Sunday, November 13, 2011

Form and Surprise in Composition

I have been continuing my tutelage under Troy Hicks and the Digital Writing Workshop, but I also began my study of Ramage and Bean's work, particularly Bean. I am planning to study Ramage and Bean with the thought to use their ideas to craft some workshops for faculty in other disciplines at my school (also, I hope to get me to rethink my own assignments).

They begin their textbook, which I did not realize was a textbook, discussing why college freshmen who are inexperienced writers do not go through the entire writing process. They focus on two reasons. One reason they label as "alienation" to describe the disconnectedness of the classroom assignment from a real writing situation. The writing is only a game played by the professor's rules, and these rules seem arbitrary and incomprehensible. The student puts little investment in real communication because it is a silly game they are forced to play to get a grade. As long as writing is a school activity, this first hindrance to writing is hard to overcome completely.

The second reason, though, is interesting to me given my focus on rhetorical reflection. I will quote a part of their text:

"For some reason, they [students] don't seem obsessed by the need to write successive drafts. Why is this so?

" Inexperienced writers, we believe, don't go through the writing process because they haven't learned to pose for themselves the same kinds of problems that experienced writers pose.  ... they have not learned how to 'problematize' their experience" (4).

The entire writing process involves problems and choices, and the awareness of some standard or criteria for what is working or not working, right or wrong, that then defines when something is problematic. I've tagged this standard for the writing classroom as the "idea of essay success" and the "ideal text/writer." Part of why I believe Writing Reviews and rhetorical reflection have value is because it engages students in this thinking about their writing and prompts them to work through the problems and choices of writing as a way to develop a "habit of mind." The practice of Writing Reviews as a way of prompting rhetorical reflection "poses" for inexperienced writers some of the kinds of problems that experienced writers pose.

Hopefully, it would help develop unaided and unprompted habits of rhetorical reflection for writers as they become more experienced. This capacity for unprompted rhetorical reflection would constitute transfer.

I look forward to learning from Ramage and Bean.

Before I leave today's post, I want to bring up one other point they discuss and relate it to something I was reading in Troy's book. While defining their understanding of the book's chief concepts--form and surprise--they use the law of thermodynamic as a metaphor to describe surprise in writing. Basically, this law says that the greater the degree of temperature difference, the greater the amount of energy transferred. They say, "Writers aiming for 'surprise' in their essays might imagine themselves conveying energy (the writer's view of a topic) across a gap to a reader existing at a different temperature (a different view of the topic)" (16). As I begin working on my general article on rhetorical reflection, I feel that I can certainly build on the "temperature" difference that lies between the typical way of viewing reflection and that or rhetorical reflection. I saw more evidence of curricular reflection in the description of Dawn Reed's curriculum for creating a podcast in Troy's book. Included at the end of the six page curriculum description is an assignment titled, "This I Believe Informative Speech and Podcasting Reflection." The prompt for the written reflective piece starts this way: "Compose a one-page-minimum typed reflection explaining what you learned from the This I Believe podcasting project" (71). There it is--post-task reflection designed to promote constructivist learning within a context of evaluation. I feel that the "temperature" difference between the common portfolio-centric view of reflection and that of rhetorical reflection is fairly large. Hence, I believe my article can build on a strong element of surprise.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Reflection Saturday

Yesterday was a San Antonio Writing Project Super Saturday that focused on reflection, and I thought I would process the event a bit. Mainly, I want to process my own keynote presentation and the presentation on reflection in the Summer Institute by Chelsea Silvas.

I really think Chelsea is on to something important regarding the kind of learning that participants experience in the five-week NWP Summer Institutes. Her foundational perspective on reflection comes from Jack Mezirow's notions of Transformational Learning and the role that reflection plays. Mezirow believed that through reflection upon our assumptions or beliefs we are able change these beliefs (which he calls "meaning schemes") or more importantly our "meaning perspectives" (which he labels "meaning perspectives): “Critique and reassessment of the adequacy of prior learning, leading potentially to its negation, are the hallmarks of reflection” (110). So far Chelsea has not surfaced Mezirow's notions of reflection at this level or dug into his notions of content, process, and premise reflection. Also, so far she leans on Higgins et. al. for a definition of "critical reflection" to refer to this evaluative aspect at the heart of the "critique and reassessment" generated through reflection. I believe she will sort these things out. 

But I think she is right in line with Mezirow's emphasis in the importance of "validation of knowledge" for learners and the crucial role reflection plays in this validation process.

