Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Final Exam, July 1, 2008

This is the fifty-fifth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

This final of four Recovered Writing posts from Teaching College Writing is my take home final exam. In these essay responses, I discuss theories of language and literacy, justifications for composition instruction techniques, and demonstrate a letter-writing approach to composition feedback.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College Writing

1 July 2008

Take Home Final Exam

I. What is your theory of language and literacy and how does it relate to first-year college writing instruction? Make sure you refer to relevant scholarship in the field to support your beliefs and assumptions about writing and its teaching.

My theory of language (the protocols and method of communication) and literacy (the ability to read and write, or more broadly, to communicate via language) is that they are acquired through immersive practices. In the first-year college writing class, freshmen students bring a certain understanding of language and literacy that they’ve acquired through school and socialization outside of school. It’s my goal to tap into my student’s various skill sets, to reach into their toolboxes of communication, and guide them towards the attainment of new tools that will allow them to communicate better.

My newfound theories of language and literacy come from a variety of sources. The first is Roger W. Shuy’s “A Holistic View of Language.” Shuy argues that form (the mechanics of writing) follows function (communication). This is a significant idea, because it points the way to findings such as those by Michael W. Williamson in his essay, “Common Sense Meets Research: The Debate Over Grammatical Instruction in Composition Instruction.” Essentially, rote teaching and practice of grammar and the forms of language do not good writers make. Engaging students as writers in topics that they find interesting are just as or better at building on and tapping into the student’s own innate knowledge and mastery of language. Additionally, this increases students’ enjoyment of writing. And it’s that enjoyment of mindful and effective communication that’s necessary to, as Mem Fox writes in “Notes from the Battlefield: Towards a Theory of Why People Write,” “ache with caring.” In order to jump start student caring about writing in the immersive environment, the teacher must enter dialog with the students as a collaborator that is willing to recognize and listen to his or her student’s voice and cultural context as suggested by James T. Zebroski in his, “A Hero in the Classroom,” and Carmen Kynard in her, “Y’all Are Killin’ Me up in Here: Response Theory from a New Jack Composition Instructor/Sistah Gurl Meeting Her Students on the Page.” Showing students that you’re “meeting them on the page,” or “listening to their voices on the page,” will not only show that you’re invested in them and their work, but it will invite them to invest in their own work as something of value, because it has an attentive audience. Additionally, expanding the audience beyond the student-teacher relationship is imperative for building student investment in their own work as well as the work of others. This is accomplished in the immersive classroom through group discussion and peer review. As teachers, we empower our students by teaching them not only how to write, but also how to read and respond to the work of others. For the student, peer review leads them toward an understanding that their work is not only intended for the eyes of a teacher and the subsequent marking and comments. Furthermore, the truly immersive writing class takes the student’s work beyond the confines of class into the real world through online posting of text and multimodal assignments or social assignments such as writing to representatives or the newspaper. This embeds writing with an importance beyond getting a grade, and the skillful, reflective teacher guides students through this realization by a carefully designed sequence of assignments connected by poignant or engrossing theme. Returning to Shuy, these exercises build students’ function of writing skills, but as Williamson argues in analog with Shuy, form follows function. Addressing grammatical issues has a place in the classroom if and when they become a non-self-correcting problem. My goal in the implementation of this theory is to guide my students, as writers, to be better communicators.

 

II.       Choose three of the following subjects for the teaching of writing and write one page for each that describes what they are and the empirical and pedagogical basis for using these techniques with students.

A. Multimodal projects are forms of communication beyond the traditional pen and paper essay. The emphasis is on the medium of communication rather than the rhetorical mode of communication, because various mediums of communication may all carry rhetorical communication. That is, a brochure, poster, audio essay, movie, or Flash animation all may be employed in making an argument and communicating some message. Additionally, borrowing from Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, “the medium is the message,” which means that choosing a particular medium is a rhetorical choice that carries its own meaning. As Pamela Takayoshi and Cynthia L. Selfe mention in, “Thinking about Multimodality,” the times they are a-changing. The twenty-first century digital world has expanded beyond the traditional writing assignment. The increase in computer usage and the lowering cost of audio and video technologies empowers individuals to engage other mediums for communication besides the written word. For these reasons, Takayoshi and Selfe insist that the definition of composition needs expansion to allow for multimodal projects, because the rhetoric underlying traditional composition and multimodal composition are the same–both use rhetoric to communicate a message. Additionally, students need digital literacy in multimodal forms so that they are better communicators in their private as well as professional lives. Furthermore, students enjoy working with new technologies, which is an effective means of engaging students in rhetorical practices. It’s important to note that, as Mickey Hess says in “Composing Multimodal Assignments,” there are other considerations to make as a teacher in developing multimodal assignments. Some of these include focusing on the rhetorical practices to emphasize in a particular assignment, allowing students the latitude to explore and figure out some things on their own, encouraging group work, and having students reflect on their work and the process in writing. Pedagogically, multimodal composition engages the same rhetorical communication skills developed in written composition–the medium has changed, but the function remains the same.

