Friday, April 27, 2007

Personal Writing vs Academic Writing

Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk's article "Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate" discussed one of the most relevant issues related to college composition and basic writing. In a nutshell: what kind of class is this going to be? What kind of formal essays will be assigned? What activities will happen during class on a daily basis? What kinds of readings should be assigned?
The author (I'm calling her M) tackles these rather daunting questions by focusing on the personal writing vs. academic writing debate. She gives a basic definition of the terms--personal writing being expressive, informal writing designed to tell a story and convey meaning implicitly, while academic writing is the traditional thesis-based argumentative writing. Then she looks at the debate between two highly respected scholars of composition/rhetoric: Peter Elbow and David Bartholomae. Elbow advocates a first-year comp class that is focused entirely on the students' writing--no textbook, no reader, just the students participating in personal writing experiences and learning to be comfortable with writing. Bartholomae privileges the more traditional, source-based argumentative writing. He basically argues that the best way for students to learn academic writing and thus be accepted into the academic community is to imitate the language of their professors.
These are important issues to discuss when considering a teaching career in college-level (or probably even high school) composition, because the teacher must determine his or her idea of what "good writing" actually is before they can teach it. Will they privilege objective academic writing that displays clear critical thinking and reasoning skills or will they embrace personal, poetic stories?
M seems to fall somewhere in the middle. She argues that students need to learn how to read critically and how to write about their readings, but that the language of personal writing is often a good place to begin. In other words, students must learn to connect with complex ideas in a personal manner and the relate these topics to their own lives before they can learn how to discuss them critically and academically. I'm inclined to agree with this viewpoint--and I'll use personal experience to support that. I can remember my undergrad days when I wrote "academic" papers by basically imitating the critical jargon and academic style of papers without really having any idea of what I was talking about. After awhile, however, I began to connect these academic ideas with issues that concerned me within my own life, and my writing began to improve immensely in that it suddenly had a concrete purpose.
My personal belief is that every freshman or basic composition course should begin with some kind of personal writing assignment, whether it be the personal narrative or some other more creative assignment. I think it increases the students' comfort level and readies them for more challenging assignments in which they tackle ideas without necessarily relating them to their personal lives. Yet even this assignment has potential do you draw the line between too personal and sufficiently critical for a composition class? (you wouldn't want to write a diary entry for example) Should you have them state their thesis explicitly like in traditional academic writing, or should they attempt to convey their thesis implicitly as is common with more creative, expressive, personal writing. These, and others, are questions that I am constantly considering in my courses, and I still don't always know what's best. It's always helpful to read other instructors' attitudes and ideas about these issues in order to make more intelligent and educated decisions.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Paradox of Conservative Pegadogy and Liberal Ideals

I have just begun reading Mike Rose's Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. I can already tell that I'm going to love it,or at least find it immensely intriguing, because in his introduction Rose discusses the unfairness of the overtly negative attacks on the public school systems. (This was published in 1995, and I think the nastiness directed towards public school officials and educators has only gotten worse.) Rose basically takes the position that while we should acknowledge that there are problems with the system and that there are ineffective, poorly trained and/or overly cynical teachers, we should also celebrate the compassion, dedication, and hard work that many of these people put into their jobs. Only by acknowledging the good as well as the bad, will we be able to critically analyze the situation and improve it for the better.

This is an important issue to me, because it seems that lately the public school systems have become a public dumping ground for many politicians and media figures who seem to be having a contest as to who can come up with the nastiest, most ridiculous accusations and insults directed towards teachers and administrators. Much of this is politically motivated, of course. Conservative figures often have a field day griping about teachers' unions and the lack of "qualified" teachers in the classrooms (qualified by whose standards?) My own belief about the American education system is that it has suffered greatly under the current administration: I have so many gripes about "No Child Left Behind" that it's not even worth listing them here, and I'm not even a public school teacher (yet, anyways.)

I found Donald Lazere's article "Back to Basics" fascinating because he delves right into the politics of education and literacy. Lazere's piece is so interesting because while he freely admits to being a "leftist" educational theorist, he is also able to objectively critique the positions of many of his fellow leftists. For example, he describes the "anomaly" of upper-middle class professors and intellectuals with their privileged standing espousing revolutionary and radical ideas to their poorer, working-class, less privileged students (126). He also notes how counter- intuitive it is for professors to want to avoid "forcing" the conventions of academic discourse and standard English on their working-class students, when it is precisely the mastery of these standards that will enable the working-class to both succeed economically and to grasp and critically understand the reality of their situations.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Contact Zone in the Classroom

Min-Zhan Lu's discussion of multiculturalism and the "contact zone" in the classroom is both fascinating and seemingly impractical. I was very interested in her observations of the extent to which students representing the "Other" are marginalized unless they attempt to conform to university standards--and, of course, by conforming they are giving up, in a sense, their heritage and cultural traditions. Yet, Lu's solutions seem to be rather impractical. I feel that if teachers tiptoed around the idea of multiculturalism to the extent that Lu seems to wish then nothing would ever be accomplished in the classroom.
I was also very interested in the idea of conflict, of students feeling as though they have to choose between their home style of discourse and the university style of discourse. I was interested in this because I can identity with this concept to some extent. I am not, and never have been, a "basic writer", and I am not a member of a minority ethnic group, but I too feel this sense of conflict, sometimes even today, this sense of having to choose between home and school, and feeling as if I am betraying my home style. I say this because although I am fairly used to the university's discourse style and its emphasis on the abstract, the questioning of societal norms, matters of inquiry that rise above the practical and everyday, I am originally from a rural area. The rural culture emphasizes pragmatism, the concrete, manual labor--it focuses on things like making money and putting food on the table. My dad is pretty well educated and extremely good at what he does for a living, but his field is very technical and very hands on. My mother has only a high school diploma and a semester or two of community college. She has never worked in a job above the entry level. Thus, sometimes when I get particularly carried away in academic inquiry, I feel a sense of discomfort and guilt, as though I am betraying the values that my family has instilled in me. I literally feel as though I go back and forth between discourses: the one I use at school and in my work, and the one I use at home and around my family members. And although to some extent I feel as though this could be an advantage in that I am able to see both sides of the coin, other times I am exhausted and anxious about trying to find just the right balance.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Paradox of Basic Writing in the College Curriculum

