April 18, 2005

Nancy Sommers: "Responding to Student Writing"

In "Responding to Student Writing," Nancy Sommers examines what she calls the "most widely used," yet "least understood" method for responding to student writing. Sommers and her colleagues, Lil Brannon and Cyril Knoblauch, researched the commenting styles of 35 teachers at New York University and the University of Oklahoma. Their findings show that the teachers' comments were "arbitrary and idiosyncratic" and that they did little to encourage better writing.

One of the problems that Sommers sees is that teachers often provide only vague, "rubber-stamped" advice that doesn't vary according to purpose or to the student's stage in the drafting process. Many students receive mixed messages from their instructors as well. For instance, in the sample paragraphs Sommers cites, the teachers have marked many sentence level errors, but at the same time, have also suggested the student writer rethink the entire paragraph.

Sommers recommends that in order for teachers' comments to help students become better writers, they must be thoughtful and specific to the text on which they're working. She also recommends teachers comment differently on early drafts than they do on later drafts. Students should see that revising their content must occur before they edit and polish.


Though I don't doubt Sommers' conclusion that we need to offer better writing advice to our students, advice that is specific to the text and the stage in the writing process, I do have concerns about how she reached that conclusion. Comparing teacher comments with a computer's comments and concluding that the computer offers better advice in a more reasonable way seems highly problematic to me.

As essays are being added into standardized tests required to receive AP/IB credit, graduate from high school, and get into college, machine scoring is becoming more and more attractive. It is an efficient, cost-effective way to handle the paper load. ETS claims that their machine scoring of papers is highly sophisticated and reliable Yet, how can a computer replace a human reader? How can it comment on the "big-picture" concerns that Sommers wants us to encourage students to wrestle with? And how can we expect students to produce authentic writing when they know it will be graded by a formula that has been programmed into a machine?

Posted by gust0124 at 2:51 PM

April 11, 2005

James D. Williams: "Grammar and Usage"

James D. Willimas opens his chapter, "Grammar and Usage" by stating that "the biggest myth about writing is that it is somehow linked to grammar." He cites many studies which all conclude that teaching traditional grammar has no effect on writing performance, including a well known study by Hillocks (1986) which found that if taught in certain ways, traditional grammar instruction can actually be detrimental to student writing. Hillocks says that those who insist on grammar instruction in the name of writing improvement are doing a "gross disservice" to students by doing so.

Williams admits that this conclusion is hard for many to believe because it seems to contradict common sense. After all, we learn the alphabet before we learn to spell words. Yet, Williams reminds us, we do not learn language by a "building block" approach. Children learn grammar from their home communities and come to school with grammar "already embedded in their brains." In fact, claims Williams, it is impossible for children to process or naturally produce ungrammatical phrases.

Williams goes on to explain that most writing errors are, in fact, not grammatical in nature, but are errors in usage. Where traditional grammar is concerned with grammatical terminology and parts of speech, usage is the way in which language conventions govern how we use it in different contexts (i.e. spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement). Teaching grammar will not correct these usage errors. Instead, Williams suggests, students most effectively internalize usage conventions by reading.

Williams concludes by saying that he doesn't mean to imply that the teaching of grammar has no worth. He says there is value in talking about language and studying its intricacies. But, if our goal is to teach students to write better, Williams insists that students will be better served if teachers, rather than spending a great deal of time on grammar instruction, focus more on reading, and on providing the most effective (if idealistic) writing instruction: giving students as much one-on-one instruction as possible.


It is difficult for many to believe that grammar instruction has no effect whatsoever on writing. Like Williams claims, I have never had a writing instruction course before this one, yet have been teaching students to write for many years. Though I have never spent much time teaching grammar, I have felt guilty for not doing so. Because I had so much grammar instruction in my own schooling, I just thought it must be something I should be doing. I’m relieved to hear that it wouldn’t affect my students' writing anyway.

