I wish I had a Magic Wand!

Howard and Jamieson in their “Researched Writing” detail the critique that the research paper gets and also share the “best practices in teaching student research” (235). There is certainly no arguing the fact that teaching students research skills is an important job of a teacher but the question is how much can one teacher teach in a semester? There certainly are expectations of a teacher from her/his students when they enter the class. Being a teacher of English 120, what do I expect from my students? How much they know already and from where do I start? What should I be particularly emphasizing when teaching research? There is no way to determine this until my students have turned in their first project. The results that I find are somewhat close to what Citation Project study of FYW found as stated in Howard and Jamieson. Based on the issues, problems and critiques of the research paper, the advice that they give to the teachers is invaluable:

  • Devise alternatives to the research paper
  • Focus on engagement rather than mechanics
  • Collaborate with librarians
  • Teach the rhetoric of finding and evaluating sources
  • Teach engaged and critical reading
  • Teach summary and paraphrase
  • Explore multimedia genre

(236-242)

But the question remains: How much do I have to accomplish?

I believe all these pieces of advice should be imbedded in the curriculum from secondary schooling onwards, picking and choosing step by step what is appropriate for the age group under consideration. For instance, teaching “rhetoric of finding and evaluating sources” might be too ambitious at the secondary school but “summary and paraphrase” seem appropriate. When the students enter high school, having learnt “summary and paraphrase” already, can be engaged in “critical reading” and once these students enter the college, they may further be introduced to more complex skills like finding and evaluating sources rhetorically.

I know this sounds utopian but this is necessary because introducing students to all this all at once is overwhelming for them and also too much for an instructor. Another challenge that I have faced as an English 120 instructor is that some of the students do seems to have already learnt what I just proposed but greater is the number of those who only know a five paragraph themed essay with no concept of research at all. This diverse group of students itself is a challenge. Who do I cater to? Look at those who know more and start from there onwards or consider those who still need to be taught paraphrase? The authors of the essay suggest that the teacher should focus on engagement rather than mechanics. So who will teach the mechanics? And do I simply ignore mechanics while grading? So practically, as a teacher, like any other teacher, I would assume other responsibilities that the authors do not even talk about.

Learning research skills is not a matter of a semester. It is a continuous process that student should be going through in all their learning years. FYW instructors cannot be expected of doing all on their own. Either the entire curriculum from grade 8 onwards be revolutionized or the risk be taken with students passing FYW courses without actually having learnt all the aspects of research.

Do As the Birds Do–Adapt

Kathleen Blake Yancey’s article “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” has an underlying metaphor of “adaptation.” I read this article twice and both the times it reminded me of the “bird watcher,” a character in Anita Desai’s novel The Village by the Sea. The novel is all about clash between nature and culture, where nature stands for humanity and tradition, and culture stands for advancement and technology. On one level Desai seems to prioritize nature over culture since the technological advancements are a threat to the traditional way of life of the society that she portrays, but on the other side she presents us with the character of the “bird watcher” who advocates the point that adaptation is crucial for survival. There is a point till which we can resist the change but the change is inevitable and we have to adapt to it. This to me is the crux of Yancey’s essay.

Her insistence on “we have a moment” signals that this is the right time when we adapt to the change that has already seeped in in our everyday practices: “we teachers and students seem to have moved already—to communication modes assuming literacy” (307). So this watershed moment for Yancey is a call to incorporate digital modes into composition. She acknowledges that the

[M]embers of the writing public have learned…to write, to think together, to organize and to act within these forums—largely without instruction and…without our instruction. They need neither self-assessment nor our assessment: they have a rhetorical situation, a purpose, a potentially worldwide audience, a choice of technology and medium—and they write. (301-2)

This being the situation, keeping composition classroom a separate arena for producing ‘words on the page’ can do no good to all the parties involved—student, teacher, and academy. So Yancey’s proposal of a new curriculum seems appropriate for other wise, students will continue to invest their “energy and motivation” (298) in genres other than what they are required to do in class.

Another aspect that can be added to Yancey’s formula for a new curriculum can be expressivists’ idea of letting the students ‘take responsibility of their writing’ (see Burnham and Powell, “Expressive”). Once the students, for example, have the freedom of topic selection, they already start feeling comfortable. Letting them probe the exigence for their content may bring in the “energy and motivation” that they lack otherwise when they are ‘assigned’ to do certain writing tasks. This may raise a question however: If the technology is already teaching (dictating?) writers how to write, and the student is given full freedom in what to write, what would be the role of a teacher then? Going back to Yancey’s suggestion, perhaps the role of the teacher would be only to remind students that instead of just filling in the blanks of the templates that technology based genres provides, they can be dealt with invention and creativity.

