Cookbook Overview

As I look back at the twenty-one blog posts I have written this semester, I still have trouble calling myself a “blogger.” Is it because I didn’t venture into the blogosphere independently, but instead as part of a course requirement? Perhaps it is because all of my posts are academic in nature, and not one of them is truly “personal” in nature.  Regardless of my uncertainty about my blogging status, I do know that I learned a lot about myself as a writer and thinker through my blog posts.  While I read through my entries to decide which four to include in my Cookbook overview, I was intrigued to find connections that I hadn’t initially considered—not only connections among different posts, but also connections between posts and course readings.  I found that many of my entries leaned toward discussion of themes that Winston Weathers introduces in his “Grammars of Style” essay and that Jeff Rice offers in his piece, “English <A>”, so I decided to frame my Cookbook entries within the writing theories these authors present in their work.  I discovered three particularly salient ideas about writing that Weathers and Rice appear to support, and to which my four entries also relate: writing is social (not independent) work, writing is non-linear, and writing is highly visual.

Rice explains the social aspect of his English <A> pedagogy when he says that the word “social” “indicates a space of connectivity that situates relationships as a central point” (52).  I touch on the social piece involved in the writing process in two of my blog entries. Rice’s emphasis on networks, relationships, and connections in the online writing world reminded me of my first blog entry, “Here We Go”.  In this post, I express some anxiety about the idea of writing in a publicly accessible space, since I am so accustomed to writing as an individual activity.  In fact, I might even classify myself as an “antisocial” writer, based on this blog entry.  I recall that Rice mentions the notion of independent writing when he notes that in the English A framework, it seems important to “equate writing with the notion of one individual working independently” (56).  When I examine my “Here We Go” post, I detect pieces of English A lingering in my writing practice.  My apprehension to step out of my individual writing zone may also be connected to Weathers’ assertion that in most classrooms, we keep to the “confines of one grammar only” (134); perhaps I am, despite my shuddering at the thought, rather stuck in the Grammar A mindset, fearful of other alternative ways of presenting my writing “outside the box”, so to speak.  Blogging is a venture into the unknown, a kind of Grammar B in the mind of someone who is set in her ways of safe, independent, structured writing.

My blog entry, “The Keyword Search Begins also contains elements that could be linked to English A’s foundation of non-social composing.  In my update, I note that my keyword, “response”, takes on various meanings, one of which is pen-to-paper written commentary from teachers to students.  It is interesting to contemplate the idea in this traditional view of response that both forms of writing–the student’s text and the instructor’s response–take place in isolation from one another.  But in other more technologically-grounded response practices, such as online commenting/emailing that I mention in my post, and even audio commenting (like Derek’s responses to our Keywords Projects), it is possible to see the social aspects of Rice’s English <A> come into play.

In addition to the social nature of writing, I also touch upon the non-linearity of the composing process through two more of my blog entries. In my “Finding Connections” blog entry, I note that both Johnson- Eilola and Rice seem to recognize that writing in today’s technology-rich environment is no longer a linear act.  By drawing a comparison between two scholars of many in the field of digital literacy, I find myself making a connection that may reflect what Rice means when he says that “<A> is the basis of a large network of people, things, ideas, and places that find connectivity rather than are made to connect”(64). Finding a connection between authors in my blog wasn’t a clean-cut linear move. The link between Johnson-Eilola and Rice was not explicit; it required me to think in a non-linear fashion.  I didn’t read their work as a “single body of information”, which Rice indicates is central to English A pedagogy.  Instead, I made “multiple moves across multiple spaces” (Rice 64) that led me to connect the two writers in my blog entry.

Also in my “Finding Connections” post, I mention Ted Nelson, the father of hypertext.  Rice invokes Nelson when he discusses English <A>’s creation of web-based relationships that embody the “non-linear sequentiality Ted Nelson declared as being at the heart of his initial vision of hypertext” (50).  Again, my blog entry highlights the non-linear nature of writing in the digital age by linking Rice and his emphasis on the relational aspects of English <A> with Nelson and his focus on the multidirectional qualities of hypertext.

