Negotiating Meaning from Text: “readers are welcome to it if they wish”

Yesterday, I finished Jeff VandeMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy. As full disclosure, I should add “finally” since I plowed through with glee Annihilation, warmed to Authority after adjusting to the different style/genre and main character, but sputtered through Acceptance out of a sort of self-imposed commitment to finish the trilogy.

On balance, I can fairly say I may have almost no idea what the hell happened in these novels, and I certainly have only some faint urges about what the trilogy means—especially in the sorts of ways we assign meaning in formal scholling such as English courses.

Now only a few years away from 60, having taught for over 30 years, I am afforded something almost no students are allowed: I read entirely by choice, and thus, I can quit any book at any time with no consequences (except my own shame at having not read a book).

I still on occasion highlight and annotate the books I read. But no tests, no papers (except I do often blog about the books I read).

Traditionally, fictional texts and poetry have been reduced in formal schooling—in English courses—to mere vehicles for “guess what the text means,” or more pointedly “guess what the teacher claims the text means.”

Text meaning in English courses, then, is located often in the authority of the teacher, not in the text itself or the student.

As a high school English teacher, I was always careful to avoid propagandizing students toward “the” singular authoritarian meaning of a text, but I also felt compelled to make students fully aware of the traditional expectations (New Criticism, Advanced Placement testing, etc.) of couching all claims of meaning in the text itself.

Students still often balked at how one meaning held credibility and others did not.

One approach to this challenge I used was to ask students to read William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and then to visualize a wheelbarrow. I went around the room and had the students identify the position of the wheelbarrow in their visualization.

I also shared that I always thought of wheelbarrows leaned against a tree because I was chastised growing up about not leaving wheelbarrows so that rain water could accumulate and rust out the tub.

From here, we discussed that the poem gives some details—”red,” “glazed with rain/water”—but nothing about its physical position. Meaning, then, could work from those text details, but students’ visualization of the wheelbarrow was a personal response, not an element for claims of academic meaning.

Here, I also stressed that students should not think the distinction between meaning and personal response meant that their responses did not matter, or mattered less. However, in formal situations such as testing or assigned critical analysis, most assessments would draw an evaluative judgment, honoring text-based meaning over personal response.

Yet, I remain deeply concerned about how formal schooling, especially narrow versions of literary analysis essays and high-stakes testing, erodes and even poisons students’ joy in reading text by continuing to couch text meaning in the authority of the teacher, which is often a proxy for the authority of the critic (and not the author, or the students as readers).

Authors, I often warned my students, did not write their fiction and poetry so teachers could assign them and then have students analyze the text for literary techniques and the ultimate meaning or theme. Many celebrated authors loathed English courses, and equally loathe the literary analysis game.

Author Sara Holbrook, for example, recently confessed I can’t answer these Texas standardized test questions about my own poems:

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions….

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.

This tyranny of testing supplants not only the authority of students as readers, but also the authority of the writer who constructed the text!

And Hannah Furness reports:

Ian McEwan, the award-winning author, has admitted feeling “a little dubious” about people being compelled to study his books, after helping his son with an essay about his own novel and receiving a C.

McEwan explained:

“Compelled to read his dad’s book – imagine. Poor guy,” McEwan added.

“I confess I did give him a tutorial and told him what he should consider. I didn’t read his essay but it turned out his teacher disagreed fundamentally with what he said.

“I think he ended up with a C+.”

Meaning couched in the authority of the teacher trumps, again, students constructing meaning and the author as an agent of intent.

And finally, consider Margaret Atwood discussing her recently reimagined The Handmaid’s Tale as a serial TV drama:

When I first began “The Handmaid’s Tale” it was called “Offred,” the name of its central character. This name is composed of a man’s first name, “Fred,” and a prefix denoting “belonging to,” so it is like “de” in French or “von” in German, or like the suffix “son” in English last names like Williamson. Within this name is concealed another possibility: “offered,” denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.

Why do we never learn the real name of the central character, I have often been asked. Because, I reply, so many people throughout history have had their names changed, or have simply disappeared from view. Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, “June” is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits, so readers are welcome to it if they wish.

