let's say in my 1302 class I am having them write a researched argument on a contemporary issue (that you might find discussed in the show Justice Talking). We do a lot of drafting and peer response. We could say this is "expressivist" to an extent because the writer is searching for their "internal apprehension of truth" that is true for them--they are expressing their opinion. We do all this sharing of text and peer response, so it is epistemic in that their opinion is also socially negotiated and situated. Yet they are writing the essay as an academic argument/persuasion paper--a "critical essay" (see the link for my blueprint of this classic composition form). This essay form is very formalist and even current-traditional. But this doesn't follow the product-centered focus of c-t because we have developed this essay through a three draft process (which included invention activities and reflections). We might even add that a large challenge of the writer is the classical one of presenting their argument in a rhetorical way with a keen sense that they are not presenting absolute truths but approximations of truth within an uncertain situation. So we see how within this one assignment all four of Berlin's categories are mixed.

This same modal mixture can also happen between assignments. For instance, I typically have done my first assignment in English 1301 as a narrative (Ponsot and Dean's "Family Story"). Yet I follow that essay with the "Illustrative Essay" where they express a "truth" and illustrate it with stories. This second essay is highly rhetorical since I ask them to address an audience with a specific purpose in mind and I also ask them to use "essay form" (very formalist). All the while, I'm using what might be considered more expressivist approaches to the writing process with lots of drafting and peer response (I happen to be with Harris in saying the strict association of process pedagogy with expressivist practices is bunk).

So how useful are these categories afterall? Or better, how useful is it for us to attempt to be "pure" in our practice following one or the other of these models? Are these categories and dichotomies afterall more harmful than they are helpful--as Kay Halasek and Sherry Gradin ask?

These are some of the issues I dealt with in a paper I wrote last Fall ("Open Spaces: A Heuristic Toward a New Composition") and without belabouring the point I tend to agree with Halasek's alternative "architechtonics" of composition as performance and dialogue that occillates between what she calls "productivity" and "proficiency." I can't say, though, that my practice has reached this "New Composition" yet.




Bart Rules!

A video produced by my youngest son.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Systems Approaches to Composition


Composition and Technology
As I think about Anson's article (and its connection to Lanham's "Audit of Virtuality"), Kearcher's article, and TOPIC (as an example of a systems approach to teaching composition), I see a key tension and dynamic at play. What does "systems" mean? How does the "system" work? I think one way we can answer these questions is to frame the "system" along these continuums:

Strategic---><---Tactic Closed---><---Open Anson closes his article warning of "those uses of technology that will lead to bad teaching, poor learning, unfair curricular practices, and unjust employment" (816). These warnings are the dark side of what systems approaches to composition could become. Let me start with the first pair: strategic-tactic. I'm taking the terms from Kearcher who uses them from Certeau, so I can't claim I fully understand them. I interpret Kearcher's use of the terms to revolve around issues of freedom and access. "Strategic" would describe the school's or teacher's predetermine elements of learning content and writing assignments--what she calls "institutionally-based writing instruction." We might question at what level the "institution" controls this instruction, and see a continuum from my department where we have a sketch of a common syllabus (with common learning outcomes and general course requirements) and teachers have complete freedom to teach what and how they like within that sketch to the scripted curriculum a friend of mine must follow in her Sophmore high school class at Smithson Valley High School (all teachers must be doing and saying the same things on the same day). What we see in a program like TOPIC is that the programmatic homogenenization of curriculum is facilitated via technology that runs through a central database. Depending upon the context, this systemization of a program might be for the good, but of central concern would be the level of agency that teachers have within that system. "Tactic" as Kearcher uses instead seems to focus on the student and seems to refer to access--the freedom to get to needed resources to meet individual needs at kairotic moments. I am totally excited about the possibilities for technology to serve as a "mediator" for action and learning in the way Kearcher describes, especially the way she describes access to a learning community (or rhetorical forum) to share writing. We might ask of systems approaches to composition if they could provide "tactical" help to teachers too. Rather than making the curriculum a monolith that restricts teachers (to say one syllabus and assignments and textbook), can it facilitate the "tactical" choices and actions teachers make as they teach as well? The second continuum we can frame systems approaches to composition upon is a similar one to the last and it is closed to open. I'm thinking particularly of how Clay Spinuzzi uses the terms at the end of his book on Genre Tracing. Computer "systems" have a tendency to "formalize" behavior--to push it through specific actions and behaviors. They are closed systems in that the users are not able to change the system in any way. In the teaching of writing, you don't have to have computers to get this level of formalization (as witnessed by my friend teaching from a scripted curriculum). The ideal, somehow, is to have a composition system that is open and adaptable for the teacher (user). The tensions in this dynamic of closed-open are enormous, but potentially powerful since it might combine the best of teachers interacting to find common ground (the need for some level of formalization and conformity amongst the curriculum) and teachers seeking ways to teach how they want and how they believe is best (from their own practical wisdom). IF the computer interface could facilitate this kind of open system, then I think we might have arrived.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

