Massimo on Post-process

Post-process theorists (Kent, 1993), and proponents of Activity Theory place emphasis on language-in-use as public interaction with others in the world while advocating a “problem-posing” concept of education a la Freire. The rejection of the idea of teaching and learning as exercises of mastery is also central to these theories, as is the move away from foundationalist perspectives. Writing, reading, and speaking are situated social acts influenced, in their unfolding, by a plethora of external factors that we have to include in the picture if we want to provide a thick description of various types of verbal interaction. I use the expression “thick descriptions” to intertextually evoke anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s similar focus on context and externalist perspectives as delineated in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973). If I understand correctly, David Russel himself associates the move from Process to Post-Process to the corresponding transition from an approach based on psychology to an approach based on sociology and anthropology in the study of writing. Looking at the big picture, the historical evolution of composition theory appears to move from the simple to the complex in response to a theoretical urge for inclusiveness, a drive to expand the scope and the boundaries of research from the text and the solitary (and a bit sad) author to the world that surrounds the author and text, with its bustle and din.

It appears to me that Russell is not dismissive of Process theory but he warns us against the danger inherent in this approach: the danger of overgeneralizing processes until they are useless, the dangers of commodification. When we see how too many textbooks reduce complex theories to dry, lifeless, and template-based instruction, we can’t help wondering what happens to the beauty of theory when theory is gradually translated into pedagogical practice. Perhaps theory is like poetry, as soon as we try to translate “amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona” (Dante) we lose all the beauty of the verse. In other (less-poetic) words, commodification is a dangerous pollutant that can contaminate Activity Theory as well, especially if we try to force students into interpretative patterns and modi operandi without having (gently) guided them towards an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the theory that lays at the foundations of a class activity/assignment.
Kain and Wardle offer a useful set of questions as a starting point for activity theory analysis; their effort is commendable; undoubtedly, they identified a good starting point and a valid method, provided that we constantly try to expand and update their list in keeping with the ethos of this dynamic approach to the study of situated writing.
Gracious and patient reader, before I conclude let me add that Kain and Wardle’s list of questions evoke a similar set of questions that guide research efforts in rhetorical criticism. Shakespearean scholars will also recognize the silhouette of Stephen Greenblatt (neo-historicism) hovering around Activity Theory: what the New Historicists reacted against was the idea that the text stands alone, isolated from the audience, separated from its historical context, from all other works that came before it, etc.

My questions:

How can you describe the connection between Post-Process and Activity Theory?

Is Activity Theory a way to translate the vagueness and poetic beauty of Post-Process into operative prose and a pedagogical strategy?


Grammar vs. Meaning; The Chicken and The Egg

Patrick Hartwell’s, Grammar, Grammar’s and the Teaching of Grammar, and James Berlin’s, Contemporary Composition arguments captured my engagement and left me curious. I was left wondering with an overall question pertaining to the readings: which is more important, grammar as Hartwell stresses or the meaning of relationships as Berlin claims in contribution with his four dominate groups of pedagogical theory?

To began, Hartwell stresses the importance of grammar and its fundamental need in “mastering literacy” (208). By doing so, Hartwell composes the five meanings of grammar and he demonstrates each “grammar rule”  individually by breaking down the concepts and understandings throughout the chapter.

Berlin believes in four elements of distinct pedagogical approaches are the best way in which instructors teach students. In doing so, he concludes, “learning to write is not a matter of learning the rules that govern the use of the semicolon or the names of the sentence structures, nor is it a matter of manipulating words; it is a matter of making meanings, and that is the work of the active mind” (247).

That being said, Berlin is implying that grammar is not as important as Hartwell demonstrates, and overall how the mind comprehends and learns overrides grammatical structures.

The more I ponder both issues of grammar and the approaches of making meaning, the more it reminds me of the saying, ”which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In this sense, the chicken and the egg are continuously recursive just as the function of grammar and meaning of the active mind coincide with one another.

To shift gears back to grammar and its importance according to Hartwell, why don’t we stress this more in our classrooms?