Having taught The Handmaid’s Tale for well over a decade in A.P. Literature, and also having written a book on Atwood, I felt my stomach drop when I first read this—forcing myself to recall that I had taught as authoritative what Atwood contested: June as the original given name of Offred. The source of that, for me, was a published critical analysis, in fact.

This caution offered by Atwood, I believe, speaks to our English classes, where text is too often reduced to an assignment, to a game of guess what the teacher wants you to say this texts means.

As teachers of English, of course, we have many responsibilities. Making students aware of traditional and text-based expectations for assigning meaning to text is certainly one of those responsibilities.

But this must not be the only ways in which we invite students to read, enjoy, and then draw meaning from text.

Choice in what they read as well as a wide variety of ways for students to respond to text—these must become the expanded set of responsibilities we practice in our classrooms.

Occasionally, if not often, we should as teachers be as gracious as Atwood, providing the space for students to read and then respond with their own athority in a class climate grounded in “readers are welcome to it if they wish.”

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What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

The Death of Teaching and Learning in America

“We’re the mass shooting generation. I was born months after Columbine. I’m 17 years old and we’ve had 17 years of mass shootings,” Kasky said.

Parkland Students: ‘We’re The Mass Shooting Generation’

As a teacher educator, I am fortunate to maintain professional and personal relationships with wonderful early-career educators. But here are a couple stories from one young teacher I’d rather not tell.

First, this early-career teacher has distinguished herself already; in many ways, she represents the very best of who we all want to be teaching students. But at a recent meeting about pay and benefits next year, she was informed that the slight raise she was anticipating would be negated by new retirement deductions.

Her response: “I love to teach, but I know a day is coming when the negatives outweigh the benefits, and I just won’t be able to do this any more.” She added that this moment seemed to be coming sooner rather than later, that she wasn’t going to be a martyr.

As an English teacher, she also has been struggling with her canon: the steady drip, drip, drip of male authors exposed for sexual harassment and abuse—Garrison Keillor, J.D. Salinger, Sherman Alexie.

As she has confronted these issues, and stopped assigning those writers, she has witnessed students come against a very troubling reality; one student noted in class, “Everybody we read has committed sexual harassment.”

These two moments represent the professional weight of being a teacher—issues about pay and benefits as well as pedagogy.

Now, let’s mix in something that may prove even more daunting.

At the sparsely attended walk out on my campus, one student showed up with a sign: “I am scared to be an Ed Major.”

IMG_9701

The very real specter of schooling as a place in which students and teachers must be vigilant about safety, about the possibility of being shot; the very real specter of calls for turning schools into fortresses, with teachers armed like prison guards.

As David Edwards reports, students increasingly see attending school not as a place of learning, but a place to survive:

“It’s really scary,” the organizer added. “This is a turning point. Things really have to change. We won’t tolerate it. We won’t tolerate being scared to come into school. We won’t tolerate having to stay out of school because we’re scared. It has to change. We can’t be hunted.”

[MSNBC’s Ron] Allen observed that “hunted” was a “powerful word” to use in this context.

“I think that it’s become obvious that we’re the victims,” the girl insisted. “That we are the ones that are going to die if this continues. So I think that we have to fight to at least say that we don’t want to die.”

For decades now, many of us in education who believe in the possibility of universal public education have feared the death of teaching and learning, but we have imagined that coming from policy, free market and accountability approaches to so-called reform.

But something more sinister is happening: Schools have always labored under the weight of the communities they serve, and teaching and learning is now dying a slow and horrible death because of America’s gun culture combined with those bureaucratic monsters many of us were mostly pointing to.

In America, our students and teachers have become martyrs for our misguided politics and ideology—from abdicating teaching and learning to the standards and testing industry, to literally sacrificing lives in the name of gun lust.

Some of us have feared the death of public schools, the death of teaching and learning. Our outcry for decades now may have seemed like hyperbole—or to some, self-interested whining.

But now we are watching both the literal and figurative death of teaching and learning, and too many think the best recourse is doubling down on all the ways this death has come about.

As more and more teachers and students declare that they will not be martyrs, what role will the rest of us take—in their defense or to their demise?

Shifting Disciplinary Gears as Student Writers

These may have seemed petty or just pet peeves to my students, but I would not tolerate this sort of framing in student essays about literature:

Emily Dickinson says, “Because I could not stop for Death – /He kindly stopped for me –.”

