Writing and Learning Centers: Expectations and Perceptions (An Experential Contemplation)

Lerner’s essay on “Writing Center Pedagogy” reminds me of my first full-time academic job out of graduate school. I began with Rasmussen College as the Mentor Center Coordinator. The position entailed building an all-purpose learning center from the ground up, hiring and training tutors, and establishing a process of support for students needing help with writing (and yes this included, from administration’s perspective anyway, many of the perceptions and misperceptions about the needs and challenges of beginning writers and English Language Learners we’ve encountered in our reading this semester, i.e. Trimbur, Bizzell, Lu, Matsuda, etc.), understanding difficult subject matter, and developing or honing study skills. At first, I met with students myself and leveraged the assistance of faculty while I built a pool of tutors to better distribute the workload.

During my time as coordinator, and in the several years since I transitioned to different roles within the college, the Mentor Center has become a Learning Center, shifted modalities from primarily residential to virtual through an online service called Brain Fuse (embedded in and linked to the college’s online learning management system), and moved from a campus based to centralized delivery model. In addition to moving to a centralized model, the Learning Center also adopted a program specific emphasis, one in which a centralized coordinator manages tutors, who work either from a campus site or from home, virtually throughout the college’s 24 campuses. To Lerner’s point, I have experienced that “the mere presence of a writing (or learning) center does not guarantee its stability nor provide the resources it would need to fulfill a capacious role” (301). As these changes occurred at Rasmussen, so did the culture around and attitude toward learning services, sometimes for the good but often for the bad—trust in the process, the procedures, and the desired end product waned.

Of course underlying many of the assumptions that drive such feelings toward learning services generally, and here I will extend this perception to writing centers as well because I believe there is overlap, is a belief, though not often articulated, that a Learning Center or Writing Center is going to fix student problems. Lerner refers to this unspoken expectation as the “grammar garage” (303). While serving in the Mentor Center, I often visited with faculty who would request that their students write better after visiting with a tutor for one or several sessions. Unreasonable as it may sound, some teachers mistake the primary goal of such a place—“to produce better writers, not [necessarily] better writing—with quick fix methods meant to minimize their frustration about what they see as sloppy or poorly composed essays, usually reduced to concerns about conventional grammar. Bartholomae, Perl, and Rose are useful references of the complications inherent in such minimalistic views of language and writing.

Students also seemed to share the quick fix mentality. Their expectations of such a site may have been inaccurately shaped by the messaging promoting the learning center and speaks to yet another underlying assumption of learning (or writing) centers: that they are also separate from rather than part of the learning process. When viewed as a service for those who struggle, the site assumes an “othered” reputation and defeats the purpose as collaborative learning space meant to enhance the class experience. I remember spending significant time trying to dispel inaccurate notions of the role and purpose of the Mentor Center.

Measureable learning should be, of course, the hope of all who teach and tutor students. Lerner’s method “of effective practice… in which teaching and learning writing” involves “tutors/instructors” listening “fully and carefully, to respond as readers, and to allow the space for writers to be in control of their session and their texts” demonstrates how a writing center can support students in developing as writers and thinkers with long-term results. Too often, however, I encountered the student frustrated that a session didn’t yield a desired grade or didn’t make a specific writing task good (by which the student often meant polished enough to evade the demerits of incorrect usage circled, underlined, or crossed out by a teacher). While Lerner is correct that “writing center sessions are most useful to students when they focus on higher order concerns, such as choosing a topic, supporting an argument, or re-organizing a text,” I wonder if student expectations of the services rendered in such sites encourage or discourage use.

Based on my experience in the Mentor Center and reviewing Lerner’s essay, I am left with the following questions:

1-       Does emphasis on long-term development over immediate, seemingly urgent, assignment needs help or hurt the perceptive value of a writing center? Are writing teachers and writing centers on the same page?

2-      What qualifications must a tutor meet to offer the most useful peer support?

3-      Where will technology take the writing center in the future? Does it need a physical space?

Advertisements

A New Composition Major: Contemplations and Considerations

Kathleen Yancey explores how composition has evolved in relation to digital technologies and “new literacies” in her article “Made Not Only in Words.” Her work contemplates the ways in which increasing accessibility to virtual environments and new digital writing practices, outside of institutionalized formal education, have contributed to a decline in the traditional role of the composition classroom.   Despite a clear need to incorporate relevant contemporary pedagogies into composition instruction, Yancey critiques, teachers seem to cling to antiquated methods that add to the shrinking relevance of English Departments. These current traditionalist methods insist upon an individualized approach to writing reinforced by comfortable genres and solitary assessment. Such assessments contradict the social constructivist view of writing that virtual space privileges. Instead, Yancey proposes, composition teachers should “relate” writing to “real world genres,” determine the best, not the most comfortable, “medium” and “delivery for such communication,” consider how writing “transfers” from one medium to the next and how certain communication activities and practices “prepare” students “to become members of a writing public” (807). These criteria also constitute what Yancey considers the objectives of a composition studies program.

