Writing about Writing, Basically

So, a summer in Vermont and three-quarters of a semester into my first full-time teaching experience under my belt and I’m back to the blog.  More on Vermont later.  First, the classroom.

I’ve used a writing about writing approach to the basic writing courses I’ve taught this semester.  As I prepared for the course, and periodically throughout the semester, I’ve had occasion to recall Geoffrey Sirc’s “Resisting Entropy” (link via Jody Shipka’s Remediate This), a polemic review essay that oscillated through Sirc’s dissatisfaction for the sub-field of composition (or rhetoric and composition, FYC, etc.–Sirc says it “has as many aliases as a career criminal”) and his hope that fresh perspectives that move away from pigeonholing the work we do as only grounded in an eminently teachable, civic-minded, politically engaged pedagogy.  In other words, and as he reviews Byron Hawks Counter History in particular, Sirc wants the work of the composition classroom to be more inclusive of aesthetics, poetics, and the unteachable mess that he sees writing as at its core.  It’s a good read; thick skin is recommended.

As I reread the essay whole reflecting on the teaching I’ve done this semester, a pair of passages danced off the screen onto this one:

“Official composition has persisted as a bland, sanitized pedagogy, teaching clear, correct, citation-based essay form to students, using a literarily thin corpus of nonfiction readings as prompts” (511).

“Let me add, in sad disbelief,that some of the contributors to this volume actually have their undergraduate students read composition scholarship. Oh, my people, my people!” (517).

In the first quote, I encounter the phrase “essay form” in two ways.  In one sense, it’s a comforting phrase, knowable (and teachable)  like the familiar routes we take to work.  There are a few alternatives, and certainly a most direct route, but in the end all familiar, easily navigable, fluently explained even to those with a limited understanding of the terrain.

As a teacher, it’s easy to follow the same essayistic path from semester to semester.  Institutions encourage it, many colleagues across the curriculum approach a militant demand for it, and students, in my experience, are familiar with the conventions and expectations of the genre.  With the populations I’ve taught in basic writing and first-year classrooms, and with many first-in-the-family-in-college students from under-served communities who have limited (and sometimes confusing) institutional support services not to mention the barely visible 800-pound gorilla of student loans (manifest themselves in a few pieces of paper that warn you to understand all of this fine print that a law degree would be in valuable service of understanding and making an informed choice, which would, of course, require some sort or life coach separated from the exigencies family members, friends, institutionally based advisorship, and a student’s own understanding of why college at a four-year university is the right choice), with those populations, something familiar, something knowable is a comfort when juggling the aforementioned big-picture life issues along with a crowded schedule that includes biology exams, communications projects, math quizzes, and more.  And oh, by the way, if you’re living on campus, find a way to get home during the breaks when your temporary home in the dorms close.  (Sirc’s polemic is, apparently, contagious.)  The essay is safe.

The other way I hear the phrase “essay form” is, and please excuse me, like fingernails firmly dragging a path down a dusty chalkboard.  For as much as I may cringe, though, I wonder what are other realistic options in a basic writing classroom?  I have 15-ish weeks.  A wide range of abilities are present in the BW classroom.  Institutions have difficulty providing infrastructure and materials that afford student work beyond the essay.

For many of us, it’s a substantial risk to move beyond the essay form.  It’s risky for students themselves, although, like Sirc, I’ve gratefully heard from students who were thrilled with the prospect of and opportunity to perform writing assignments that ventured outside of the traditional essay.  It’s risky for faculty, whether full-time like myself or adjunct.  For both lecturers and adjunct, the prospect of not having a contract renewed or schedule of courses offered is an incredible impediment to taking risks.  In many, many ways I am privileged, and that privilege courses through the classroom where I am observed and rated by students, in the original interview in which I was hired in the first place, and in the institutional process that reviews my work.  I am lucky, and if I wanted to take some risks, I feel like I have some capital (earned or not) to do so.  Many others, I think, risk much more when considering a route that strays from the well-worn essayistic path.

The second of Sirc’s quotes above strikes me at a gut level.  I remember reading that passage after this review essay was first published and wondering, with mimicked disgust, who would do that to their students.

I did.  This semester.  And it wasn’t half bad.  Although I’m not planning to do a “writing about writing” theme next semester, many of my (basic writing) students relished the challenge of reading and dwelling on Linda Flower, Marilyn Cooper, and James Paul Gee.  To be sure, others absolutely hated it.  Hass and Flower’s “Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning,” though, in particular, afforded many of my students an authentic metacognitive moment that they were able both to articulate and appreciate.  I’m glad the preemptive shame I felt upon reading Sirc’s “Oh, my people, my people!” wasn’t strong enough to prevent me from doing something I hadn’t done in the past.  I’m not sure I would follow the same route again, but I found some valuable little collectibles along the way, little nuggets of teaching and learning about writing that will stay with me and, I hope, inform the meandering paths I explore in future semesters.

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