Should we incorporate more grammar structure within our classrooms or focus more on meaning and reality as Berlin suggests?

To elaborate on the structure of grammar in the classroom, I try to incorporate a “crash course” of grammar if I notice it is needed. In the first few days of class I ask students to address areas where they think improvement is needed within their writing. Many times, I read the word “grammar” as in improvement.

If students are asking for help, as teachers, instructors, professors, are we not obligated as coaches, mentors, and human beings to offer our help when asked?

What Do We Value in Grammar?

After reading Hartwell’s article “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” as well as the other blog entries

on the topic, I found that before I can even take a stance on

“the grammar issue,” it essential to address the following question:

what is the purpose of teaching grammar? Neelam introduces the idea that

one function of formal grammar instruction is to fuel the internalization of grammar.

I found it interesting that she compares herself with other students who had the

same instruction but were not able to internalize the rules. This makes me wonder:

is formal grammar instruction is the primary factor that influences effective 

internalization of the rules, or perhaps is it more effective to practice in engaging in conversation and reading, internalizing 

the patterns through seeing and hearing them modeled? 

I suppose there is research on this topic. Hartwell introduces several studies that

suggest that formal grammar instruction does not correlate with effective applic

ation (205 and 220). Of course, I am not denying Neelam’s experience with internalization but questioning whether or

not the reason that Neelam’s classmates did not

internalize the language as successfully is that not all students learn effectively from

formal instruction.

Bringing this back to my original question: is the purpose of grammar instruction to aid

internalization? Massimo made an insightful comment when he pointed out that his

“sophisticated knowledge of grammar and spelling did not help [him] at all to

communicate effectively with [his] new American friends.” From this statement,

Massimo associates grammar more with ease of communication than with writing.

I am sure that his papers in school were written nearly flawlessly, but what he valued

more was the ability to communicate effectively with peers. Perhaps having perfect

grammar in colloquial conversations is, in fact, socially debilitating in certain contexts

(particularly for younger people), because a speaker can be speaking too formal.

Therefore, even though Massimo undoubtedly internalized the formal rules of grammar,

this is not what he valued from his formal grammar instruction. So, basically,

I am inquiring: What do we value in grammar? Correctness or basic communication? Internalization? Something else?

Berlin: The Truthiness of Teaching

In “Contemporary Composition: The Major Pedagogical Theories” James Berlin makes the strong, rather beautiful claim that “to teach writing is to argue for a version of reality” (236). But, unfortunately for us, many composition teachers either don’t realize the very approach they are taking, or realize their approach, but in fact take the wrong one.

Describing—then quickly dismissing—pedagogical and epistemological approaches of the Neo-Aristotelians or Classicists, the Positivists or Current-Traditionalists, and the Neo-Platonists or Expressionists, Berlin argues for the New Rhetoricians as the “most intelligent and most practical alternative available, serving in every way the best interests of our students” (236). Well then!

At several points in the essay Berlin takes up what I’ll call the so what? tension. The so what? tension pushes theory to its practice stage. Or, in this case, the so what? tension sends, most specifically, composition theory to its composition classroom. At one point, Berlin asks it directly, “But what does all this have to do with the teaching of freshman composition?” (248)

For Berlin, the answer is clear: everything; the stakes are truth itself! But, I’m afraid, while he may well be right, our academic industrial complex does not take the same approach.

If we measure our priorities by what we in the academy assess, and by what we in the academy count towards evaluation and promotion, I fear Berlin’s high aims fall on deaf ears.

While he may be right that the process of teaching composition is “complete with all of its significance for the student,” we don’t assess the extent to which students arrived at language that helped generate and shape nearing of truth (249). (Dare I say, students’ “truthiness”?)

Instead, we ask students if faculty returned their papers in a timely manner or whether they magically made the classroom “free of bias.” And faculty, too, are part of the problem. On the first day of class we don’t usually describe our courses to students as truth-seeking or meaning-making. Instead, we make clear the minimum requirements, attendance policies, and paper word counts.