“Public” is the key term in Yancey’s conception of a revitalized and digitally situated composition major. To be successful, the program would need to focus on helping students write in locations and use genres of contemporary value in hyper-public spaces. As I consider some of the varying theories of composition (process, processes, world Englishes, even collaborative and service learning), the idea of adapting composition instruction to the multiple, plural authorship in a space layered by intertextuality, in words, images, videos, and sounds, nonlinearity, is truly groundbreaking, a seismic shift that changes the topography of the discipline. Unlike collaboration or co-authorship as currently conceptualized in the composition classroom (generating a class blog, creating a group project, or integrating activities that awkwardly attempt to assert technology into traditional curriculum), the digital social writer is at once writer-reader-responder-participant (I think of Lunsford and Ede’s 2009 article that reassesses their audience-addressed/audience-invoked theory). The dynamics of this type of public forum include specialized discourse, multimedia texts, multimodal structures, writing as active dialogue rather than the passive conversation common in print media.

Communication in this context does, as Yancey suggests, “create the new… based on the model of the old” (811). It reasserts a mediated orality into literacy, a rhetoric that amalgamates writing with speech, the asynchronous with the synchronous, the visual with and as text. Walter Ong’s claim that separative technologies create “intimacy” (48) through “relationalism” (35) is reminiscent of Yancey’s claim that virtual social media sites, such as Twitter, IM, Snap Chat, Skype, etc., make immediate the communication act in increasingly complex public genres.

I am at once both exhilarated by the idea of an updated and expanded composition major and anxious about letting go of tradition. On the one hand, I like the potential of new virtual landscapes in which writing truly functions as a social act of construction and a fulcrum for social change. On the other hand, I also worry about what the new composition and rhetoric program Yancey proposes entails, what must be sacrificed to the alter of change. I suppose it is the same with any transitional era: new technology, knowledge, and methods disrupt, problematize, and create disequilibrium. Prior to signing on to Yancey’s brave new comp/rhet world, I would ask a few questions:

1- How does one encourage wide scale buy-in and practice of the approach to composition instruction described by Yancey?

2- What training will be needed to ensure existing teachers are familiar with and willing to engage communication technologies and genres in relevant “real world” contexts?

3- How do we reconcile the instruction of the classroom with authentic writing in the virtual public?

Do No Harm: Reflections on Serving the Community, the Academy, and the Student

In “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research,” Ellen Cushman makes a compelling argument about moving learning from the constraints of the politically entrenched academic classroom to the praxis of the community project, which is always in need, always situated in the urgency of the moment. Thought leadership, she contends, should extend beyond the walls of academic conversation and into the realm of action. She cautions teachers who incorporate service learning into their curriculum, however, to prepare students for “reciprocal and dialogic relations” with community members centered on “mutually beneficial give-and-take” (512) and to avoid the pitfall of perceiving themselves as “liberal saviors” (513).

In one example of active community engagement, Cushman cites from a volunteer experience at a YMCA. The supervisor insists that the children at this site learn best when they don’t associate a particular activity with learning. In other words, the most effective teaching the YMCA supervisor has observed takes place when the formality of education is removed from the learning equation. I have to pause at this example because it provokes a couple of really important and troubling questions for me:

1-      Is formalized education helping or hurting learners?

2-      Does formalized education in its current form truly serve the needs of the community?

These questions prompt me further to think that the first and most effective thing educators can do is get out of their own way. When we attempt to replicate and relocate the class structure of the academy outside of the classroom, we run the risk of alienating those in the community with whom we partner. Moving the academy into the community in this way may be viewed as an attempt to transpose one Discourse community, often viewed as powerful and elite, over the existing, often marginalized, community. I visualize the figurative gatekeeper extending his gaze to the grounds near and far surrounding the symbolic tower. It is difficult to serve a community initiative in this capacity because community assistance in this example turns into intellectual conquest.

In relation to these concerns, Cushman asks the right question: “How can public intellectuals link the love of art and human decency if we continue to value university-based knowledge and language more than community-based knowledge and language” (517). I think of the practitioner-faculty at my college who visibly squirm when they are confronted with the language and theories of academia. They quickly retreat into their communities of practice, rank and file, to protect against what they perceive as an eye of judgment, a curriculum of exclusion.