Oh No, More Questions!

Coming from a developing country, where technology cannot be always relied on*, online pedagogy and all its affordances sound a bit utopian to me, although I know this is being practiced very successfully in the developed countries and its benefits cannot be denied. (We also have a virtual university in Pakistan but I have never met or heard of a person who has completed his/her education from that university. We also have an Open University, based on Distance Learning, one of the biggest and successful open universities in the world, but it still follows the old school methods, away from New Media literacy.)

Having come to know more about online pedagogy from the week’s readings, all I can think of is questions! And a whole bunch of them.

  • Is online writing lab (OWL) replacing the need for a flesh and blood instructor?
  • What about listening and speaking skills in English classes that incorporate all the four skills in a regular classroom? Can the use of Skype and other similar resources accommodate the need?
  • Is online pedagogy reshaping student teacher relationship?
  • Will the teacher be replaced by technology, just as the book is already being replaced?
  • Although Hewett does talk about the choice of asynchronous and synchronous modality, isn’t the teacher being deprived of a personal space and being considered a 7/24/365 employee?
  • Won’t the lack of face-to-face interaction increase ‘homophobia’ that we are already battling with?
  • How will the cultural values and morality be passed on to the students, especially in the cultures where this is the job of a teacher to do in a classroom?
  • Where will the students find their role models, as they are supposed to in some cultures at least, in form of their teachers?

And one overarching question with which I will conclude is that will the fine line between place and space soon be blurred, and instead of these big buildings called Universities we will have virtual spaces mediated through technology?

* We have acute power supply issues in Pakistan, like many other developing countries.

(Eco)Feminist Pedagogy

Flynn in her article “Composing as a Woman” seems to consider the entire field of composition as a feminist endeavor as she contends that the composition studies have “feminiz[ed] our previous conceptions of how writers write and how writing should be taught” (581).

The idea of composition specialists having “replace[d] the figure of the authoritative father with an image of the nurturing mother” (582) is very interesting and somehow sounds very ecofeministic as it creates the image of a woman that ecofeminists cherish. As far as I understand, feminists are not very comfortable with the image of a woman as “nurturing mother” since “naturalizes women” and invokes the sense of women as “earth mothers, as passive reproductive animals, contented cows immersed in the body and in the unreflective experiencing of life” (Plumwood 20). Flynn further considers the role of a “committed teacher” as conceived by the composition theorists as one who is “concerned about the growth and maturity of her students” (582).

Micciche in her “Feminist Pedagogies” on the other hand, while quoting Eileen Schell brings out the point that “this ethic of care obscures a central problem in the field: the preponderance of women in ‘contingent writing instructorships’.” So the “non-authoritative” image of a teacher that Flynn seems to elevate is the one that others consider “subordinate” and one that describes women as “wives, whores, handmaids, daughters, mothers, and ‘sad women in basement’” (131).

While briefly surveying the history of feminism, Micciche refers to the fourth wave of feminism that has “grown to address race, class, age, disability, queer, linguistic, immigrant and other categories of identification that include and exceed women’s issues. (129-30). The only link missing here between the definition of feminism and ecofeminism is the acceptance of woman-nature relationship. And Flynn seems to have roughly connected that link.

So clearly, Flynn’s ideas sound more ecofeministic and that is precisely the very reason for their clash with other feminists’ beliefs.

Points to ponder:

Will there be any significant difference between feminist and ecofeminist pedagogies?

Is feminism really one step away from ecofeminism—acknowledging women-nature connection and considering environment as a feminist issue?

External sources used:

Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Genre–A Theory or a Recipe?

“From day to day, year to year comparable situations occur, prompting comparable responses.” The comparable responses or recurring forms, become a tradition which then” tends to function as constraints upon any new response in the form.” Thus, inaugurals, eulogies, courtroom speeches and the like have conventional forms because they arise in situations with similar structures and elements and because rhetor responds in similar ways, having learned from precedent what is appropriate and what effects their actions are likely to have on their people. (Italics are mine. Miller 152)

This quote from Miller invokes two related responses:

1: The dialogic nature of genres. Genres are dialogic because they are not isolated pieces of writing created in vacuum. They are rhetorical responses to situations that demand the response in a particular manner. Genre’s consideration of the audience makes it dialogic. Instead of being a one-way act of speaking, they originate as a “response” like an answer to a question. Their dependence on previous responses in similar situations resonates with Bakhtin’s idea of “intertextutality.”