William Shakespeare is often quoted as saying “brevity is the soul of wit.”

In the first example, I would note that poems have speakers, some personae that may or may not be the poet. I encouraged students to take great care to identify “speaker” if a specific voice isn’t identified in the poem along with nudging them to avoid the lazy “say” verb choice.

The second example is far more vexing since it makes the same error (the line is spoken by Polonius in Hamlet, and is not Shakespeare expressing a pithy idea); however, it is far more flawed since the phrase absent the context of the character speaking and the play itself allows people to completely misrepresent the line as a truism—instead of acknowledging that it is a hollow claim of a blowhard.

What I was teaching students included a couple of broad and narrow lessons about writing: one, broad, captures the need for precision in writing that is far more nuanced than what many expect in speaking, for example, and two, narrow, teaches some of the nuances of writing in the discipline of literary analysis.

It is at that second and narrow lesson I want to focus on some of the strategies connected with helping students develop a toolbox as writers that supports them shifting gears among different disciplines.

For example, let’s think about how students must navigate (too often without explicit instruction) the conventions of the humanities (writing in English or history courses) and the conventions of the social sciences (writing in psychology, sociology, education).

Two ways we fail students in those contexts include laying almost all of writing instruction at the feet of English teachers (K-12) and first-year writing instructors (as a one-shot inoculation), and then focusing too narrowly on the mechanics of citation style sheets (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) instead of the broader approaches to writing in the disciplines that those styles support.

In all of my courses—first-year writing, foundations education, upper-level writing/research, graduate—I require extensive writing assignments, and students consistently demonstrate a lack of awareness about disciplinary expectations for writing. Primarily, they come to writing assignments with literary analysis and MLA “rules” that they impose on all types of writing.

Therefore, some of the nuances I must address include the following:

  • In the humanities, source-based writing tends to focus on textual analysis of a primary source supported by secondary sources. Writing in the social sciences rarely involves textual analysis (except when including critical discourse analysis), but asks the writer to synthesize bodies of research to address key topics or questions.
  • Therefore, writing in the humanities often explicitly identifies authors and titles directly in the flow of sentence and discussions: “In her ‘Vesuvius at Home,’ poet Adrienne Rich explains, ‘But of course Dickinson’s relationships with women were more than intellectual.'” As well, writers in the humanities may explore one source at a time (both primary and secondary) to make a larger case about the primary source being addressed (for example, Rich examining the poetry of Dickinson).
  • However, writing in the social sciences synthesizes patterns of claims and conclusions across several sources, and thus, authors and titles rarely appear in the flow of sentences with attributions mostly parenthetical or in end/footnotes: “For this volume on comic books, then, interrogating the medium in the context of race is extremely complex because comic books are a significant subset of popular culture (increasingly so with the rise of superhero films based on comic books throughout the late twentieth and into the early twenty-first centuries), which necessarily both reflects and perpetuates all aspects of the culture it serves—including bigotries such as sexism, racism, classism, jingoism, and homophobia (McWilliams, 2009; Rhoades, 2008a, 2008b; Singer, 2002; Thomas, 2010; Wright, 2001).”
  • In the context of the second and third bullet, then, students must confront that writing in the humanities often requires direct quoting, but writing in the social sciences prefers synthesis (often oversimplified as paraphrasing*). Here, there are disciplinary contexts for how a writer supports claims that contradicts most students’ belief that all writing requires quoting.

These problems for students as writers and for teachers of writing also complicate my argument against templates and my commitment to students choosing their type of essays and topics.

Since writing and teaching writing are extremely complicated, then, I want to end here with how I have organized my upper-level writing/research course around commitments to scaffolding assignments, student topic choices, and supporting students as writers confronted with a variety of writing modes and disciplinary expectations.

Students have three major writing assignments—annotated bibliographies (sources that serve as the foundation for their scholarly essay), a major scholarly essay on an educational topic of their choice, and a public commentary incorporating hyperlinks for support and addressing the same topic as their scholarly essay but for a lay audience.

