Writing a Post about Thinking about Writing

Tomorrow starts the Learning Community on mid-career undergraduate writing on campus and I'm pretty eager to hear what everyone has to say. I oddly feel pretty solid about my own ideas and points of view, which is unusual for me. I usually like to have a few questions to share but don't feel as strongly about my positions as I do tonight.

We did three readings for tomorrow's session: Melzer's Assignments Across the Curriculum, Chapter 2, Mya Poe's essay "Re-framing Race in Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum" and a study by Anderson, et. al. "How Writing Contributes to Learning." 

It's all really great stuff and it worked together in a number of ways on my mind. 

My first thought is: I am not nearly as clear as I could be that the students can achieve what it is that I would like them to do in their writing. I am pretty clear, I think, in what the assignment is. I'm also pretty clear that they are going to have to do a lot of work to get there. But I'm never clear that they, as hard workers, can achieve what appears to be a high standard. This is going to take some work. I also spent a lot of time on Monday reflecting on what a shit teacher I am after I attended an assessment meeting where it was pretty clear that I am bad at teaching actual, measurable, meaningful college courses as we went through my students' writing. I've written about what a shoddy job I did in that class, so no surprise. Plenty to think about there. This week is a week of reflecting on whether or not the university is the place for me. At least these readings gave me some handholds to try to scale this question. 

Secondly, the sad lack of creative, expressive, generative writing where students are creating and making something is pointed out, and how valuable it is for students to do that. Once again, the emphasis on skill-rhetoric, mixed with the harmful "Can I grade this?" assignment-framing question yields a bunch of work that is useless, unstimulating, and beneath our students' level. I feel really bad reading this stuff as I really thought a lot of my assignments were creative. But it seems there's a lot of work to do here as well. Again, another path up the question is revealed and I have some good handholds to help get a grip on what has to be done. 

The thing that struck me the most is the silly ban on phones and laptops that most faculty enforce here at St. John's while simultaneously lamenting the ability of students to make convincing, sustained arguments. If you change the audience you get a very different picture. Most of our students are politically engaged via hip hop music that is available online and discussed in forums on the internet, something Melzer identifies as possibly prolific in courses, but difficult to measure as it is never graded or treated as a very serious part of the course. This is where our students have a lot of resources for crafting good argument, style, and rhetorical savvy for particular audiences. Listening to a beat or engaging with a beat while composing/inventing something to say or write might help them activate resources on argument craft that they didn't know they had. I think hip hop is an overlooked resource for helping students understand that they already get how to make sustained, convincing arguments and how to evaluate them very well considering context and audience - the rhetorical situation.

The only hold up on this is the problem of teacher-as-examiner. Nobody that I know is going to want to give up this role. The desire for power - particularly disciplinary power- is everywhere among the faculty and the joy of exercising it over the students is a delightful privilege for a lot of folks who call themselves "teachers." I really think this requires a lot of strategic effort to convince a number of teachers that the students can craft good arguments in this weird(ing) way and evaluate them, but you won't be able to get it. Perhaps if the students were able to craft a textbook like project that supplemented the writing guide (or whatever the teacher assigns) this might help bridge the gap. It's a longshot though. I think the suggestion of including hip hop to show students they already get composition of argument just breaks apart on this barrier.

We didn't read Geoffrey Sirc, but I love his idea that Jackson Pollock transformed his relationship to art by placing the canvas on the floor. Art happened somewhere else when that perspective shift occurred. How can we put our assignments on the floor, or instruct our students to put Microsoft Word's horrific white abyss, cursorial eye flashing at us on the floor to say to it, "You will record what is crafted here; you are not the craft." This is the goal of improving college writing, to figure out how to teach students the confidence to speak to their laptops this way and to start composing like I am certain they can.