Saturday, March 26, 2005

A bump in the blogosphere

So I've been blogging for something like 6 or 8 weeks now, thanks to the encouragement of folks like Marcia and Collin (my hero, for no particular reason). And I've been bopping along, feeling good about blogging, about writing in a new genre, about realizing--through practice--what a creative pedagogical space blogs open up.

I guess you could say I was too comfortable. So it threw me for a bit of a loop when I happened upon some commentary that described something I had written in my blog as unkind, sneering, and dismissive. Whoa there. Me? I so seldom have occasion to hear myself (or, more precisely, my discourse) described in that way; I wasn't quite expecting it. Especially, perhaps, in relation to what I thought was a pretty minor piece of a blog entry. Here's the offending section, from a much longer entry below:

And in a way that's so much more--what, authentic? No, but something like authentic--than the old "writing alongside one's students" stuff that you get from some of the expressivists. (Maybe some of them really were writing alongside their students, but the way that idea gets appropriated really irks me sometimes: it seems too much like a parent using crayons alongside their child.)

Now, I'm not particularly interested in "defending" myself, but I am interested in (at least) two things: why I'm bothered by the way the notion of writing alongside one's students gets appropriated (sometimes one seldom stops to interrogate one's own aversions until being called out on it) and why what seemed, to me, like such an innocuous remark was received with such strong aversion. Since I probably can't answer the second question very well, I'll stick with the first one.

First, I should say that I do see how this passage could be construed as "dismissive." It's a pretty common rhetorical trope, I think, to elevate one thing (in this case, Jeff's notion of writing in order to learn how to teach) by showing how it is both different from and superior to another thing (in this case, something pretty hastily and sloppily associated with expressivism). And I would guess taking up that trope necessarily tends toward dismissing the thing you're using to make the comparision.

But, just to set the record straight (in case anyone is keeping records), I'm hardly dismissive, in real life, of what gets called "expressivism." I put that term in quotation marks because I'm really rather uncomfortable with all those taxonomies that Berlin et al set up back in the late 80s/early 90s. (See, I'm an equal opportunity critic: neither "expressivists" nor "social constructivists" get the full endorsement from me.) Like all categories, they tend toward reduction. But, then again, like all categories, they can be useful when writing in academic shorthand, which I more or less was doing in the above passage. That is, I was doing the "this is different from/better than that" trope, itself a kind of academic shorthand, and I was referring to a category that is associated with a certain practice, just to try to give a very rough sense of what I was talking about. Now that I've parsed out what I was doing there, I'm not sure it's such a great general academic practice, but it is a practice, all the same.

But, really, to get to the heart of what I wanted to write here: why do I distrust the "writing alongside one's students" thing? And it is that: a distrust. I haven't really theorized it. And, to be totally honest, I often myself do something that might be called "writing alongside my students," though I don't hold it as a dogma, as something I must do. So why do I distrust it? (This isn't a rhetorical question, btw, I'm really asking myself: I think it's tremendously useful to critically interrogate one's own affective stance toward practices and concepts.) Also, I want to point out (and here, I guess, I am being somewhat defensive) that I was objecting more to the way the practice/idea gets appropriated than the idea in general. That is, I've often heard people deploy this term as something like dogma, and I do distrust that. But, then, I tend toward a distrust of any pedagogical dogma. (Really? Are you sure? Those are useful questions, I find.) And when WAS (writing alongside students) becomes dogma, it seems to often be articulated with a certain kind of general adult/child orientation toward students. Now, I can't document this. (At least not here and now.) It's truly a feeling I have. But it's the same sort of feeling I quite often have when student writing gets talked about in publications (and often in public, too): I want to cringe. It makes me feel like I as teacher am being positioned as a superior being, one who stoops down to "write alongside" these sweet lesser beings. (Or, in the case of student writing getting talked about: like I'm the doctor observing another doctor examine a patient: a la Foucault.) I'm truly not trying to be unkind here to anyone who practices WAS: indeed, it isn't exactly the practice so much as the discourse, the attitude that comes across to my affective sensors.

But why do my affective sensors go off and others don't? Not sure. Merits more reflection, probably. But what I like about Jeff's idea is that it isn't writing *alongside* students; it's a writing practice that gets further practiced in the classroom, that affects one's pedagogy. That's why the practice of blogging has changed the way I think of blogging as a pedagogical practice: as a blogger, I *get* blogging in a way that I didn't get it when I was just setting up blogs for my students to use. Which makes me think of a smart thing Derek said sometime back and that I referenced before--and now that I look at it again, I realize he even called it "writing alongside students," but in the blogosphere, doesn't that become something different? Something much more, well, like people talking with people (even while recognizing that power differentials aren't going away) than like adults and children working side by side? (And I have to acknowledge that the adult/child thing is just one of my peeves that I should maybe also examine some: it bothers me when college students are called "kids." When I was 18, I thought I was embarking on a serious adult intellectual journey. I would have been hurt to know my teachers thought of me as a "kid." )

OK. That's enough. Thanks, Mike, for getting me thinking. Comments welcome.