6/8 Post--Beliefs

Topic: What are the three most important concepts in composition would you say? These concepts might play a role in your teaching philosophy, so you might think of this question as what are the three most important beliefs about your own teaching do you have?

I've been walking around with this topic for almost a week thinking of what I would write. These two questions are actually two sides of the same coins--concept/practice or theory/practice. I've taught so long that most of my beliefs and practices are ingrained, and I have to stop and think to make them explicit. Here they are:

1) I believe in portfolios which is another way of saying I believe in the writing process. I've never thought of or used portfolios in Freshman Composition as a means of evaluation. Instead, it is the course-structuring framework that guides the complete tenor of the class. We are writing a book. We will write a number of writing pieces and along the way everything we write is "in process" and could be revised a zillion times if we wanted to. At the end, we will pick our best writing, revise it again, and turn it in within a "book." What this structure to the class provides is built in mechanism for revision. We revise pieces when they are first written, but it is that last effort at collection and selection and revision where students do their most significant writing. It sure makes a bear for me at the end of the semester as I grade them, but the end results and the growth I see in students is worth it.

2) I believe in "shared discourse" which is another way of saying I believe in collaboration and that students learn from their peers. Post-process folks call it "communicative interaction." I set up my class so that practically every piece of writing is turned in to a shared space where we all can read it. Only journals are private. We do intensive peer response, but also we do writings where we learn and grow from reading what we have done (without the need to respond). In this way, I seek to set up a writing community (or a rhetorical forum) where students gain a deeper sense of audience.

3) I believe students have an innate capacity with language and that their writing development improves with practice and takes time. What this means is that I affirm each of my students ability to communicate--they already have a complex capacity for linguistic expression. What I have to work on is helping students become more comfortable and "fluent" in written expression. So often their expression done through writing is stunted and strained, and I seek to open them up to expressing themselves in writing--the grammar and correctness will come in time. Freewriting is a very powerful tool in helping students gain comfort and confidence with writing, and each semester I hear students comment on how much they like it.

Those are my big three: portfolios, shared text, and expression. There is so much more to teaching composition, but these three are pretty good core beliefs and practices to my teaching. You are welcome to wander around my Freshman Composition site.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Making of Knowledge in Composition

I just picked up Stephen North's The Making of Knowledge in Composition: Portrait of an Emerging Field (1987) and I found a passage that speaks directly to my previous post. In his introduction, North defines a two concepts central to his book. The first is "modes of inquiry," which he defines as "the whole series of steps an inquirer follows in making a contribution to a field of knowledge" (1). He is specifically interested in how these modes of inquiry operate within "methodological communities": "groups of inquirers more or less united by their allegiance to one such mode, to an agreed-upon set of rules for gathering, testing, validating, accumulating and distributing what they regard as knowledge" (1). He clarifies that "modes of inquiry" does not just mean method (or what he calls "technique") and he goes on to stress that their significance and "how these techniques and their results come to mean for any particular investigation--is not inherent in the techniques themselves, but [are] a function of community standards" (2). What I think North is saying here is that research and research methods "make sense" based upon "terministic screens" or common places of a community of researchers (community standards) that often goes under the term "methodology," but North seems to hint that it is much more.

North uses a quote from Paul Diesing to elaborate on these "methodological communities": "Their interaction is facilitated by shared beliefs and values--goals, myths, terminology, self-concepts--which make their work mutually intelligible and valuable" (qtd. in 2). Beneath the efforts to gain various forms of "validity and reliability" in research is this framework of belief and assumptions that may not be founded on "objective and verifiable" truths and "evidence." It is this Toulmin-esque level of unstated assumptions, these warrants or Topoi-commonplaces, that undergird not just what we ask and how we seek answers but how we understand what we "learn" from research that seems very important. This understanding of "research" and how it works to establish belief (and thus practice) seems to explain why the concepts of Britton and Moffett and others who promoted the notion of writing growth and the teaching practice to promote this growth gained such currency. They tapped in to the warrants and commonplaces of teachers in powerful ways.