While Rice’s English <A> is grounded in non-linear text creation, Weathers’ Grammar B also exhibits characteristics of non-linear writing that I discuss in my “Presentation Zen and Grammar B” blog entry.  Presentation Zen’s emphasis on slides that contain more images than words might be seen as a divergence from the traditional view of text as linear and sequential, just as Weathers’ Grammar B presents an alternative to the traditional rule-bound grammatical conventions that value linearity and set order.  There are no rules within Presentation Zen for the order in which slides are presented, and this is primarily a result of the focus on images, not text.  The more textual language slides contain, the more important the linearity of the presentation, since words must necessarily follow some kind of set order for the audience to generate meaning from them.  However, as I highlight in my blog entry, the simplicity of slides that display minimal text in Presentation Zen slideshows naturally lends itself to clarity without the need for a traditionally linear text-rich sequence of slides.  A strong impact is made on the audience because of the lack of sequentiality, much the same as the impact on readers of texts containing non-linear Grammar B structures such as lists, collage/montage, and double voice.

While writing is both social and non-linear according to Weathers and Rice, it is also a highly visual process in their theoretical frameworks. In my “Here We Go” blog entry, a major source of my anxiety surrounding the act of blogging is the kind of openly visual “socialized information motivated by <A>’s relationship with tagging: publicly archived, interlinking, and connected research” (64) that Rice indicates is essential to writing in the digital age.  In this case, I am thinking of “visual” as not only in terms of the publicly accessible nature of blog entries, but also in terms of the physical appearance of the blog itself. The idea that my blog is able to be seen by the public and possibly scrutinized for its visual appeal as well as its content makes it an even more daunting task in my mind.

The act of response can also have quite a visual effect on an audience.  My “The Keyword Search Begins” post mentions the possibility of non-traditional modes of response, like emailed or audio comments, but in more traditional response practices, like those that might be employed in Grammar A pedagogy, instructors might focus on elements of writing that present themselves as surface errors.  Surface error response, which oftentimes employs red ink on paper, has a very specific kind of visual impact on a reader. This type of response practice can elicit feelings of fear, dismissal, and uncertainty–not very positive emotions.  In Grammar B pedagogy, teachers might be more inclined to respond positively to writing that actually makes use of sentence fragments and labyrinthine sentences, rather than reject these structures.  Therefore, Grammar B-type response practices, with their focus on non-conventional text usage, might have a very different visual effect on the reader (or writer, as it may be) than responses grounded in Grammar A pedagogy.

In my “Presentation Zen and Grammar B” blog entry I present the connection between the visual impact of Presentation Zen image-rich slideshows and the visual nature of text structures found in Grammar B.  In alternative writing styles found in the Grammar B framework, words are designed to have a visual impact on the reader, which can help to evoke a particular mood.  For example, when he discusses Whitman’s use of the labyrinthine sentence, Weathers notes that “he is suggesting, via style, the entangling environment in which the masses and the enslaved live and are living and from which Whitman sought to rescue them”(139).   Just like Grammar B writing styles, Presentation Zen slides are purposefully visual in nature, and have a completely different impact in the viewer than more traditional PowerPoint slideshows, which most often contain more words than images.  In this way, traditional text-rich PowerPoint presentations can be compared to Grammar A, in that they are both bereft of visual elements.

As I reflect on my journey into the blogosphere that has taken place over the past three and a half months, I am tempted to pat myself on the back.  Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?  I was apprehensive at first, knowing that my writing was “out there” for anyone (well, at least anyone interested in my very specific computers and writing class-oriented blog posts) to read.  But it became less intimidating with each post.  Even though I have become marginally more comfortable with the act of blogging, there is still much to explore.  As my Cookbook reveals, certain themes can sometimes take shape as we blog about subjects that intrigue us, even if we don’t recognize these connections immediately.  Perhaps if we take the time to return to our thoughts and ideas from time to time, we can begin to form links between them that can benefit us both personally and professionally. My first blogging experience has lead me to be open to more social, non-linear, and visually-oriented writing possibilities.

