First in a series of me trying to echo-locate myself within the rhetoric/writing studies world, via an ongoing assignment for a class I’m taking. I’ve cleaned up some of the spelling, but note that I wrote most of this with my eyes closed. Really.
The version that I’m turning in is only a bit more constructed than this; but, for the sake of the process, I’m leaving this raw version up here.
notion of consensus: of knowledge being a temporarily agreement between a group of peers (temporarily and culturally dependent; able to shift over time)
Miller quotes a technical writing textbook who describes technical writing as having “one certain clear purpose: to convey information and ideas accurately and efficiently” (qtd. 611). For another, “language is utilitarian, emphasizing exactness rather than elegance…technical writing is direct and to the point” (qtd 611). In my experience, this is how many of my colleagues teach writing–all writing–as concrete, objective, and direct: a distillation of what is irrefutable into a set of words and phrases that is immutable, fixed, and certain. They ache for their students to produce texts that are “clear” (a term I don’t understand), “concise,” and specific: texts that follow form, rhetorical strategies, and word choices that are defined by the instructors’ sense of identity as professionals, of what is “real and true” about being a teacher of composition (Therborn, qtd. Berlin 479).
Berlin finds this same desire for exactness in cognitive rhetoric. Flowers, he notes, sees writing as “just another instance of ‘problem-solving processes people [but most especially, recognized experts] use every day” (481). In CR, Berlin argues, “language is regarded as a system of rational signs that is compatible with the mind and the external world, enabling the ‘translating’ or ‘transforming’ of the non-verbal intellectual operations into the verbal” (483).
Desire: this is really a central idea here. As Berlin says, “Ideology provides the structure of desire, indicating what we will long for and pursue” (479). Berlin’s picture of an approach which moderates expressionistic pedagogies (as defined by Elbow and Murray, not by William Lutz) or addresses the naivitees of that kind of rhetoric without digressing or devolving into what he sees as the inherent failing (culpability, easy corruptibility) of cognitive rhetoric.
Taken together, these three pieces speak to me of desire; or rather, as Berlin would argue, of a multiplicity of desires, and the ideologies from which those desire spring. In what is perhaps an odd coincidence, I find myself this weekend writing about another sort of desire: or rather, writing my way into a community which is premised on, and trades in, a very particular kind of desire, one that is tied to the body and one that seeks to address what is perceived as an absence with a new kind of presence. I have been reading slash for about a year now; spurred finally (given permission finally?) by Constance Penley’s excellent book “Nasa/TREK” and, to a lesser extent, by Henry Jenkins’ foundational Textual Poachers. Bot of these books examine slash from an a purely academic perspective; they are both trying to figure out how it works, within vastly different contexts. Ok–more about this here?
This is a long way of saying that I have started writing slash: or, in the parlance of this particular community, “pre-slash”–which sounds perhaps more obscene than it deserves to . Bruffee suggests that “people write in order to be accepted, to join, to be regarded as another member of the culture or community that constitutes the writer’s audience” (651). My own (admittedly limited) experience as a writer within a particular, very specific and narrow context: there are certain conventions of genre (to embrace and to avoid), certain expectations from your readers that you can manage (?) by carefully tagging the story in certain ways that signal to the reader what she or he will find both absent and present in the story. Inspired by–spurred on by?==our discussion of writing as an “essai”–an attempt to figure things out–in class last Tuesday, I decided without too much conscious thought or pre-planning to treat writing slash in the same way: as a free-flowing process. For me, this meant that I took to writing ion my iPhone just before bed. The upshot of this is that I decided to write and immediately–with minimal editing or revising–post the story (now stories) on the rather gargantuan K/S website that I read regularly. One of the hallmarks of this community is its elaborate tagging system–as a writer, you can tag your story in at least a dozen different variables to guide the reader who would be most interested in your work to your story. Because the site operates as a huge database/repository for a wide wide variety of slash texts–and the subgenres are rather amazing beasts in their own right–the tagging system is necessary. More to the point, as a writer, you can tag a story “Work in Progress.” TITLE fOR this piece, yes? Sitting on the site as a work-in-progress, your story can still be read and commented on by whomever, but with the understanding that your story is not finished, and judged or evaluated accordingly. Thinking of my story as a “work in progress” has given me (I have given myself) mental permission to write and immediately put it out to an audience, rather than let it languish in my mind or on my hard drive. In a way, this is similar to the way I interact with my once-and-occationally blog; I feel free to write in this space (where I am composing now) in a way that I do not feel when trapped within the confines of a blank word document. Part of it, I think, is my reading of blog text as less fixed, more flexible. Part of it, too, though, is that, if I choose to I can make my work on the blog immediately visible to the rest of the net, or not. The text doesn’t own me, I suppose, when I write on my blog; it’s out there, floating happily along in cyberspace, ready to be picked up by future me or someone I don’t know–or no one, as the case may be.