What Chelsea has identified is three sites for this reflection and validation process to happen. I am going to put her labels for these sites and then the spaces within the ecology of a Summer Institute where these reflections happen:
  1. Other's Experiences--throughout the SI teachers share their classroom experiences in the morning journaling and in countless other informal instances of talk. It could happen in the discussion after a teaching demo, at lunch, or even in peer groups, but it all has the fundamentally similar characteristic of teachers sharing specific instances of teaching and specific experiences from their professional life as teachers.
  2. Narratives--I believe Chelsea is focusing this site of reflection around the writing participants do for the writing pieces. I am not sure that this label will work because not all participants write narratives (at least I didn't). Perhaps Writing or Teachers as Writers would work better. Nevertheless, this site focuses on teachers put in the role of writers.
  3. Community Learning--Three aspects of the SI fall into this category: the teaching demos, writing groups, and reading groups. In some ways, teaching demos are different from writing and reading groups, but if we see the demos as community presentations and including the coaching that goes along with the presentation, then I think they all fit together. 
What Chelsea needs to identify is what is reflective about each of these sites of reflection? What is the nature of this reflection she says is transformative and how would we identify instances of this reflection to study it? 

My initial thoughts are that the double-movement of reflection is a bit different in each instance, and elaborating on the characteristics in each setting will be very interesting. Generally speaking, though, the double-movement is between self and other. 
  1. my teaching experience >< other's teaching experience
  2. me as writer >< my students as writers (writing teacher >< writing student)
  3. me as scholar, writer, teacher >< others as scholar, writer, teacher
In each of these sites, the interplay between self and other causes teachers to expand beyond their previous thinking and practices and experience "validation of knowledge." 

Since the interplay of reflection appears to be so much between self and other in this context, I'm thinking that Donna Qualley's notions of reflexivity might not apply. I'm going to tack in a passage I wrote on Qualley from a graduate paper:

"Qualley defines reflexivity this way: 'reflexivity involves a commitment to attending to what we believe, think, and feel while examining how we came to hold those beliefs, thoughts, and feelings.  This kind of monitoring and self-awareness seems critical for enabling us to grasp new ideas and information'(41). 1 She contrasts 'earned insights' with 'ready-made conclusions':  'I comprehend an earned insight to be a kind of understanding whose essential truth is only realized or more fully grasped as it is made manifest through the individual's experience and contemplation of that experience' (35). Ready-made conclusions, in contrast, are packaged truths received uncritically by the learner.  Reflection upon experience is one important means of crystallizing 'earned insights.'"

Qualley distinguishes reflexivity from reflection. She sees reflection as self-oriented, but reflexivity is a "bidirectional contrastive response" to an "other" (12). Reflexivity is triggered by this dialectical engagement with the other--"an other idea, theory, person, culture, text, or even an other part of one's self" (11). Along with Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater, she believes this "reflexive dialogue" has incredible power--like opening Pandora's box. 

I believe what Chelsea is identifying in her study is the "reflexive dialogue" between self and other that occurs in these three different ways within the SI experience of NWP. I know that her discussion has helped me see my SI experience in another light that helps to explain why it was so powerful.

I've spent most of my post talking about Chelsea's presentation, so I'll now turn briefly to my own presentation. Working on this presentation was a good experience for me because I finally was able to get down some of the thinking I have been having for an article I have had in my head for at least four months. I see now that the overall structure of this article will flow this way:
  1. Display our current bias toward viewing reflection in post-task ways (curricular reflection, portfolio-centric view of reflection)
  2. Broaden our perspective on reflection by exploring the views of Dewey, Schon, Boud, and Kolb
  3. Elaborate on the added perspective of rhetorical reflection: define it, how it works, and why it is important
  4. I guess I should add in the additional part of how to use this kind of reflection in the classroom
I don't know that this article will go into depth about the research and research results. I need to think of target journals but of course I'd like to get in CCC, but perhaps Comp Forum, Comp Studies or even English Journal might be a target. Beyond that, I could trim it to go in TETYC and forfront the pedagogy more. 

Anyway, what I discovered when I woke up today was that by doing this presentation I had finally begun working on this article. Hurray!

Mezirow, Jack. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-
Bass, 1991.
Qualley, Donna. Turns of Thought: Teaching Composition as Reflexive Inquiry.
Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1997.
Qualley, Donna and Christine Chiseri-Strater. "Collaboration as Reflexive Dialogue: A Knowing 'Deeper Than Reason. "JAC  Vol. 14, 1.