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Possibilities for Visual Literacy in the ESL Classroom

I was looking at the Activities section in Selfe’s essay, and wondered how I might be able to fit visual texts into my college ESL writing courses.  I recently tweaked a comparison/contrast assignment to include more visual pre-writing activities.  Here is the link to the assignment introduction PowerPoint:

powerpoint assignment intro

Sequence of Events for Comparison/Contrast Assignment Intro

  1. Begin with class discussion of image #1 (The Dong Family).  What do they see?  Think critically about the role of food and why families consume what they do.
  2. Display image #2 (the Revis family).  What is evident in this image? Generate discussion about the appearance of food and the role it plays in this family’s life.
  3. Introduce the process of comparing and contrasting.  Display the images side-by-side and draw a T chart on the white board (maybe ask students if they know what a T chart is, and if someone does, have him/her explain?) one side labeled “comparisons (similarities)” and the other “contrasts (differences)”.  Have students call out answers while I write on the board.
  4. Explain that the T chart is one way of organizing information, and another graphic organizer that is particularly useful for comparing and contrasting is the Venn Diagram (maybe ask students if anyone has ever used one, and if they can explain what it is?).  Ask students to choose their learning partner for the day and distribute one Diagram to each pair.  Display the two new side-by-side images (the Aboubakar and Ayme families) and ask each pair to compare and contrast the images using the Venn Diagram.
  5. Come together as a class and ask for a volunteer to list student responses on the Venn Diagram on the board.  Call on each pair to give one response that is different from their classmates.
  6.  Explain “next steps” and wrap up.

While the assignment does not call for students to create their own visual essays, it might be a first step in the process.  Students are asked to analyze images (without a lot of text) and they are also asked to access the college’s online course management system to post comments (a way to make use of technology).  I may also be able to modify this assignment to be more of a visual essay (at least as a lead-in to the text-based essay) by asking students to collect various photographs and present them in a comparison/contrast format, using the visual impact, coherence, salience, and organization that Selfe references to evaluate their work.

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A Brief Comment on Sirc’s “Box-Logic”

When Sirc admits that “for most of my career as a composition instructor, I was uncomfortable with my status as an academic gatekeeper” (126), I empathize with him.  Many of my students (both ESL and American-born) are non-standard English speakers, and insisting that they somehow demonstrate mastery of the mainstream academic discourse in order to pass my writing classes has always felt like a careful balancing act.  How do I value their home languages and still teach the standard that academia requires?

I often tell my students at the beginning of the semester something similar to what Hans Haacke says: “You have to be part of the system in order to participate in a public discourse” (126), even though I think it can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow.  I try to put a positive spin on the whole academic essay writing process, insisting that by using this “school language”, students are simply adding to their linguistic repertoires, making themselves more “marketable”, able to communicate in a rich variety of contexts, more well-rounded…but now I wonder if it’s all just a bunch of disingenuous blather.   Typically, the students lacking the cultural capital that allows them to participate in the traditional definition of the dominant academic discourse do not pass.  Gatekeeping is an emotionally draining task.

But now I am wondering if there is a compromise.  Sirc asserts that “as curators of academic, then, we can exploit the possibilities of our status, exposing students to a range of culturally valid forms as well as non-mainstream content; in doing so, we provide our audience with a host of possibilities for worlds and form to inhabit”(126-7).  I’m interested in the possibilities that box-logic might offer to my writing students.

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Presentation Zen and Grammar B

As I was reading the Presentation Zen selection, I discovered that Reynolds’ vision of presentations in “the conceptual age” exhibits some characteristics of Weathers’ Grammar B.  Seth Godin’s rule of “No more than six words on a slide.  EVER” (qtd in Reynolds 20) reminded me of Weathers’ discussion of crots as stylistic maneuvers used deliberately in writing which employs the alternate grammar (Grammar B).  Weathers says that “each crot is not unlike a ‘snapshot’ of a color slide” and that “the overall composition, using crots, is similar to slideshow, especially if the slides have not been arranged in any neat and tidy sequence” (137).  The fragmented nature of crots seems to lend itself quite naturally to Reynolds’ notion of simplicity and constraint within the Presentation Zen framework.

Weathers also mentions the intentional use of sentence fragments in Grammar B, which can create a “more sharply pointed kind of reading line” (139) when used in conjunction with other sentence types.  I can see using fragments in preparing a Presentation Zen-type slideshow, as a way of achieving the goal of simplicity and brevity.