2: Structural Stability of genres. Genres are stable because they function under “constraints” called “tradition” and “convention.” Their very existence depends on their structural stability.

Question: Similarity of situation, of response and of assumptions of the effect on the reader sound like the ingredients of a recipe called genre. If the rhetor/writer has to work with these ingredients, where is the room for originality/creativity?

“Things Fall Apart”

Elbow in his “Inviting the Mother tongue” is clearly proposing his strategies for the learners whose mother tongue is a dialect of English and not a different language. However he does mention at a point that “Yet even “translating” may not be so bad. For even though I am not suggesting that we should invite speakers of Japanese or Turkish to write early drafts in their home language, perhaps it’s not such a wild idea” (654). So like an expert (or inexpert?) rhetor, Elbow is getting across his idea while denying it and he even goes on to give example of how the researchers have shown that translating from home language to English yielded better results. Elbow also shows his awareness of the debate surrounding language being linked with “thinking, culture and identity” (655) but consoles the reader by the rhetorical question: “Does mainstream English or SWE “own” certain discourse?” While leading the reader to believe that one can produce a sophisticated discourse in one’s own dialect or language and later translate it into SWE, Elbow achieves his agenda of proposing the use of the mother tongue while still being able to produce publishable texts in SWE.

Let us relate Elbow’s proposal to what some of the postcolonial critics have been concerned with. No amount of sarcasm or cynicism can deny the status and prestige of English as international language and the language of the academe. Ngugi Thiong’o and Liyong, African postcolonial critics, in their “On the Abolition of the English Department” admit that English language is a political need while still rejecting “the primacy of English language and culture” (Leitch 1996). They also agree that English language, along with other prominent languages of the world should be taught in the university. Elbow’s case is different in the sense that he is talking about teaching SWE in a setting that already approves of the primacy of English language. What Thiong’o and Liyong are suggesting is different because in their case, English language is to be taught only as a medium in which most of the work in the world is produced. The common factor in both cases however is the acknowledgement that a language can be used as a tool/medium.

I have already mentioned Elbow’s stance in this regard that language does not “own” a discourse. This resonates with some of the postcolonial critics’ views that writing about their own culture in English would not take away anything from the culture. For the empires to “write back,” they need to use a medium that can reach the “center.” (Bill Ashcroft) In order for the postcolonial writers to assert their identities, they need to write in a language that is universally accessible. Some of the postcolonial critics have even suggested that the writers first write in their own National languages and then translate the work into English so that the essence of the culture and the experience remains intact.

Through this argument, I am not trying to show that Elbow’s claim verifies what postcolonial writers are doing. I am simply interested in the idea that whether language can really be used as a mere medium/tool? Chinwa Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi are examples of the texts that portray a culture as it is, from the native’s viewpoint, using English language as a medium/tool. When Elbow talks about writing, he is talking about academic discourse, what Achebe and Ali has done is portraying “memory” (“Memoria” Villanueva). Villanueva claims: “Memory simply cannot be adequately portrayed in the conventional discourse of the academy” because academic discourse is “weak in ethos” (570). So can we conclude that language is a very fluid phenomenon and it is not confined in a discourse and that a discourse however creates its own “register” that might not be as fluid as a language? If we say “yes” on this, it will shatter the previous connection that I made between what Elbow was suggesting and what postcolonial writers are doing. Elbow says that SWE does not “own” a discourse, by discourse, in this context; he means (if I am not wrong) an academic discourse. So the students can write in their mother tongue and later simply translate it into SWE without worrying about the discourse, because the discourse they wrote in was already academic. So is he implying conversely that the discourse does not have a language of its own? Going back to Villanueva’s point, writing about memory and academic discourse are two different and incompatible things. So when postcolonial writers create an academic discourse, in English language, they might not be able to achieve the goals—maintaining the distance from the master and resisting “assimilation.”

Questions:

  1. Can language be used merely as a tool/medium?
  2. Can one discourse (academic discourse, for example) share multiple languages? Or does it become a discourse only when it has one shared language?
  3. How much one loses when one writes in a foreign language?

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.