Month: March 2005

Personal Writing: Theory and Method


A lot of what I’ll say here concerning personal writing circles back not only to yesterday’s post, but also (as Clancy points out) to what I was thinking last year, and also to the recent excellent posts (and the subsequent discussions they spurred) by Sharon Gerald and John Lovas. So, first, some givens: I agree with Sharon that “personal writing is academic writing,” and with John that “all writing is personal. All good writing conveys a sense of the person who produced it, including good academic writing.” No surprises there. And I think the insights offered by John’s answer to his rhetorical question are extremely useful, and also interesting in the way they anticipate the title of Thomas De Zengotita’s new book (referenced in yesterday’s post): “How does the personal intersect with knowledge-building? It means finding in each subject a personal connection, a dimension of the topic that connects to or illuminates one’s lived experience, including previous reading and mediated experience.” But what I’m talking about here is different from Sharon’s “personal” essays that “are all about something other than the student”: this is writing that is, in fact, about the student (more on this in the Method section), because I think such writing can work against those assignments that — as I said before — “rely upon a vague rhetoric of individualism and positioning, while actually ignoring individual and institutional context: they are simultaneously solipsistic, generalized, and abstracted from any concrete and particular context.” Personal writing is worthwhile in its groundedness, in its connectedness, in its being located in its done-for-its-own-sake non-exchangeable non-equivalent value: in its Use Value.

Which is why I’m puzzled when Clancy asks to what ends personal writing might be put; when she asks what it’s for; when she wonders about transforming experience into evidence. It’s not for anything other than itself-as-writing, I want to answer. Its value is in its doing. This weblog — even as I’m writing about composition theory, about politics, about the Romans who I love for their sheer cussed weirdness, about rhetoric, about material that may seem largely academic — is personal writing. But then I follow Clancy’s link to Joan W. Scott’s work on experience, and I start to understand a little.

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The Personal

So this idea’s got hold of me and I can’t leave it alone, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s unsettling my notions of where I thought the final chapters of my dissertation would go. And I think this is what I’m going to have to propose for CCCC because I can’t put it down, can’t let it go unexamined, and so I’ve been following trails of sources at the library and on the Web the past few days, a little apprehensive at where I see it going.

What got me started was Jenny Edbauer’s thoughts on the general equivalency of student essays written in the critical-pedagogical mode. The assignments required by critical pedagogues have become so common that they now show up — in all their generic characteristics — in the online term paper mills. As I tentatively concluded in my notes on Linh’s CCCC presentation, they’ve become our unmasking-hegemony equivalent of the New Critical close reading, only the object is culture rather than literature. And as Jenny points out, they’re so common that they’re easily exchanged, one for another, to the point where — as Doug Hesse suggested with his examples of the Intelligent Essay Assessor and the Essay Generator — no writing needs to be done, because it’s all been said. This is the end to which critical pedagogues have brought Paulo Freire: writing as the regurgitation of lecture, where the ultimate lesson the student takes from the teacher is this: “Do you now see how you’ve been duped by the dominant culture?” And of course the student will answer, outwardly: “Yes, teacher, I see.” And inwardly: “Yeah, sure. Whatever. Just give me the grade.” Because for all their hand-waving and hair-tearing about hegemony and ideology, many of the aging inheritors of Freire often forget that students are powerfully insightful cultural critics with a deep, thoroughgoing, and instinctive awareness of the performativity of culture, and the lessons that these inheritors of Freire would have them absorb about how meaning is constructed become so much lip-service bullshit, not worth writing about and simpler in its generic received-wisdom nature to download from Any individuated use value to the student is ignored in favor of exchange value for the grade.

This — Jenny’s “general equivalency” — is shallow writing in that it offers no room for personal inhabitation. We’ve forgotten Freire’s instruction that the subject must be the student’s own experience, not the facile unmasking of the hegemonic functions of assertions about capital punishment or tax reform. But use value subsists in what the writing means, directly, to the student, and that’s where I see an alternative offered by Peter Elbow’s “believing game” and the pedagogical possibilities of personal writing.

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Audiences Read

As I’ve already acknowledged, Derek Mueller’s CCCC presentation impressed me, and it impressed me because of the ways it used a careful examination of the practical realities of writing with weblog technologies to deeply complicate the assumptions of some of the foundational texts of rhetoric and composition. In this way, I think the work Derek’s done moves beyond the tired ways folks like techno-evangelist George Landow have written about the intersection of critical theory and technology: in Hypertext 2.0, Landow’s primary claim seemed to be, “See! Hypertext stands as proof that Derrida and Baudrillard were right!” While the book caused a brief stir, I think it’s of little interest to compositionists now because it went no further than drawing facile parallels: like a compare-and-contrast essay, it was easy. What Derek has done in his analysis of the ways in which certain internet technologies (the simple link, the bi-directional link, the ping) make us re-interrogate our theories of audience (and vice versa) is to radically complicate our understandings of the ways audiences read, and are read, in the classroom and on the Web. What I hope I might do here is offer some supplements to what Derek has said about readers, about audiences, without falling into the trap of making simplistic Landow-style one-to-one theory-practice probative assertions. And, yeah, I’m gonna be fighting the cold medicine while so doing, so I hope this doesn’t lapse into Burroughs-style supreme induction.