Furthermore, I thought that lists (a Grammar B structure) might also be appropriate for Presentation Zen projects.  Weathers says that “the list stands in stark simplicity—a list of objects, observations, or what have you—to give a quick representation of a character, as situation, a place by the simple device of selecting items to represent the subject under discussion”(140).  I thought that idea aligned nicely with Reynolds’ emphasis on simplicity and clarity in Presentation Zen.   Creativity (another key element to Presentation Zen) is also involved in the determination of what words the presenter might choose to include on a list to “represent the subject under discussion.”

Another of Grammar B’s potentially useful techniques for use in a Presentation Zen slideshow is collage/montage.   When Weathers says that the “collage/montage effect…is a stylistic effort at synthesis”(146), I made a connection to Reynolds’ section about Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, particularly the section about “symphony”, which notes that “[s]ymphony is about utilizing our whole mind—logic, analysis, synthesis, intuition—to make sense of our world (i.e. our topic), find the big picture, and determine what is important and what is not before the day of our talk”(17).  I thought perhaps that creating a Presentation Zen slideshow using collage/montage might spark the audience’s symphonic aptitude through its revealing, at the end of the presentation, “a synthesis and a wholeness that might not been suspected at any station along the way” (Weathers 147).

As a final thought, I was intrigued by Reynolds’ discussion of time, and how people need lots of independent thinking time, “away from the direct challenges of work” (37)to enliven our creative sides.  I remembered Derek’s mention of Google’s 20% rule earlier in the semester as I read this section, and I completely buy into this notion of the necessity/imperativeness of free (non-work related)  time to hit the proverbial “refresh” button.  Perhaps there is a reason we sometimes call these cherished occasions of personal freedom “moments of Zen”…

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Finding Connections: Johnson-Eilola and Rice

In an attempt to elucidate some linkages between Johnson-Eilola’s “The Database and the Essay” and Rice’s “English <A>”, I thought it might be useful to generate a few quote-to-quote connections based on some of the authors’ common notions about writing.

  1. Mention of Ted Nelson’s non-linear notion of hypertext

Johnson-Eilola:  “Hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson once claimed that hypertext, the structure of node connected by links, was actually the more general form of text; linear text was a special case”(218).

Rice: “<A> links the Web’s pages by creating a vast network of relationships.  In doing so, it generates the non-linear sequentiality Ted Nelson declared as being at the heart of his initial vision of hypertext….Nelson imagined information as relationships formed through links”(50).

2. Recognition of the perhaps outdated notion that writing is an individual and linear act

Johnson Eilola: “despite the realization that our culture increasingly values texts that are broken down, rearranged, recombined, we rarely teach forms of writing that support such production. We unwittingly (or sometimes consciously) still think of writing as a way to help the self become present to itself, as a method of personal growth and discovery”(209).

The idea that we value text that is created in a potentially “messy” and non-linear manner is an important point to consider in our teaching of writing.

Rice:  “[a]s important as it seemed to English A’s authors to not allow writing to interfere with other studies or students, it also seemed equally important to equate writing with the notion of one individual working independently; similarly, the single author the student studies works independently (and is read as a single body of information).  Two levels of individuation were emphasized” (56-57).

The notion that the student reads a “single body of information” coincides with a linear thinking pattern.  This would naturally present itself as linear writing by the student, as opposed to the “broken-down, rearranged” pattern that is so prevalent in written work that is presented online.

3. Emphasis on writing as networked and relational

Johnson-Eilola: “Indeed, search engines make concrete and visible many of the things that hypertext theorists have long argued for: contingent, networked texts, composed with large and shifting social spaces out of the literally millions of voices”(221).

In Rice’s vision of relational writing, an individual “works with <A> as a tag so that information is publicly named and engaged with, is pushed toward other users and spaces by tagged content” and “<A> is the basis of a large network of people, things, ideas, and places that find connectivity rather than are made to connect”; in addition,  <A> also “allows multiple moves across multiple spaces so that multiple bodies are created”(64).

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The Database and the Essay: Possible Classroom Application

In the Activities section at the end of his chapter in Writing New Media, Johndan Johnson-Eilola presents some compelling ideas for instructors to help their students take a more critical look at the way we use search engines in our academic and personal lives.  Johnson-Eilola’s activity descriptions got me thinking about how I could extend the topic of critical information literacy, with a particular focus on search engine results and analysis, into my own Freshman Composition classroom.