B. We’ve encountered a number of complementary theories of productive student-teacher relationships over the past few weeks. Essentially, all of these involve mutual respect between teacher and student, and a leveling effect that puts the teacher and student on a more level plane of dialogic cooperation. Instead of employing a top-down, monolog approach to teaching, it’s more effective, empowering (for student and teacher), and fulfilling to have a dialog between teacher and student. One example of this comes from Hull, Rose, Fraser, and Castellano in their essay, “Remediation as Social Construct: Perspectives from an Analysis of Classroom Discourse.” These authors use classroom and student-teacher conference transcripts to remind teachers that it’s easy to drown out student voices. We should encourage more student turns in discussion, and listen and engage what our students have to say rather than hijacking class and conference discussions. Another view of productive student-teacher relationships comes from Annette Harris Powell’s “Conflicting Voices in the Classroom: Developing Critical Consciousness.” Powell employs socially engaging texts in her classroom to develop discussion and raise student’s awareness of competing discourses, thus expanding her student’s critical awareness. Powell’s ideas come up again in James T. Zebroski’s “A Hero in the Classroom,” but in reverse. Zebroski argues that teachers need to consider the heteroglossia within our students’ papers in order to better evaluate the work and connect with our students. My favorite student-teacher relationship building pedagogical tool is presented in Gerriets and Lowe’s, “Building Relationships through Written Dialog.” I like the idea of carrying on a discussion via writing with my students regarding their papers, because it allows both participants time to consider what is being said. This is not to say that I feel spoken dialog isn’t effective, but I think a combination of written and spoken dialog is important, because the teacher, as Carmen Kynard does, meets the students on the page as well in spoken dialog.

C. Listserve or the email list is a tremendously effective tool in the writing classroom as I have evidenced in my own experience at other schools and in our Teaching College Writing class. Listserve allows the conversation to carry on outside of class by empowering students to communicate with their classmates in an “open” turn based environment. What that means is that students aren’t constrained to wait and talk. They write down their thoughts and send them out to the classmates, and in turn, read the responses of others to which they may respond again. All students may take part in the conversation on listserve, but it’s particularly liberating to students that are still developing group discussion skills–if their ideas are accepted online, they may be more willing to engage classroom discussion. Besides reinforcing group communication skills, they are effective for the writing classroom, because students are required to communicate in writing. This additional writing practice fosters “form following function,” as well as rhetoric skill practice (i.e., how to best explain myself to convince my classmates that I’m right or to convey what I mean to everyone else without causing a misunderstanding). Also, as a multimodal medium of communication, listserve introduces many students to online etiquette, which adds to their abilities as effective and respectful communicators in other mediums. In a tip of the iceberg kind of way, listserve also serves the requirements of the writing program for Tier I.

III. Respond to the attached paper. Be sure to create a specific student in a particular class who is writing in response to a specific assignment. You may include any information about the student you believe to be important in understanding the pedagogical moment of this essay. Your only restrictions are that you must respond to the student you created.

This student, who I’ll call Jim, is from a working class background. His mom and dad both work, and have at most a high school education. They want their son to succeed in life, and they see education as the key to that success. Therefore, they stressed his need for education without really explaining or fleshing out the reasons behind their belief that education is the key to a better life, and how could they without that kind of experience themselves? For Jim, this caused confusion as he went through school, because he could realize the tangible and immediate rewards of street education whereas school education provided less tangible payoffs. At the core of his being, he is someone that wants to embrace higher education and reap the good life for his efforts, but he’s looking for the hook, or reason, that will light his own fire to learn.

Jim’s paper, “Renaissance Man,” was written in response to my second writing assignment in Tier I College Writing. The assignment was to write a three page personal response to a film that you’ve seen. The response should weave together personal narrative to support or refute what the student saw as the argument of the film.

This is my response following Gerriets and Lowe’s written dialog method:

7/2/08

Dear Jim,

I enjoyed reading your essay on Penny Marshall’s Renaissance Man (did you know Marshall also directed Tom Hanks in the film, Big? If you haven’t seen it, that’s another one that you should check out, because it addresses many of the issues you raise about different kinds of education). I saw two major arguments in your essay–one is that education is not just book learning, but it’s also experience gained outside of school, and the other is that learning takes place when the individual has a motivation to learn. These are powerful ideas, and I can see some of the ways you weaved your own narrative about your parents’ expectation that you go to college and other pressures that they placed on you growing up with the examples that you chose from the film. I’d like to go more in-depth on these examples, and perhaps together we can formulate a plan to make this an even stronger paper.

After rereading your first paragraph, I get the sense that your theory has to do with encouraging students to learn in school. You claim that, “our school programs are missing a way to teach everyone…to find something that everyone is interested in.” I see where you’re coming from in that classes often lack a hook or a common idea that students are interested in learning about, or the reasons for learning aren’t always immediately apparent. That, perhaps, more should go into showing students how to be engaged learners or why learning is important and can be fun, rather than just telling students these things. Showing is definitely a more powerful rhetorical tool, especially when you’re writing, and I feel that you can do more of this to empower your own argument. If you decide to focus on this one idea to develop your own theory about learning in your next revision, I would suggest adding an example from your life when your parents put pressure on your to learn and perhaps their words didn’t work on you. Another way would be to talk about a specific example from school when the teacher didn’t spark your interest to learn. Show how that supports your theory, and then talk about Renaissance Man as reinforcing what you see as a need of education–a real reason or a more exciting reason to learn, to care about learning. Let me know if you go this direction, because I want to let give you an essay about this very topic by Mem Fox. When you read what she has to say, you’ll think you’re on the same wavelength!

There’s another thread in your paper that you might want to pick up if you decide not to go the reason route. That other way has to do with what you wrote on page 2, “People put too much emphasis in the idea that good grades equal an educated person, this is a false statement. Many people that have poor grades in school are more intelligent than a person who makes good grades in school.”   I read it as you making a distinction between school learning and “real life” learning. This is another thread with which to center your essay around that you have good examples from the film that you can draw on. Additionally, as I said before, it would be great if you could show the reader an example of this from your own life. What are some things that you’ve learned outside of school, and what are some things that you’ve learned in school? What value do you place on the different things that you’ve learned?

Think over these different approaches, and how you might focus your paper more on one or the other, and meet with me during office hours this week. We’ll sit down and talk about your plan. I’d like to hear about some of the stories and details that you can employ to show the reader more concretely what it is you’re talking about. See you soon!

-Jason

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Pedagogy, Recovered Writing
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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