After students gather evidence that an educational topic has been covered often in the mainstream media, they choose that topic to investigate the research base, producing 8-10 annotated bibliographies of high-quality sources. In this process, students practice evaluating sources and also refine their skills in APA formatting (focusing on the bibliographies).

After they submit the first draft of the annotated bibliographies, we discuss how social scientists write, contrasting that to their humanities/MLA assumptions (addressed above). In a class workshop format, I then ask them to revise the annotations (and edit the bibliographies) by focusing on discussing the content of the research, and not announcing authors and titles. For example, a first draft includes: “DeLeon suggests that the archetype of the “urban” criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.” Then revised as: “The archetype of the ‘urban’ criminal stems from colonial portrayals of African Americans, which sought to paint a picture of savage, uncivilized peoples.”

The major scholarly essay challenges them next in several ways. The recommended structure includes the following: a personal narrative or narrative opening (supported by Robert Nash’s Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative), a section applying critical discourse analysis to several media reports on an educational topic (requiring them to analyze text and quote, similar to their humanities background), a section that is a mini-literature review of the research on the topic of choice (requiring them to write as a social scientist, synthesizing their annotated bibliographies, and practice the nuances of APA citation), and a closing (introducing them to the concept of framing, in which they return to their opening narrative in order to frame their essay focus—either that the media misrepresent or credibly represent the topic they chose).

The scholarly essay demands that students shift modes and investigate purpose as writers; the assignment is not prescriptive or narrowly prompted, but it is structured while also being demanding (although each student and I discuss how to revise that initial plan if the topic demands a different approach).

After drafting a scholarly essay using formal citation, students then condense what they have discovered into a much briefer (750-1250 words) commentary that incorporates hyperlink support and addresses a lay audience. Here, students must reconsider diction and sentence formation while also being more selective about using evidence. On that last point, we discuss the need to use individual examples that are accurate reflections of generalizations; in other words, focusing on one source but being careful that it fairly represents the body of research they have examined in their scholarly work.

This process, I think, helps represent how complex both writing and teaching writing are. Further, it shows that we serve our students best by avoiding writing assignments and instruction that oversimplifies the writing process and products (not asking students to write a narrative, but inviting them to integrate the narrative mode in service of a larger cohesive essay, genre, and discipline).

Where templates and prescription fail, we must seek ways to provide structure and scaffolding so that students can have multiple experiences shifting disciplinary gears as writers.


* Students admit that they have tended to use a passage from one source at a time and paraphrased by looking up synonyms one word at a time in that passage.

The Writing Center Dilemma

In What’s Wrong with Writing Centers, Rose Jacobs reports on Lori Salem’s “quantitative analysis of Temple University’s writing center, which she has directed since 1999. The assistant vice provost wanted to understand its role by investigating who doesn’t visit as well as who does.” Salem discovered:

[T]hat practices that are near-orthodoxy in writing centers — such as nondirective instruction, in which tutors prompt students to come up with the right answers themselves; and a resistance to focusing on grammatical errors — cater to individuals who already have a strong grounding in grammar and composition, the sort of students who never turn up. That leaves the most frequent visitors underserved: female students, minority students, and those who grew up speaking a language other than English at home.

Salem admits her study is just a beginning since it focuses on one center at one university, but as someone who has been teaching writing for almost four decades, both as a high school English teacher and a college professor of first-year and upper-level writing courses, I can confirm that many of the dilemmas uncovered by Salem ring disturbingly true.

Those two distinctly different teaching experiences have shaped me within a broader unifying way: I have mostly taught myself how to teach writing, having only one real formal experience with learning how to teach writing through the National Writing Project’s summer institute. I don’t have any degree in composition, and didn’t formally study composition in any undergraduate or graduate courses.

As a high school teacher for almost twenty years, I learned mostly by trial-and-error, and then was saved by my regional NWP affiliate, the Spartanburg Writing Project, where I also was a co-lead instructor for a few summers before heading to higher education full time.

But the last decade has been an incredibly fertile and difficult journey with how writing is taught in higher education. I have been teaching first-year writing, along with an upper-level writing course, and I briefly held a small administrative role in guiding our first-year seminars.