As I read Activity 2 on p. 230, I realized I might be able to tweak the exercise for use with a particular project that my students are actually currently working on.  The project involves students researching a relationship about which they have previously written a personal (non research-based) essay.  The relationships are unique in that they cannot involve two humans, but rather a human and a non-human life form, concrete activity, or object.  The nature of the assigned relationship lends itself to a great variety of results; some students have chosen to write about relationships with music/musical instruments, cars, running, photography, job responsibilities, the list goes on.  For the first part of this assignment, I could follow Johnson-Eilola’s idea of assigning different search engines to students (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Lycos, Dogpile, etc.—maybe 3 or 4 apiece) to research their particular relationships.  When I have informally polled the students in previous class sessions, the vast majority say they prefer to use Google almost every time they perform an online search.  So assigning different search engines would be an interesting exercise in exposure to and analysis of different search results depending on the particular search engine.  Also, as Johnson- Eilola points out, “students (and nearly everyone) needs to learn both how that search engine works as well as instances in which using a different search engine would be helpful”(230).

Then, instead of assigning three terms for students to look up on their assigned search engine, I would have students search for a keyword related to their relationship project.  For example, a student who is focusing on his relationship to working out might look up “weightlifting” or “fitness”.  The students would use the same term in each search engine, and compare the results using the four questions that Johnson-Eilola suggests on p. 231.

Following their independent research, I would ask students to get into small groups according to their assigned search engines and discuss their findings with their classmates.  Together they could analyze their results and present a kind of “search engine rating” to the rest of the class, based on their compiled information.

I can see that this might be a nice lead-in activity to my “assessing the credibility of internal and external online information” exercise (see earlier entry about Halavais’ “Search Engine Society”), that I do with my Freshman Composition classes every semester.  It might even be a good co-activity, in which students are asked to assess not only the search results themselves, but also the credibility of the results on each search engine.  We could then compare the online search engine results to those results found on the college library database.  Because they would experiment with various online locations for research in this activity, students could become more informed about the decisions they make when conducting online research.

By incorporating such an activity into my English classes, I would hope to instill a more critical consciousness into my students as they conduct personal research, but I would also hope that such an activity that involves group discussion and sharing of search results would contribute to a more social and networked kind of research process.  As they form connections between and across online spaces by exploring various search engines, and subsequently share their findings, thoughts, and interpretations with others in their groups and with the class, I am wondering if my students might be participating in a kind of English <A> that Rice envisions when he says that, “[t]he student, the text, the word, the image, the space, and so on are tagged in relationships”(64).  I must admit that I am still trying to wrap my mind around exactly what English <A> might look like in practice, but I think that by extending independent research into a more critical and social discussion of search results, and sharing of ideas and connections between these ideas, I might begin to approach the kind of networking (both online and in the classroom) that is so integral to new media writing.

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Making Connections: Writing New Media & English (angle brackets)

While reading the first section of Writing New Media, I came across some passages that reminded me of Jeff Rice’s notion of interconnectedness that English <A> seems to promote, and that English A appears to resist.  Rice insists through his depiction of English <A> that writing should not be an isolated or isolating activity, as it has often traditionally been taught and portrayed in the English A paradigm.  He notes that, “Individuals, English A’s logic dictates, working by themselves on individual ideas or texts, must demonstrate mastery with an individual case” (53), and that in this model, “writers and writing content are considered to be independent bodies” (58).  Wysocki et al. also recognize the traditional view of writing as an individual and decontextualized exercise when they say that, “the way school can seem separated from other institutions (the ones that constitute the “real world”) can keep the work of classrooms from seeing that it has any value or purpose outside the class…and people in writing classes can for that reason among others …often feel they are writing by themselves, as isolated, separated individuals with no particular social, cultural, or historical location” (4).  So while it seems that both Rice and Wysocki et al. find the idea of writing as an individual and decontextualized act to be outdated and limited view of composition , it follows that they also both highlight the importance of forming connections between the personal and the public.  We write as members of a social group, with values, beliefs, and feelings that are situated in a particular time and place, shaped by historical and cultural circumstances and experiences.  However, Wysocki et al. notice that there appears to be a lack of a broader recognition of the relationship between individual text composition and the larger social/media picture when they say that “there is writing about how to analyze or design isolated individual texts and there is writing about the broad contexts and functioning of media structures in general.  There is little or nothing that bridges these two categories to help composers of texts think usefully about effects of their particular decisions as they compose a new media text” (6).  It seems like Rice might attempt to bridge the individual and the social aspects of text composition through English <A> pedagogy, in which “the individual who would previously work by herself on the work of an author or text in a single space in a single institution at a single moment (as English A’s exam sets forth) instead works with <A> as a tag so that information is publicly named and engaged with, is pushed toward other users and spaces by tagged content, and is visual” (64).