What will be my "mode of inquiry" and "methodological community" for my research? If I want my research to contribute to the field, how will I frame it so that it enters the field in rhetorically significant ways? These are questions yet to be determined, but I am glad to land on these central concepts for how I will "position" my research.

My research focus has an interesting double-level to it which I will try to elaborate on:
1) The use of "rhetorical reflection" already has gained general "acceptance" in the composition/learning community--most teachers believe reflection is an important step or activity to promote deep learning (even if they don't use it themselves). What, then, are the warrants/assumptions/commonplaces that support this belief? If we look at significant expressions of these beliefs (Yancey, Mezirow, Moon), how do they establish this belief? And where does "research" and appeals to emperical evidence fit in the establishment of this belief?
2) The second level of my research interest involves not just "where/how" did these beliefs get established, but are they "true?" Does what we think reflection "does" actually happen? Can we verify our assumptions/beliefs in emperical research on reflection? And if I am going to inquire into these assumptions/beliefs, what will be my mode of inquiry and who will be my methodological community? Given my chosen methodological community, what then will be my modes of inquiry and my rhetoric to influence the "knowledge" of this community? How much will I need to allow this community to determine my rhetoric and modes of inquiry?

These are my summer questions (that I know will be with me for a long time).

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Connection of Practice and Research

This is my first post for the summer and the 5360 class (it is not the one on my view of the three main issues in composition...yet), and I want to respond to something I thought of as I read the first chapter in Harris' A Teaching Subject. My own interest in reflection as a "teaching practice" and mode of learning is closely entwined with beliefs and assumptions about how we learn and even how the brain works. As a teacher, when I incorporate reflective assignments between drafts, I do so out of a commitment to those beliefs and assumptions.

But what grounds do those beliefs and assumptions have? What support do I have for the theory(ies) that undergird my practice in this area? What evidence do I have that what I think happens via reflection actually happens? What research supports this practice?

The questions outlined here will be the focus of my inquiry this summer. What are the grounds (specifically emperical grounds) for reflection as a teaching practice?

Now to what I found REALLY interesting from Harris. In his chapter on "Growth," Harris outlines the emergence of a new teaching practice in composition championed by (among others) Britton and Moffet that language learning (literacy competency) evolves and can be developed in a certain way. They saw student's growth occuring in a movement from expressive to more interpretive/argumentative writing. (I still basically structure my Freshman Comp I class along Moffet's progression.) While I found this history of "the growth movement" very illuminating on my own practice, I was struck by how this perspective on teaching practice gained currency:

"Britton influenced their work not because he offered an unbiased view of how children learn to use language but because he was able to make a convincing case for the value of a certain kind of learning. His theory described not what was but what ought to be; it was justified through the teaching practice it gave rise to. And so, even while he failed to offer the map of language learning that he promised that he promised, Britton still succeeded in changing how many teachers worked in their classrooms." (9)

What Harris points out here about Britton and the "growth movement's" assendence is how it happened based on argument and rhetoric. Britton was able to make a good case, AND his case was not founded in emperical research full of research studies and statistics "proving" his theory. His arguments tapped in to other foundations for belief connected to teachers lived experience in the classroom (their practice).

I am interested in this dynamic of influence on practice because I believe the use of reflection is similarly based upon these kinds of practice-based beliefs rather than in emperical research. Yancey has influenced so many teachers in regards to reflection not because of reseach but because of arguments and connections she makes to what teachers also hold to be true about teaching and learning.

So I guess I am getting at one of the curious features of teaching practice--that we as teachers base what we do often on intuition, influence, and what we think works in the classroom (and what we have experienced that we perceive as working). Given this climate and nature of the basis for teaching practice, what role can research play? What difference can it make? I am after engaging in research on a particular teaching practice based on what I will call "teaching sense" (as in a teacher's "common sense" or common place). How can I test or interrigate this "teaching sense?" What role can research play given this nature of belief?