My district (the largest in Minnesota), though, certainly buys into the belief that grammar instruction is valuable. We need to raise our writing test scores? The solution: more grammar! Students are required to have Daily Oral Language instruction every day in their elementary and secondary English classes. A DOL lesson consists of sentence correction and a discussion of grammar--completely unrelated to any other projects on which students are working. When they get to 12th grade, which has no DOL component, I find that students are able to name the parts of speech, but still have usage errors. My own experience is that it is more effective to give students usage mini-lessons, but only when they are near the end of the writing process for any particular paper, and to tie in that mini-lesson directly with the paper on which they're working.

Posted by gust0124 at 9:55 PM

April 4, 2005

Mina Shaughnessy: "Errors and Expectations"

In the introduction to her book, Errors and Expectations, Mina Shaughnessy explains that in it, she focuses on the needs of Basic Writers, non-traditional students who have not mastered the codes of written language. She divides her book into the categories of: Handwriting and Punctuation, Syntax, Common Errors, Spelling, Vocabulary and Beyond the Sentence. In these chapters, Shaughnessy gives examples of problems basic writers might face, provides possible reasons as to why these problems exist and suggests ways teachers might help students overcome them.

Shaughnessy defends her focus on "errors" by stating that "since teachers' preconceptions about errors are frequently at the center of their misconceptions about BW students," she has "no choice." She also cites the fact that many basic writers are frustrated and inhibited by fear when it comes to writing. To many of them, good writing means correct writing, and some of these students have been "damaged" by writing teachers who have contributed to this belief.

To help undo the damage, Shaughnessy wants to help these writers access the codes that have held them back. She also says that correcting errors relates to awareness of audience. Because they shift audience attention from "where [the writer] is going (meaning) to how he is getting there (code), error correction is essential."


I agree with Shaghnessy: good editing does not always equal good writing, but good writing which is littered with errors can be so distracting the message can be lost. I would be interested in looking at Shaughnessy's book. It doesn't seem like a place to start (Elbow certainly wouldn't think so), or something to use in isolation (I have traumatic memories of doing grammar exercise after grammar exercise in high school), but it may be a helpful resource for teachers to use when working with individual students as they try to understand the types of errors they're making.

Posted by gust0124 at 8:14 PM

March 28, 2005

Delpit: "The Silenced Dialogue"

Lisa D. Delpit's "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children" addresses concerns about "skills" versus "process" approaches to writing instruction in regards to how these approaches affect students who do not belong to what she calls "the culture of power."

The culture of power in our schools, Delpit states, comprises white and middle/upper-middle class students. These students tend to do better in school because, claims Delpit, they hold "cultural capital;" they already possess the discourse patterns and values that are reflected in our educational system. Students without cultural capital tend to struggle, according to Delpit, because they must learn new language codes and value systems, many of which are implicit. "When implicit codes are attempted across cultures," Delpit explains, "communication frequently breaks down." These students often find themselves being held accountable for knowing a set of rules that no one has taught them.

Delpit encourages "liberal" teachers with "good intentions," many of whom may feel uncomfortable possessing this type of power, to admit their role as power brokers, and reexamine their instructional techniques. Many of these teachers, says Delpit, have been advocating the "process approach" to teaching literacy, and employ such practices as peer writing groups. Delpit claims that though these techniques may be effective with students within the culture of power, students outside of it may feel cheated by them. Black students, for instance, she says, "expect an authority figure to act with authority," and may feel the teacher is shirking her responsibilities if she is not offering direct instruction to the class. Delpit cites a study by Siddle (1988) which compared direct instruction, teacher conferencing and peer writing groups and found that direct instruction in the form of "mini-lessons" had the best results, while peer conferencing produced the least number of changes in Black students' writing.

Delpit believes that teachers should directly and explicitly educate students without cultural capital about the "politically charged" styles, codes and values that exist within the culture of power, and that these same teachers must also reinforce to students the value that their own culture holds. Delpit also suggests that such instruction can only be done "in consultation with adults who share their culture," the Black teachers and parents whose concerns have been "silenced by the very forces that claim to 'give voice'" to these students.