My understanding of English <A> and what it might look like in classroom practice is still a bit cloudy, but I appreciate WNM’s  “theory to practice” format and I wonder how Rice might find the activities in the book in terms of teaching English <A>.  Would he see the “Mapping Readings” activity, in its collage-like form, as too simplistic? He notes that the <A> part of the English <A> pedagogy is not a collage, but instead a network that “builds relationships while also becoming relationships” (61).  I do see a possible link between the visual nature of English <A> and the Visual Arguments activity on p. 38 in WNM. I also see how the “Redesigning Texts” activity on p. 29 could make students more aware of the idea that textual interaction (either through reading or writing) could be seen as isolating, but then reformatted to encourage social interaction. I’m excited to see that Wysocki et al. are offering what might be more concrete examples of classroom applications in an era of new media-based pedagogical possibilities.

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Rice’s “English A”

Rice’s article got me thinking about the terminology we assign to developmental writing classes–terms like “elementary instruction”, “basic writing”, “remedial”, “English A”, etc.  Simply by virtue of the course title and/or description, we are defining the students who must take the courses as “deficient” in a fundamental skill that really should have been acquired before entering into higher education.  I cannot help but wonder about the psychological impact of the course title/description on students entering into the college world.   The power structures involved with English A are apparent when Adams, Godkin, and Quincy (qtd in Brereton 75) describe the practice of composition as “obtained in short weekly themes, written in the class-room and criticized by the instructors”(qtd in Rice 56).  The instructor is the ultimate determiner of the student’s success in this particular paradigm.  Though Rice does not focus on the student-teacher power differential in either English A or <A>, I found it a possibly interesting point to consider as we move toward a more technologically-based instructional model.  Where does the instructor fit into English <A> pedagogy? How does evaluation of writing look in such a writing program? If it is true (and I believe it is) that English A curriculum places value on correctness, “a necessary skill within a variety of communicative practices”, but simultaneously “deemphasizes the need for relationships” (58), how do instructors teach both individual accuracy (English A) while also conveying the importance of group connectivity in a “large network of people, things, ideas, and places” (64) (English <A>)? I am intrigued by Rice’s distinction between traditional paper-based and new web-based “Englishes” and would like to understand practical methods for the incorporation of English <A> into composition classrooms, including evaluation models for student writing in this environment.

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Weathers’ “Grammars of Style”

After reading Weathers’ piece, I find it a bit awkward to admit that I often tell my students I am teaching them “academic writing”, and that there are certain conventions that are appropriate to use within this traditional composition framework. There are things to be avoided: sentence fragments, comma splices, run-on sentences, informal ‘’you’’, ‘’unnecessary’’ repetition, the list goes on. Then there are things to be valued and implemented: formal/impersonal voice, varied (and ‘academic’) vocabulary, varied sentence structures and lengths (but always complete sentences), etc. But then, upon assigning readings that contain “unconventional” styles (the strategically placed fragment to add emphasis, the labyrinthine sentence used to evoke a feeling of breathlessness), I realize the contradictory information my students are receiving from me and from the assigned texts. Weathers really hits the nail on the head, so to speak (hmmm…a cliché: to be avoided or purposefully incorporated?) when he discusses the notion that all teachers have a favored “grammar of style”, and “anything that looms upon the horizon as a distinctly different possibility we generally attack as ‘bad writing’ or identify as ‘creative writing which we don’t teach in this class’ or ignore altogether, claiming it is a possibility that only rare persons…could do anything with and that ordinary mortals should scrupulously avoid”(135). This is so true, at least in my case. I recognize the existence of various grammars of style, but I am almost afraid to broach the subject with my classes. But by glossing over, or even ignoring, the possibilities that exist for Grammar B in the college composition classroom, am I depriving my students of an entire world of writing options that could be utilized in their “verbal response to reality”(147)? Why do I assume that trying to learn and understand alternative styles of grammar would just be too complicated for my students? These questions surely reveal some preconceived notions I have about my student population and its ability to conceptualize and integrate Grammar B options into their own written work.

