More job market stuff — looks like I’m following Clancy’s lead here. I’d be grateful for feedback, if you’re so inclined.
In her end-of-semester evaluation of a first-year composition course I had taught, one student offered the following teasing characterization of my pedagogical approach: “Practice! Practice! Practice! Write! Write! Write!” I grinned when I read it, partly at that teasing quality but mostly at the accuracy of her characterization. As a teacher, I focus on the enactment of education, the self-aware doing and re-doing that constitutes learning, the inherently difficult labor that brings one toward sharper facility and deeper knowing. This difficulty is pedagogically useful, and students’ work in engaging with difficult texts—writing them or reading them—is highly productive educative work.
One of my chief goals in the classroom is to make that work and its value visible. In her work on learning and difficulty, Mariolina Salvatori describes the “necessity for the knower […] to understand herself in the act of understanding” combined with the “necessity for a […] thinker to expose a text’s fissures” and to explore those fissures as moments of productive possibility. I see important parallels here to the radical self-conscious inhabiting of another’s perspective in what Peter Elbow has called “the believing game” and to the similarly radical self-conscious questioning or critique of another’s perspective in Elbow’s “doubting game.” Both of these sets of moves are processual and recursive ways of understanding or constructing cultural texts, and in their difficulty and self-awareness, they make learning visible.
The self-awareness of such work is an inward-turning technique, but for both Salvatori and Elbow—and for my students, as well—it is always coupled to the outward-turning, interactive uses of writing. I ask my students to understand that the cultural texts they consume and create, and their meanings, are inherently social. A classroom example of these coupled understandings is in my two-on-two approach to peer review: rather than having students draft individual peer response letters to one another based on their texts, I have teams of two students collaboratively write those letters, asking them in their initial paragraph of response to stay close to the author’s ideas (i.e., “believing”), then in a second paragraph pointing out the most startling or interesting moments in the text, and in a final paragraph raising questions based on those moments, (i.e., “doubting”). In writing these response letters collaboratively, students find that talking together through their responses makes it easier to write a response, and also models for them the ways intersecting perspectives can socially construct new knowledge.
A second example of class work that performs the self-conscious interaction between the individual and the social is in the class weblogs I ask my students to keep as an online alternative to journals. At the class weblogs linked from <http://rhetcomp.net/113>, students write posts on assigned topics and on topics of their own choosing, and comment on one another’s posts. Sometimes they receive outside feedback as well, as when I had them to respond to a difficult excerpt from Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated, and de Zengotita left a generous comment of his own in reply to their weblog responses. Delighted, some of them asked if they could put up final drafts of their essays as Web pages, in the hopes of continuing the intellectual dialogue. They found value in the ways that their weblog work made learning visible; a value for writing that went beyond a mere grade.
I see a necessary heterogeneity of value in the writing classroom. There is, of course, always the grade and its attendant pressures; the necessity to help students develop the writerly skills necessary for survival in school and career. As the interaction described above indicates, though, I hope as well to help students develop an appetite for and sense of pleasure in the writerly act of intellectual exchange that works through difficulty to create new knowledge; that makes visible the value of personal, academic, transactional, poetic, social, or experimental writing—but always deeply respectful of the work that goes into that writing.