Delpit adds she is arguing not solely for the skills approach, though. She admits that these students need to find their own "expertness" and that we "need to help students to establish their own voices" and to "coach those voices to produce notes that will be heard clearly in the larger society." Delpit charges those with the most power to take the initiative in the project of "get[ting] all the issues on the table in order to initiate true dialogue." This must be done, Delpit states, because: "To provide schooling for everyone's children that reflects liberal, middle-class values and aspirations is to ensure the maintenance of the status quo, to ensure that power, the culture of power, remains in the hands of those who already have it."


I have few quarrels with Delpit's assertions. Yes, a culture of power does exist, yes, I am part of it, and yes, my job as a teacher is to help all students access it if they want to. The concern I have is how to do it. How do I directly teach all of my students who aren't white/middle-class/English speaking the explicit codes of the culture while at the same time meeting the needs of those who are already masters of the code? It's a difficult task.

Delpit’s charge to the culture of power seems directly tied into the controversial NCLB initiative. I have mixed feelings about it. Of course leaving no child behind is a noble goal, of course it would be nice if every student in my school could master basic skills, but is this realistic, and are the results worth the cost? Next year, my high school will lose a good chunk of its ESL funding. Nearly half of the students who qualify for tutoring won't receive help. At the same time, there is a new directive that all ESL students must take two full years of mainstream English classes in order to graduate. This means that I will have more ESL students in my classroom earlier, and most of them will not qualify for any additional help.

Teachers at my school spend many after school hours tutoring ESL, minority, low income, and special education students so they can pass the basic skills tests. Some of these students are definitely benefiting from this direct instruction. Others, though, like some ESL students, those with significant learning disabilities, and those who just don't buy into the system will not make it. But, we require them to try and try, not because it's the best thing for the students, but because we are desperate as a school to shake the dreaded stigma of being an NCLB "school on probation."

Meanwhile, competent and honors students aren't getting nearly the same attention. Honors class sizes are getting bigger and resources are scarcer because so much money and energy is being directed towards those without cultural capital. I am still really struggling with all of these issues. As a public high school, we need to meet all of our students' needs: those with cultural capital, those without, the brilliant students, the struggling students, and, most challenging of all, the students who don't even want to be there. It seems an overwhelming task at times.

Posted by gust0124 at 5:10 PM

March 21, 2005

Bruffee: "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind'"

By understanding the rationale behind collaborative learning, Kenneth A. Bruffee hopes, in his "Collaborative Learning and the 'Conversation of Mankind,'" that teachers, many of whom may be unsure about the practice, will see the value of collaborative learning in their classrooms.

Bruffee starts by discussing the nature of thought and knowledge. He cites Michael Oakeshott and Clifford Geertz, who, like Vygotski, believe that human thought is related causally to social conversation: that is, our private thoughts spring from our public interactions with others. Bruffee goes on to cite others from a variety of fields. Scientist Thomas Kuhn states that knowledge is not "merely relative," or "what any one of us says it is. Knowledge is maintained and established by communities of knowledgeable peers." Philosopher Richard Rorty believes that to understand any kind of knowledge, "we must understand how knowledge is established and maintained in the 'normal discourse' of communities of knowledgeable peers." Finally, literary critic Stanley Fish goes as far as to say that not only is knowledge a product of our social conversations, but so too are our feelings and intuitions.

Bruffee agrees with these thinkers and concludes, "To think well as individuals we must learn to think well collectively--that is, we must learn to converse well" and states, "Not to have mastered the normal discourse of a discipline, no matter how many 'facts' or data one may know, is not to be knowledgeable in that discipline." Our task as teachers then, he says, must be to engage students in conversations with each other and to encourage their conversations to sound like what Rorty calls "normal discourse." This means a conversation which everyone in the discourse community would define as "rational."