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CCCarnival: Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy”

“Phew.” That was my thought as I read through the other CCCarnival entries on Sirc’s piece and discovered I wasn’t the only one who has not read the books that he reviews. I would have hesitated to offer any sort of critique on Sirc’s essay had it appeared essential to be intimately familiar with the works he discusses.  Even though I cannot offer substantive comments on the books themselves (but feel suddenly obliged to at least page through them), I do feel compelled to respond to a couple of the issues that Sirc addresses so straightforwardly in his essay.

But first, let me say that as an English Composition instructor at a community college, I am always questioning my teaching practices, searching for better ways to incorporate my extremely diverse students’ individual interests and lived experiences into my course assignments and learning objectives.  I pursue methods of making the personal more public (and vice versa), and topics to spark creative and critical thinking. I believe effective practitioners shouldn’t get too comfortable with their approaches to teaching writing, or we may risk falling victim to complacency.

Of course, all of this is hard.  In fact, Sirc may be onto something when he claims, right off the bat, that “teaching writing is impossible.” But if I always thought this way, if I never considered the possibility that my work as a instructor of composition is meaningful in ways that may be difficult to articulate but are nonetheless important to the academic world, then I might stop questioning, or worse yet stop believing in the promise of composition instruction.  Perhaps it is the word “teaching” that needs re-thinking? Would Sirc be in favor of a term like “co-creator” or “cultivator”? Would this change in terminology create a shift in methodology?

Okay, now that my short “aside” turned into a rather extended one, I wanted to touch on two of Sirc’s points that struck a particularly strong chord with me.

1. The notion that invention is unteachable

Referrring to Hawk’s work, Sirc states that,

Our most egregious crime is the insistence on dumbing down the complicated process of composition to a scrupulously teachable method, reducing the roles of chance and the imagination in the production of textual knowledge. Especially, it’s the fetishization of invention: we have to show students exactly how to generate, we have to deny that it might just be inspired or accidental (even though that’s how it works).

I have experience with the invention process (and yes, I refer to it as a process, as in something that requires conscious attention and guidance).  In my comp classes, invention is an explicit and essential component to every project.  Most of my students are unfamiliar with the term “invention” in the context of composition, and have been told throughout most of their academic lives to “choose” a topic from a pre-made list, so the idea that they can discover their own topic through the practice of invention is a truly revelatory concept.  By taking a personal/everyday observation and asking questions that inspire critical analysis, students find a So, I don’t think it has to be the case that invention is either shown or accidental.  With some initial guidance, students may actually find themselves ‘accidentally’ inventing ideas for writing on their own.

2. The notion that peer review is potentially a waste of time

I find Sirc’s obvious aversion to peer response a bit disturbing.  What I suppose is most surprising to me about his reaction to peer review is that he espouses seemingly student-centered progressive notions of writing instruction, yet he maintains the position of teacher-leader/student-follower in this case.  This dichotomy is particularly apparent in the following quote:

My students are taking a class with me; one of the benefits is that they get to have an ongoing conversation about their writing with someone who knows something about writing, who can help coach their work, identify strengths and weaknesses. The thought of blowing off a class in a coffee shop, listening to students’ pleasant, phatic comments on their assignments, would make me wonder if the whole thing was worth it.

I do incorporate peer response into my composition courses, and when they complete class evaluations, my students consistently indicate that it is one of the most beneficial components of the course for them.  While peer review is certainly not perfect, and there are inevitably students who do not provide constructive comments to their classmates, I do believe that, if approached and taught in a thoughtful and critical manner (this is key), peer response can be an empowering and enriching experience for student writers.

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