Over that time, my university has (finally) formalized a writing program by naming a Director of Writing Programs and seeking ways to make the writing and media lab and program more cohesive (adding the upper-level writing/research requirement to the curriculum, for example). The teaching of writing is also being more directly addressed by creating Faculty Writing Fellows, faculty who participate in a year-long seminar addressing writing instruction.

As I have participated in and witnessed these recent growing pains at my university, I can offer some anecdotal, but I think credible, observations that match well with Salem’s research:

  • Writing instruction at the course/class/individual faculty level suffers from a lack of purpose and cohesion without a school/college unifying mission and set of shared goals. In other words, how does any class/course contribute to some set of outcomes related to writing all students should have experiences in as integral to graduating?
  • Class-level writing instruction and writing centers/labs must guard against two corrosive but alluring perspectives: (1) viewing writing instruction as remediation, and (2) seeing any course or session on “how to write” as some sort of one-shot inoculation against “errors” (a deficit view).
  • Both learning to writing and teaching writing are journeys, and must remain grounded in clearly defined contexts. Disciplinary writing in high school and college is much different than becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. For example, composition faculty and K-12 English teachers define “writing workshop” differently than creative writing faculty (think MFA).
  • Teaching writing always involves tension among concerns about craft, content, and correctness. A writing program, and writing center practices, must address how these elements will be taught as well as how each is weighted (not if, but when, how, and why). Many who come to teaching writing from disciplines outside English or composition are over-concerned with correctness (teaching writing is correcting grammar, mechanics, and usage) and significantly focused on disciplinary content and the logic of student claims, evidence, and elaboration in writing.
  • Teaching writing is enhanced by those teachers being writers themselves, but this expectation must be navigated carefully since few faculty are writers and some may write mostly out of necessity, not out of a drive to be writers.
  • The inequity unmasked by Salem’s study often presents itself in the teaching of writing through which students receive what instruction. So-called reluctant or remedial students (disproportionately black, brown, and/or poor) receive instruction on correctness (grammar, mechanics, usage) often in isolation (worksheets on skills) and are allowed or required to compose very little or not at all. The so-called advanced or gifted students (disproportionately white and affluent) compose more often and are allowed to venture into “creative” writing, experimentation, and choice. These instructional choices perpetuate inequity.

Writing centers and programs, then, are necessarily integral parts of equity and academic goals in any school, college, or university. Students must be better served at the class/course level as well as over the entire school/college experience through a cohesive writing program that rejects seeing the teaching of writing as remediation or an inoculation, but embraces authentic purposeful instruction.

Just as Salem’s data show that students view writing centers as ineffectual, thus unimportant, faculty often marginalize the status of teaching writing—something to be done by someone else or not relevant to their discipline.

Writing, however, is an essential tool of not only students and academics, but also being fully human.

Learning to write and teaching writing are both being mis-served in formal education, with the shortcomings of writing centers as one example, and as a consequence, so are our students and those charged to teach them.


For Further Consideration

Decisions…Decisions: Who Chooses to Use the Writing Center?, Lori Salem

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education, Ann L. Mullen

Differences in College Access and Choice among Racial/Ethnic Groups: Identifying Continuing Barriers, Sylvia Hurtado, Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas, Charlotte Briggs and Byung-Shik Rhee

Minimal Marking, Richard H. Haswell

Why Senior Faculty Should Teach First-Year Students, Randall Smith

SCCTE 2018: Teaching Writing Beyond “College and Career Ready” and High School

Teaching Writing Beyond “College and Career Ready” and High School

Paul Thomas, Furman University

Session E.9/ 2:50-3:35

Yeamans 2

Teaching high school students to write, traditionally and in the era of “college and career ready,” often fails to prepare students either for college writing or real-world writing. This session will invite a conversation about how students are taught to write in high school English (highlighting AP and test-prep) in the context of disciplinary writing in college as well as so-called authentic writing beyond formal education.

Resources

See PowerPoint HERE

Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller

Advice to Students and Authors: Submitting Your Work

UNC Writing Center Handouts

Writing for Specific Fields

Prompt Analysis for Genre Awareness (A. M. Johns)

Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, Michael A. Caulfield

Why are there so many Different Citation Styles

Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing

Recommended

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates?

Welcome to College!: How High School Fails Students

To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics

Disciplinary Writing

First-Year Composition