Month: February 2012

Production Narratives

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking toward a car with someone in the field and mentioned the pleasure I’d taken in being a part of the production process that helped move her article from acceptance toward publication. It was a cool, damp, overcast afternoon, and we talked about the production process: how we correspond with authors, the various checks and edits that get made once a piece is accepted for publication, and the real-life material contexts in which that work gets done. Academic buildings crowded bare trees behind us, and in front of us a hill sloped down with roads and paths to a narrow river. Our conversation took place among meetings and introductions and arrivals and conversations and meals, the recounting of the enjoyment of the work of production taking place in its own situated material contexts.

Here’s a portion of the story I told in that conversation: two summers ago, I was on a road trip; the Orientalist and I traveling by car from New York to Michigan to Pittsburgh to Delaware to the Assateague National Seashore for a wedding, and then back up to New York. I had academic work to do, and brought along my laptop, an AC inverter to power the laptop from the car, and an old iPhone 3 that I’d jailbroken to broadcast its cellular data connection as a wireless hotspot. I was doing editorial work at 65 miles per hour, uploading and downloading draft files and making changes and asking via email for specific corrections and adjustments, and at one point, I found myself finishing up the edits by evening lamplight and firelight on a picnic table at the Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, Delaware, just outside the tent we’d set up, within peaceful earshot of the Atlantic surf. That was the pleasant memory of the production process that I shared on that cool, damp, overcast afternoon, two years later and thousands of miles away.

Both of those stories — the conversation and its internal flashback — are production narratives. They’re reflective stories about how texts (and the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that permit and constitute and shape them) get produced. I like production narratives, and I use them in my teaching: for every major assignment students turn in, I ask them to write a reflection about those material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor. For them, it’s actually a somewhat familiar genre, especially when I ask them to make the self-aware turn toward metacognition: as Kathi Yancey’s wonderful book and other studies have convincingly demonstrated, metacognition promotes knowledge transfer, and the Army makes use of that positive relationship in its systematic use of After-Action Reviews, or AARs. The cadets have all done AARs and know how they work and use AARs to refine and improve their process as well as to make what they’ve learned stick, so I sell the reflective production narrative to them as a form of AAR.

Beyond fulfilling those purposes of knowledge transfer, though, I think Kairos also points out in compelling ways how production narratives function as scholarship. The Inventio section is one of my favorite sections of the journal (well, in addition to the one that I’ve recently been promoted to editing — thanks, Cheryl and Doug!) because of cool, smart, charming webtexts like Susan Delagrange’s “When Revision is Redesign” and Daniel Anderson’s “Watch the Bubble” and the ways they demonstrate the pleasures of the text in demonstrating, analyzing, and performing how scholarship gets produced. Kairos describes the section as “focus[ing] on the decisions, contexts, and contributions that have constituted a particular webtext. Inventio authors include, alongside or integrated with their finished webtexts, materials that help them articulate how and why their work came into being.” Again: critical, reflective production narratives. But I’ve also started to see my own scholarship turning in that direction as well: I’ve recently sent off an extended economic analysis of how the Army’s plagiarized field manual was produced that attempted to account for the material and immaterial relations and contexts and labor that demanded and constituted and shaped that significant piece of doctrine, and I’ve got articles in the works that perform a sort of time-use study of the production of other pieces of scholarship, as well, and the Orientalist and I are starting to work on a study that attempts to account for the relationship between faculty time, scholarship, teaching, and student time in quantitative terms. So, yes, again: critical, reflective production narratives about how scholarship gets produced and — at a more abstract level — how education gets produced.

I’m a little uneasy, though, about the quantitative focus of that last study I described, because I think it departs from my particular economic focus on the fundamental purpose of what production narratives do. Production narratives are a way of paying attention to and making qualitative sense of the work and experience of composing and producing. They’re texts that operate on other texts, including ourselves, because information is an experience good. Experience goods are not always going to be quantitatively commensurable, and this fact is what I think constitutes the mistake Victor Villanueva makes when he declares that economic analysis requires mathematics and numbers, and more seriously the fundamental and crippling flaw to Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention. The process of production and the attention that accompanies that process are both activities that transform and aggregate; as such, they respond poorly to zero-sum quantitative economic analysis. If we’re paying attention to the value of composing and how it happens, we’re talking about information that is qualitative at its core. That’s part of what makes production narratives so appealing as irreducible experience goods.