This sense of unfixedness–of writing as a way of thinking, of figuring out what the hell you do think, rather than as a space in which to fix knowledge that has already been obtained–is central to my practice as a composition teacher. As a writer, however, I’ve found it much harder to embrace. I want it to be “right” the first time, even though I intellectually understand that it’s not possible–nor desirable–for that to happen. My brain does not work that way; though I could once knock out a paper in 2 hours, this undergraduate skill has fallen by the wayside, with good reason.
I was struck in all three pieces by the underlying current of desire which runs through each: what we as teachers desire from our students, from their writing, and from ourselves as practitioners. Last year (accordingly to my blog) or last semester, anyway, I defined myself as a social-constructivist in the classroom, and this is till the closest that I can come to putting a name (just one?) to my practice as a composition teacher.
No one believes me when I tell them that I love teaching freshman comp. Everyone tells me that it will pass, or waits expectantly for me to be truthful. I know this affection that I have is not a permanent state–it cannot be–but it is where I am now.
And here I slip into the familiar trap of defining myself by pointing out what I am not: in this case, I do not desire exactitude, or correctness, from my students. I don’t know what “correct” is; sure, I know how to use a semi-colon, and I could give them worksheets or lectures on the topic, but to me, that is not the purpose of a composition classroom. I am much more interested in students becoming aware of how they think–of the ways in which their ideas connect, or can link elements of the external world (maybe text in a Derridian sense) in ways that make sense to them, and that they can then use for their own purposes. I took Berlin’s discussion/dissection of the expressionistic rhetorics quite seriously. I am a great fan of Lutz (via Geoffrey Sirc), though I always wuss out on embodying Lutz’s techniques in the classroom. I tend to go for half-measures, and I don’t think it works that way. Still, whatever my issues with the moderation that Elbow and Murray brought to Lutz’s happy anarchy, I saw myself most in Berlin’s description of them (though I would toss in a little of the Emig-era cognitive rhetorical perspective–esp. her work with Vygotsky’s theories). Berlin is right: the expressionistic approach (at least the way that is generally practiced)
Elbow’s willingness to extrapolate from his own experience: to me, our own experience as writers is, in some ways, all that we have. We can work with many different kinds of student writers, and with more experienced writers, and observe and interject and evaluate their products, but we can only know our own minds, our own epistemology as writers. I think Berlin is too quick to dismiss Elbow on this point; though, admittedly, Elbow does come off as a bit naive as quoted (and contextualized) by Berlin. We have to begin with ourselves as writers , I think, and I know that I am a more effective teacher of writing when I myself am a writer–am connected with that part of myself. Still, I don’t think that we can become so self-focused, so intent on our own process–the only knowable, perhaps? the only in-constant that we can observe first hand and in real time. But I don’t know how to push that outwards–how to move my students beyond the individual (which is so neglected in their 12 years of public ed–but isn’t that the expected and correct thing to say here?)–and push the students towards collective action. Social constructivist pedagogies–as Bruffee suggests, though not perhaps with that term–can begin to do this work. But it is difficult-and sometimes it doesn’t work. So much of what we do is depended upon the kairos of a given day in the classroom, on the makeup of our student body, on the state of wakefulness in which we find ourselves and our students. Too many variable s to be boiled down to a search for correctness. I desire rebellion in my classroom–but I still want to play the authority card when I need to. To me, teaching composition an act of defiance:giving students a chance to tune into to their own ways of thinking–to voice them, have them challenged, and then to turn inward and do that work through self-talk and writing–is incredibly valuable. They need to be shaken out of 12 years of public ed (there I go again), and they need to remember why they once liked to write, to create, to test, to play.