Bruffee sees the collaborative learning classroom as the ideal environment which will provide the kind of social context in which normal discourse can occur. Bruffee argues that, for instance, in a peer writing group, the editing work students are doing isn't what's important, it's the conversation they have while they work, a conversation about the assignment, about writing in general.

In addition to providing a place for normal discourse, Bruffee also states that it’s where the equally important "abnormal" discourse can occur. Abnormal discourse can be seen, according to Rorty, as "kooky" or "revolutionary" depending on whether or not the speaker can persuade others of her ideas. Abnormal discourse is important because it helps us challenge the authority of knowledge that may be unproductive; it helps us change when we need to. As teachers, Bruffee claims, we need to teach the tools of normal discourse while at the same time leave room and permission for abnormal discourse to occur. As Bruffee puts it, we must be both "conservators and agents of change."

Using collaborative learning may be an uncomfortable pedagogical shift for some teachers who are used to being the expert because of their content mastery. Bruffee claims that in a collaborative learning environment, teachers, instead, have to view themselves as experts in how to think, speak and write in a discourse community. Our ultimate charge is to help our students access our discourse community, and to guide them through the "reculturation" process--where they figure out how to place this new community in the context of the rest of their identities--as they do so.


Bruffee's essay seems to intersect both Barlomae and Elbow. Bartholomae would agree with Bruffee when he says that students know something "only when they can explain it in writing to the satisfaction of the community of their knowledgeable peers." And Elbow would agree with the ultimate importance of the conversation that occurs in collaborative learning. He would also applaud Bruffee for trusting students to figure out how to access an unfamiliar discourse community together, and concur with Bruffee's description of the teacher's most important role as a discourse guide, rather than content expert. Bruffee's description of the benefits of collaborative learning also ties in well with both the believing game: "We socially justify belief when we explain to others why one way of understanding how the world hangs together seems to us preferable to other ways of understanding," and the doubting game: "We establish knowledge or justify belief collaboratively by challenging each other's biases and presuppositions".

Posted by gust0124 at 10:34 PM

March 6, 2005

Elbow: "The Doubting Game and the Believing Game"

In response to some academics' claims that his "Teacherless Classroom" is anti-intellectual, Peter Elbow, in his "The Doubting Game and the Believing Game--An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise," justifies his practices on a theoretical level. Elbow claims that most intellectuals in our culture strive to find the truth through what he calls the "doubting game," but here he encourages the use of the "believing game"--an equally valid, yet less valued path to the truth.

The doubting game, Elbow says, seeks the truth by seeking error. Truth is found by being logical, rational, and skeptical (e.g. the experimental method). The believing game, on the other hand, seeks truth by believing, by sharing perception and having the "experience of meaning" (e.g. group therapy, Quaker groups, juries). Elbow defines the doubting game as a "dialectic of proposition," and the believing game as a "dialectic of experience."

Where the doubting game attempts to weed out the self as much as possible, the believing game knows the self cannot be removed and encourages it to try to see through others' lenses. Where the doubting game expressly guards against "projection"--finding only what we expect to happen, the believing game accepts that we do project and spends much effort getting the mind to see what's different. Finally, where the doubting game seeks precision (sometimes, Elbow points out, to the point of being too fastidious and finding no truth), the believing game is satisfied with what it calls "the dirty truth."

Elbow says the rigidity of the doubting game may work better in fields such as math since there, meaning is fixed. But this is not true in language studies where meanings are transformable. The New Critics, for example, wanted to find the one, true, fixed meaning in a text. The problem with that, Elbow states, is that finding any one meaning in a text doesn't prove that any other reading is wrong--there is no way to identify false assertions. Because of this, Elbow states that the model of the believing game is "the only process for getting to the truth in areas of word-interpretation." He also says his Teacherless Classroom is an ideal place to use the believing game.