Jacques Derrida, in his discussion of the “picada” or “track” or “trace” in Of Grammatology, tells us we must meditate on a number of things: “writing as the possibility of the road and of difference, the history of writing and the history of the road, of the rupture, of the via rupta, of the path that is broken, beaten, fracta, of the space of reversibility and of repetition traced by the opening” (107). In addition to the connotations of the term ‘trace’ that Spivak mentions in her translator’s preface to Of Grammatology (spoor, track, imprint, footprint), we should also consider that ‘trace’ is the Appalachian slang term for a seldom-traveled trail, often along a ridge, a trail too narrow to be a road, a trail that often fades away or loses itself, a way where others have been before, but a way that’s inherently unreliable, and that seems to change each time one takes it. Webloggers, in their attention to the recursive nature of their genre, already know this; we’ve all seen the way that discussions turn back and back again, the periodic repeating conversations around a topic that seem, in their odd tidal way, to gradually push forward a body of collective knowledge with multiple iterations.

Think of this in the context of Lawrence Lessig’s CCCC presentation on copyright.

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Runny nose, can’t stop sneezing, congestion, sore throat, achiness: I’m miserable. And to top it off, little Zeugma’s under the weather, too; can’t keep anything down, as soon as she eats something, she’s off into a corner of the apartment to whoops it up.

And the cold medicine isn’t doing anything for me except making my head foggy. I’ve tried to work through some stuff from Shadi Bartsch on performativity and doublespeak, tried to work out some ways my CCCC presentation might be fleshed out into my dissertation’s Chapter 5, tried to apply some stuff from Thomas De Zengotita to weblogs and rhetoric and subjectivity-production, tried to think about how work I’ve done in the past with Barthes and Derrida might line up with some of the stuff from Derek’s CCCC presentation about weblogs, reading, and audience — nothing’s working. Dumb and thick-headed and my ears hurt when I try to take a breath through my nose. It’s the worst thing about being sick: this feeling of stupidity and helplessness manifests a physical analogue.

4Cs: Final Thoughts

I had a fine time in San Francisco, and I’ll share John’s sentiment that CCCC is much more than the sessions. While I didn’t get a chance to chat with Steve Krause, and I missed Jenny Edbauer’s presentation, I was glad to finally meet Derek Mueller (whose presentation, it doesn’t hurt to say again, totally rocked), Daisy Pignetti (who is absolutely charming), and Joanna Howard (whose Montgomery College t-shirt John was wearing at the Thursday night meet-up in South Beach; I spent a semester at MC as an undergrad). And it was good to see Brad, Charlie, Clancy, Collin, and Dennis again, as well as many other colleagues and instructors past and present.

And now, as Collin points out, it’s time to start thinking about next year. I’ll share Collin’s sentiment that the “trend […] towards increasingly arbitrary and unclear categories” on the CCCC Call for Proposals is problematic, and I’ll add a question: do the proposal form’s “area clusters” perhaps actually hinder our disciplinary conversations? I noticed that a lot of bloggers went to a lot of the technology-focused panels, which of course is to be expected (it’s become axiomatic that the thing bloggers most like to blog about is blogging) — but I didn’t see any panels that had only one or two tech presenters; the tech panels were all tech, all the time (somebody, please, correct me if I’m wrong), which I think makes for a sort of echo chamber effect. It can also lead to attitudes like the one I (perhaps mistakenly) perceived in Anne Jones’s troubling “dark ages” comment; attitudes that pedagogies associated with digital technologies are somehow beyond rather than a part of composition’s body of knowledge. I wonder what might happen when composition reaches the disciplinary point that the New York Times reached on March 24, when it eliminated the Circuits section because of the way technology concerns had begun “migrating into the mainstream.”

4Cs: Teacher as Cultural Broker

My UMass colleague (and 2005 Scholar for the Dream Award winner) Linh Dich began her excellent one-woman panel presentation “Cultural Broker: Beyond the Teacher Role” by expressing a familiar desire: to be that accomplished and authoritative teacher who seemingly effortlessly cultivates a utopian classroom of universally eager and engaged learners. But the utopian classroom, Dich concedes, is precisely that: a utopia, not a real or possible space. Her desire for that ideal teacherly identity, Dich suggests, reveals a belief that in some ways we see students as static in relation to ourselves, with the teacherly persona always needing to change, to become more noble, more committed, in order to better serve the students — and yet that ideal teacher into whom we continually attempt to transform ourselves is a teacher who is herself ideal largely because of the ways in which she is able to transform students’ selves.