I was most intrigued by the quote by Spivak that David Bartholomae used to introduce his article "The Tidy House." Basically Spivak makes note of the "unrecognized contradiction within a position that valorizes the conrete experience of the oppressed, while being so uncritical about the historical role of the intellectual" and claims that it is "maintained by a verbal slippage" (qtd in Bartholmae 171). I was unsure of the relevance of the quote, but then it made perfect sense after I read the article. In fact, it clarified his main point, bringing it into sharper focus. Bartholomae's take on basic writing within the college curriculum is that it is a contradictory concept: both an attempt by the university to be more inclusive and a policy that results in the mariginalization of the very students that the academy is attempting to welcome into their ranks. He discusses the theories of other critics who claim that rather than trying to change basic writers into purveyors of appropriate academic discourse, the academy should change the way it views its own policies and discursive practices and try to highlight these differences in culture, class, and education, rather than trying to eliminate and force conformity upon everyone.
I have mixed feelings about this article--for one, Bartholomae seems rather overly cynical about basic writing programs and the intentions of the academy in creating them, although he does have a point about the almost arbitrary nature of the term "basic writing" and what constitutes a basic writer. Does the university find it necessary to use the term to, in a sense, "create" basic other words, to make sure that there is always a group of students who fall into this category? Perhaps, because the university's very existence depends on a separate sort of discourse than that of the "regular" society. If they lose this divide, perhaps they lose their entire purpose, or at least one of their main purposes. I certainly see the point he and other critics are making about marginalization. Yet, the fact is, that is the nature of the beast. The university encourages high standards for all for the benefit of society and human understanding, and basic writers just need extra help to live up to their potential. Thus, basic writing seems quite necessary to integrate these students into the academic culture, rather than ignoring or belittling them. Certainly it's a complex issue, and I don't have all the answers.

Work Cited:
Bartholomae, David. "The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum." Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras Press, 2001.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Adrienne Rich

I think that reading Adrienne Rich’s essay “Teaching Language in Open Admission” is particularly appropriate to begin our class, because rather than discussing the beginnings of basic writing in a dry, impersonal, “academic” tone, Rich details her ideas by drawing from her personal experiences and describing in vivid, eloquent detail the poverty and difficult situations that many of these students face. Rich’s narrative style allows us to step into her shoes and imagine ourselves in her position–one that makes us possibly more empathetic to these student’s individual circumstances. No doubt, these disadvantaged or challenged students were all lumped into one category–that of the “hopeless students”–before Mina Shaghnessy’s revolutionary work with these students that she details in her text Errors and Expectations, and Rich touches on in her essay. I’m especially impressed by Shaughnessy’s, Rich’s, and their colleagues’ insistence on working with these students on their own terms and respecting their style of intelligence. For example, Rich writes that “students who could barely sweat out a paragraph delivered...dazzling raps in the classroom” and describes inner-city African-American students as being “politically conscious” (4,5). In other words, they may have not fit the standards of white, middle-class academia, but they were in no way untalented or lacking in intelligence. I appreciate the contributions of Rich, Shaughnessy, and the others who worked in these programs, because their work reinforces the idea that true learning comes from questioning the norms, rather than blindly accepting them.

Work Cited:

Rich, Adrienne. “Teaching Language in Open Admissions.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Ed. Kay Halasek and Nels P. Highberg. Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras, 2001.

Monday, January 22, 2007

What is Basic Writing?

Basic Writing sounds fairly self-explanatory if you just look at the term: writing done at a basic or intro level, rather than an advanced level. When I signed up for the course I assumed that we would be discussing writing pedagogy aimed at high school students, community college students, ESL students, and/or learning-disabled students. And granted, that is probably what we will be talking about most of the time. However, as I discovered tonight, apparently it is much more complicated than that. Janell asserted that her 621 class spent much of the semester trying to determine a specific definition for a basic writer. This suprised me to some extent, because, as I said, it sounds fairly obvious. But I can only imagine that the point of the course is to look at basic writing and what constitutes basic writers from several different perspectives. For example, a graduate English student may consider any less accomplished writer from another academic field to be a basic writer. An undergraduate may consider a high school student to be a basic writer. A high school student may consider an ESL student to be basic writer. Much of what constitutes a "basic writer" most likely depends on who is considering the situation. As for my own opinion, I am going to say that a basic writer is someone who is able to form complex thoughts and ideas, but is unable to completely articulate those ideas and transfer them onto paper. Most likely, a basic writer is also someone who has difficulty organizing their ideas and struggles with some aspects of grammar, i.e. what constitutes a complete sentence. In other words, a basic writer is someone who has potential to achieve their personal writing goals, but simply needs some extra individual attention.