According to Elbow, the believing game has many advantages over the doubting game. Because it is cooperative, it keeps people willing to play, even when the game breaks down. Because it is communal, it gives "the little man" a voice, and power, as the majority tries to hear and believe him. Finally, because it is flexible, it allows for and encourages people to change their minds if a better idea comes along. The believing game ultimately results in an "aha moment," a gestalt shift. According to Elbow, it "makes people more perceptive...more intelligent" and "reinforces characteristics which our culture badly needs."


I agree with Elbow that the believing game is the best way to the truth in language studies. It reminds me of the example of the term "married bachelor." The doubting game would try to understand it in a literal way, and would conclude based on the definitions of each word that it is impossible, nonsense. The believing game, though, would understand this term in a metaphorical way and could easily imagine a person like this. For literary critics, certainly, the believing game is a better path to understanding. Because you can't really "prove" any reading of a text (even the author's own interpretation) is "right" or "wrong," the doubting game just shrugs and asks what's the point of looking? The believing game, though, knows there is value in looking. It is also comfortable with the fact that just because one can do a feminist reading and make certain conclusions about a text, that doesn't mean it is the only valid reading of the text. It's important to remember, I think, that the believing game doesn't insist all readings are equal; instead, it encourages us to believe two or more readings and then decide which is better.

Elbow might have pointed out that the believing game has been utilized effectively in fields such as science and math as well. Take the platypus, for example. It is not exactly a mammal, not exactly a reptile, not exactly a bird. If biologists relied solely on the doubting game, they would not be able to classify it anywhere. Instead, they chose to turn to the believing game. They decided to accept the "dirty truth" (that is: "close enough") so they could classify the animal in a useful way. In math, too, there are many theorems that cannot be proven by the doubting game, but instead of dismissing them, mathematicians do play the believing game, accept that they are true--even without proof--because they are useful. Where the doubting game finds only dead ends, the believing game can help us keep going, keep discovering, keep learning.

Just because environments like Elbow's teacherless classroom are places where students' ideas can be as valid as the instructors', where knowledge is gained through discussion instead of lecture, where "rules" are heuristics instead of algorithms, it doesn't mean that they aren't academic, that they aren't intellectual. I agree wholeheartedly with Elbow when he says that playing the believing game actually makes you smarter. There is a place for the doubting game, yes. It is important to question, important to doubt, important to reject ideas that are wrong or harmful. But, I also believe that the ability to see, understand and even believe multiple truths is not only true intelligence, it is an absolutely crucial skill we must develop if there is any hope of working together effectively in a classroom, and, indeed, living together peacefully in this world.

Posted by gust0124 at 9:06 PM

February 28, 2005

Marsella et al: "How Students Handle Writing Assignments"

"How Students Handle Writing Assignments: A Study of Eighteen Responses in Six Disciplines," a study by Joy Marsella, Thomas L. Hilgers, and Clemence McLaren, explores the "gap" between how professors believe their students approach their writing assignments and how the students actually do approach them. The researchers worked with seventeen collaborators, all graduate students at the University of Hawaii.

Marsella et al found that while many professors see writing a means to enhance students' thinking, students are often less concerned about the thinking and more interested in: "What's the most efficient way to complete this assignment and get the highest grade I can, given everything that's going on in my life?" The researches claim how students go about completing writing assignments is "the result of their negotiation among at least three forces:" 1) Assignment design; 2) Reliance on successful past strategies; 3) Personal circumstances.

Assignment Design:
Though the professors profiled here have well-designed assignments, problems still cropped up. One student, Pam, felt her zoology professor's lab report assignments were too prescriptive. She did not understand why these reports had to be so structured, and felt frustrated and inhibited by them. Another student, Robert, in an education class, did not value the writing group meetings assigned by his professor. He knew his participation in the group, or any other process activity, would not be evaluated and so put little effort into them. Marsella et al recommend instructors give more attention to explaining to students why we want them to complete an assignment, why specific discourse forms exist and why the benefit of completing the process steps we assign (such as writing groups) will outweigh the cost of their time and energy.