3-      How do we “engage broad audiences in pressing social issues” to “enact the kind of civic-minded knowledge-making” Cushman endorses (517)?

4-      In what way do internships, externships, and clinicals factor into service learning and community engagement? Are these additional bridges between the academy and practice? Do they benefit the community in the same way or in a different way than service learning?

Can Cultural Studies Claim Content for Composition?

This week I’d like to address the questions posed in Diana George, Tim Lockridge, and John Trimbur’s essay “Cultural Studies and Composition” under the subheading “Cultural Studies and the Composition Classroom”: “Does composition have a subject matter? Does it have its own content” (104)? These questions were also a central theme of debate in ancient Greece regarding rhetoric. Some sophists believed that, according to snippets disinterred from ancient texts, rhetoric’s content focused on morality and ethics, or at least the ability to persuade based on moral and ethical principles. From this privileged perspective, the rhetor could “craft” a “persuasion” (Plato 37) “about what is just and unjust (39). Plato’s Socrates attacked representative sophists in Gorgias for suggesting that rhetoric is “about everything” (47). If rhetoric is, in fact, everything, perhaps its opposite is true: that it is also useful for nothing. Socrates labeled such persuasive speech “that’s good at guessing, brave, and clever by nature at dealing with people…pandering” (47). Socrates promoted, instead, Plato’s philosophy that dialogue “in pursuit of the good” should be the goal of rhetoric (52). Content from this dialectic tradition seems to develop from definition, argumentation, and consensus through language.

The notion of rhetorical content being tied to character was later picked up by Quintilian in his work Institutes of Oratory and then by Cicero in his work On the Orator; in both cases Quintilian and Cicero describe in detail characteristics that constitute the best moral attitudes and ethical responsibilities of effective rhetors. Quintilian, for instance, states that “A great orator must be a good man” and equates “eloquent speech” with moral rectitude (Quintilian Book 12, Chapter 1). Content, in this case, seems to conflate with the speaker who knows which actions to take for the public good.

I make this connection because I see a similar debate in the argument that cultural studies constitutes the content for composition studies, particularly in the concepts of “the public turn,” “civic action,” and the vast array of cultural perspectives that situate composition as a discipline among the migrations, mitigations, and marginalizations of rhetorical and human inequities. In terms of its philosophical mission, I find myself asking, can cultural studies claim content for composition? Can an ethical position constitute a body of knowledge? If so, what role does composition play in mediating that content? Furthermore, is it over ambitious to suggest that “student writers” can be “producers of culture”?

Perhaps these questions imply a broader contemplation about the potential of communication media: Can rhetoric or writing (even when morally or ethically charged) truly constitute a subject matter? Or, is oral and written texts merely methods of content delivery?

References

Cicero. On the Ideal Orator. Trans. James M. and Jakob Wise. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Sachs, Joe, Ed. Plato Gorgias and Aristotle Rhetoric. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2009. Print.

Collaborative Writing: Applying the Digital Medium

Collaborative Writing: Applying the Digital Medium

Collaborative writing is a challenging concept, perhaps an even more challenging practice, for a discipline still very much entrenched in views of writing as individual effort and product as commodity with a single owner, reinforced by pedagogical practices and assessment measures that perpetuate such perspectives. In their essay “Collaborative Writing, Print to Digital,” Krista Kennedy and Rebecca Moore Howard provide a comprehensive overview of collaborative writing potential in classroom and virtual practice. Drawing from Bruffee’s perspective of collaborative learning, Kennedy and Howard highlight the activity as “a way of engaging students more deeply with the text” and providing “a social context in which students can experience and practice the kinds of conversation valued by college teachers” (37). By referencing Peter Elbow, Karen Burke LeFevre, Lundsford and Ede, and many other social constructivist and collaborative learning theorists, Kennedy and Howard propose that effective collaborative writing relies on several important key components: group dynamics, dialogic exchanges, a medium (physical or digital) of interaction, inclusion of minority views and opinions, and shared tasks and deliverables. The goal of collaborative activities arranged according to these components is to generate “creative conflict” (42), encourage group ownership and accountability (43), and replicate the collaborative experience of the workplace. New media, Kennedy and Howard further illustrate, offers access to tools that can mediate these goals, facilitates effective collaborative writing, and is becoming an essential convergence point for collaboration.