Relatedly, at least in my experience being evaluated as faculty at Concordia, the standard self-evaluation procedure fails to surface claims about learning theory. We wax eloquently about “teaching effectiveness” without getting at the truth we’re affecting (or not) in students.

And so, I wonder. If Berlin is right—or, heck, even if it’s totally wrong—how can we in the academy align our systems to assess and support analysis of the truth-seeking and meaning-making he claims happens in the composition classroom?

Along these lines, can we identify, from our teaching methods, one of (or a mix) of Berlin’s four theories? Are we happy with what we find?

Grammar, and Expectations, and Writing, Oh My!

In “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar,” Hartwell introduces five different “grammars” and argues that the traditional formal grammar instruction, especially Grammar 4 “school grammar” (211), should be abandoned.

Traditional grammar instruction is not normally associated with joy. In fact, the word “grammar” often conjures up feelings of fear, hesitation, and a general sense of “we have to do this, so let’s get this over with.”  Not the ideal situation for encouraging students to become better writers, or even people who want to write at all.

The idea of grammar instruction in the English classroom is a deeply rooted idea. That is what students expect in English classrooms, that is what parents expect, often what administrators (depending on the level) expect, and even sometimes what other English teachers expect.

Writing teachers are faced with the difficult task of improving students as writers. The traditional thought is that having the vocabulary of language (i.e. grammar) will give students the vocabulary and awareness to discuss and improve their writing. However, many times grammar is not taught in context and the direct instruction does not help writing. If grammar (and it depends on which of the five grammars one is actually teaching) is to be taught, it must have a direct impact on the writer’s situation.

To become better writers, students need to be transparently shown the writing process from the writing expert in the room, the teacher. This could be seen as a master/apprentice relationship, a la James Paul Gee and “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.”

The “master” teaches the “apprentice” the vocabulary and tools of the trade. Sometimes this is explicit instruction including a shared vocabulary (which could include grammatical features) and often it is about observing the “master” at work. Gee acknowledges this: “Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction […], but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1983)” (7). Thus, writing teachers should be willing to show their own writing process in as “real time” as possible, and giving students access to what it takes to be a successful writer.

Current trends in the secondary world involve this idea of the teacher writing with the students, making the once opaque process transparent. In conjunction with teacher-as-writer, the idea of noticing writer’s craft in “mentor” texts is prevalent as well, which also harkens to the “master/apprentice” model. (See Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher)

If writing is something that can be taught (and I believe that it is), we as teachers have an obligation to tell students the truth about writing: it is not the nice, linear process that it is sometimes sold as. It is not a simple set of worksheets to be completed. It is, to use a technical term, messy. And we have to be willing to walk with them in order to lead them through that complicated and often risky process.


1. Hartwell cites Richard H. Haswell’s “Minimal Marking” in which he “notes that his students correct 61.1% of their errors when they are identified with a simple mark in the margin rather than by error type” (Hartwell 223).  Haswell’s minimal marking still leaves 38.9% of errors uncorrected. I am not a statistically-minded person, but does this not seem like a rather large gap? What strategies are in place for those 38.9%?

2. In order for students to write, they must first have something to say. Reading extensively not only helps students internalize grammar, but it helps them have a rich background knowledge, providing them with content. What role should reading have in the composition classroom?

3. What role should Grammar 3, or “linguistic etiquette” (210), play in the writing classroom?

Grammar Translation Method: An Apology

Myself having “acquired” two languages, i.e. without learning grammatical rules, and having “learned” three languages, i.e. with grammar translation method, I think I am in a position to speak a bit about how important learning of formal grammar can be in one situation, and how entirely useless and unimportant it can be in another situation. Importance of formal grammar varies for a native speaker and a non-native speaker. Native speakers of a language do not need to learn the grammar because they have the grammatical “patterns internalized” (Hartwell 205). This sounds more like a universal fact now. But for a moment, let’s think about a learner who has to learn a language with no “rich and complex interaction with the environment” (208), where only available source is a teacher with knowledge of grammatical rules.