Reliance on Past Strategies:
Marsella et al also found that no matter how specific an instructor's directions about process, students tend to rely on strategies that have worked for them in the past. Robert, for example, is someone who had been successful in writing "last-minute" drafts. In his education class, Robert ignored his professor's process steps and wrote his final draft the night before it was due doing little revision work. To help students move away from old strategies, Marsella et al suggest we get to know students as writers early on in the term, encourage them to evaluate their writing habits, and help them link their past writing experiences with new ones so they can recognize how writing is similar and different in various discourse communities.

Personal Circumstances:
Finally, Marsella et al cite the growing number of non-traditional students (i.e. those who hold full or part time jobs, are married and/or raising a family). Non-traditional students Howard and Chris were both engaged in their writing courses, but other responsibilities left them unable to complete their assignments. Marcella et al also mention that certain students' values and cultural situations don't "readily translate" into particular classroom expectations. Because of this, the researchers state, instructors should "acknowledge and adjust for" these types of students.


This study seems to point out the obvious. The obvious to which teachers are sometimes pretty oblivious. It's easy to forget that our students are real, complex people with busy lives. They may not share our passion for our subject matter, and even if they do share the passion, they may not have as much time or energy to devote to it as we would like. Of course students want to do their work as efficiently as they can, of course they resent anything they perceive as "busy work," of course when they are balancing school and work and family, they tend to fall back on patterns that have worked for them in the past. In order to motivate our students to do the kinds of thinking and learning we really want them to do, Marsella et al conclude, we must start doing a better job of "selling" our assignments.

Posted by gust0124 at 9:12 PM

February 23, 2005

Brief Profile of Disciplinary Discourse

In a typical literature course, the genres a student will both read and write include novels, short stories, poetry, drama, non-fiction essays, research papers, personal narratives, book reports/reviews, and (my focus of this profile) literary analysis papers.

Most scholarly and professional writing in this field is intended to analyze and critique literature. Typical audiences include literary scholars and teachers. The assumptions about the audience most writers hold are that they are knowledgeable about the particular text that is being analyzed--as well as most of the works in the “canon”--and that they are familiar with critical approaches used to analyze literature.

A typical literary analysis is an argumentative piece in which the writer sets off to prove a "thesis" from a particular "critical theory." The thesis is a claim the writer makes about the text; the claim is arguable, reflects a close reading, offers a unique perspective into the text, and focuses on an insightful connection or pattern within the text, between texts, or between the text and the outside world. Critical theories are “lenses” through which we can read texts. Examples of critical theories include: archetypal, feminist, Marxist, new criticism, psychoanalytic, deconstruction, post-colonial, and others. Each theory is a heuristic, providing us with a set of questions and a guiding philosophy as we attempt to understand the text. Each approach can help promote insight into the text, but will also ignore other, perhaps equally important ways of looking at the text.

Most literary analyses use a traditional essay format that is organized in a logical way building from less important points to more important points. The introduction normally identifies the title and author of the text and briefly introduces the topic. Usually, the thesis is explicitly stated early on, traditionally as the last sentence of the first paragraph. Each body paragraph should have one point that is supported by evidence. Evidence will include concrete details from the text, especially direct quotes. It may also reference opinions of other literary critics, other texts by the same author, texts by the author’s contemporaries, or other texts in the genre. The essays in this field use MLA documentation style which includes both in-text documentation and a works cited page at the end of the paper.

These essays have a professional tone and use inclusive language. They do not normally use first person, informal language (i.e. contractions), or slang. When discussing literature, they use present tense and refer to the author by her full name the first time, then by her last name only. The writer’s persona is educated, confident, logical and unapologetic. Though writer may criticize the text or the author, she normally does not resort to sarcasm or condescension.

Posted by gust0124 at 9:51 PM

February 21, 2005

Langer: "Speaking of Knowing: Conceptions of Understanding in Academic Disciplines"

"Speaking of Knowing: Conceptions of Understanding in Academic Disciplines" by Judith A. Langer examines the relationship between academic writing and thinking. In particular, Langer is concerned with how teachers are articulating the "ways of knowing" in their particular domains.