I would like to address specifically Kennedy and Howard’s focus on engaging digital tools for collaborative writing. While I certainly agree that social media platforms such as Twitter, blogs, and wikis bear the potential for student collaboration, I am skeptical of the way in which these spaces are often employed. For this reason, I agree with Kennedy and Howard that “Wikis,” as well as any media a teacher might leverage for collaborative writing activities, “demand more flexibility, training, and support from both the instructor(s) and students” (49). I make this assertion because what I often observe in online teaching, which incorporates many of these digital tools, is an assumption that the collaborative potential of certain technologies results in meaningful collaboration. In other words, the tool is perceived as both mediating technology and user ability. Students are thus thought to possess an inherent understanding not only of the digital tool they use for collaboration, but also of how to collaborate by means of that tool. Then, when a digital tool doesn’t produce the hoped-for effect or the project falls short of objectives, the experiment with virtual tools is abandoned and the instructor reverts to the practices of comfort and the methods of tradition.

The incongruities I often see resulting from misapplication of digital tools for collaborative writing activities in online courses has prompted me to ask a couple of questions.

1- Are the tools available in a Learning Management System, like Blackboard, sufficient for robust collaborative writing activities? If not, which digital tool, social media application, or technology platform best mediates collaborative writing?

2- What does “training” students for virtual collaborative writing activities consist of? How much emphasis should be placed on learning the technology? How much on effective collaboration?

3- What advantages if any do synchronous communication tools such as Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, and other Video-Web programs offer in terms of collaborative writing potential?

Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences

Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences

Walter Ong’s “The Audience is Always a Fiction” chronicles the “relationship, of the so-called ‘audience’ to writing as such, to the situation that inscribed communication establishes and to the roles that readers as readers are consequently called on to play” by referencing works by Hemingway, Sidney, Chaucer, Lyly, Nashe, and many other notable writers to illustrate how each negotiates a relationship with his intended audience through varying degrees of authorial distance (55). Ong uses these examples to support his claim that a writer must “make his readers up, fictionalize them” (59). Each of these instances substantiates his expanded claim that audiences must also fictionalize themselves, assume their (collective but individual) roles in the “game of literacy…to conform themselves to the projections of the writers they read” (60). This dual exchange of fictionalized identities is necessary because the writer and reader do not benefit from the traditional “two-way” communication of oral narrative, in which “a real audience controls the narrator’s behavior immediately” (66). As both work at communication from isolated positions, each must be cast into and accept an assigned role in order for writing and reading acts to bear fruitful (70).

Lisa Ede and Andrea Lundsford call Ong’s theory of audience invention “audience invoked” and question Ong’s comprehensive application of writer-reader relationships as fictionalized constructs, claiming it oversimplifies “the potential range and diversity of both oral and written communication situations” (83). While I certainly agree that a writer must imagine an audience and it seems reasonable that to do so effectively a writer must also compose with that “fictional” audience in mind—incidentally, this is a common technique embedded in Creative Writing curriculum—I, too, question the generalizability and transferability of Ong’s theory, its practicality as a teaching methodology.

An advocate of Ong’s insights into writing as a technology and a tool that separates writer, reader, and product, I do have my reservations about the application of “fictionalizing” an audience as it applies to online instructional practice, particularly as it relates to freshman composition students. For one, Ong’s examples are all experienced writers whose works are published. Analyzing published works reputed as literature already implies an author with a mature understanding of audiences. I’m not sure the fictionalizing process as Ong describes it is transferable to the composition classroom broadly and especially not the online composition classroom specifically. Many students in freshman composition courses do not yet possess the degree of nuanced understanding required to effectively enact Ong’s fictionalization process.

Another of my reservations considers Ong’s theory as it relates to modalities of instruction. The online environment is a problematizing space that, perhaps, too readily fictionalizes its participants in ways that confuse and complicate the writer-reader relationship. For example, the internet constitutes what Marc Auge calls a non-place, which he describes, among other things, as a space “in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts, whose proponents are not individuals but ‘moral entities’ or institutions” (78). From this ideological perspective, I posit that students working in such spaces develop a sense of non-audience. Such an audience would not need much consideration. The author of these “texts” that form the communication directives of non-places need only provide the script of use that regulates, prohibits, informs, and labels (77-78). The result of such unidirectional communication is not a useful fictionalization of audience but a treatment of audience as passive, static, and uniform.

Incorporating this additional theoretical lens as a complicating agent, I ask the following questions:

Q1: What happens to the rules of “the game of literacy” in a space designed for transient communication practices?

Q2: If the audience is a fiction, how does the writer know how to conceptualize it? Is this exercise supposed to be intuitive? Will one, two, ten peer reviewers correctly represent the collective reader?

Q3: Does the internet assist or counteract the efforts of a writer to fictionalize its audience?