I can get very sanctimonious about my beliefs about the teaching of writing, but I feel that I’m almost the first to tremble when my practices are questioned, either openly or (more usually) by contrast with the practices of another instructor. I don’t feel threatened, per say, when another teacher tells me about she or he is doing in the comp classroom, but I find myself transported to the sort of self-talk that wonders if I’m doing it “right,” if I’m denying my students what they’ll need to succeed within the university system by not giving lesion in grammar (yuck) or hounding them on thesis statements (which to me is asinine: how can you decide what you’re going to argue before you’ve done any writing? Blargh). My practicum head questioned a few of my classroom policies in my syllabus–in the most non-confrontational, stereotypically composition-al way possible–and I was shaken by it, even though I could (and I did) explain why they were in place, that they had worked before, that they served a pedagogical purpose another than begin a big meanie–which was the implication. I know what the hell I’m doing, damn it, at least until I don’t: and then I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m lost, or that something didn’t work. Sometimes I’m self-reflective to the point of getting sunburn on the inside (burning mseyfl from within: eventually, that interferes in my teaching if I don’t put a stop to it quickly enough. Teaching composition is the first job I’ve had where I could (can) accept a bad day, or the complete failure of a day in the classroom, and not beat myself up about it: I chalk it up to experience, think through what went wrong, and do it differently in the next class, or the next period.
Reading Bruffee and Berlin and Miller for me reminds me of my unstickiness: though I have my feet planted in the social-constructivist/collaborative learning pedagogies, I feel that I’m too easily convinced that I’ve chosen poorly. I am flexible, I tel myself, I am a work in progress, yet I have definitely turned my back to the notion of writing as a linear, directed, purposeful, exercises: one intended to achieve a particular goal, or solve a specific problem. I mean, writing can be those things, but it’s often just a journey (to steal or phrase) or an unguided wandering. Students, I find, want direction: they want order, and boundaries. What I try to do is to give them some strong boundaries ain terms of behavior (see, that practicum thing really bugged me), but then to give them more freedom in their assignments–not by giving them open prompts, which are destructive,–but by asking them to do different kinds of writing than they’ve don in the past. It’s like teaching improv: they only learn by doing, and each of the games we teach them to play has certain rules. To figure out what kind of performer they are–and how to play nicely, or constructively with others–they have to play a lot of scenes, they have to screw up in front of an audience, they have to be triumphant, they have to get a laugh when they’re not expecting it. Trial and error is the only way that I know how to write, and I don’t know how I would teach writing otherwise.
For me, then, the question these three pieces ask of me is: what is it that you desire: from yourself, from yours students, from your profession? How does the ideology that you embrace–and the tactics and practices that you’ve cobbled together to make it up–affect or write or transform or dictate those desires? The reason of slash (ok, one of the reasons) is that it takes a desire that is unfulfilled in canon–an absence–and transforms it into a wholly, living, textual (sexual) presence. The lens of slash creates a desire, and, rather than waiting around for anyone else to make it come true, slashers fulfill and rewrite and challenge and even more radically rewrite that desire, fracturing it into a multiplicity of lens, of tropes, of physically impossible descriptions, all in an attempt (a success) of not just identifying a desire, but of making it happen.
I cano only kope for a simliar clarity/collaborationon/coehesion in my search for