Langer cites two studies, one by Anne Harrington, and another by Applebee, Durst and Newell, and concludes: "If we are to avoid a trivialization of instruction, we must articulate the features of argument and analysis that characterize academic learning in particular disciplines."

Langer then shares her findings of a study in which she interviewed 48 high school and college level teachers in the three fields of biology, American history and American literature. Langer cites the "increasing focus on the tentative nature of 'truth'" and an increased "emphasis on the need for active questioning and interpreting" in all three fields. Teachers in the three subject areas emphasized the importance of mastering specific content information as well as learning the ways of thinking specific to their fields. However, in the interviews, Langer found that the teachers seemed to focus mostly on content alone.

The teachers said their goals for were the "immediate or usefulness of course work in students' lives." When asked what they valued, they responded by listing major themes or issues specific to their field. Langer says the teachers seemed to hold an implicit notion that mastering content would somehow lead to learning "how to think" in their discourse communities. She also found that the teachers' responses to student writing focused mostly on content as well. Langer sees problems in the teachers' inexplicitness--their unfocused, sporadic or contradictory instruction on how to think in their discipline. This "failure of articulation" is directly related, Langer concludes, to students' inability to engage in critical thinking.


Content vs. performance. "Do they know it?" vs. "Can they do it?" The two sides of the pedagogical pendulum. When I started teaching in the early 90s, the current trend was OBE, or "Outcome Based Education." This approach clearly stressed "mastering" content, giving students multiple opportunities to test and retest to prove that they knew it, whatever "it" was. Then came the Minnesota Graduation Standards. These standards stressed performance. Each course was assigned (too) specific tasks which the students were required to demonstrate they could do. Several years and millions of dollars were spent designing these packages. Just two years after we finally implemented them at our high school, they disappeared. In their place are now the new NCLB standards. These are back to content mastery and testing, testing, testing. It seems to never end.

My colleagues and I try to ignore these edicts from above as much as we can. In our 12th grade literature classes, we tend to focus on ways of knowing much more than mastering content. It doesn't really matter which texts we use (though we have our personal favorites), but we want students to be able to take the most important skill they learn in our courses--how to read texts from a variety of "lenses," or critical approaches--and apply them to reading any text--be it another book, film, a billboard, a newstory, a national monument, etc.--they may encounter in their lives. It isn’t important to me if they remember Polonius’ advice to Laertes years from now, but I do want them, if they ever encounter the speech again, to have the tools to ask good questions about it and be able to analyze it in different ways.

Though I sometimes think her views are a bit idealistic, I agree with Langer that teachers don't always articulate what they should--that a lot of things are implicit in a course that shouldn't be. Teachers should explain why students are doing a certain task, they should encourage inquiry, they should model how people in the discipline successfully think and write about their subject matter. Sometimes these things don't get done because the teacher hasn't taken the time to think them through, but sometimes they don't get done because (at least at the high school level) after all the tests for which the teacher has to prepare students, all the content a teacher is required to get through, he simply doesn't have the time he needs to do them well.

Posted by gust0124 at 4:40 PM

Bizzell: "Cognition, Convention, and Certainty"

In "Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know About Writing," Patricia Bizzell says that we've only recently begun to see writing problems as connected to thinking problems, and so, Bizzell argues, it is imperative that we explore what writing has to do with thinking and vice versa.

Bizzell explains that composition specialists are in agreement about the following process: we have innate capacities to learn language; our social use of language leads to group conventions; these conventions will eventually bind discourse communities together. But, these specialists have different ideas about which part of that process is relevant to composition studies. Bizzell identifies two camps with opposing positions on the matter: the inner-directed theorists and the outer-directed theorists.

The inner-directed camp is interested in the innate development of language in its earliest state. They seek universal, fundamental writing processes that can be taught to all students. They see all kinds of reasoning as "isomorphic." And, they insist that students need to be developmentally able to do sophisticated thinking and writing on their own, before they move on to the problems of audience analysis.