Writing with Students

There’s been a thread running on the Writing Program Administrators’ listserv lately about the virtues of writing with one’s students. The idea is that doing the assignments with students — writing what you assign them to write, when you assign them to write it — has considerable pedagogical benefit for both student and teacher. I’m familiar with the idea and endorse it, and have been ridiculed (here, if memory serves, in the comments) for doing so. I think the resistance to the idea of writing with one’s students that such ridicule suggests necessarily involves notions of mastery: perhaps the teacher is too smart, too well-educated, too familiar with the topics he or she teaches to do something as wasteful as writing with one’s students. Certainly, in my classroom — where we write for at least 20 minutes out of every 55-minute lesson day, for 40 lessons — I can see how a visitor might say, “But why aren’t you teaching?”

What does that question mean? Why am I not delivering knowledge? Well, yes, sure; compositionists mostly know enough to wave away the lecture model, to follow Freire in avoiding the banking model. Knowledge doesn’t simply transfer from the teacher’s mouth to the student’s ear via the medium of language. Why, then, are we not engaging in the social-epistemic model of knowledge-building via discussion or group problem-solving activities? Well, we are, in part: there’s that other entire portion of class when we’re not writing, and that’s a lot of what we do. I’m particularly fond of the group problem-solving (and problem-posing) activities as applied to specific rhetorical situations and strategies: students in groups of three talk over and write out strategies for engaging a particular rhetorical situation, and then (in my technologically privileged environment) we throw those strategies up from their laptops onto the six large-screen monitors around the perimeter of the room and talk about their relative advantages. Often, following Peter Elbow’s idea of the journey out (from the individual to the social) and then the journey back (from the social to the individual), we’ll go back to and do some follow-up writing after the group activity that I then encourage them to incorporate in some form into their essay drafts. But yes: the primary focus and the pedagogical center of classroom work is on the activity of composing. That’s because I believe that students can learn more from a well-designed writing activity — from actually doing the work of writing — than they can from anything else that other people can tell them, including me. Practice matters. Habit matters. I know from experience that the best thing I can do as a writer and scholar is to write. (To paraphrase Charlie Moran: I believe this argument is sufficiently self-evident that the burden of proof lies on those who would argue otherwise.) Still, though, I see plenty of composition classrooms where teachers talk about ideas for 55 minutes and where teachers assign writing as homework. Where and when do they anticipate that writing will get done? Why do they anticipate that writing will get done? How do they anticipate that writing will get done? After all our empirical studies of what happens when we teach writing, isn’t the act of writing what we should be teaching in our classrooms?

Well, yes. I’m sure I’m being somewhat unfair: when teachers — myself included — talk about heuristics or strategies or approaches, we’re teaching writing. I’ve got a potted 20-minute talk that uses a mnemonic device (SEAR: situate, embed, analyze, relate) that I hope helps students remember the things they need to do in incorporating quotations from sources into their own writing. Later in the semester, I often come back to that topic of working with sources using Joseph Bizup’s BEAM (background, evidence, argument, method) taxonomy. So, yes, I “teach,” for vexed values of that term. But for me, the work of composition is almost always best done in class, where we can talk about it — and the work that supports that teaching can always be done outside of classes. If it’s discussion, discussions can be handled asynchronously on blogs. If it’s reading, well, most reading to my mind is best done outside of class, but there is still often considerable pedagogical benefit to working with reading during class, especially early on, so one can assess how best to help each student, including those who might not read as carefully or as slowly (yes, slowly: many of my students have a difficulty with reading too fast) as some of their classmates.

Teaching writing happens when students are writing and teachers can talk to them about that writing. If the writing doesn’t happen, there’s no point in worrying about the teaching, because teaching isn’t going to happen. That’s why I ask my students to write in class. And that’s why I write with them, both in class and out of class, and in, where I require them to write. If I’m going to value the work of writing as the coin of the pedagogical realm, I’d better do it all the way.