These questions aside, Ong’s theory does provide a rationale for offering additional and more overt instruction of writer-audience awareness in the composition classroom. An instructor operationalizing Ong’s theory might focus on teaching students the purpose behind and desired outcome of addressing fictional audiences. In online writing courses, the instructor of audience as fiction may emphasize appropriate approaches to fictionalization as it relates to situation and context.

Ong continues to challenge my theories about writing in technologized spaces and my understanding of the relationships between writers and readers.

Reference (Not in CT)

Auge, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.

Memory and Identity: Reflections on Villanueva’s Memoria

Victor Villanueva’s Memoria serves as a reminder that identity should be respected and preserved in the strategies employed to teach diverse students the academically preferred Standard American English privileged in the college classroom. Primary among his arguments, Villanueva makes a case for the role of cultural memory as a method for grounding self, ensuring preservation of primary dialects, and reinserting pathos into an academic discourse sterilized by logos and tempered by ethos (571). This particular point of argument seems to respond to the concern raised by Johns that acquiring the academic identity often alienates learners from their “primary Discourse,” as Gee would describe it (Gee 8), and makes communicating with family and friends (the community of origin) difficult (Johns 512). This exchange of one identity for another, Villanueva seems to suggest, is not only unnecessary but also a violation of the self as it relates “to others,” that it becomes a mechanism of excising the one from the many, not only socially and intellectually but also culturally and historically (577). This process also exacerbated reciprocally, as “the personal [is] made public and the public personalized,” which Villanueva describes as the “political explored through the experiential” (568-569).   Learners assimilating the language of power, he argues, should not have to abandon tradition and memory as homage to hegemonic institutions. They should, instead, be encouraged to embrace their cultural “context,” praise “collective” identity (575), and “reclaim memory” (570).

I am enamored with Villanueva’s essay not only because I appreciate the application of Gramscian theory and Villanueva’s intriguing amalgamation of creative and academic genres, but because I believe in the power of narrative as a tool for collecting and forwarding meaningful human experiences (our memories in our individual voices) and as an effective strategy for teaching writing. I’m sure a few orality literacy theorists like Ong might agree that narrative is at the heart of memory.   In his book Orality and Literacy, Ong seconds Robert Wood’s assertion that “the power of memory… enabled [Homer] to produce his poetry” (19). Poetry, in other words, was the vehicle for memory delivery. Even an argument, the logos Villanueva states “is insufficient,” is a story of the reasons why someone believes something or supports something or disagrees with something (571). The facts that bolster such positions also constitute a series of events or insights (and even metrics) that rely on the memory of a narrative to which an audience can relate to succeed in persuasion. This might be part of the reason Peter Elbow insists on students drafting first in their “mother tongue” (643).

Of course, language conventions and the people who enforce them have a tendency to keep marginalized people in disadvantaged positions. I am reminded of Wangari Maathai’s book The Challenge for Africa, which relates the story of a postcolonial Africa still struggling to free itself physically, economically, and psychologically from the oppression of the European and American imperial masters, who still control much of the continent surreptitiously by means of generating dependency through high interest rate loans and ill-conceived philanthropy. So embedded are the hierarchical and racial systems, Wangari contends, that the story of many Africans (and this certainly is the case for marginalized people in America as well) is one of a “cracked mirror,” one shaped by colonialism and distorted according to the oppressors’ indoctrination of the self (34). No wonder “African Americans in particular continue to be angry even after having crossed over to the other side” (Villanueva 574). They assume an identity of a system responsible for erasing their memory.

These things considered, I am curious about the following questions:

Question 1: In terms of applying Villanueva’s theory, what does “inviting” Memoria “into our classrooms” look like (578)?

Question 2: Given the layers of racism and social stratification forming much of the foundation of educational institutions in this country, is there legitimate space adequate enough for Villanueva’s Memoria in the classroom?

References

Elbow, Peter. “Inviting the Mother Tongue: Beyond ‘Mistake,’ ‘Bad English,’ and ‘Wrong Language.’” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 3rd Ed. Eds. Victor Villanueva and Kristin L. Arola. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English. 2011. 641-672. Print.

Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): Boston University. 5-17. Print.

Johns, Ann M. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” Text, Role, and Context: Developing Academic Literacies. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. 51-70. Print.

Maathai, Wangari. The Challenge for Africa. New York: Anchor Books, 2009. Print.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 1982. Print.

Villanueva, Victor. “Memoria is a Friend of Ours: On the Discourse of Color.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 3rd Ed. Eds. Victor Villanueva and Kristin L. Arola. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English. 2011. 555-566. Print.