The outer-directed camp, on the other hand, is more interested in the social processes where language learning is shaped. They argue that fundamental structures cannot be taught, and that thinking and learning never occur outside of a social context. They say our most important task as composition teachers is to make students aware that discourse communities exist and help "demystify" the conventions of these communities for them so they will be able to "persuade readers [they] are a worthy co-worker."

Bizzell claims the answer to the question of what we most need to know about writing comes from both camps. She uses the example of Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes' inner-directed model of the composing process. Though Bizzell admits it works as an effective model of what to do (it is hierarchical and recursive), it falls short in that it doesn't tell us how to do it. Bizzell proposes that it needs the help of the outer-directed theorists to fill in those holes.

In fact, she says, inner-directed theorists in general can learn much from outer-directed theorists (like Vygotski) who insist that we cannot separate planning and translating stages (as Flower and Hayes do), because they are interdependent and conditioned by social context, and from the field of sociolinguistics which claims that it's the discourse that gives meaning to the words, not vice versa. In addition, they say concepts such as fundamental revising rules are "notoriously unhelpful," because everything, this camp reminds us, is dependent upon the discourse community. For example, a passive voice in one community might be discouraged, while in another it's expected.

The problems students have with language, according to the outer-directed theorists, are really just problems with joining an unfamiliar discourse community. This is in contrast to Flower and Hayes, who, though they acknowledge the existence of discourse communities, neglect to assign the same level of significance to them; Flower and Hayes, instead, blame writing problems on the students' cognitive deficiencies. Because of this stance, Bizzell claims their theory is "insensitive to poor writers."

She also criticizes inner-directed theorists for striving to have one all-encompassing model of writing. To illustrate, she cites Collins and Genter who are going so far as to write a computer program that would enable a person to enter ideas and using set rules, the computer would actually do the composing. Bizzell proposes the inner-directed camp's "quest for certainty" stems from both a desire to frame composition theory as a more scientific, or legitimate field, and from composition instructors who are more comfortable placing blame for stubborn writing problems on students' inferiority rather than their own incompetence.

Ultimately, Bizzell argues, we must acknowledge the cultural differences in our composition classrooms. Our students are not coming from the same places; applying a one-size-fits-all teaching strategy cannot work. We must examine "where they come from, what their prospects are--in short, why...particular students are having educational difficulties." Though some instructors might fear the kind of pedagogy that admits to the existence of certain discourse communities (some which are valued in academia much more than others) could be uncomfortably political, Bizzell points out she simply wants to make students aware that the stratification of discourse communities, for right or wrong, already exists, is already politicized. Bizzell finally encourages students struggling with unfamiliar discourse conventions to see themselves as travelers in an unfamiliar country and reassures them that it is possible to learn the language of this new country while still remembering from where they have come.


Though Bizzell claims that the purpose of her critique of Flower and Hayes' work is "not to delegitimate" it, and though she says we should value the both the outer-directed and inner-directed theories, it certainly seems like she's siding pretty heavily with the outer-directed camp. Perhaps she feels Flowers and Hayes are so heavily lauded that they don't need her support here, but she certainly doesn't spend much time talking about what's right about them. I do agree with the outer-directed theorists that it's important to consider audience and teach students that there are a variety of discourse community standards, but I'm not sure that's the most important thing. Elbow would say having confidence in your own voice is the first step. I keep going back to the problem of the mechanically perfect paper that's dull and uninspired. Bizzell is also pretty critical of trying to standardize anything in writing instruction. I wonder how do-able it is to teach students how to access all these different discourse communities. Is this something Bizzell thinks can happen in a general composition course, or is she imagining teaching writing only within the context of a content-specific course? I certainly don't think that teaching all of my general composition students--no matter where they come from or where they are going--some general writing heuristics, and then stressing that they should consider them every time they write is “notoriously unhelpful.”

Posted by gust0124 at 12:16 PM