The Pilot Course, Wrap-Up

Yeah, I know: I’ve been going on about this for a while. This is the last entry. I think I’ve said and thought enough here to be able to turn these entries into an article, and I’ll have the IRB permissions to do it. I’m happy about that. As I’ve noted before, I think this is the first large-scale project I’ve been able to implement that’s drawn together my process-oriented pedagogy and my scholarly interest in the rhetoric of technology as it plays out in composition and connect both through my work on the economics of immaterial labor and a renewed attention to the labor theory of value. In other words: everything clicked last semester, and I’m trying to figure out why and how, so I can develop this approach (which, according to our blind tests and number-crunching, is empirically and statistically successful, and I think that’s no small claim) into something that might in some small way be adaptable or generalizable to other college writing courses.

The Framework I’ve been trying to apply to what we did last semester describes eight “habits of mind essential for success in college writing” and then offers five approaches or forms of experience that “can foster these habits of mind”:

Rhetorical knowledge — the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts. (In my class, we get pretty good at that: we write for multiple and various real-world audiences for various purposes and in various contexts, and I’ve encouraged students to send off their end-of-semester real-world documents to the audiences who they thought were both most in need of being convinced and in the best position to make a difference. In so doing, I’ve benefited from the cadets’ confidence in themselves, but I’m also one of the people who helps to build that confidence.)

Critical thinking — the ability to analyze a situation or text and make thoughtful decisions based on that analysis, through writing, reading, and research. (This is the criterion I hate for its bland, euphemistic triteness. Is anybody in academia opposed to “critical thinking”? Of course not. It has no positive opposing term. It’s a fancy way of saying, “Just be smart,” or — for many instructors — “Agree with my political opinions and endorse the ways in which I unmask for you the grim and terrible functions of hegemony.” Too often, the would-be Freirean pedagogue simply becomes a counter-Freirean, substituting one set of banking-method perspectives for another. Yes, one can critique, but if you’re going to critique, you’d better be pluralistic in doing so, even if you don’t like the answers you get. I avoid use of the phrase “critical thinking” because it’s a hackneyed term and a more-or-less empty signifier, but I do demand that students engage multiple perspectives and carefully evaluate the motivations that stand behind the sources they engage.

Writing Processes — multiple strategies to approach and undertake writing and research. (Yes, the approach we used in last semester’s pilot course did this in a huge way: we showed and worked with our students on multiple approaches and processes and then asked them to engage them in enormously flexible ways, trying out one approach after another and carefully monitoring and self-monitoring what worked and what didn’t work. The first and most important thing: we wrote, every lesson, and we wrote a lot. Students got good at composing fast; at putting together words. That’s a first and foundational skill, and perhaps more than anything else what helped them to succeed. They admitted as much, nearly unanimously, in their anonymous evalutations at the end of the semester: if you’re going to learn to write well, the first step is writing, and writing regularly. The next step was to try it out in various ways and with various approaches. That engagement with the multiple processes and approaches — the various forms of work for composition, but most of all with the down-in-it work of actually composing — is precisely what leads me to mistrust any compositionist who self-characterizes as “post-process,” as if we can simply glide over or elide that absolutely essential attention to how we do what we do. If someone self-characterizes to me as “post-process,” my first question in response will likely be: How many of your students still write their papers the night before they’re due? Uh-huh.)

Knowledge of conventions — the formal and informal guidelines that define what is considered to be correct and appropriate, or incorrect and inappropriate, in a piece of writing. (We have here our share of would-be grammar nazis — often self-identified, and often unable to adequately explain what they mean by the term “grammar” and how it might differ from punctuation, mechanics, or usage — who are mostly as ill-informed as they are at any other institution as to the proper use of the subjunctive voice, the particulars of em dashes and en dashes as opposed to hyphens, or why certain students struggle with the use of determiners. Perhaps because of that, I work hard to illustrate to my students how such conventions are always dependent on context, and work hard with junior faculty and with other departments to talk about how conventions shift according to context and audience.)

Abilities to compose in multiple environments — from using traditional pen and paper to electronic technologies. (We totally rocked this last semester. We worked in pencil and paper, on laptops, across multiple information systems for multiple purposes. I opened lesson 1 and closed lesson 40 with the use of pen and paper and 63 sealed envelopes; in between, we worked with Microsoft Word,, email, chat clients,, Blackboard, beta-testing the Eli peer review software, blogspaces, presentation software, movie editing, wikispaces, and that reminds me that I need to test out Etherpad analogues this semester. In fact, we changed environments so often that students got good — or perhaps were already good — at changing environments.)