In this situation, formal grammar is very important. I learnt English this way. (For the information of those who did not have a chance to learn a second language through grammar translation method, the first skill that the learner learns is writing, followed by reading, listening and speaking). I learnt to write single sentences, after “drills” and practice. I memorized all the available rules including “tenses.” I was taught to understand what I read through translation. Then I would practice translating from L1 to target language and vice versa. When I was able to write more, I would think in L1 and translate it in target language to put it on paper to compose paragraphs and essays. It was not as simple as it sounds. In my mind, I was not only translating but was also applying grammar rules before pouring down the words. But there came a time when this activity became less agonizing as it used to be. Now words would come comparatively more smoothly. This was the time when I had “internalized” the rules. I would not have to consciously apply the rules because after a lot of practice, they had become part of my own knowledge. Speaking fluently till this stage was still a dream. I could not speak English well even after my M.A. I only started speaking English when I started teaching English.

Crux of the story is that, native speakers and non-native speakers learn language differently. Grammar also plays different roles in both cases. I was taught rules of grammar for my National language too that I forgot after passing the exam. I have also forgotten rules of English language, because now I have internalized those rules and don’t need them anymore. For a learner like me, formal grammar has a role that no other available tool or method could play at that particular time. At the same time, there were numerous other learners who were learning with me in the same classes, with same method, are still unable to write or speak English well enough. The only justification that I can give is—they forgot the rules before internalizing them or they never internalized the rules. To answer why could they not internalize the rules is perhaps the job of a psycholinguist.

By giving my personal example, I don’t mean to say that Grammar Translation is the only method to teach a second language. My point is that it cannot simply be disregarded as a tool at all.

Role of grammar in teaching writing is entirely a different story. Again, native and non-native speakers learn to write differently. Grammar rules might still be useless for a native writer but they are still valuable for a non-native writer. As an English teacher of non-native students, I would come across many errors that were grammatical in nature and by simply recalling the rule; the students would be able to fix the errors. And now as an English teacher of native speakers, I find certain grammatical errors that can be cured if the students are made aware of the rules.

Empiricism and Engagement: Ann Berthoff’s “Is Teaching Still Possible?” (Matt)

A problem that I have with theory is the ease of switching between theory as a framework for understanding the world and theory as a critical lens for evaluating the world.  The former concept privileges epistemic claims, and the latter concept privileges ontologic claims.  In “Is Teaching Still Possible?”, Ann Berthoff wants to clarify the ontologic errors of overusing cognitive theories to understand and to categorize students.  This want is evident as Berthoff dismantles applications of Piaget and the theory of child development to students who ought not be considered children.

To counteract the effects of “development models uncritically deployed” (314), Berthoff proposes a pedagogy of knowing. The pedagogy emerges from an interesting triadic exercise.  Hopefully, we have all sketched the two triangles after grappling with the distinctions.  While I do not understand the visual, I desire to know how the pedagogy of knowing proposes to situate engagement in the classroom.  For this pedagogy, the stage model is clearly a “muffin tin” (308) waste of time.  Instead, “we will encourage the discovery of mind by assuring that language is seen not as a set of slots, not as an inert code to be mastered by drill, but as a means of naming the world; of holding the images by whose means we human beings recognize the forms of our experience; of reflecting those images, as we do on other words.” (320). This explanation prompts many questions for me, and the questions stem mostly from grappling with the theory underlying the pedagogy.  Language as “fill in the blank” (slot filling) is an empty gesture.  But I am not certain how to grasp language in Berthoff’s description.  In part, I find the fault in my own conflating, perhaps mistakenly, of eliding between making ontologic claims (language is X) and epistemic claims (language permits X and Y).

Question: Berthoff creates a strong theoretical stance against empiricism by associating the concept with positivism.  What is empiricism?

Question: The pedagogy of knowing depends greatly on the concept of engagement yet the term remains elusive.  What is engagement?