Here, Dich shifts gears, and points to the increasingly diverse population of higher education, an increase curiously paralleled by a growth in white male authority. In our increasingly diverse classrooms, however, the idealized teacher as traditional white male authority figure (think Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society) simply doesn’t work. As a remedy, Dich invokes and connects two possible alternative figures: that of Henry Giroux’s border crosser and that of Anne Fadiman’s cultural broker.

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4Cs: Reading and Writing

Those familiar with the literature of rhetoric and composition will likely recognize Mariolina Salvatori and David Bleich as two scholars and pedagogues of significant stature in the field. And folks who know me or who’ve been reading here a while know that Mariolina’s scholarship and mentoring have significantly shaped my theoretical and pedagogical perspective, so this presentation was one I wasn’t going to miss. (I’ve got the new book Mariolina co-authored with Patricia Donahue on order.) And I have to say: Patricia Donahue’s introduction of Salvatori and Bleich as two of the most impressively coiffed scholars in composition was certainly apt.:) In any case: it was, as one would expect, an excellent panel, and the panel this year upon which I took by far the most copious notes, feeling like I didn’t dare let my pen slow to miss an insight.

Bleich began his presentation with a provocative statement: universities have never existed solely for the sake of teaching and learning, but rather to serve the governing powers — their patrons and sponsors — all the way back to the 12th century and the Universities of Bologna and Oxford.

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Cooking for One

As much as I like to cook, it’s often difficult to find the motivation when you don’t have someone else for whom to do it. But nights like tonight remind me why it’s OK to eat alone: I improvised a spicy Thai-Cajun barbecue-curry with fresh catfish, Ancho chilies, watercress, fresh basil, black beans, and lots of garlic. And man it came out good.

4Cs: Political Pedagogies, Public Citizens

I was interested in this panel primarily because of the interrogation of the privileging of alleged civic discourse in the composition classroom that its description promised: recall Doug Hesse’s contention that we’ve tamed civic rhetoric into a school genre by having students write about the public sphere rather than in it, and my concern from the Weblogs as Social Action panel that teacherly delight at the possibilities offered by weblogs for political deliberative rhetoric should be tempered by the apparent predominance of dialectical — rather than deliberative — classroom ends to which many teachers are applying weblogs. But it certainly didn’t hurt that my friend and former University of Pittsburgh colleague Chris Warnick was presenting, and that I’ve really come to enjoy the “literary” style (as another former Pitt colleague put it last year) of Pitt CCCC presentations. It’s an interesting split: every panel I’ve seen from Pitt people involves paper handouts for the audience and the presenters reading from a highly eloquent pre-written paper, whereas most panels I’ve seen from the CCCC computer folk have involved presenters talking through bullet points and using a video projector for PowerPoint slides or Web pages. In some ways, it’s almost a split between hypotaxis and parataxis — which is perhaps appropriate, since Pitt’s program carries a deep cultural studies and critical theory influence, and such an influence necessarily lends itself to the careful subordination of hypotaxis and deductive reasoning rather than the and/and/and of parataxis and inductive connections. And I gotta say, when I’m trying to follow along and take notes at the same time, sometimes the rich and complexly subordinated discourse Pitt folks are so good at comes too fast and too smart for me to be able to adequately follow: in between listening, thinking it through, and attempting to quickly render it into my own words, I found I sometimes lost the thread.

Still, I hope the brief summaries and thoughts I offer here might begin to offer at least a thin hint of the panel’s quality. All four presentations more than lived up to the promise of their program description, firmly grounding their formidable theoretical sophistication in careful considerations of the realities of classroom practice.

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Home Again

It’s late Sunday night and I just got home. Rumor has it that the girls got into a little trouble while I was away, but they’re happy to see me, and continue to follow me from room to room, I suppose making sure that I don’t get out of their sight again. And from their interest in my bags, I’m getting the message that they’d like to help me unpack.

Unlike my many colleagues, I neglected to take any pictures at CCCC, but I’ve got a few more pages of notes on some of the presentations I went to that I’ll type up and share, and the social side was fine, as well. The best part of the whole trip, though, had nothing to do with the conference: last night, in Berkeley, I went out to dinner with some of my extended family on my mom’s side to this funky, raucous Italian restaurant with terrific food, and I’m looking at this really pretty kinda pixie-looking woman and I know it’s J who I haven’t seen since we were both fiction writers in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh five years ago and 2600 miles away — but here, in an Italian restaurant in Berkeley? And so I finally ask, and she’s like, “Mike Edwards? Is that you? Ohmigod!” So yeah: small world. I was super happy to see her again and we traded email addresses and it was about the best way to end this year’s Cs that I can think of.