Anonymous said...

Hell, I'll go ahead and critique expressivism (and I do in a piece which will come out one day..). I have always found it problematic for all kinds of reasons (the way it situates knowledge entirely in the invidiual, Elbow's silly usage of collage, it can be quite infantile in places, Murray's goals which have little to do with writing in general (unless you are the great creative writer/the genius) etc.).

Nothing wrong with questioning a notion, and nothing wrong with questioning expressivism. I, too, cringe "when student writing gets talked about in publications" for all kinds of reasons (the writing is always on the money; the students always claimed to have "learned so much," the writing stands as example, etc.). But when we critique, we get critiqued, too, eh?


Donna said...

Yeah, it isn't being critiqued that surprised me: it was the quality of the emotion behind the critique, and that it was attached to what (to me) seemed like something of an innocuous, or at least common, rhetorical move. But, hey, don't know why that surprises me, either. I think it was that I was all caught up in the feel-good blog thing. So probably not a bad thing that got disrupted.

Becky Howard said...

Responding to someone else's blog, I've had the recent experience of writing a comment that I thought was completely innocuous but that some readers actually thought was a deliberate critique of specific people. Wow. It was an extremely painful experience, one that has taught me to (a) read other people's posts very, very carefully before responding; (b) consider what might be unstated in the post; and (c) consider how others might negatively misunderstand me. Lessons that I'll probably not successfully apply at all times—but hopefully, a little more often than before. All of which is to say that I've recently been blog-scorched, and I know how it smarts. Hasn't kept me from continuing to blog, however, and I'm glad to see the same is true for you.

Anonymous said...

Donna, I tried to ground my response firmly in the affective, and say, "This is how this characterization made me feel." I wasn't trying to "scorch" or swipe, but to say, "Ow, hey, I feel like she's talking about me, since I write with my students, and so that thing about crayons kinda stings." But another reason I took it personally is because I know and admire Peter.

(And Jeff, your characterization of Peter's situating knowledge "entirely within the individual" is mistaken, as a look at his work will show. As far as "Murray's goals [having] little to do with writing in general" goes: "Teach Writing as a Process Not Product" is a very short essay, and might change your mind.)

But, Donna, it's interesting that a practice that I see as a sign of respect -- the act of writing-with; the necessary understanding that of course my own writing is messy and in process and unfinished and in class I'm not delivering wisdom from my superior teacherly position to "these sweet lesser beings" :-) but rather working alongside, working with, working on a common project -- is a practice that you worry actually might reinscribe hierarchical difference. And I see blogging as another practice of that writing-with; as you say, "a writing practice that gets further practiced in the classroom, that affects one's pedagogy." So I'm not sure why we have such different personal thoughts about how this practice interacts with hierarchical relations in the classroom. One possibility, for me, is that I spent a number of years at different positions in the most hierarchical organization of all, but saw how rank gets blurred in weird ways in service of a common project, and later saw how -- as a new teacher -- my self-representation (white, male, shaved head, Army accent) set up certain interpersonal dynamics (and granted me a certain authority) in my classroom that I was really uncomfortable with.

Anyway: thanks, likewise, for pushing the analysis further.


Donna said...

I'm thinking gender, or at least a certain kind of gendered distinction, might be at least partially at play here. When I was a new teacher (lo, these many moons ago), I was a 22-year-old white female. I didn't need to do things to make myself more like my students: I was already very much like my students. And while now the age difference is quite clear to them, I struggle against pedagogies (and my own socialized prediliction and often their own socialized expectations) that interpellate me into a mothering role. (See Eileen Schell's excellent critique of such pedagogies in "The Costs of Caring," Feminism and Composition Studies,, ed. Jarratt and Worsham.) And so I have very heightened sensitivity to any approach that seems to so interpellate me.

Keri said...

I was looking for your blog, and I couldn't find it. I went to a blog of someone you suggested, and I clicked on a blog listed on his/her list and it was yours! I read the one where you talked about writing with students. I was wondering if you meant that you felt uncomfortable writing and then sharing that writing with students. Do you feel like if you share it then you are holding yourself up as the best example of writing? I don't always share my writing with students--actually, that's pretty rare, but I do try to write with them when I ask them to write. I always have students say, "I've never had a teacher write with us before." It feels like the class goes better when I write with them, even though I don't always share.