Conclusions? The work of writing has value. Students get better at it by doing it in various ways that focus their attention on the very specific contexts in which they write. And this pedagogy — a pedagogy of writing as work, of writing as regular work — works.

The Pilot Course, Part 4

I started to offer some additional detail in my last post about how the technology- and writing-intensive version of our plebe composition course that I led and co-piloted last semester supported the “habits of mind” detailed in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing document developed and produced by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

Here’s the short version: the adaptability across multiple information systems that the pedagogy we developed in our eight sections and the regular, rigorous, and reflective practice and instruction in writing that we gave our students (1) aligns well with nationally accepted pedagogies and outcomes and (2) produced a positive and statistically significant correlation between how much students wrote and how well they performed on blind-graded end-of-semester writing assessment measures.

In other words, what we did worked. Here’s how we tried to develop the other four (out of the total of eight) habits of mind that I started to describe last time.

Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects. (As Clancy pointed out, this is the habit of mind in which our students have perhaps the most significant advantage: at the nation’s premier and highest-ranked military academy, where our students compete for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships with students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, we don’t lack for high-initiative self-starters. Our students are trained and temperamentally inclined to do what they’re asked. The plebes come straight out of the military basic-training rigors of “Beast Barracks” into our classrooms, and many of them have express their adherence to the maxim, “Fake it ’til you make it”: the notion that even if you can’t yet do it, keep trying and going through the motions until you can. That attitude is a remarkable asset in the classroom, especially when they’re also consistently urged to take advantage of every resource possibly available to them, including instructor advice. If I encourage them to do something, and model it convincingly, they’ll do it, and give me reports long after they’ve departed my course about how well they’ve done. I kind of love that.)

Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others. (Perhaps more than anything else, this is what sets Academy students apart from others. The demand for persistence and initiative, coupled to the forthrightness necessitated by the cadet-run honor system and its implementation of the Cadet Honor Code, and the command structure set up in the Corps of Cadets in which cadets take on increasing responsibility for the actions of cadets in classes below them as they advance through the ranks from plebe through yearling and cow to firstie, all lead to a system in which personal responsibility is foremost. Cadets eagerly give credit to those who have helped them out, and seek recognition for their actions. When they fail, they’re almost always the first to acknowledge it, and typically follow up that acknowledgement with a request for advice on how to improve. They own their actions, and they give full credit — good and bad — to the actions of others, as well.)

Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands. (This is another advantage I’d argue Academy students tend to possess over others. Before they get to our FYC classroom, they’ve gone through Beast Barracks. The Army’s developed plenty of ways to help them learn to “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.” And their instructors run the range from cuddly civilian nice-guys to officers cycling into West Point fresh out of command of a Ranger or Special Forces unit. We demand that cadets excel in all three domains — athletic, military, and academic — rather than just one. And their strengths in the athletic or military domains can contribute to their performance in the academic classroom in surprising ways. They tend to understand the idiosyncrasies of the rhetorical situation in ways that some instructors at more conventional institutions might not anticipate.)

Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge. (I’ve tried to actively promote reflection-as-metacognition in the service of knowledge transfer since I arrived at West Point, but I worry that I’ve been largely unsuccessful, in part because the Army’s institutional structures and discourses have to a degree co-opted research on reflection and metacognition: it’s become an often contentless buzzword here. The Army does After-Action Reviews and thinks of it as metacognition, rather than paying attention to the constraints and processes that led to a given outcome, and that leads in turn to the ways many of my students don’t want to think about constraints and processes, but only about actions and outcomes. Method and motivation seem sometimes not to matter, even as we pay them lip service in the interest of reflection. The best thing I might do, I think, would be to keep a dual-column index of my end-of-paper comments and their end-of-paper reflections for all their assignments, and maybe even to make it a triple-entry notebook, with their reactions to the intersections between the first two columns in the third column.)

So: the pedagogy in the pilot course I’ve led has promoted, I think, significant advantage on the part of students here in many of the habits of mind that lead to success in postsecondary writing, and I’ve got a ways to go in some other areas. I’ll talk next time about how I work in terms of the five approaches the Framework recommends in order to promote those habits of mind.